Where is El Dorado?:
El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold, was a beacon for thousands of explorers and gold-seekers
for centuries. Desperate men from all over the world came to South America in the vain hope of finding the city of El Dorado
and many lost their lives in the harsh plains, steamy jungles and frosty mountains of the dark, unexplored interior of the continent. Although many men claimed to know where it was, El Dorado has never been found…or has it? Where is El Dorado?
The Legend of El Dorado:
The legend of El Dorado got its start around 1535 or so, when Spanish conquistadors began hearing rumors coming out of the unexplored northern Andes Mountains. The rumors said that there was a king who covered himself with gold dust before jumping into a lake as part of a ritual. Conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar
is credited with being the first to use the term "El Dorado," which literally translates to "the gilded man." At once, greedy conquistadors set out in search of this kingdom.
The Real El Dorado:
In 1537, a group of conquistadors under Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada
discovered the Muisca people living on the Cundinamarca plateau in present-day Colombia. This was the culture of legend whose kings covered themselves with gold before jumping into Lake Guatavitá. The Muisca were conquered and the lake was dredged. Some gold was recovered, but not very much: the greedy conquistadors refused to believe that the meager pickings from the lake represented the "real" El Dorado and vowed to keep searching. They would never find it, and the best answer, historically speaking, to the question of the location of El Dorado remains Lake Guatavitá.
The Eastern Andes:
The central and northern parts of the Andes Mountains having been explored and no El Dorado found, the location of the legendary city changed: now it was believed to be east of the Andes, in the eastern foothills. Dozens of expeditions set out from coastal towns like Santa Marta and Coro and highland settlements like Quito. Notable explorers included Ambrosius Ehinger
and Phillipp von Hutten
. One expedition set out from Quito, led by Gonzalo Pizarro. Pizarro turned back, but his lieutenant Francisco de Orellana
kept going east, discovered the Amazon River
and followed it to the Atlantic Ocean.
Manoa and the Highlands of Guyana:
A Spaniard named Juan Martín de Albujar was captured and held for a time by natives: he claimed to have been given gold and taken to a city named Manoa where a rich and powerful "Inca" ruled. By now, the eastern Andes had been fairly well explored and the largest unknown space that remained was the mountains of Guyana in northeast South America. Explorers conceived of a great kingdom there which had split off from the mighty (and rich) Inca of Peru. It was alleged that the city of El Dorado - now often called Manoa as well - was on the shores of a great lake named Parima. Many men tried to make it to the lake and the city during the period from about 1580-1750: the greatest of these seekers was Sir Walter Raleigh
, who made a trip there in 1595
and a second one in 1617
: he found nothing but died believing that the city was there, just out of reach.
Von Humboldt and Bonpland:
As explorers reached every corner of South America, the space available for a large, wealthy city like El Dorado to hide became smaller and smaller and people gradually became convinced that El Dorado had been nothing but a myth to begin with. Still, as late as 1772 expeditions were still outfitted and set out with the purpose of finding, conquering and occupying Manoa/El Dorado. It took two rational minds to truly kill the myth: Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt
and French botanist Aimé Bonpland. After securing permission from the King of Spain, the two men spent five years in the Spanish Americas, engaged in an unprecedented scientific study. Humboldt and Bonpland searched for El Dorado and the lake where it was supposed to be, but found nothing and concluded that El Dorado had been a myth from the start. This time, most of Europe agreed with them.
The Persistent Myth of El Dorado:
Although only a handful of crackpots still believe in the legendary lost city, the legend has made its way into popular culture. Many books, stories, songs and films have been made about El Dorado. In particular, it has been a popular subject of films: as recently as 2010 a Hollywood movie was made in which a dedicated, modern-day researcher follows ancient clues to a remote corner of South America where he locates the legendary city of El Dorado…just in time to save the girl and engage in a shoot-out with the bad guys, of course. As a reality, El Dorado was a dud, never existing except in the fevered minds of gold-crazy conquistadors. As a cultural phenomenon, however, El Dorado has contributed much to popular culture.
Where is El Dorado?:
There are several ways to answer this age old question. Practically speaking, the best answer is nowhere: the city of gold never existed. Historically, the best answer is Lake Guatavitá, near the Colombian city of Bogotá.
Anyone looking for El Dorado today probably doesn't have to go far, as there are towns named El Dorado (or Eldorado) all over the world. There is an Eldorado in Venezuela, one in Mexico, one in Argentina, two in Canada and there is an Eldorado province in Peru. El Dorado International Airport is located in Colombia. But by far the place with the most Eldorados is the USA. At least thirteen states have a town named Eldorado. El Dorado County is in California, and Eldorado Canyon State Park is a favorite of rock climbers in Colorado.
Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.