El Dorado (pronounced [el do'?aðo], ; Spanish for "the golden one"), originally El Hombre Dorado ("The Golden Man") or El Rey Dorado ("The Golden King"), was the term used by the Spanish Empire to describe a mythical tribal chief (zipa) of the Muisca people, an indigenous people of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense of Colombia, who, as an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and submerged in Lake Guatavita. The legends surrounding El Dorado changed over time, as it went from being a man, to a city, to a kingdom, and then finally to an empire.
A second location for El Dorado was inferred from rumors, which inspired several unsuccessful expeditions in the late 1500s in search of a city called Manõa on the shores of Lake Parime. Two of the most famous of these expeditions were led by Sir Walter Raleigh. In pursuit of the legend, Spanish conquistadors and numerous others searched what is today Colombia, Venezuela, and parts of Guyana and northern Brazil, for the city and its fabulous king. In the course of these explorations, much of northern South America, including the Amazon River, was mapped. By the beginning of the 19th century, most people dismissed the existence of the city as a myth.
Several literary works have used the name in their titles, sometimes as "El Dorado", and other times as "Eldorado".
The Muisca occupied the highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá departments of Colombia in two migrations from outlying lowland areas, one starting c. 1270 BCE, and a second between 800 BCE and 500 BCE. At those times, other more ancient civilizations also flourished in the highlands. The Muisca Confederation was as advanced as the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations.
In the mythology of the Muisca, Mnya the Gold or golden color, represents the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constitutes the creative power of everything that exists. Chiminigagua is related to Bachué, Cuza, Chibchacum, Bochica, and Nencatacoa.
The original narrative can be found in the rambling chronicle El Carnero of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the zipa of the Muisca, in a ritual at Lake Guatavita near present-day Bogotá, was said to be covered with gold dust, which he then washed off in the lake while his attendants threw objects made of gold, emeralds, and precious stones into the lake - such as tunjos.
The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler. Before taking office, he spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives, and also resin and many other perfumes. The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns. ... As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day.
At this time, they stripped the heir to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They placed him on the raft ... and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold. They, too, were naked, and each one carried his offering ... when the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence.
The gilded Indian then ... [threw] out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. ... After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognised as lord and king.
This is the ceremony that became the famous El Dorado, which has taken so many lives and fortunes.
There is also an account, titled The Quest of El Dorado, by poet-priest and historian of the Conquest Juan de Castellanos, who had served under Jiménez de Quesada in his campaign against the Muisca, written in the mid-16th century but not published until 1850:
An alien Indian, hailing from afar,
Who in the town of Quito did abide.
And neighbor claimed to be of Bogata,
There having come, I know not by what way,
Did with him speak and solemnly announce
A country rich in emeralds and gold.
Also, among the things which them engaged,
A certain king he told of who, disrobed,
Upon a lake was wont, aboard a raft,
To make oblations, as himself had seen,
His regal form overspread with fragrant oil
On which was laid a coat of powdered gold
From sole of foot unto his highest brow,
Resplendent as the beaming of the sun.
Arrivals without end, he further said,
Were there to make rich votive offerings
Of golden trinkets and of emeralds rare
And divers other of their ornaments;
And worthy credence these things he affirmed;
The soldiers, light of heart and well content,
Then dubbed him El Dorado, and the name
By countless ways was spread throughout the world.
According to Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557):
He went about all covered with powdered gold, as casually as if it were powdered salt. For it seemed to him that to wear any other finery was less beautiful, and that to put on ornaments or arms made of gold worked by hammering, stamping, or by other means, was a vulgar and common thing.
In the Muisca territories, there were a number of natural locations considered sacred, including lakes, rivers, forests and large rocks. People gathered here to perform rituals and sacrifices mostly with gold and emeralds. Important lakes were Lake Guatavita, Lake Iguaque, Lake Fúquene, Lake Tota, the Siecha Lakes, Lake Teusacá and Lake Ubaque.
