The Legend of ‘El Dorado’


It was the ceremony for the accession of a new Muisca chief on Lake Guatavita which gave rise to the legend of ‘El Dorado’ - ‘The Gilded Man’.

  ‘He went about all covered with powdered gold, as casually as if it were powdered salt. For it seemed to him that to wear any other finery was less beautiful, and that to put on ornaments or arms made of gold worked by hammering, stamping, or by other means, was a vulgar and common thing.’ Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1535-48

The Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the Conquistadores. Taking stock of their newly won territory, the Spaniards realized that - in spite of the quantity of gold in the hands of the Indians - there were no golden cities, nor even rich mines, since the Muiscas obtained all their gold from outside. But at the same time, from captured Indians, they began to hear stories of El Dorado (‘The Gilded Man’) and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita. There were Indians still alive who had witnessed the last Guatavita ceremony, and the stories these Indians told were consistent. Every one of the Spanish chroniclers refers to the Gilded Man, but probably the most authoritative account comes from Rodrígues Freyle, who learned it from his friend, Don Juan, nephew of the last independent lord of Guatavita.

‘The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler. Before taking office, he spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt and chilli pepper, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place a the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives, and also resin and many other perfumes. The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns… As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day.’

‘At this time they stripped the heir to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They placed him on the raft ... and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold. They, too, were naked, and each one carried his offering .... when the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence. The gilded Indian then ... (threw) out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. ... After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes, and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.’

El Dorado became a myth and a dream; a city, personage or kingdom, it always lay beyond the next range of mountains, or deep in the unexplored forests. The search for this other, non-existent, El Dorado, in various parts of South America, was to occupy men’s efforts for another two centuries.

Attempts to drain Lake Guatavita

Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada. The very first to try was Lázaro Fonte, Quesada’s lieutenant, but achieved little for lack of money and resources. In 1545 or so, Hernán Perez de Quesada, brother of the Conquistador, made an attempt. During the dry season he formed a bucket chain of labourers with gourd jars, and in three months’ work managed to lower the water level by about three metres - enough to expose the edges of the lake bed, though not its centre. According to contemporary reports, between 3000 and 4000 pesos of gold were found.

Antonio de Sepúlveda. A rich merchant of Santa Fe de Bogotá, Antonio de Sepúlveda made one of the most serious attempts. In the 1580’s he built houses on the lake shore and took soundings from a boat. Using eight thousand Indian workman, he cut a great notch in the rim of the lake, lowering the water level by 20 metres before the cut collapsed, killing many of the labourers and causing the abandonment of the scheme.

A report in the Archive of the Indies for 1586 notes that, after deducting what belonged to him under the terms of the contract, Sepúlveda sent the royal share of the gold to King Philip 11 in Madrid, and also an emerald weighing 2 onzas (nearly 60 grammes) and valued at 50 pesos by the experts in Bogotá. His finds included ‘breastplates or pectoral discs, serpents, eagles’, a staff covered with gold plaques and hung with little golden tubes, and an emerald the size of a hen’s egg, ‘making a total of five or six thousand ducats for the royal treasury’. One of his old friends said of him… ‘He said that,from the part of the lake margin that he managed to uncover, he obtained more than 12,000 pesos. Much later, the desire came over him to make another attempt at drainage, but he could not, and in the end he died poor and tired. I knew him well, and I helped to bury him in the church at Guatavita.’

Another attempt was made in 1625. A consortium of twelve partners made a contract with the authorities using the same terms given to Sepúlveda but the results of the attempt went unrecorded. Interestingly, Indian workmen used were to be paid the same amounts as Spanish soldiers.

Alexander von Humboldt. The foremost natural scientist of his day, Alexander von Humboldt visited Guatavita in 1801 and measured Sepúlveda’s cut and the heights of the mountain rim. Back in Paris after his travels, he tried to calculate how much gold the lake might contain. Estimating that one thousand pilgrims might have visited Guatavita each year over a period of one hundred years, and that each visitor threw in five objects, he arrived at the figure of about 500,000 offerings, worth, in 1807, some 300 million dollars. This was later recalculated, and by 1825 travel literature had it that: ‘According to a calculation, made from a basis laid down by Monsieur de la Kier, of the Royal Institute of Paris, who particularly examined every document relating to the lagoon, there ought to be gold and precious stones yet buried in it to the amount of one billion one hundred and twenty millions sterling.’ - Captain Charles Stuart Cochrane, son of the Admiral who commanded the Chilean fleets during the Wars of Independence.

José Ignacio Paris. Don ‘Pepe’ Paris, a prominent citizen of Bogotá and a friend of Bolivar, formed a company to drain lake Guatavita by once again making a cut in the rim. It caused a lot of interest in the 1820’s but failed due to poor excavating techniques. It was the first attempt, however, from which a proper archaeological specimen remains.

‘The Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita’ was formed in 1898, quickly passing on the right to excavate to ‘Contractors Ltd.’ of London. The broker in this deal was Hartley Knowles, a British resident in Colombia. The Company’s aim was simple - to drain away the water through a tunnel that would come up in the centre of Guatavita, with sluices to regulate the outflow and mercury screens to catch any gold objects or emeralds. It worked - the tunnel came up as planned, the water flowed out - and there is a photograph to prove it.

But when the lake bed was first exposed, it was several feet deep in mud and slime, so that no one could walk on it and the next day, the sun baked the mud to the consistency of cement so hard that it could not be penetrated. The baked mud blocked the sluices, the tunnel was sealed and the lagoon filled up again to its former level.

Objects worth £500 had been found, and were auctioned at Sotheby’s, but bankruptcy followed and despite two further attempts to float the Company, it eventually died in 1929. Several more attempts were made, using drills, mechanical drags and airlifts, until the Colombian Government brought Guatavita under legal protection in 1965 as part of the nation’s historical and cultural heritage.