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El Dorado: The City of Gold

File:El dorado again.jpg
City Of Gold (as depicted in the movie The Road to El Dorado)

Basic Definition: El Dorado (Spanish for "the golden one") is the name of a Muisca tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust and, as an initiation rite, dived into the lake Guatavita.[1]

  • Other Names for El Dorado – Colonel Percy Fawcett, one of the most distinguished British explorers came up with the idea to call El Dorado, ‘The City of Z’. He is considered to be the inspiration for or even considered to be the real life Indiana Jones. Fawcett made two major trips down to South America in search of the city of gold and although he was unsuccessful and was eventually determined dead after not returning from his second trip, his instincts may have not just been a dead end. A recent find from scientists may prove him and all the other explorers and conquistadores right.

Later it became the name of a legendary "Lost City of Gold" that has fascinated - and so far eluded - explorers since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. [2] Imagined as a place, El Dorado became a kingdom, an empire, the city of this legendary golden king. Deluded by the legend, Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro would depart from Quito in 1541 in a famous and disastrous expedition towards the Amazon Basin; as a result of this, however, Orellana became the first person known to navigate the Amazon River all the way to its mouth.

Location(s) of El Dorado[edit]

  • All sources about El Dorado and/or the city of gold and/or the city of Z say that any and all possible locations are in South America. [3]

Myths and Ceremonies[edit]

The Zipa used to cover his body in gold dust and, from his raft, he offered treasures to the Guatavita goddess in the middle of the sacred lake. This old Muisca tradition became the origin of El Dorado legend. This model is on display in the Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia

The original narrative is to be found in the rambling chronicle, El Carnero, of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the king or chief priest of the Muisca was said to be ritually covered with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogota Colombia.

First Myth[edit]

  • The Man named El Dorado and his Golden City. One of the many myths of El Dorado goes in to talk about how El Dorado was not just a city, but there was a man who started it all. The myth begins in the area of South America that is now the country of Columbia with members of a tribe called the Chibcha performing a ceremony to bring honor to the ‘Golden Man’. This ceremony took place on the supposed mystical Lake Guatavita. During this ceremony, either a leader from the tribe or one of the spiritual leaders would be selected to be covered in various oils and powders so that he could appear golden. There are no specifics about how the ritual was continued except to say that the people of the tribe would give this ‘Gilded Man’ various gold or golden offerings as he was rowed into the middle of the Lake Guatavita. Once in the middle of the lake it is said that he performs strange tricks until the golden residue that covered his body has been washed clean. This ceremony was done to calm or pacify the Gods that ruled the lake, however it is unknown why the Gods needed this specific ceremony to be performed. [6]

Second Myth[edit]

  • Another source specifies to say that this ceremony held importance because it was “for the accession of a new Muisca chief on Lake Guatavita, which gave rise to the legend of ‘El Dorado’ – [meaning] ‘The Gilded Man’. “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 Fernández de Oviedo, 1535-48.” The Muisca performed the ceremony when they were to chose a new ruler. The man chosen was expected to go off into a cave, alone and without the company of women. He was prohibited from leaving during the day and could not eat salt, chili pepper or other spices. While hiding out in the cave, he had to make several journeys, first of which was to wander out to the great lagoon of Guatavita. He had to give offerings and make sacrifices to the God and lord of their people. Their God has been interpreted to be a demon of sorts and in other mythological lore it is said that this God must be placated. When the ceremony began at the lagoon, the Muisca people would make a raft, which they would spend much time on to garnish it with the most beautiful things they owned and possessed. Upon the raft they would embellish it with four braziers that had been set on fire “in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives.” The lagoon in which the ceremony took place was extremely large and had great depth so that all the Muisca people could sail around and watch the event. The men and women who filled the ship(s) would dress in fine clothes and would even wear golden crowns and plates. As the raft that held the chosen man began to burn, those who stayed on the shore would set fire to more braziers so that the smoke would cover the daylight. Similar to the first myth, the chosen man would be stripped down to next to nothing and would be covered in “sticky earth on which [they] placed gold dust…he was completely covered in this metal.” When removed from the raft, his feet were planted in a large pile of gold and emeralds so that he could be a suitable offering to their God. Unlike other myths where the ‘Gilded Man’ was left alone on the raft, this myth claims that “four principal subject chiefs [wearing] crowns, bracelets, pendants and covered in other various golden jewelry were also naked and carrying one of his many offerings.” When they had gotten to the center of the lagoon, they would signal to the others to be silent. Then the chosen man would hurl all of the gold into the middle of the lake along with the chiefs who came along with him. Although it wasn’t mentioned before, there had been a flag raised on the raft and when all the gold was thrown into the lake, the flag was lowered and the rest of the Muisca people would celebrate upon the arrival to shore of those in the raft. This ceremony is done to show that the Muisca people had chosen their new ruler who they would recognize as their king. [7]