El Dorado is applied to a legendary story in which precious stones were found in fabulous abundance along with gold coins. The concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of a legendary lost city. The resulting El Dorado myth enticed European explorers for two centuries. Among the earliest stories was the one told on his deathbed by Juan Martinez, a captain of munitions for Spanish adventurer Diego de Ordaz, who claimed to have visited the city of Manoa. Martinez had allowed a store of gunpowder to catch fire and was condemned to death, however his friends let him escape downriver in a canoe. Martinez then met with some local people who took him to the city:
The canoa [sic] was carried down the stream, and certain of the Guianians met it the same evening; and, having not at any time seen any Christian nor any man of that colour, they carried Martinez into the land to be wondered at, and so from town to town, until he came to the great city of Manoa, the seat and residence of Inga the emperor. The emperor, after he had beheld him, knew him to be a Christian, and caused him to be lodged in his palace, and well entertained. He was brought thither all the way blindfold, led by the Indians, until he came to the entrance of Manoa itself, and was fourteen or fifteen days in the passage. He avowed at his death that he entered the city at noon, and then they uncovered his face; and that he traveled all that day till night through the city, and the next day from sun rising to sun setting, ere he came to the palace of Inga. After that Martinez had lived seven months in Manoa, and began to understand the language of the country, Inga asked him whether he desired to return into his own country, or would willingly abide with him. But Martinez, not desirous to stay, obtained the favour of Inga to depart.
The fable of Juan Martinez was founded on the adventures of Juan Martin de Albujar, well known to the Spanish historians of the Conquest; and who, in the expedition of Pedro de Silva (1570), fell into the hands of the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans, still fascinated by the New World, believed that a hidden city of immense wealth existed. Numerous expeditions were mounted to search for this treasure, all of which ended in failure. The illustration of El Dorado's location on maps only made matters worse, as it made some people think that the city of El Dorado's existence had been confirmed. The mythical city of El Dorado on Lake Parime was marked on numerous maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin America expedition (1799-1804).
Meanwhile, the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to El Dorado County, California, and to towns and cities in various states. It has also been anglicized to the single word Eldorado, and is sometimes used in product titles to suggest great wealth and fortune, such as the Cadillac Eldorado line of luxury automobiles.
El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or "Holy Grail" that one might spend one's life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success. It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or, at least, may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "El Dorado." In this context, El Dorado bears similarity to other myths such as the Fountain of Youth and Shangri-la. The other side of the ideal quest metaphor may be represented by Helldorado, a satirical nickname given to Tombstone, Arizona (United States) in the 1880s by a disgruntled miner who complained that many of his profession had traveled far to find El Dorado, only to wind up washing dishes in restaurants. The South African city Johannesburg is commonly interpreted as a modern-day El Dorado, due to the extremely large gold deposit found along the Witwatersrand on which it is situated.
Spanish conquistadores had noticed the native people's fine artifacts of gold and silver long before any legend of "golden men" or "lost cities" had appeared. The prevalence of such valuable artifacts, and the natives' apparent ignorance of their value, inspired speculation as to a plentiful source for them.
Prior to the time of the Spanish conquest of the Muisca and discovery of Lake Guatavita, a handful of expeditions had set out to explore the lowlands to the east of the Andes in search of gold, cinnamon, precious stones, and anything else of value. During the Klein-Venedig period in Venezuela (1528-1546), agents of the German Welser banking family (which had received a concession from Charles I of Spain) launched repeated expeditions into the interior of the country in search of gold, starting with Ambrosius Ehinger's first expedition in July 1529.
Spanish explorer Diego de Ordaz, then governor of the eastern part of Venezuela known as Paria (named after Paria Peninsula), was the first European to explore the Orinoco river in 1531-32 in search of gold. A veteran of Hernán Cortés's campaign in Mexico, Ordaz followed the Orinoco beyond the mouth of the Meta River but was blocked by the rapids at Atures. After his return he died, possibly poisoned, on a voyage back to Spain. After the death of Ordaz while returning from his expedition, the Crown appointed a new Governor of Paria, Jerónimo de Ortal, who diligently explored the interior along the Meta River between 1532 and 1537. In 1535, he ordered captain Alonso de Herrera to move inland by the waters of the Uyapari River (today the town of Barrancas del Orinoco). Herrera, who had accompanied Ordaz three years before, explored the Meta River but was killed by the indigenous Achagua near its banks, while waiting out the winter rains in Casanare.
The earliest reference to an El Dorado-like kingdom occurred in 1531 during Ordaz's expedition when he was told of a kingdom called Meta that was said to exist beyond a mountain on the left bank of the Orinoco River. Meta was supposedly abundant in gold and ruled by chief that only had one intact eye .
