El Dorado, Legendary City of Gold

After Francisco Pizarro conquered and looted the mighty Inca Empire in the 1530s, adventurers and conquistadors from all over Europe flocked to the New World, hoping to be part of the next expedition. These men followed rumors of gold all across the unexplored interior of South America, many of them dying in the quest to plunder a rich American empire. They even had a name for the mythical city they were seeking: El Dorado, the city of gold. What are the true facts about this legendary city?

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The Grain of Truth in the Legend

A gold Muisca raft

young shanahan / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

When the phrase “El Dorado” was first used, it referred to an individual, not a city: in fact, El Dorado translates into “the gilded man.” In the highlands of present-day Colombia, the Muisca people had a tradition where their king would cover himself in gold dust and jump into Lake Guatavitá, from which he would emerge clean. Neighboring tribes knew of the practice and told the Spanish: thus was born the myth of “El Dorado.”

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El Dorado Was Discovered in 1537

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Muisca people were discovered in 1537 by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada: they were swiftly conquered and their cities looted. The Spanish knew the El Dorado legend and dredged Lake Guatavitá: they found some gold, but not very much, and the greedy conquistadors refused to believe that such a disappointing haul could be the "real" El Dorado. They, therefore, kept searching for it in vain for decades.

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It Didn’t Exist After 1537

Historical Map of Guyana

Hessel Gerritsz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

For the next two centuries, thousands of men would scour South America in search of El Dorado, or any other wealthy native empire like the Inca. Somewhere along the line, El Dorado stopped being an individual and began being a fabulous city of gold. Today we know that there were no more great civilizations to be found: the Inca were, by far, the most advanced and wealthy civilization anywhere in South America. The seekers of El Dorado found some gold here and there, but their quest to find the lost city of gold was doomed from the start.

The place where El Dorado was “supposed” to be kept changing, as one expedition after another failed to find it. At first, it was supposed to be in the north, somewhere in the Andean highlands. Then, once that area had been explored, it was believed to be in the foothills of the Andes to the east. Several expeditions failed to find it there. When searches of the Orinoco basin and Venezuelan plains failed to turn it up, the explorers thought it had to be in the mountains of Guyana. It even appeared in Guyana on maps printed in Europe.

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Sir Walter Raleigh Looked for El Dorado

Sir Walter Raleigh
Artist Unknown

Spain claimed most of South America and most of the seekers of El Dorado were Spanish, but there were some exceptions. Spain ceded part of Venezuela to the German Welser banking family in 1528, and some Germans who came to rule this land spent time searching for El Dorado. Notable among them were Ambrosius Ehinger, Georg Hohemut, Nicolaus Federmann, and Phillipp von Hutten.

The English got into the search as well, although they were never permitted to do so as the Germans were. Legendary courtier Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) made two trips to Guyana to look for El Dorado, which he also knew as Manoa. After failing to find it on his second trip, he was executed in England.

If good can be said to have come of the El Dorado myth, it is that it caused the interior of South America to be explored and mapped. The German explorers scoured the area of present-day Venezuela and even the psychotic Aguirre blazed a trail across the continent. The best example is Francisco de Orellana, who was part of a 1542 expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro. The expedition became divided, and while Pizarro went back to Quito, Orellana eventually discovered the Amazon River and followed it to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Lope de Aguirre was the Madman of El Dorado

Lope de Aguirre
Lope de Aguirre. Artist Unknown

Lope de Aguirre was unstable: everyone agreed on that. The man had once tracked down a judge that had ordered him whipped for abusing native workers: it took Aguirre three years to find him and kill him. Inexplicably, Pedro de Ursua selected Aguirre to accompany his 1559 expedition to find El Dorado. Once they were deep in the jungle, Aguirre took over the expedition, ordered the murder of dozens of his companions (including Pedro de Ursúa), declared himself and his men independent from Spain and began attacking Spanish settlements. "The Madman of El Dorado" was eventually killed by the Spanish.

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It Led to the Abuse of the Native Population

Diego Rivera mural
Mural by Diego Rivera.

Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Not much good came of the El Dorado myth. The expeditions were full of desperate, ruthless men who only wanted gold: they often attacked native populations, stealing their food, using the men as porters and torturing elders to get them to reveal where their gold was (whether they had any or not). The natives soon learned that the best way to get rid of these monsters was to tell them what they wanted to hear: El Dorado, they said, was just a little bit further away, just keep going that way and you’re sure to find it. The natives in the interior of South America soon hated the Spanish with a passion, enough so that when Sir Walter Raleigh explored the region, all he had to do was announce that he was an enemy of the Spanish and he quickly found the natives willing to help him however they could.

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It Lives On in Popular Culture

Engraved portrait of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Although no one is still looking for the fabled lost city, El Dorado has left its mark on popular culture. Many songs, books, movies and poems (including one by Edgar Allen Poe) have been produced about the lost city, and someone said to be "looking for El Dorado" is on a hopeless quest. The Cadillac Eldorado was a popular car, sold for nearly 50 years. Any number of resorts and hotels are named after it. The myth itself persists: in a high-budget movie from 2010, "El Dorado: Temple of the Sun," an adventurer finds a map that will lead him to the legendary lost city: shootouts, car chases, and Indiana Jones-style adventures ensue.

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Minster, Christopher. "El Dorado, Legendary City of Gold." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/facts-about-el-dorado-2136450. Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). El Dorado, Legendary City of Gold. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-el-dorado-2136450 Minster, Christopher. "El Dorado, Legendary City of Gold." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-el-dorado-2136450 (accessed March 31, 2023).