Search for El Dorado The Lost City of Gold: History of the Search Part 2

About the search for the lost city of Gold known as El Dorado in the land of the Incas and Aztecs, history and background of the search.

The Continuing Search for . . . El Dorado, the City of Gold

CLUES FOR THE HUNT: In 1502, Columbus-on his 4th and last expedition to America-reached Venezuela, so named because its coast looked to him like "an odd little Venice." He had been told that there was "a gold city 10 days from the Ganges." Since he still thought he was in India, he mistook the Orinoco River for the Ganges. Earlier, he momentarily thought he had found El Dorado in Haiti, where nuggets were the size of hen's eggs. In 1510 Balboa, already at the Pacific Ocean and not impossibly far from Cundinamarca, was contemptuously told by an Indian as he knocked a handful of ornaments out of Balboa's hand, "I can tell you of a land where they eat and drink out of golden vessels and gold is as cheap as iron is with you." Cortes, too, had been informed of this land by an Indian slave girl whom he baptized-and then used for 6 years as both translator and mistress. She had merely pointed in the direction of Bogota.

Sebastian de Benalcazar, conqueror of Nicaragua, betrayer of Pizarro (since he preferred treasure hunting to obeying orders), governor of Ecuador in Quito, was the 1st to hear the El Dorado story from an old Indian who had actually seen one of the last ceremonies at Lake Guatavita. The year was 1536. The Indian said Cundinamarca was a mere 12 days northward. It was, however, more than that.

THE SEARCH: So much gold had already been found in the New World that no one doubted that somewhere there was a whole kingdom of gold. Expeditions approached Cundinamarca by river and by jungle. In 1530 Cortes's comrade-in-arms, Diego de Ordas, sailed up the Meta River and found some other lake instead. Benalcazar set out in 1537 only to find Hernan de Quesada already on the plateau of Bogota. Quesada had arrived from the Caribbean coast. In 1541 Gonzalo Pizarro--younger brother of the more famous Pizarro-with a party of 200 Spaniards, 4,000 Indians, 5,000 pigs, 1,000 bloodhounds, and a herd of llamas crossed the Andes to get there. Half of his men were killed and his supplies were exhausted, but he reached El Dorado. So did the German Nicolaus Federmann. The latter came from Venezuela, where Walser, the banking firm, had originally sent him to investigate the newfound cure for syphilis made from cinchona bark or quinine water, a drink we associate more with malaria (or gin) than the pox. The journals left behind by these gold-crazed Europeans described harrowing experiences and sufferings . . . all for El Dorado.

The strongest and bravest reached the geographical El Dorado, but found no gold. The Chibchas bought their gold dust and trinkets from tribes in the lowlands. They had no mines of their own. But the search continued. As historian Walker Chapman put it: "The quest for El Dorado was an epic of human folly, really a case history in the power of man to bemuse himself with myth."

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