June 29, 2020

The Legend of El Dorado



‘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 Fern├índez de Oviedo, Spanish Historian, 1478-1557

For centuries the legend of “the gilded man” persisted in the Spanish conquered ‘New World’ territories of Peru and Colombia. But was the legend a true account of unimaginable riches as the Conquistadors believed, or a ruse by the enslaved Incas to lead the Spanish on treacherous expeditions into the dense Amazon jungles – and almost certain death?


If the fable has any truth in history it probably relates to the ceremonial rite performed by the remote Muisca tribes at Lake Guatavita near present-day Bogota, Colombia.

In this religious ceremony, the chief’s naked body was smeared with gold-laden mud, giving him the appearance of a gilded man. At the conclusion of the ritual, the chief would wash off the mud and golden offerings were thrown into the lake.

The Spanish, in their gold-driven lust for conquest, spent much of the early 16th century in search of the hordes of treasure they believed were stashed by this incredibly rich king.

Famed and ruthless conquistadores like Francisco de Orellana and Jimenez de Quesada spent years and considerable resources slashing through the dense jungle in search of the treasure of El Dorado, which had by this time, taken on mythical proportions. Quite possibly the captured tribesmen embellished this fable to be rid of the troublesome Spanish and send them on their way into the all-consuming undergrowth. If so, the tactic was quite effective, as scores of greedy Castilians trudged off never to be seen again.

Ultimately though, Quesada did uncover the lake of Guatavita after torturing rich Chibcha elders into revealing its location and the supposed source of their wealth. Quesada, however, failed to discover any riches beyond that which he plundered from the hapless Chibcha.

The legend continued to swell and soon a lost mythical lake – Parima – was being described as the new El Dorado. In truth, it was almost certainly the same lake, Guatavita, previously revealed by Quesada in 1536.

Dredging of Guatavita was attempted over the next fifty years, and some treasure was indeed revealed, but nothing like that described in the legend, which was now growing exponentially and being described as a refuge of the fleeing Inca royalty, named Manoa, replete with all their treasure.

The famous English explorer, poet and troublemaker, Sir Walter Raleigh, also made the search for El Dorado one of his quests. His blind pursuit, fuelled by an intense dislike of the Spanish, contributed to his ultimate downfall at the hands of James I’s axeman.

In a final exertion, dredging of Lake Guatavita was again attempted several more times, with mixed results, and it wasn’t until 1965 that the Colombian Government finally halted these vain attempts and put the lake under national protection. To this day, the scenic lake is scarred thanks to centuries of treasure-hunting vandals (pic right).

Today the term El Dorado has entered the language as a synonym for unbridled greed and the narrow-minded pursuit of unattainable wealth

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