El Dorado was a mythical city supposedly located somewhere in the unexplored interior of South America. It was said to be unimaginably rich, with fanciful tales told of gold-paved streets, golden temples and rich mines of gold and silver. Between 1530 and 1650 or so, thousands of Europeans searched the jungles, plains, mountains, and rivers of South America for El Dorado, many of them losing their lives in the process.
El Dorado never existed except in the fevered imaginations of these seekers, so it was never found.
AZTEC AND INCA GOLD
The El Dorado myth had its roots in the vast fortunes discovered in Mexico and Peru. In 1519, Hernán Cortes captured Emperor Montezuma and sacked the mighty Aztec Empire, making off with thousands of pounds of gold and silver and making rich men of the conquistadors who were with him. In 1533, Francisco Pizarro discovered the Inca Empire in the Andes of South America. Taking a page from Cortes’ book, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa and held him for ransom, earning another fortune in the process. Lesser New World cultures such as the Maya in Central America and the Muisca in present-day Colombia yielded smaller (but still significant) treasures.
THE SEEKERS OF EL DORADO
Tales of these fortunes made the rounds in Europe and soon thousands of adventurers from all over Europe were making their way to the New World, hoping to be part of the next expedition.
Most (but not all) of them were Spanish. These adventurers had little or no personal fortune but great ambition: most had some experience fighting in Europe’s many wars. They were violent, ruthless men who had nothing to lose: they would get rich on New World gold or die to try. Soon the ports were flooded with these would-be conquistadors, who would form into large expeditions and set off into the unknown interior of South America, often following the vaguest rumors of gold.
There was a grain of truth in the El Dorado myth. The Muisca people of Cundinamarca (present-day Colombia) had a tradition: kings would coat themselves in a sticky sap before covering themselves with gold powder. The king would then take a canoe to the center of Lake Guatavitá and, before the eyes of thousands of his subjects watching from shore, would leap into the lake, emerging clean. Then, a great festival would begin. This tradition had been neglected by the Muisca by the time of their discovery by the Spanish in 1537, but not before word of it had reached the greedy ears of the European intruders in cities all over the continent. “El Dorado,” in fact, is Spanish for “the gilded one:” the term at first referred to an individual, the king who covered himself in gold. According to some sources, the man who coined this phrase was conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar.
EVOLUTION OF THE MYTH OF EL DORADO
After the Cundinamarca plateau was conquered, the Spanish dredged Lake Guatavitá in search of the gold of El Dorado. Some gold was indeed found, but not as much as the Spanish had hoped for. Therefore, they reasoned optimistically, the Muisca must not be the true kingdom of El Dorado and it must still be out there somewhere.
Expeditions, composed of recent arrivals from Europe as well as veterans of the conquest, set out in all directions to search for it. The legend grew as illiterate conquistadors passed the legend by word of mouth from one to another: El Dorado was not merely one king, but a rich city made of gold, with enough wealth for a thousand men to become rich forever.
THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO
Between 1530 and 1650 or so, thousands of men made dozens of forays into the unmapped interior of South America. A typical expedition went something like this. In a Spanish coastal town on the South American mainland, such as Santa Marta or Coro, a charismatic, influential individual would announce an expedition. Anywhere from one hundred to seven hundred Europeans, mostly Spaniards would sign up, bringing their own armor, weapons, and horses (if you had a horse you got a larger share of the treasure).
The expedition would force natives along to carry the heavier gear, and some of the better-planned ones would bring livestock (usually hogs) to slaughter and eat along the way. Fighting dogs were always brought along, as they were useful when fighting bellicose natives. The leaders would often borrow heavily to purchase supplies.
After a couple of months, they were ready to go. The expedition would head off, seemingly in any direction. They would stay out for any length of time from a couple of months to as long as four years, searching plains, mountains, rivers, and jungles. They would meet natives along the way: these they would either torture or ply with gifts to get information about where they could find gold. Almost invariably, the natives pointed in some direction and said some variation of “our neighbors in that direction have the gold you seek.” The natives had quickly learned that the best way to be rid of these rude, violent men was to tell them what they wanted to hear and send them on their way.
Meanwhile, illnesses, desertion, and native attacks would whittle down the expedition. Nevertheless, the expeditions proved surprisingly resilient, braving mosquito-infested swamps, hordes of angry natives, blazing heat on the plains, flooded rivers, and frosty mountain passes. Eventually, when their numbers got too low (or when the leader died) the expedition would give up and return home.
THE SEEKERS OF EL DORADO
Over the years, many men searched South America for the legendary lost city of gold. At best, they were impromptu explorers, who treated the natives they encountered relatively fairly and helped map the unknown interior of South America. At worst, they were greedy, obsessed butchers who tortured their way through native populations, killing thousands in their fruitless quest. Here are some of the more distinguished seekers of El Dorado:
Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana: In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco Pizarro, led an expedition east from Quito. After a few months, he sent his lieutenant Francisco de Orellana in search of supplies: Orellana and his men instead found the Amazon River, which they followed to the Atlantic Ocean.
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada: Quesada set out from Santa Marta with 700 men in 1536: in early 1537 they reached the Cundinamarca plateau, home of the Muisca people, which they swiftly conquered. Quesada’s expedition was the one that actually found El Dorado, although the greedy conquistadors at the time refused to admit that the mediocre takings from the Muisca were the fulfillment of the legend and they kept looking.
Ambrosius Ehinger: Ehinger was a German: at the time, part of Venezuela was administered by Germans. He set out in 1529 and again in 1531 and led two of the cruelest expeditions: his men tortured natives and sacked their villages relentlessly. He was killed by natives in 1533 and his men went home.
Lope de Aguirre: Aguirre was a soldier on Pedro de Ursúa’s 1559 expedition which set out from Peru. Aguirre, a paranoid psychotic, soon turned the men against Ursúa, who was murdered. Aguirre eventually took over the expedition and began a reign of terror, ordering the murder of many of the original explorers and capturing and terrorizing the Island of Margarita. He was killed by Spanish soldiers.
Sir Walter Raleigh: this legendary Elizabethan courtier is remembered as the man who introduced potatoes and tobacco to Europe and for his sponsorship of the doomed Roanoke colony in Virginia. But he also was a seeker of El Dorado: he thought it was in the highlands of Guyana and made two trips there: one in 1595 and a second in 1617. After the failure of the second expedition, Raleigh was executed in England.
WHERE IS EL DORADO?
So, was El Dorado ever found? Sort of. The conquistadors followed tales of El Dorado to Cundinamarca but refused to believe that they had found the mythical city, so they kept looking. The Spanish didn’t know it, but the Muisca civilization was the last major native culture with any wealth. The El Dorado they searched for after 1537 did not exist. Still, they searched and searched: dozens of expeditions containing thousands of men scoured South America until about 1800 when Alexander Von Humboldt visited South America and concluded that El Dorado had been a myth all along.
Nowadays, you can find El Dorado on a map, although it’s not the one the Spanish were looking for. There are towns named El Dorado in several countries, including Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada. In the USA there are no fewer than thirteen towns named El Dorado (or Eldorado). Finding El Dorado is easier than ever…just don’t expect streets paved with gold.
The El Dorado legend has proven resilient. The notion of a lost city of gold and the desperate men who search for it is just too romantic for writers and artists to resist. Countless songs, stories books, and poems (including one by Edgar Allen Poe) have been written about the subject. There is even a superhero called El Dorado. Moviemakers, in particular, have been fascinated by the legend: as recently as 2010 a movie was made about a modern-day scholar who finds clues to the lost city of El Dorado: action and shootouts ensue.