Bogotá: The Legend Of El Dorado, Where It All Began

Where it all began: Laguna de Guatavita (Lake Guatavita)
Laguna de Guatavita (Lake Guatavita). The reason behind its emerald green color is the different species of algae that it contains. It is 25 to 30 meters deep.
One of the most amazing views from Lake Guatavita
Views to die for.

I’m sure that you have heard of the Legend of El Dorado somewhere along the road of your precious life. But have you ever wondered how and where it was originated? The legend of El Dorado does in fact have its roots in an area known as Guatavita, Sesquilé, Cundinamarca in Colombia. This legend, responsible for the enslavement of the indigenous people, numerous deaths, many failed conquests and the destruction of mother nature, all emanated from a sacred initiation ceremony performed by the indigenous people of the Andes mountains at the glorious Laguna de Guatavita (Lake Guatavita).


Sitting there peacefully after numerous attempts to drain it is Lake Guatavita, 3100 meters above sea level. Guatavita to the indigenous Muisca people is a like womb containing water, it is known as the Mother of the Muiscas. The feminine aspect; the water, is united with the male aspect; the mountain. For this reason, Guatavita was deemed to be a very spiritual and sacred place for the Muiscas as they paid tribute to the Lake for centuries. The most interesting aspect of this account would be the ritual itself.


El Guaique, the Muisca word for chieftain, would have been preparing for this special day since childhood in La Cusmuy, the ceremonial house. Having obtained the wisdom to guide his people, el Guaique then had to prove his strength. This was done by demonstrating control of his body and mind against lustful desires, keeping a clean mind with pure thoughts. For the sacred ritual, he was covered in honey, resin from the Espeletia plant and gold dust. He was then taken by the respected elders and the traditional healer to the banks of the lake on a raft with a clay pot full of gold in his arms. As the sun came out, he immersed himself into the Lake three times, an act of fertility, which subsequently granted him the power as the new Guaique. Remember, the Lake represents the female and the gold and the sun represents the male aspect. When he emerged out of the water he was now the Muisca, the Guaique. He was then dressed and at the sounding of the drums, numerous offerings of emerald and gold objects were made to the Lake.

The Cusmuy, ceremonial house.
Inside the Cusmuy
The Espeletia plant that was used in the ceremony.
Espeletia plants.
Some flora and the views of the nearby mountains.

Travelling back to the 16th century, we can now see through their lense of greed the reason behind the Spanish conquistadors’ deep interest in the Musica people and that Lake in particular. Upon seeing the gold covered Guaique, the Spaniards dubbed him ‘El Dorado’ meaning ‘the gold covered or gilded one’. This ceremony consequently led to the legend of El Dorado as many pursued interest in finding a place or city of gold. The birth of the legend of El Dorado gave rise to many unsuccessful attempts at draining the Lake as these conquistadors were fascinated by the amount of gold that could possibly exist at the bottom of the Lake. The first to arrive was Hernán Pérez de Quesada in 1537 who managed to reduce the level of water by one and a half meters by working the Muiscas day and night for three months. They found some gold objects on the banks of the Lake. Hernán Pérez de Quesada was followed by captain Lázaro Fonte and Antonio Sepúlveda who failed severely as they attempted to drain the Lake by digging tunnels with pickaxe, shovels and spades. However, to their detriment the mountain began to cave in resulting in the loss of many lives. Other failed efforts included the attempts of the 12 miners from ‘Real Mariquita’ in 1625 and the Colonels Hamilton and Campbell in 1832. The gap that can be seen today on the rim of the Lake is the product of these many unsuccessful attempts.


Fun Fact: Previous Governor of Trinidad, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed for disobeying King James’ orders of avoiding conflict with the Spanish in his search of El Dorado. He sent his son, Watt Raleigh, in 1617 on an expedition to search for the City of Gold up the Orinoco River and this ended badly as Watt was killed by the Spaniards.


Gold however was not a representation of wealth for the Muisca peoples. Intricately handmade gold objects were simply used for offerings in order to appease the Gods and balance the cosmos. The chieftains were always fully dressed in shiny yellow gold as they believed themselves to be an embodiment of the sun, appropriating the powers of the sun God. The Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá proudly displays many of these pieces that were exquisitely crafted by the indigenous peoples.


Lake Guatavita is also rich in flora with many trees containing medicinal values that the Muisca people used for their own health and well-being.

Display of gold objects crafted by the indigenous people at the Gold Museum

How to get there?

I took the lovely transmilenio from Chapinero straight to Portal Norte. This takes about an hour or less. From Portal Norte there are a great number of buses going to various places so you look for one that has Sesquilé and Guatavita on the windscreen. This is neither the transmilenio nor the SITP buses which are unfortunately non-existent in those regions since you would now be travelling towards the less industrialized more rural areas.


During the week it is not easy to get a bus to go directly to the Lake from Sesquilé. So after 2 hours of commuting from Portal Norte on what I perceived to be a gigantic Tour Bus, but it’s actually a normal bus for travelling, the driver dropped me off at the entrance to the 9 km road to Lake Guatavita. My plan was to walk that distance because according to the bus driver, to hire a car during the week would have been pretty costly for me and yours sincerely is on a budget. I asked about the safety of the area in which he assured me that I had nothing to worry about so I confidently decided that I could more that make it without the need of a car.


Well I fooled myself. It was continuous uphill, and I was out of breath after 15 minutes. The views however were priceless. My trip reminded me of those adventurous movies that I saw and novels that I read when the protagonist got lost and some amazing thing happened to them afterwards 😂. On both sides of the tiny road were mountains with a stunning landscape, fields of agriculture, livestock which were mostly dairy cows and scattered cottage houses. I turned around and was dumbstruck with the view of the endless green mountains shadowed by the white clouds in the far distance. I also made friends with the roadside donkey and the cows since they were the only few living things in sight 😐. Now and then a farm van or a motorbike or a human being would pass. But for the majority of time it was just me after which I began to rethink if it was such a good idea to travel there by myself. The feeling however was a liberating and independent one. Travelling alone always makes me feel that way and I realized that it’s something that makes me content and satisfied. You also learn more since you’re more focused on your surroundings.

The landscape of the area.
My friend bashfully posing for a picture.
My other cow friends.
Continuous uphill.

After walking for about an hour and a half a farm van stopped and these farmers offered to drop me to the Lake. I consulted with my gut instinct and decided to accept. Thankfully I did that because the road further up was very muddy and it was pretty far too. Besides, the farmers were really sincere and told me some facts about the area. I hitched a ride on the way back with this American who hired a car to come to the Lake 😂 Well he clearly was not on a budget.


Journeying to Lake Guatavita was not only an adventure but it was also an extraordinary experience and an addition to my historical knowledge. When I heard about it at the Gold Museum I said to myself that I had to go there! It contains an extremely rich history and I’d advise anyone who ever visits Bogotá to check in at Lake Guatavita. Plus a tour guide is included in the admission fee! But maybe you should go on a weekend when there are buses unless you don’t mind walking or taking rides from strangers 😐.

A beautiful church in the small town of Sesquilé.
Spectacular view of Sesquilé.
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