What Is the Truth Behind the Myth of El Dorado?
Over time, the myth of El Dorado came to represent a hidden city deep within South America that was the source of untold riches, mainly in the form of gold. Experts believe, though, that the El Dorado myth evolved over time and that El Dorado actually began as a man, not a place.
Deep in the Andes Mountains in what is now Colombia, the native Muisca people maintained a unique tradition: when a new king rose to power, he would coat himself in gold dust before diving into Lake Guatavitá. As part of the ceremony, gold and other precious jewels would be thrown into the lake to appease an underwater god.
Spanish explorers who arrived in the early 16th century heard about the Muisca people and their curious tradition. They even gave the king a name: El Dorado or “the gilded one.” In 1545, they found Lake Guatavitá and tried to drain it. Although they did find hundreds of pieces of gold, the vast treasure they hoped for eluded them.
This led the Spanish to conclude that Lake Guatavitá must not be the place they were looking for. So they continued to search for an elusive place that ultimately did not exist. In this way, the myth of El Dorado grew from a man to a place of great riches.
For another century, thousands of explorers would search South America’s jungles, mountains, and river valleys for El Dorado. Many of them would die on expeditions, unprepared for the dangers that awaited them.
Some of the famous explorers who searched for El Dorado included Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco de Orellana, and Sir Walter Raleigh. In fact, Raleigh, the famous explorer who funded expeditions to the infamous Roanoke Island in North America, made two separate trips to Guyana in search of El Dorado.
In the end, El Dorado, the city of untold riches, never existed. El Dorado, the man, did exist and his tribe’s homeland near Lake Guatavitá was found, but it did not contain the abundant riches that myths led explorers to believe existed.
The lust for gold spans all eras, races, and nationalities. To possess any amount of gold seems to ignite an insatiable desire to obtain more. Through the centuries, this passion gave rise to the enduring tale of a city of gold. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans believed that somewhere in the New World there was a place of immense wealth known as El Dorado. Their searches for this treasure wasted countless lives, drove at least one man to suicide, and put another man under the executioner’s ax.
“El Dorado shifted geographical locations until finally it simply meant a source of untold riches somewhere in the Americas,” says Jim Griffith, a folklorist in Tucson, Arizona. But this place of immeasurable riches hasn’t been found.
English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh made two trips to Guiana to search for El Dorado. During his second trip in 1617, he sent his son, Watt Raleigh, with an expedition up the Orinoco River. But Walter Raleigh, then an old man, stayed behind at a base camp on the island of Trinidad. The expedition was a disaster, and Watt Raleigh was killed in a battle with Spaniards.
Eric Klingelhofer, an archaeologist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, is trying to find the site or Raleigh’s base camp on Trinidad. He says Walter Raleigh was furious at the survivor who informed him of Watt’s death and accused the survivor of letting his son be killed. “The man goes into his cabin on the ship and kills himself,” says Klingelhofer.
Raleigh returned to England, where King James ordered him beheaded for, among other things, disobeying orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
The legend of El Dorado endures because “you want it to be true,” says Jose Oliver, a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. “I don’t think we’ve ever stopped seeking El Dorado.”
So where is this lost city of gold? In his 1849 poem “El Dorado,” writer Edgar Allan Poe offers an eerie and eloquent suggestion: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride … if you seek for El Dorado.”