Between 1531 and 1538, the German conquistadors Nikolaus Federmann and Georg von Speyer searched the Venezuelan lowlands, Colombian plateaus, Orinoco Basin and Llanos Orientales for El Dorado. Subsequently, Philipp von Hutten accompanied Von Speyer on a journey (1536-38) in which they reached the headwaters of the Rio Japura, near the equator. In 1541 Hutten led an exploring party of about 150 men, mostly horsemen, from Coro on the coast of Venezuela in search of the Golden City. After several years of wandering, harassed by the natives and weakened by hunger and fever, he crossed the Rio Bermejo, and went on with a small group of around 40 men on horseback into Los Llanos, where they engaged in battle with a large number of Omaguas and Hutten was severely wounded. He led those of his followers who survived back to Coro in 1546. On Hutten's return, he and a traveling companion, Bartholomeus VI. Welser, were executed in El Tocuyo by the Spanish authorities.
In 1535, Sebastian de Benalcazar, a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro, interrogated an Indian that had been captured at Quito. Luis Daza recorded that the Indian was a warrior while Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas wrote that the Indian was an ambassador who had come to request military assistance from the Inca, unaware that they had already been conquered. The Indian told Benalcazar that he was from a kingdom of riches known as Cundinamarca far to the north where a Zaque, or chief, covered himself in gold dust during ceremonies. Benalcazar set out to find the chief the Spaniards came to know as El Dorado but failed to do so and eventually joined up with Federmann and Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and returned to Spain. It has been speculated that the land of wealth spoken of by the Indian was Arma, a kingdom whose inhabitants wore gold ornaments, which was eventually conquered by Pedro Cieza de Leon.
In 1536 Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda had led an expedition to the lowlands to the east of Quito and had found cinnamon trees but no rich empire.
In 1536, stories of El Dorado drew the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men away from their mission to find an overland route to Peru and up into the Andean homeland of the Muisca for the first time. The southern Muisca settlements and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadors in 1537 and 1538. On the Bogotá savanna, Quesada received reports from captured natives about a kingdom called Metza whose inhabitants built a temple dedicated to the sun and "keep in it an infinite quantity of gold and jewels, and live in stone houses, go about dressed and booted, and fight with lances and maces". Quesada believed this might have been El Dorado and decided to postpone his return to Santa Marta and continue his expedition for another year.  After his brother Gonzalo had left for Spain in May 1539, Spanish conquistador Hernán Pérez de Quesada set out a new expedition in September 1540, leaving with 270 Spanish soldiers and countless indigenous porters to explore the Llanos Orientales. One of his main captains on this journey was Baltasar Maldonado. Their expedition was unsuccessful and after reaching Quito, the troops returned to Santafe de Bogotá.
In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who toppled the Incan Empire in Peru, was made the governor of the province of Quito in northern Ecuador. Shortly after taking lead in Quito, Gonzalo learned from many of the natives of a valley far to the east rich in both cinnamon and gold. He banded together 340 soldiers and about 4000 natives in 1541 and led them eastward down the Rio Coca and Rio Napo. Francisco de Orellana accompanied Pizarro on the expedition as his lieutenant. Gonzalo quit after many of the soldiers and natives had died from hunger, disease, and periodic attacks by hostile natives. He ordered Orellana to continue downstream, where he eventually made it to the Atlantic Ocean. The expedition found neither cinnamon nor gold, but Orellana is credited with discovering the Amazon River (so named because of a tribe of female warriors that attacked Orellana's men while on their voyage).
In 1560, Basque conquistadors Pedro de Ursúa and Lope de Aguirre journeyed down the Marañón and Amazon Rivers, in search of El Dorado, with 300 Spaniards and hundreds of natives; the actual goal of Ursúa was to send idle veterans from the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire away, to keep them from trouble-making, using the El Dorado myth as a lure. A year later, Aguirre participated in the overthrow and killing of Ursúa and his successor, Fernando de Guzmán, whom he ultimately succeeded. He and his men reached the Atlantic (probably by the Orinoco River), destroying native villages of Margarita island and actual Venezuela. In 1561 Aguirre's expedition ended with his death in Barquisimeto, and in the years since then he has been treated by historians as a symbol of cruelty and treachery in the early history of colonial Spanish America.
