Guatavita - the Colombian lake with a golden secret
When you first see Lake Guatavita it will most likely not leave much of a lasting impression. While of course beautiful it is not exceptionally different from any other small Andean lake....well except for the fact that it is the birth place of the El Dorado legend...
Lake Guatavita has long fascinated explorers
You will find Lake Guatavita about 57km northeast of Bogotá in the mountainous Almeidas Province. The first thing that will strike you upon seeing it is that it is almost perfectly circular. In fact Lake Guatavita's origins are another mystery that has persisted to this day, with some speculating that the creator was created by a meteorite strike, while others propose that it is a volcanic cinder or perhaps a sinkhole. While the lake's origin is undeniably intriguing it does not even come close to the fascinating role it played in South America's history. A role it owes to its close ties with the legend of El Dorado - the lost city of gold.
In order to understand the significance of Lake Guatavita in the history of South America's exploration, we must first turn our attention to the Muisca - one of the four advanced civilizations of the Americas (along with the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs). The territory of the Muisca people spanned some 47,000 square kilometres, from Boyacá to the Sumapaz Paramo and from the summits of the Eastern Range to the Magdalena Valley. Scholars believe that Lake Guatavita was one of the sacred lakes of the Muisca, and was the stage for one particular ritual which when discovered by European explorers would start a chain of events that would forever change the continent.
The ritual in question is one that involved the zipa, the ruler of the southern part of the Muisca Confederation which was based in Bacatá (present day Bogotá). Among the duties carried out by the zipa was the responsibility of presenting gold to the Muisca gods. The ceremony involved the zipa being covered in gold dust and sailing to the centre of Lake Guitavita on a ceremonial raft. The zipa would then jump into the water thus washing off the gold dust. Afterwords the worshipers, who had gathered to watch the ceremony, would throw gold and silver trinkets and jewelery into the lake. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the region and learned of the practiced they gave the zipa the name "El Dorado"or "the Golden One". It is now widely believed that this is where the legend of "El Dorado" stems from.
The Muisca raft figure is on display in Bogota's Gold Museum
While it is believed that the Spanish first learned of the Muisca ritual as early as 1531, they did not actually find Lake Guatavita until 1537. The lake was discovered by conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada during an expedition to the highlands of the Eastern Ranges of the Andes. De Quesada, just as the vast majority of his contemporaries as well as many of those who would come after, set out on his expedition in hopes of finding gold, or more specifically the source of the El Dorado story.
It should come as little surprise that since its discovery numerous attempts were made to find the gold that is supposed to be hidden in the depths of Lake Guatavita. The first such attempt was made in 1541, when a 'bucket chain' of laborers was used to drain the lake. After approximately 3 months the lake's water level was reduced by three meters and around 100,000 dollars' worth of gold found. Almost 40 years later, in 1580, Antonio de Sepúlveda, a businessman from Bogota, organized one of the most famous attempts at draining the lake. De Sepúlveda used local laborers to cut a notch into the rim of the lake which led to the water level dropping around 20 meters. Approximately 400,000 dollars' worth of gold and artefacts were found before the notch collapsed killing many workers. The final large scale effort at emptying the lake was made in 1898 during which the water level was reduced to just over one meter of mud and slime. However, it also ended up being one of the least successful ones, because exposed to the blistering sun the mud proceeded to dry and turn rock hard, which made it practically impossible to find anything.
In 1965, more than 400 years after it was first discovered, the Colombian government designated Lake Guatavita a protected area, thus making any future attempts of draining it illegal. However the lake continues to attract crowds of tourists to this day, making it one of the most popular day trips from Bogota. All those that come here now are less drawn by the promise of untold riches and more by the truly spectacular natural beauty and tranquility of the legendary lake.
We will never know for certain whether Lake Guatavita really was the source of the El Dorado legend, or if there in fact was a city made of gold, the ruins of which are still hidden somewhere in South America. What we do know however is that Lake Guatavita, or more precisely El Dorado, has had a profound effect on early European explorers, many of whom were described as suffering from 'gold fever'. It can be argued that it was the promise of El Dorado and its unimaginable riches more than anything else that motivated explorers to venture deeper and deeper into South America, journeys which would result in extraordinary discoveries as well as the annihilation of ancient civilizations.