The name “El Dorado” has long been associated with a mythical lost city rumored to hold a wealth of gold and riches. The legend stems from the ancient Muisca tribe, who lived in the highlands of present-day Columbia and centuries ago, would initiate a new chief with a ceremony that included covering their future leader in gold dust, and having him jump into what is now Lake Guatavita.  To further satisfy the god that lived beneath the lake’s surface, the tribe would unload gold and precious stones into the water, unknowingly creating the prize in a treasure hunt that would make even Lara Croft salivate. 

The fortune-searching Spanish conquistadors were the first to catch wind of this ritual, swiftly setting out in pursuit of the ceremony grounds and the man they dubbed “El Dorado” or “the golden one.” In 1531, a lieutenant of Spanish explorer Diego de Ordaz even claimed to have been entertained by the man called “El Dorado” after surviving a shipwreck.  While the Spanish did find some gold along the shore of Lake Guatavita, the bulk of the loot remained hidden.

The existence of an undiscovered
treasure vault soon taunted explorers from other parts of Europe, and as Germany’s Philip von Hutten and Sir Walter Raleigh of England entered the rat race, the legend of El Dorado grew.  Thanks to the historic rumor mill, the location of the golden city shifted and new hypotheses concerning its whereabouts emerged.  While the city was never found, steadfast explorers did traverse much uncharted territory of South America, even discovering the Amazon River.

Eventually, the term “El Dorado” became a
metaphor for a place where wealth could be gained quickly, and actually became a place on a map when El Dorado County was established in California during the gold rush in the mid-1800s, where one can do everything from lounging to gold panning today.

-Catherine Donovan

October 2012