Every legend and folk tale has a sliver of truth.
When in the 14th Century Spanish conquistadors found (stole and killed for) gold among the peoples along the Northern coast of what is now Colombia they wanted more. The natives told them stories of a chieftain, deep in the Andes, that covered himself in gold and threw gold and jewels into a lake to appease the gods. They had no reason not to believe the tales. “El Dorado” – the gilded one – they started to call him.
But soon the legend blew out of proportion. As they pressed inward, greed in their eyes, the chieftain soon became a gilded city, and the city, a hidden golden empire. Because a taste of gold always ignites the desire for more. But the Spaniards didn’t find El Dorado.
No golden city or empire hid its glittering metallic riches deep in the mountain. But they did find Lake Guatavita.
The stories of the chieftain – a Muisca king, or zipa – were true. Whenever a new monarch rose to power, he would cover himself in gold dust, take a raft filled with riches into the middle of the lake and throw himself and the jewelry in. The ritual is famously depicted in the artistic gold votive the Muisca Raft, on display in the Gold Museum in Bogotá.
And so, the lake was drained (partially) by the Spaniards. Hundreds of Emeralds, gold pieces and ceramics were found and “recovered”. But the legend didn’t precisely die there. Magical El Dorado persisted and moved elsewhere, so Englishmen sought it in what is now Guanía, in the Amazon rainforest, in the 1600s. They had little luck.
And Guatavita remained, despite its profanation.
Lake Guatavita is unfortunately often confused nowadays with the Tominé reservoir: an 18 km long, artificial reservoir at the shores of which the current town of Guatavita resides. The reservoir was created to control Bogotá river’s overflowing and the original town of Guatavita had to be flooded.
The town had to move a couple hundred meters north-east and it was built to preserve the old colonial architecture, but with a couple modern touches. If you go to the southern edge of the reservoir, on a clear day, you can almost make out the ceilings of the old buildings beneath the waters. It is a little creepy and sad.
The reservoir is also known because it houses a couple nautical clubs. You can always see sailboats, rowboats and other smaller vessels. You could also go water skiing (or wakeboarding or even windsailing [haven’t seen]), but I recommend only doing it on a sunny day: the water is freezing.
I personally didn’t know Tominé and Guatavita were two separate bodies of water until I visited the latter. I always thought the El Dorado ritual happened in crazy-cold Tominé and that people still dove to find old, lost treasures among reeds right off the towns port. But, no.
Lake Guatavita is a little north-east of current New Guatavita. To see it you can drive – preferably – maybe some 10 minutes and then hike a little through what is now a natural park.
The lake is almost circular, and you could almost think it was a crater – as I thought the first time I saw it, hoping that some chunk of space had caused it. But it is more likely the lake resulted from the dissolution of underground salt deposits, creating a kind of sinkhole. The region is full of salt deposits. Boo salt.
Despite not being caused by dramatic space-rock impact, the lake is a sight to see. The almost unmoving waters make the lake a perfect blue mirror that contrasts the lush greens of the vegetation around. There a viewpoint that let you see the lake just right. It’s very contemplative. Enchanting.
No wonder it was a holy site.
It is likely there is still some gold in the bottom of the lake – unseen by the ravenous Spaniards that drained and combed it – but it is unlikely it will ever be drained again. Specially in search for gold. Maybe if you go close enough to the edge you can catch a glimmer of something underwater. Maybe. But people are prohibited from diving in (not that many haven’t).
I would settle with the lake’s natural beauty: unforgettable. For everything else there are plastic cards, like in the ads.