El Dorado (City of Gold/The Gilded One)

El Dorado means different things to different people(s). To the conquistadors, adventurers motivated by greed, it was a city of gold. To the indigenous peoples of South America it was about a man (the gilded one), a ruler so rich he covered himself in gold dust. The real story takes from both sides: the reality is a ceremony, a right of passage, carried out by the Muisca a tribe that has lived in Central Columbia from 800 CE to the present. [1] The gold was an offering to the gods.

Juan Rodriguez Freyle, an early Spanish chronicler, tells us in his book The Conquest and Discovery of the New Kingdom of Granada, that following the death of a Muisca chief (zipa), a new chief would be chosen the succession involving an initiation process, gold and a sacred lake. Surrounded by high priests in feathers and body ornaments, the initiate covered in gold dust would be taken by raft to the middle of a sacred lake (Guatavita), where he would make an offering of gold/tumbaga and precious stones to the gods before leaping into the water and in an act of renewal cleanse himself. [2] A crowd of onlookers would signify approval and fealty with a great deal of noise and exuberance from the water's edge.

An integral part of Muisca society, gold, or tumbaga an alloy of gold, silver and copper [3] was used in the manufacture of both personal and religious (votive) items, the material transformed by gifted artisans into objects of exquisite beauty. The Muisca hoped the gods would accept certain designated offerings, in return for which they (the gods) would insure a world of balance and harmony. The precious metal did not represent wealth but was rather valued for its spiritual power.

In CE 1537, lured by stories of incredible riches, Jimenez de Quesada and a army of conquistadors explored Muisca territory for the first time. They didn't find a city of gold but they did find the lake, and what followed reads like a South American version of the Oak Island Money Pit complete with bankruptcy, frustration and death.

In 1545 conquistadors Lazaro Fonte and Hernan Perez de Quesada attempted to drain the lake with little success. A small amount of gold was recovered worth 3000-4000 pesos (approximately $100,000 today).

In 1580 Antonio de Sepulveda, a Bogota businessman, gave it a try. His attempt netted 12,000 pesos before a channel cut in the lake's rim collapsed killing much of the work force. He died a poor man and is buried in a local church.

Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian geographer and explorer, after visiting the lake, estimated, albeit with calculations based on dubious assumptions, that it might hold up to $300 million in gold (a figure later revised upward by other “experts”).

At the turn of the nineteenth century, following a deal brokered by British expatriate/engineer Hartley Knowles, an attempt to get to the bottom of things (no pun intended) began in earnest but to no avail: the lake drained to a depth of 4 feet revealed a bed of muck and ooze which when it dried set like concrete. The few artifacts recovered were valued at $20,000 dollars. The company involved, Contractors Ltd. of London, filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations in 1929.

In 1965, Lake Guatavita was designated a protected area by the Columbian government. Private salvage operations are now illegal, the lake a tourist attraction.

[1] The Muisca were one of the four advanced civilizations of the Americas (the others being Maya, Inca and Aztec). Their territory encompassed an area slightly larger than modern day Switzerland.

[2] In 1969 farmers found an object in a ceramic pot in a cave near Bogota: a miniature tumbaga raft (sometimes referred to as the El Dorado Raft sometimes the Muisca Raft) which depicted the scene described by Freyle.

[3] The proportion of gold to copper in the alloy varied, some objects contained as much as 97% gold while others were composed of 97% copper. (The El Dorado/Muisca Raft is composed of 63 percent gold, 19.4 percent copper and 17.6 percent silver.)

* Further research has revealed that the Muisca obtained their gold by trade. It's unlikely that there were any large stockpiles.

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