If you’ve ever seen the 2000 DreamWorks animated film The Road to El Dorado, then you’re already somewhat familiar with the legend of El Dorado, a fictitious empire of gold that had European conquistadors sniffing around South and Central America for centuries and, in fact, was the subject of an expedition by the Royal Geographical Society as recently as 1988.
The legend of El Dorado could be compared to the myth of the Fountain of Youth, which famously led Juan Ponce de Leon to explore the Caribbean on several expeditions and eventually die from an arrow wound he received in a skirmish with the indigenous people of the region. However, while Ponce de Leon nor any other explorer ever found evidence of a Fountain of Youth, the legend of El Dorado actually did have some truth to it.
While it’s indisputably despicable how the Spanish conquistadors ransacked and devastated the communities of indigenous people of South America hoping to plunder their riches, the legend of El Dorado is particularly interesting to me mainly for two reasons. First off, the fact that these conquistadors would make perilous journeys halfway around the globe in search of a legendary city of gold is pretty mind-blowing and brings out a sense of boyish adventurousness that is hard to find in our modern world where every inch of the Earth can be viewed on Google Earth. Second, the fact that this myth actually proved to be true in a certain sense, and can be pinpointed to a specific location in Colombia, seems more like something that would happen in a DreamWorks film than in real life.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the legend of El Dorado, this is basically how it went:
The El Dorado Myth
The myth around El Dorado underwent several transformations over its lifespan. Originally, the idea was pretty much that there was a massive store of precious stones and gold artifacts hidden somewhere in the New World, specifically in Latin America. This myth eventually evolved to describe El Rey Dorado (or “The Golden King”), and then a city, a kingdom, and eventually an entire empire of gold.
Many different areas of South America were believed to be potential locations of the kingdom of El Dorado, and a bunch of different expeditions were made in the 16th and 17th centuries in hopes of finding the lost kingdom.
Even before the legend of El Dorado became fully formed, the Spanish and the Germans were sending expeditions to the lowlands to the east of the Andes in search of gold. In particular, Diego de Ordaz, Spanish explorer and then governor of a settlement in Venezuela called Paria, set out along the Orinoco River to search for an abundance of hidden gold but found nothing. However, an account from one of Diego de Ordaz’s men who was sent downriver in a canoe is believed to be one of the first accounts that started the El Dorado myth.
Juan Martinez, a captain of munitions for Diego de Ordaz, was sentenced to death for allowing a store of gunpowder to catch fire. Instead of killing him, though, the crew sent him down the river in a canoe and let him live. In this story, it’s said that Martinez floated along until he was picked up by the indigenous people of the region. Fascinated by his appearance, these indigenous people apparently brought him back to their great city of Manoa, a fabulous city of gold and riches beyond belief. Eventually, after living in Manoa for seven months, the indigenous Inga people allowed him to leave freely and return to his home country, where he told stories of the magnificent city of Manoa.
This particular account, along with other fantastic accounts of cities of gold nestled in hidden parts of South America, would inspire many European expeditions in search of El Dorado, all with devastating effects on the people of the indigenous communities which they invaded.
The Search for El Dorado
Once the legend of El Dorado spread around Europe, conquistadors flooded into South America in hopes of taking the fabled riches for themselves. The idea that there were massive amounts of gold to be found in the region was confirmed by Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire, and the stories of a city full of riches in the Orinoco Basins, spread by Diego de Ordaz and his men, led explorers to this region specifically.
In the years from 1531 to 1538, German conquistadors Nikolaus Federmann and Georg von Speyer searched the Venezuelan lowlands for the kingdom of El Dorado to no avail.
In 1536, Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada led a conquest overland into the Andean homeland of the Muisca people and plundered their riches in 1537 and 1538. In Bogota, Quesada heard reports of a city called Metza that was rumored to hold infinite riches, so he continued his expedition all the way to Quito, only to find nothing.
In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro, half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, led an expedition to the east of Quito accompanied by Francisco de Orellana in hopes of finding a valley filled with gold and cinnamon. They found neither gold nor cinnamon, but Orellana was credited with being the first European to discover the Amazon.
Out of all of these expeditions in search of El Dorado, the most successful moment was probably the discovery of Lake Guatavita (near modern-day Bogota) by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada in 1537. This discovery would lead Lazaro Fonte and Hernan Perez de Quesada to return to Lake Guatavita in 1545 and attempt to drain the entire lake using a bucket-chain system with the hopes of discovering a large store of gold at the bottom. The attempt largely failed, with only a small amount of gold being recovered in 3 months of labor.
A businessman from Bogota named Antonio de Sepúlveda attempted to drain Lake Guatavita in 1580 by cutting a notch in the lake to reduce the water level. The effort ended up killing several laborers; however, he did discover some riches that were sent to King Philip II of Spain.
Sir Walter Raleigh led an expedition in 1595 aimed at reaching Lake Parime in Guyana, where he thought he might find El Dorado. After coming up empty-handed after his first expedition, he returned to the New World again in 1617 on an expedition that would prove fatal.
In 1898, the Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita (at least it’s an honest title) was created and taken over by Contractors Ltd. of London. The company drained the lake through a tunnel and found artifacts worth £500, which were later auctioned at Sotheby’s of London, with some being donated to the British Museum.
In 1965, the Colombian government designated Lake Guatavita as a protected area and made it illegal to try to drain the lake.
The search for the lost kingdom of El Dorado is a story of vicious colonialism, exploitation of indigenous peoples, and destruction of natural ecosystems. At this time, 28 artifacts stolen from Lake Guatavita still remain on display at the British Museum, all of which should be returned immediately to people of Muisca descent.
The Truth to the Myth
So, what were all those golden artifacts doing at the bottom of a lake? Well, it seems there may have been some truth to the legends of the Golden City and the Golden King after all. According to Muisca storytelling tradition, there was a time when a Muisca ruler (called a “zipa”) would honor the gods by covering himself in gold dust and floating out to the middle of one of the region’s sacred lakes, including Lake Guatavita. Once the raft made it to the middle of the water, the zipa would then dive into the water, washing off the gold dust. Finally, the ceremony would end with gold, jewels, and other precious items being dumped into the water.
One of the biggest indications that these stories have some truth to them is an artifact known as the “Muisca raft”, which is currently held at the Museo del Oro in Bogota. This artifact was discovered in a cave in 1969, and it depicts the votive ritual described above, with a zipa at the center of a raft adorning headdresses, nose rings, and earrings.
While the fact that actual gold artifacts were found at the bottom of Lake Guatavita and the fact that the Muisca probably did practice the ritual of tossing large amounts of gold into their sacred lakes are not hard evidence that any extravagant lost city of gold ever existed, I think it makes the myth a whole lot more believable. After all, the Muiscas must have had a whole lot of gold to be willing to routinely sink it to the bottom of a lake.
To date, no one has found the ruins of a glistening city like the one in DreamWorks’s The Road to El Dorado, and I’m not sure anyone ever will. But who knows how much more gold could be sitting at the bottom of Lake Guatavita and the other Muisca sacred lakes? And now that Lake Guatavita is a protected area, we may never find out.