El Dorado (City of Gold/The Gilded One)
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
Columbia from 800 CE to the present.  The gold was an offering
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.  A crowd of
signify approval and fealty with a great deal of noise and exuberance
from the water's
An integral part of Muisca society, gold, or tumbaga
an alloy of gold, silver and copper  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
wealth but was rather valued for its spiritual power.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
 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
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.
 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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