Third Myth[edit]

  • Another source, which does not have a specific myth about El Dorado, but does have information on its origins goes along to say that it all began in South America. As most legends go, there are always some pieces of truth, but it can usually never be proven. During the early 16th century there were various Spanish explorers who when finally reaching South America had heard various tales about a native tribe that resided in the Andes Mountains, which is now referred to as the country of Columbia. It was said that when this tribe chose a new chief or leader, his rule would begin with a ceremony at the Lake Guatavita. As seen above, there are various myths about how this ceremony was performed and for specific reasons, but the consistent factor, between each of them, is that the chosen ruler was covered in golden powder or dust and that various jewels and gold were thrown into the lake. All the stories also share the common idea that this ceremony was done to please the God they believed in. “The Spaniards started calling this golden chief El Dorado, ‘the gilded one’. The ceremony of the gilded man supposedly ended in the late 15th century when El Dorado and his subjects were [supposedly] conquered by another tribe. But the Spaniards and other Europeans had found so much gold among the natives along the continent’s northern coast that they believed there had to be a place of great wealth somewhere in the interior. The Spaniards didn’t find El Dorado, but they did find Lake Guatavita and tried to drain it in 1545. They lowered its level enough to find hundreds of pieces of gold along the lake’s edge. But the presumed fabulous treasure in the deeper water was beyond their reach." [8]



  • There have been many recorded expeditions to South America in search of El Dorado and/or the city of gold. Specifically, when the Europeans were lusting after gold, various conquistadores and mercenaries were entering parts of South America, which to many were known to be dangerous and unsafe jungle regions. Much of this was occurring in the mid to late 16th century, much after the time of Columbus. One of the many conquistadores to explore South America was Francisco Pizarro. [9] His group had already run into the Incas and when they heard news of this ‘Golden Man’, they tore their way through what is now known as Columbia, in the mid 1550’s, to discover it. They were told from many of the local people that they could find the gold in the place where they could find salt. They knew that the Chibchi people very extremely rich in salt since they prospered from living on a salt mountain. In the eyes of the Chibchi people, salt was utterly precious and they would trade it for gold. Pizarro and his men however did not believe this to be true and when they didn’t get what they wanted they would destroy and torture the people sp they could find this supposed city, which they called El Dorado – The Golden One. Money was wasted in useless efforts to find this incredible city, but only in 1541 when Francisco de Orellana “claimed to have found traces of the place” was the legend considered permanent. However, the dream that El Dorado existed continued to draw people in, to trying to discover it. Yet most explorers met their unfortunate fate while trying. [10]
    • Another source writes about Francisco Pizarro and how in 1541, after hearing various tales of El Dorado, he is known to be one of the first conquistadores to go to South America in search of the city of gold. The rumors of an abundance of gold were true, but while most tribes like the Incas did not consider gold to be of any high value, the Spaniards were enticed with it. The Incas would mostly use gold for decorative purposes. One of their temples, the Coricancha had a garden inside and was filled with statues and relics made of pure gold; which when discovered by the Spanish were destroyed and used for their benefit. “The Inca emperor Atahualpa at first welcomed the Spaniards. Pizzaro and his men ambushed and captured the emperor and held him for ransom, the ransom being a roomful of gold and other treasure. After the ransom was delivered, Pizarro had Atahualpa murdered. Pizarro managed to conquer the Inca Empire and steal great hoards of gold and other treasures, but an entire city of gold was never found”. [11]

Spanish Conquistadores[edit]