While the existence of a sacred lake in the Eastern Ranges of the Andes, associated with Indian rituals involving gold, was known to the Spaniards possibly as early as 1531, its location was only discovered in 1537 by conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada while on an expedition to the highlands of the Eastern Ranges of the Andes in search of gold.
Conquistadores Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada attempted (unsuccessfully) to drain the lake in 1545 using a "bucket chain" of labourers. After 3 months, the water level had been reduced by 3 metres, and only a small amount of gold was recovered, with a value of 3000-4000 pesos (approx. US$100,000 today; a peso or piece of eight of the 15th century weighs 0.88 oz of 93% pure silver).
A later more industrious attempt was made in 1580, by Bogotá business entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda. A notch was cut deep into the rim of the lake, which managed to reduce the water level by 20 metres, before collapsing and killing many of the labourers. A share of the findings--consisting of various golden ornaments, jewellery and armour--was sent to King Philip II of Spain. Sepúlveda's discovery came to approximately 12,000 pesos. He died a poor man, and is buried at the church in the small town of Guatavita.
In 1801, Alexander von Humboldt made a visit to Guatavita, and on his return to Paris, calculated from the findings of Sepúlveda's efforts that Guatavita could offer up as much as $300 million worth of gold.
In 1898, the Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita was formed and taken over by Contractors Ltd. of London, in a deal brokered by British expatriate Hartley Knowles. The lake was drained by a tunnel that emerged in the centre of the lake. The water was drained to a depth of about 4 feet of mud and slime. This made it impossible to explore, and when the mud had dried in the sun, it had set like concrete. Artifacts worth only about £500 were found, and auctioned at Sotheby's of London. Some of these were donated to the British Museum. The company filed for bankruptcy and ceased activities in 1929.
The Spanish Governor of Trinidad, Antonio de Berrio (nephew of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada), made three failed expeditions to look for El Dorado. Between 1583 and 1589 he carried out his first two expeditions, going through the wild regions of the Colombian plains and the Upper Orinoco. In 1590 he began his third expedition, ascending the Orinoco to reach the Caroní River with his own expeditionaries and another 470 men under command of Domingo de Vera. In March 1591, while he was waiting for supplies on Margarita Island, his entire force was taken captive by Walter Raleigh, who proceeded up the Orinoco in search of El Dorado, with Berrio as a guide. Berrio took them to the territories he had previously explored by himself years before. After several months Raleigh's expedition returned to Trinidad, and he released Berrio at the end of June 1595 on the coast of Cumaná in exchange for some English prisoners. His son Fernando de Berrío y Oruña (1577-1622) also made numerous expeditions in search of El Dorado.
Walter Raleigh's 1595 journey with Antonio de Berrio had aimed to reach Lake Parime in the highlands of Guyana (the supposed location of El Dorado at the time). He was encouraged by the account of Juan Martinez, believed to be Juan Martin de Albujar, who had taken part in Pedro de Silva's expedition of the area in 1570, only to fall into the hands of the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco. Martinez claimed that he was taken to the golden city in blindfold, was entertained by the natives, and then left the city and couldn't remember how to return. Raleigh had set many goals for his expedition, and believed he had a genuine chance at finding the so-called city of gold. First, he wanted to find the mythical city of El Dorado, which he suspected to be an actual Indian city named Manõa. Second, he hoped to establish an English presence in the Southern Hemisphere that could compete with that of the Spanish. His third goal was to create an English settlement in the land called Guyana, and to try to reduce commerce between the natives and Spaniards.
In 1596 Raleigh sent his lieutenant, Lawrence Kemys, back to Guyana in the area of the Orinoco River, to gather more information about the lake and the golden city. During his exploration of the coast between the Amazon and the Orinoco, Kemys mapped the location of Amerindian tribes and prepared geographical, geological and botanical reports of the country. Kemys described the coast of Guiana in detail in his Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana (1596) and wrote that indigenous people of Guiana traveled inland by canoe and land passages towards a large body of water on the shores of which he supposed was located Manoa, Golden City of El Dorado.
Though Raleigh never found El Dorado, he was convinced that there was some fantastic city whose riches could be discovered. Finding gold on the riverbanks and in villages only strengthened his resolve. In 1617, he returned to the New World on a second expedition, this time with Kemys and his son, Watt Raleigh, to continue his quest for El Dorado. However, Raleigh, by now an old man, stayed behind in a camp on the island of Trinidad. Watt Raleigh was killed in a battle with Spaniards and Kemys subsequently committed suicide. Upon Raleigh's return to England, King James ordered him to be beheaded for disobeying orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish. He was executed in 1618.
