The Myth of the Lost City of El Dorado


Diya Poojary and Ashley Turek

Lost cities. For hundreds or thousands of years, people have always been enchanted by stories of lost cities hidden deep in jungles or oceans, guarding untold riches of wealth and wisdom and whatsoever. In fact, they were used in poems and novels and have become one of the most used archetypes in fictional writing today!


The Tibetan city of Shangri-La, the underwater city of Atlantis, the mysterious lost City of Z, the mythical Norse island Thule… and the list continues. Most mythological tales tell of magical places or homelands, often connecting the people to historical or religious beliefs. 


But perhaps the most famous myth is of the golden city of El Dorado. Well, it was more of a fact that everyone wanted to, or rather did, believe. El Dorado seemed to spark a very influential belief that made crusaders adventure with hopes of finding it. Although they knew that the chances of finding it were likely gonna be a failure, moreover dangerous, but the disappearances of the explorers only encouraged more and more to venture, until of course, like all humans, they too lost faith and hope. Typical.


Like all legends, everything needs a backstory. This one traces all the way back to circa 1536, in an area now considered a part of present-day Colombia. It was home to the people of the Muisca tribes, who were first discovered to “actually exist” by the Spanish conquistadors.


The legend, however, was inspired by the ancient traditions followed by the Muisca people, called the ‘El Hombre Dorado, literally translating to ‘The Golden Man’ or ‘The Gilded Man’.


In honor of the new zipa or the main Muisca chief, the newly crowned man would be covered completely in gold dust, “as if it were salt.” He would then jump into the nearby Lake Guatavita, washing off the gold as an offering to the Moon Goddess, Chía. Along with this generous gift were tons of valuable trinkets, jewels, and other artifacts (including gold, of course) that were dumped into the lake.


Now, THIS attracted great attention and interest from the Spanish conquistadors. They believed that the local tribes had more gold than imaginable because the Muisca people did not assign the same value to gold as the Spanish did. People started assuming that the Muisca people had hidden away the rest of their gold in another city, hidden deep in the lush jungles of South America.


As the myth of the lost city of El Dorado began to spread, many people began searching for it… Because it’s worth an extreme amount of fortune. Of course, this was between 1530 and 1650, so people didn’t know better, they just wanted the riches. There were even attempts to drain Lake Guatavita using a bucket and shovel in hopes to draw out the gold that had been sacrificed during the traditional ceremony of the new zipa. But they did acquire about $300,000 worth of gold in modern-day currency, so that’s nothing to probably laugh at. 


Another famous example is of the English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh who went on two expeditions to search for the city of El Dorado. On his second trip, he took his son Watt Raleigh on his expedition up the Orinoco River but failed miserably when running into a battle with Spaniards… And his son ended up dying, sadly. And Raleigh was later executed. Tragic ends.


You might now be wondering how people knew where to find this city. There were various ideas, and one was in the form of a poem. Edgar Allan Poe offers a motivational plan on how to find The Lost City of Gold, in a well-known verse of his POEtry (get the joke?) by traveling “Over the Mountains of the Moon, Down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride… if you seek for El Dorado.” 


However, this was just a poem suggesting a bold voyage. Individuals tried various methods to reach El Dorado (including this one) but failed horribly. This often resulted in people dying due to extreme conditions of the journey. But it never stopped them.


The Spanish government had a plan for when they eventually found these riches, they would extract the gold, then melt it down and compact it. This way, it could be shipped back to Europe. 


And in this part of the story, we actually have some entertaining piece of stupidity. During the expeditions to hunt out the “hidden” gold, the Spanish conquistadors found a valuable and scarce metal, platinum. They called it “unripe silver”. Since it was so rare, the conquistadors didn’t know about it. I mean, what did you expect? But here’s the best part. During a financial crisis faced by the government, where people complained about the counterfeit platinum coins being used, the Spanish government DUMPED all the platinum into the ocean, just because it wasn’t yellow… Little did they know that it was more valuable than gold.


In the end, these conquistadors found out the hard way that the idea of a city made out of gold called El Dorado was not real. As much as they wanted it to be, by the 1800s, El Dorado was (disappointingly) accepted only to be a myth. However, fictional writers kept the stories alive by using it as a popular archetype in plot schemes, a.k.a “…lost cities with hidden treasures.” The legend of El Dorado continues to fascinate people, and will always do so.