The Legend of El Dorado
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Since the beginning of history, the lust for wealth has driven men to insanity and sometimes to their graves. Such is the story of El Dorado and the search for its treasure.
The legend is rooted in the history of the Muisca society. The Muisca’s were part of a coalition of tribes that lived in the central highlands of Colombia. They controlled nearly 20,000 square miles of territory that bordered regions ruled by the Pijaos and Panches tribes.
In addition to physical control of territory, the Muisca also dominated the economy, driven by metalworking products, manufacturing and agriculture. For their manufacturing and metalworking industries, they mined emeralds, copper, gold and coal. Gold was abundant throughout their territory and golden handcrafts were used as offerings to the goddess they revered, known as Guatavita.
The Muisca did not have a monetary system like we have today, but rather used goods to barter in regional and local markets. Marketplaces traded in all types of products, ranging from basic household items to luxury goods. Coal, emeralds and salt were the most common forms of currency.
The Muisca faced continuous threats from other tribes, including the Panches, Fusagasugas, Caribs and Sutagos. Most of their wars involved ownership of territory and control of natural resources and mines.
The Muisca’s were divided into two confederations, the Bacata and the Hunza. The Hunza referred to their ruler as the Zaque, while the Bacata called theirs the Zipa. According to legend, one Muisca Zipa was known as El Dorado, which means gilded person.
One of the Zipa’s duties was to make golden offerings to the goddess. To prepare for the offering, the Zipa stripped naked and religious leaders covered him in gold dust. He would then board a boat, taking with him mounds of emeralds and golden idols.
Zipa El Dorado’s inauguration took place at Lake Guatavita, located 35 miles from present-day Bogota. According to legend, El Dorado and his priests threw a fortune’s worth of golden treasure into the lake during the ceremony. Some accounts claim the Zipa dove into the lake after making the offering, prompting an eruption of passionate cheer from his subjects.
The tale of El Dorado’s offering spread throughout the local tribes. As time wore on, the story evolved into that of a lost city of gold, which treasure hunters called “El Dorado” after the Muisca Zipa.
Spanish explorers, including Nicolas de Federman, Gonzalo Jimenez and Sebastian de Belalcazar heard of the lost city of gold long before their country conquered Colombia. With the riches in mind, the Spanish looted Muisca towns and stripped them of their treasures. However, their destruction and pillaging fell short and they never found El Dorado.
The story spread throughout the continent, prompting other fortune hunters to organize expeditions. In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, the Spanish governor of Quito, heard of the treasure and set out with fellow Spaniard Francisco Orellana to strike it rich.
The explorers’ mission turned into a disaster that led to the deaths of more than 3,000 Spaniards and natives. In addition to hunger and disease, the explorers encountered regular attacks from indigenous tribes. Pizarro abandoned the search, but Orellana continued. While he never reached the legendary El Dorado, he did manage to discover the mouth of the Amazon River.
The Spanish easily conquered Colombia in the mid-sixteenth century, due in part to conflicts between the Zipa and the Zaque. The two Muisca rulers eventually decided to join forces, hoping a single confederation could protect their territories. But their efforts were to no avail and the Spanish gained full control, slaughtering many of the Muiscas and killing their leaders.
During their quest, the conquistadors found Lake Guatavita. The reservoir lies in a crater, which many geologists believe was formed by a meteor. In 1545, the Spanish drained the lake by exploding a section of the crater’s rim. They found hundreds of golden idols, but not the massive fortune they had expected.
The hunt for the golden city of El Dorado continued for two centuries. In 1595, British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh set out in search of the treasure. He led two expeditions to find the city, both of which proved unsuccessful.
As Raleigh grew old, he became too weak to continue exploring. In 1617, he sent his son Watt Raleigh on an expedition up the Orinoco River, in hopes of finally finding El Dorado. Along the way, Spanish troops attacked the treasure hunters and Watt died in battle.
King James of England had expressly forbidden his explorers from engaging in conflict with the Spanish. When Sir Walter Raleigh returned to Britain, the king condemned him to death for disobeying the orders.
No one ever found the fabled metropolis. While the belief in a lost city of gold faded over time, El Dorado continues to influence culture. The name “El Dorado” has become synonymous with the quest for wealth, or places that can deliver instant riches.
The gold rush town of El Dorado, California takes its name from the legend, as does the county in which it lies. Originally, the town was a watering hole for horses and cattle, but by the mid-nineteenth century it was the center of California’s gold mining industry.
Edgar Allan Poe describes one man’s futile search for the lost Muisca treasure in his poem “Eldorado”. Joseph Conrad alludes to the El Dorado legend in his novella “Heart of Darkness”, which tells the story of an English boat captain who navigates a Congolese river in search of treasure.
While the power of the Muisca society faded after the fall of their confederation, thousands of Muisca descendants remain in Colombia. The crater that holds Lake Guatavita still bears the scars inflicted by explorers seeking instant wealth and glory. While most historians believe El Dorado was simply a myth, the mystery of the lost city still lingers in the minds of dreamers.