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Where was El Dorado?

Updated on June 2, 2013

Where was El Dorado? El Dorado, Spanish for “the golden one”, refers to a mythic city of gold that captured the imaginations of numerous explorers and adventurers to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. The legend of El Dorado originated from a tribal ceremony in Colombia, and the legend of a lost city of gold was perpetuated by indigenous people to the Spanish conquistadores. While many expeditions sought the legendary city, it was never found.

Tribal Origins

The story of the city of El Dorado has its origins in a tribal ceremony carried out by the Muisca, an indigenous people of South America. The ceremony, as it was related to the Spanish conquistadores, outlined a religious ceremony in which the Muisca chief was covered in gold dust. As part of the ceremony, gifts of gold and jewels were placed on a raft with “the golden one”, the gold dust-covered chief. The chief then dumped the offerings into the middle of a deep lake. This ceremony was said to have taken place in Lake Guatavita, located near Bogotá, Colombia. The conquistadores managed to steal much of the Muisca gold, but were unable to locate a golden city. They heard stories of El Dorado repeated by the captured tribe, which spurred them to continue to search for the lost city.

Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro

Expeditions to Find El Dorado

As mentioned above, many expeditions to find El Dorado were carried out in the 16th and 17th centuries. First, several attempts were made to drain Lake Guatavita to plunder the golden offerings from its bottom. The attempts were largely unsuccessful, although several artifacts were pulled from the lake, proving that the ceremonies actually did take place at Lake Guatavita. After the failed attempts to drain Lake Guatavita, explorers became convinced it was not the location of El Dorado.

An early expedition to find El Dorado was lead by Gonzalo Pizarro, a half-brother to conquistador Francisco Pizarro, in 1541. Francisco de Orellana accompanied Pizarro on the expedition, serving as second in command. Pizarro and Orellana lead 220 Spaniards and 4,000 natives on their expedition to the east of the continent toward the Andes Mountains. The party explored the Río Coco and the Río Napo before supplies began to dwindle. The group suffered heavy losses – 140 of the Spaniards and 3,000 of the natives had succumbed to disease and malnourishment. Pizarro decided to abandon the expedition and lead several of the crew back to Quito, Ecuador, while Orellana went on to explore the length of the Amazon River – an accomplishment for which he is most famous. While the Pizarro expedition did not find El Dorado, the dream of finding the legendary city had not died.

There were several other failed expeditions by Spanish explorers throughout the end of the 16th century. Famously, Sir Walter Raleigh, an Englishman, undertook a search for El Dorado in 1595 starting from the east of the continent at the mouth of the Orinoco River. Unsurprisingly, Raleigh did not find the fabled city. He did, however, find gold along the river and in the indigenous villages he came across in his travels. He published a book, The Discovery of Guiana, which provided an account of his explorations. The book ultimately served to perpetuate Raleigh’s thoughts that the city did in fact exist and that South America had many gold mines.

While finding El Dorado was never realized, the word has come to take on a new meaning. It can mean any place where one can expect to find easy money. Or, El Dorado is a metaphor for that one thing a person is seeking, whether it’s riches, love, or an impossible dream.


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