  • Another recorded expedition discusses how many Spanish conquistadores would invade the Muisca towns and villages and they would take all of their treasures and possessions. Eventually the Spaniards came to the conclusion that they were only in possession of gold and had not found the golden city or even gold mines. They came to realize that the gold they had forcefully taken from the Muisca people was not from a city of gold, but was from outside cities. Yet they still would overhear myths of El Dorado and ‘The Gilded Man’—even the tale of the ceremony performed at the lagoon of Guatavita—from the people they captured. It was said that there were various Muisca people [that were still alive] who had been a witness to the last ceremony; each story told seemed reliable because each individual who told it has the exact same recollection. Every Spanish storyteller will refer back to the Gilded Man, but it is said that the most respected and trustworthy version comes from Rodrígues Freyle—he was told it from Don Juan the [alleged] “nephew of the last independent lord of Guatavita”. [12]

Sir Walter Raleigh[edit]

  • One of the more famous and possible well-known expeditions in search of El Dorado have been made by the English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. He is known to have made two trips to Guiana in his quest to find the city of gold, but more notably in his second journey in 1617, he brought his son Watt Raleigh and sent him on a separate expedition to the Orinoco River. Walter Raleigh did not travel with his son, but instead stayed on the small island of Trinidad. The trip was disastrous and in a messy battle, Spaniards killed Watt Raleigh. “Eric Klingelhofer, an archeologist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, says that Walter Raleigh was furious at the survivor who informed him of Watt’s death and accused the survivor of letting his son be killed.” Raleigh caused the man so much distress that when he was through blaming him for his son’s death, the man killed himself. However, things did not go smoothly for Sir Walter Raleigh on his return to England; King James was infuriated that Raleigh did not follow orders to avoid conflict with Spain and his punishment was beheading. [13]

El Dorado is applied to a legendary story in which precious stones were found in fabulous abundance along with gold coins. The concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of the legendary city. The resulting El Dorado enticed European explorers for two centuries, and was eventually found to be in Colombia.

Among the earliest stories was the one told by Diego de Ordaz's lieutenant Martinez, who claimed to have been rescued from shipwreck, conveyed inland, and entertained by "El Dorado" himself (1531).

In 1540 Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, was made the governor of the provenance of Quito in northern Ecuador. Shortly after taking lead in Quito, Gonzalo learned from many of the natives of a valley far to the east rich in both cinnamon and gold. He banded together 340 soldiers and about 4000 Indians in 1541 and led them eastward down the Rio Coca and Rio Napo. Francisco de Orellana, Gonzalo’s nephew, accompanied his uncle on this expedition. Gonzalo quit after many of the soldiers and Indians had died from hunger, disease, and periodic attacks by hostile natives. He ordered Orellana to continue downstream, where he eventually made it to the Atlantic Ocean, discovering the Amazon (named Amazon because of a tribe of female warriors that attacked Orellana’s men while on their voyage.)

Other expeditions include that of Philipp von Hutten (1541–1545), who led an exploring party from Coro on the coast of Venezuela; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Governor of El Dorado, who started from Bogotá (1569).

Parime Lacus on a map by Hessel Gerritsz (1625). Situated at the west coast of the lake, the so called city Manoa or El Dorado

Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parime far up the Orinoco River in Guyana. This city on the lake was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin-America expedition (1799–1804).[14]


In the mythology of the Muisca today, gold (Mnya) represents the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constitutes the creative power of everything that exists. Chiminigagua is, along with Bachué, Cuza, Chibchachum, Bochica, and Nemcatacoa, one of the creators of the universe.

Meanwhile, the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to El Dorado County, California, and to towns and cities in various states. It has also been anglicized to the single word Eldorado.

In literature, frequent allusion is made to the legend, perhaps the best-known references being those in Milton's Paradise Lost (Book xi. 408-411) and in Voltaire's Candide (chs. 18, 19). "Eldorado" was the title and subject of a four-stanza poem by Edgar Allan Poe. In the 1966 John Wayne film El Dorado, most of Poe's poem is recited by the character nicknamed Mississippi.[15] El Dorado is also referenced in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. Within Conrad's work, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition journeys into the jungles of Africa in search of conquest and treasure, only to meet an untimely demise.