In early 1611 Sir Thomas Roe, on a mission to the West Indies for Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, sailed his 200-ton ship, the Lion's Claw, some 320 kilometres (200 mi) up the Amazon, then took a party of canoes up the Waipoco (probably the Oyapock River) in search of Lake Parime, negotiating thirty-two rapids and traveling about 160 km (100 mi) before they ran out of food and had to turn back.
In 1637-38, two monks, Acana and Fritz, undertook several journeys to the lands of the Manoas, indigenous peoples living in western Guyana and what is now Roraima in northeastern Brazil. Although they found no evidence of El Dorado, their published accounts were intended to inspire further exploration.
In November 1739, Nicholas Horstman, a German surgeon commissioned by the Dutch Governor of Guiana, traveled up the Essequibo River accompanied by two Dutch soldiers and four Indian guides. In April 1741 one of the Indian guides returned reporting that in 1740 Horstman had crossed over to the Rio Branco and descended it to its confluence with the Rio Negro. Horstman discovered Lake Amucu on the North Rupununi but found neither gold nor any evidence of a city.
In 1740, Don Manuel Centurion, Governor of Santo Tomé de Guayana de Angostura del Orinoco in Venezuela, hearing a report from an Indian about Lake Parima, embarked on a journey up the Caura River and the Paragua River, causing the deaths of several hundred persons. His survey of the local geography, however, provided the basis for other expeditions starting in 1775.
From 1775 to 1780, Nicholas Rodriguez and Antonio Santos, two entrepreneurs employed by the Spanish Governors, set out on foot and Santos, proceeding by the Caroní River, the Paragua River, and the Pacaraima Mountains, reached the Uraricoera River and Rio Branco, but found nothing.
Between 1799 and 1804, Alexander von Humboldt conducted an extensive and scientific survey of the Guyana river basins and lakes, concluding that a seasonally-flooded confluence of rivers may be what inspired the notion of a mythical Lake Parime, and of the supposed golden city on the shore, nothing was found. Further exploration by Charles Waterton (1812) and Robert Schomburgk (1840) confirmed Humboldt's findings.
By the mid-1570s, the Spanish silver strike at Potosí in Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) was producing unprecedented real wealth.
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died, bringing to an end the era of Elizabethan adventurism. A bit later, in 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, the great inspirer, was beheaded for insubordination and treason.
In 1695, bandeirantes in the south struck gold along a tributary of the São Francisco River in the highlands of State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The prospect of real gold overshadowed the illusory promise of "gold men" and "lost cities" in the vast interior of the north.
In 1987-1988, an expedition led by John Hemming of the Royal Geographical Society of London failed to uncover any evidence of the ancient city of Manoa on the island of Maracá in north-central Roraima. Members of the expedition were accused of looting historic artifacts but an official report of the expedition described it as "an ecological survey."
Although it was dismissed in the 19th century as a myth, some evidence for the existence of a lake in northern Brazil has been uncovered. In 1977 Brazilian geologists Gert Woeltje and Frederico Guimarães Cruz along with Roland Stevenson, found that on all the surrounding hillsides a horizontal line appears at a uniform level approximately 120 metres (390 ft) above sea level. This line registers the water level of an extinct lake which existed until relatively recent times. Researchers who studied it found that the lake's previous diameter measured 400 kilometres (250 mi) and its area was about 80,000 square kilometres (31,000 sq mi). About 700 years ago this giant lake began to drain due to tectonic movement. In June 1690, a massive earthquake opened a bedrock fault, forming a rift or a graben that permitted the water to flow into the Rio Branco. By the early 19th century it had dried up completely.
Roraima's well-known Pedra Pintada is the site of numerous pictographs dating to the pre-Columbian era. Designs on the sheer exterior face of the rock were most likely painted by people standing in canoes on the surface of the now-vanished lake. Gold, which was reported to be washed up on the shores of the lake, was most likely carried by streams and rivers out of the mountains where it can be found today.
Voltaire's 1759 satire Candide describes a place called El Dorado, a geographically isolated utopia where the streets are covered with precious stones, there exist no priests, and all of the king's jokes are funny.