Searching for El Dorado in Guatavita, Colombia
Have you heard of the legend of El Dorado? Maybe you’ve read a book about it or even seen the Disney movie? It turns out that this widespread legend is one of South America’s most mysterious stories and one that was born not far outside of Bogota, Colombia’s capital city.
During our week in Bogota, we wanted to learn more about this mystical legend. So we went on a day tour with Impulse Travel to Guatavita and visited the Guatavita Lagoon, the birthplace of ‘El Dorado’.
The Guatavita Lagoon is located a “Colombian” hour from Bogota and is worth the trip for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a beautiful lagoon. Depending on the weather, its water changes from emerald green to a clear, deep blue. Sadly for us, it was raining when we visited! The second reason to go there is to learn about the Muisca culture and about the legend itself.
Here’s how our day with Impulse Travel went.
The drive to the Guatavita Lagoon
After being picked up from our Airbnb in the centre of town, our driver made his way out of the city. As we passed through the different neighbourhoods of Bogota, our tour guide explained some of the different suburbs we passed through. He pointed out some suburbs that are still unsafe, with multiple gangs still present and invisible borders within the neighbourhoods.
Our guide also pointed out one neighbourhood where Impulse Travel is working alongside some of the locals to show tourists around the streets of the neighbourhood. Welcoming tourism into the neighbourhood has helped the locals greatly, giving them an alternative to violence.
Note: This project is called the “Breaking Borders Project”. If you are interested in taking this tour you can click through the link at the end of this article for a 10 % discount.
After about half an hour, we were finally out of the city. We drove past an area called La Calera which is the fastest growing suburb in Bogota. La Calera is also famous for its delicious arepas (flatbread) stuffed with farmer’s cheese. Our guide stopped on the way to get some so we could try them. So yummy!
The Guatavita Lagoon
A little over an hour later, we arrived at the Guatavita Lagoon where we were taken for a guided hike around the park by one of the official guides from CAR which is an indigenous association of Colombia.
The hike started on the flats with a short walk to learn about the different plants along the way. We learnt how some of them were used for various medicinal and spiritual purposes by the Muiscas. We also learnt how some of them were important to retaining water in the area which is the source of 80 per cent of the water in Bogota’s catchments.
Learning about the legend of El Dorado
After a short walk, we arrived at a replica of a traditional Muisca ceremonial hall. We made our way inside and that’s where we learnt about the culture of these indigenous people, around whom the legend of El Dorado was formed.
The new leader ceremony
Every time the tribe needed a new leader, a special ceremony took place. Any prospective new leader would have to live isolated in a cave for nine years. Afterwards, he would enter the ceremonial hall and undergo a test. The test would have him stare at a fire in the middle of the hall while being distracted by a parade of naked ladies.
If he managed to resist this temptation, he passed the test. He would then go through the ceremony to become the new leader and be married to a woman chosen by his mother!
After the ceremony, the new leader would be covered from head to toe in gold dust and dressed in golden decorative pieces. He would then head out on the Guatavita lagoon on a raft, pre-dawn, to await the first light of day.
At first light, he would dive into the lake and remove all of his golden items before reemerging to claim his title. During this ceremony, hundreds of golden items were cast into the lake.
Gold was not actually valuable to the Muiscas, it was only symbolic and used for ceremonial purposes. What was actually more valuable to them was salt. They were very wealthy because they had access to huge salt mines. Salt was the only thing back then that could be used to preserve meat and it was heavily traded.
Fun fact: The word “salary” comes from “salt”, when people would be given a regular handful of salt as payment for work so they could preserve their meat. They could also trade their salt.
The legend of El Dorado
When the Spaniards arrived in Colombia to try and colonise the tribes, they found a lot of gold. They also heard rumours about this lake, the leader and the ceremony. They then started believing in a lost city where the indigenous people hid all their gold. That’s when the legend of El Dorado began.
The Spaniards looked everywhere for this lost city and eventually came across the Guatavita Lagoon. They tried to drain it multiple times without success but eventually succeeded in retrieving some of the gold. What the Spaniards didn’t realise at first was that these items were not made primarily from gold. They were only 30% gold with the rest copper.
Later attempts to retrieve more items from the lake were done by both the British and the French.
Climbing 150 steps up to the lake
After hearing about both the El Dorado Legend and the Muiscas’ traditional ceremonies, we continued onwards, climbing the 150 steps to the top of the hill to get a great view of the lake. On the way, we learned about the two different micro-climates that are present there.
We were also introduced to a very interesting plant that grows extremely slowly, only 1 cm a year! We saw the oldest specimen of that plant in the park. It was around 150 years old!
After our walk to the top where we took in the best view of the lake, we headed back down to the carpark and made our way back to Bogota for the next part of our tour, the Gold Museum.
The Gold Museum
Once back in Bogota we visited the Gold Museum. A visit to the museum complemented the information that we learnt during our time at the lake. We got to see some beautiful and iconic pieces that were found by archaeologists at the lake and in its surroundings.
Our guide explained a lot of the symbolism behind some of the exhibits. He explained how they were used by the Muiscas in various ceremonies. He also explained the lost wax process that the Muiscas used to create incredibly detailed metallic mouldings that experts still struggle to recreate today.
Interestingly, the remaining Muiscas believe that the world is going to end soon because people are starting to abuse many of the plants that they traditionally use in their culture (such as the very important Coca leaves that are now turned into Cocaine).
The cherry on the cake was the museum’s masterpiece, the Muisca raft. It’s so special that it has its own room! This stunning golden sculpture is about ten inches in length. It portrays a tribal chief, priests and oarsman sailing on a raft. It is believed to date between 1200-1500BC and it was discovered in 1856 by some peasants in a cave south of Bogota.
Is the El Dorado tour worth it?
If you are interested in the history of El Dorado and interested in learning about the Muisca people, we would really recommend taking this tour. This tour gave us a great insight into this captivating legend and we really enjoyed learning more about it. If you are only interested in the modern history of Colombia then this tour is obviously not for you.
If you’d like to book this tour or any other Impulse Travel tours, click here and you’ll get 10% off by using this discount code: FREETOROAM10
Disclosure: We were hosted by Impulse Travel for our Searching El Dorado Tour in August 2019. However, as always, all opinions are our own.
Side note: If you want to visit Colombia but are struggling with doing the planning, Impulse Travel offers a vacation planning service. They can organise every detail of your holiday for you. Click here to find out more.
Accommodation in Bogota
If you’d prefer to plan your accommodation in Bogota yourself, consider using HotelsCombined to search across all of the major accommodation websites. We use it all the time.