El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or "Holy Grail" that one might spend one's life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success. It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or, at least, may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Poe's poem "El Dorado". In this context, El Dorado bears similarity to other myths such as the Fountain of Youth, Shangri-la, and to some extent the term "white whale" which refers to Captain Ahab's obsession in the book Moby Dick. The disillusionment side of the ideal quest metaphor may be represented by Helldorado, a satirical nickname given to Tombstone by a tardy miner who complained that many of his profession had traveled far to find El Dorado, only to wind up washing dishes in restaurants.

Werner Herzog's film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, also explores the El Dorado metaphor. The main character, Lope de Aguirre, is historically based, but is actually an amalgam of Aguirre and Francisco Orellana, mentioned in the historical section, above.

Proof of Existence[edit]

  • Is El Dorado and the city of gold just a myth or is there any reality to it? It has been said repeatedly that numerous people, explorers and conquistadores have all returned—or not been lucky enough to return—from the Amazon with absolutely no proof that such a civilization ever existed. However, a few scientists are coming close to proving everyone wrong. A report was published in the journal Antiquity that shows over “200 massive earthworks in the upper Amazon basin near Brazil’s border with Bolivia.” Various pictures have been taken with Google Earth, but when looking from a birds-eye view, it appears as though there is an assortment of geometric shapes that have been sculpted into the earth. However, the people who published the account “believe [they] are remains of roads, bridges, moats, avenues and squares that formed the basis for a sophisticated civilization spanning 155 miles, which could have supported a population of 60,000. The remains date from 200AD-1283AD.”
  • David Grann, who wrote the book The Lost City of Z [about Colonel Percy Fawcett’s expeditions], is amazed by this discovery. He is quoted as saying, “It shatters the prevailing notions of what the Amazon looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus…for centuries, scientists assumed the jungle was simply a death trap, a ‘counterfeit paradise’ where only small, primitive, nomadic tribes existed. These discoveries show the Amazon was, in fact, home to a large civilization that pre-dated the Incas and built an extraordinarily sophisticated society with monumental earthworks.”
  • Almost a century after Fawcett disappeared into the jungles of South America, his journeys were not made in vain. ““Although he expected the City of Z to be built of stone, and although by the end of his life he had a more fantastical notion of what it would look like, these discoveries show he was, in many ways, extraordinarily prescient,” says Grann.” We don’t know too much about the findings in Amazonia, but with future investigation we may discover the truth behind the legend of El Dorado and the city of gold. [16]


File:Road to el dorado.jpg
Disney's The Road to El Dorado (Theatrical Release Poster)

The Road to El Dorado, created by DreamWorks Animation in 2000. This animated movie is semi-recent and is about two friends who find a map that they believe can take them to the city of gold--otherwise known as El Dorado. When they arrive in the jungle they don't expect to find the city, but by a stroke of luck they are led to the city of gold by the people who live there and are mistaken as gods. [17]



  • Bandelier, A. F. A. The Gilded Man, El Dorado (New York, 1893).
  • Fernandez de Oviedo, Gonzalo Historia General y Natural de las India, islas y Tierra-Firme del Mar Oceano, Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia, 1851.
  • Freyle, Juan Rodriguez El Carnero: Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Granada. ISBN 84-660-0025-9
  • Hagen, Victor Wolfgang von The Gold of El Dorado: The Quest for the Golden Man
  • Naipaul,V.S. The Loss of El Dorado, 1969
  • Nicholl, Charles The Creature in the Map, London, 1995 ISBN 0-09-959521-4

Other mythical places[edit]

External links[edit]

Category:History of South America Category:Utopias Category:Mythological cities and towns Category:Mythological kingdoms, empires, and countries Category:Muisca Category:Exploration of South America

ar:إل دورادو az:El Dorado bg:Ел Дорадо ca:El Dorado cs:Eldorado da:El Dorado de:Eldorado es:El Dorado eo:Eldorado fr:Eldorado ko:엘도라도 hy:Էլդորադո hr:El Dorado id:El Dorado it:El Dorado lv:Eldorado lt:Eldoradas hu:Eldorádó ms:El Dorado nl:El Dorado (goudland) ja:エル・ドラード no:El Dorado pl:El Dorado pt:Eldorado ro:Eldorado ru:Эльдорадо sr:Елдорадо fi:El Dorado (myytti) sv:Eldorado tr:El Dorado uk:Ельдорадо ur:ال دوریدو zh:黃金國

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