The Legend of El Dorado - Guatavita

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December 26th 2008
Published: December 26th 2008
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The Legend of El Dorado - Guatavita

A dull green surface comes to life with a gentle touch from the sun. In the early dusk of morning almost one million people are gathered around the edge of the crater to make an offering of a single piece of gold.

The piece is tossed into Guatavita Lake, (Laguna de Guatavita) along with the wish or thought that has been bestowed to it. The ceremony is part of keeping the balance between the male and female elements of the world and is conducted by the Muisca’s leader, (Cacique Guatavita). He is on a raft, (balsa) in the middle of the lake and adorned in gold jewellery and covered in gold dust.

It is this ceremony that sparked the legend of El Dorado, which translated from Spanish to English means ‘The Golden’. The Muisca people would exchange gold for things like corn or salt and use as offerings. They were not using it as means to value items. So when the Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century they were astonished to find and gold just ‘lying around a lake’.

Laguna de Guatavita is situated an hour or two north of
Balsa Muisca at the Gold MuseumBalsa Muisca at the Gold MuseumBalsa Muisca at the Gold Museum

This is a model of what the raft, (balsa) looked like during the Musicas ceremony at Lake Guatavita
Bogotá and although there are a few theories on its ‘birth’, the most likely I that it is the result of a meteor crash several million years ago. It is relatively small: 200 by 300 metres round and an average of 25 metres deep, and the enchanting green colours of the water are due to microscopic algae. They reduce visibility under water to just 20cm, so with your arm outstretched you would not be able to see it. 10 metres below the surface it is completely dark. This mysterious nature has kept people guessing about what could be hiding and over the years many techniques have been applied to solve the mystery.

Current water levels are significantly lower than ever before, this is due to the several attempts made to drain it and find the ‘mountain of gold’ in its centre. There is a huge gash in one of the crater sides where they successfully drained a lot of the volume, but not all. There were also repeated attempts to build a tunnel and drain the lake from beneath, and then later water pumps were brought over from Europe, only to sink and remain in the depth of the lake today. No record of a ‘gold mountain’ has been made.

The Muisca tribe were very wealthy, essentially because they had a good water supply and the surrounding volcanic earth is rich which allowed them to successfully grow crops when neighbouring villages were struggling. As a result they were more likely to accept gold in exchange for food. To ensure that their good luck remained, they held ceremonies, like the one at Laguna de Guatavita, (believed to be the belly-button of the earth) to keep the harmony between male aspects, like the sun and the soil, with the female elements like the moon and the water.

When the Spanish arrived all these traditions were forbidden and in the following years the desire for gold saw 10 tonnes removed from ‘El Dorado’. In reality however this is more likely to have been 40 tonnes.

In 2001 the area became a highly restricted forest reserve. You now pay $8,000 or $12,00 if you are a foreigner to enter the area and spend over an hour with a guide who tells you the history and takes you to the lake and back.

While the new paths were being made, just 7 years ago one of the workers found a small clay pot with four gold pieces inside. Perhaps the mystery of El Dorado is not yet completely solved after all.


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