For centuries the hearts and minds of men have been held enthralled by El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, a treasure house hidden somewhere in the Andes.
Hundreds of fortune hunters have trekked through the jungle and the High Sierras—and died in the quest.
Surprisingly, El Dorado was not a city at all but a man.
The legend of El Dorado first reached the world through the Spanish conquistadors, who invaded Central America under Balboa as early as 1513.
As they plundered their way into South America, the Spaniards and other Europeans heard tales of the sun-worshiping Chibcha Indians who lived in the 8,6000-foot-high plateaus near present-day Bogota, the capital of Colombia. The tribe, it was said, venerated gold as the sun god’s metal. They wore golden ornaments and for centuries had covered their buildings with sheets of the precious metal.
Some Indians spoke of a holy lake some where in the mountains a lake that was full of gold. Others told of meeting a golden chieftain in a city called Omagua.
As the tales spread, El Dorado came to be thought of as a city of gold; it was even shown on ancient maps of Brazil and the guianas, though its exact location was vague.
In the 1530’s the Germans and Spaniards sent several expeditions into what is now Colombia to seek El Dorado. But the mountains were nearly impassable, and they were forced to turn back when they ran out of food. More than half the men were killed in skirmishes with Indians, and all the expeditions came to grief.
But the Legend of the fabulous city still tantalized fortune hunters and the very words constantly on their lips, “El Dorado,” became synonymous with “The Golden Place,” and its true meaning, “The Gilded One,” was ignored.
The Gilded One
The Chibchas worshiped not only the sun but a being who lived in the lake. Some said it was the wife of a chief who had thrown herself into its waters centuries ago, to escape a dreadful punishment, and she had survived there as a goddess. Indians from all around made pilgrimages to present offerings to the goddess of the lake, and at least once a year the lake became the center of an elaborate ceremony.
The tribesmen would smear their chief with sticky resin and blow gold dust over him until he glistened from head to foot-literally an El Dorado. The he was conducted in a magnificent procession to a raft on the edge of the lake. Lake Guatavita. Plunging into the icy water, others cast in priceless offerings of gold and emeralds.
Lake Guatavita is a real lake, But supporting evidence for the Gilded One remained elusive until 1969, when two farm workers found an exquisite model raft made of solid gold in a eight tiny oarsmen-rowing with their backs to the regal golden figure of their chief.
Yet Guatavita still refuses to yield its golden treasures. Many efforts have been made to drain Guatavita-by the Spanish, the French, the English, the Colombians, and finally by the Americans, But in the muddy banks, the icy depths of the lake were never plumbed. So far as is known, the offerings of El Dorado- the Gilded One-are still at the bottom of the sacred lake.