Was El Dorado a real place?

Spanish Conquistadors

El Dorado is a name that evokes limitless riches and wealth. The tales about this fabulous city of gold inspired countless expeditions, that often had tragic consequences. Furthermore, the story of the fabulously wealthy city was to play a very important role in the history of Latin America. Those who sought the fabled place helped to explore the continent and even destroyed native civilizations.

Moreover, the name El Dorado has entered popular culture and the story has inspired countless movies and books. The question arises, was the story of El Dorado based on a real place, lost in the jungle, that was part of some undiscovered civilization. This article will argue that there was a historical basis for the story of the fabled city of gold.

What was El Dorado?

A Muisca gold representation of a coronation ritual

The kernel of the story of El Dorado is as follows. It was a lost city of gold, people by an Amerindian population, in the midst of a remote jungle. The city was part of a sophisticated culture, that was fabulously wealthy in precious metals and gems. Soon after Columbus's arrival in the Americas in AD 1492, the Spanish Conquistadors were able to conquer two great Empires, the Aztecs, and Inca and many smaller kingdoms. They seized huge quantities of gold and other precious metals.

The Spanish, despite their wealth, had an endless thirst for gold. Not even the conquest of the wealthy Inca and Aztec Empires satisfied the Europeans. For many decades the Conquistadors continued to look for Amerindian communities to subdue, enslave and to take their gold.

In the late 16th century, stories emerged about a city in the heart of the jungle, and it became popularly known as El Dorado. The tale inspired many men to risk their lives in the search for the fabled city. There were many attempts to find El Dorado, all unsuccessful.[1] The first known expedition to find the lost city was led by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada in the late 1530s. He explored the areas dominated by the Musica people and seized vast qualities of gold. Some say that these Conquistadors did much to spread the story of El Dorado.

In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana went in search of the city and traveled deep into the jungle and they were the first Europeans to explore the Amazon River, but they found no gold or city. Many of the members of this expedition died from attacks by natives and of disease. In 1560 two Conquistadors Pedro de Ursúa and Lope de Aguirre set out to find the city. Aguirre killed de Ursúa and took sole control of the mission. He possibly went mad and he and his men committed many atrocities.

However, they did manage to travel down the Orinoco River and made it all the way to the Atlantic, which was first. Aguirre later tried to make himself a king but was eventually killed. A film was made based on his life by Werner Herzog ‘Aguirre the Wrath of God’ (1972). There were a number of other Spanish expeditions and even a German mission to find El Dorado, but they ended in disaster and the death of many explorers.

The great English sailor Sir Walter Raleigh heard the story of El Dorado and launched two missions to find the fabled city and its immense riches. During these, he fought with both the Spanish and the native tribes and lost many men. The English King James I had ordered Raleigh not to go on his second expedition because it was putting a peace treaty with Madrid in jeopardy.[2] When Raleigh returned to England he was incarcerated in the Tower of London and executed.

The expeditions to find El Dorado played a very important role in the exploration of South America, but they often had devastating consequences for native peoples. The explorers massacred many, burnt their village and spread lethal diseases. By the 18th century, many began to doubt the story of El Dorado. However, some continued to risk their lives in the jungles to find the fabled place, in the hope of becoming fabulously rich. Even today there are still those who hope to find the site of the city, which by now would be in ruins.[3] For example, an Italian researcher has investigated an area in remote Peru, in the hope of finding El Dorado. However, no evidence for the existence of the fabled place exists and it remains a mystery.

The gold man of the Musica

A 16th century map showing El Dorado

The Musica tribe are regarded as one of the greatest pre-Columbian cultures on a par with the Maya and Incan. They inhabited an area in what is now modern Columbia from at least 1200 B.C and they developed a very sophisticated series of states and a confederation of states. They became very rich through trade and they especially valued gold which they believed had magical powers.

It is believed that the story of El Dorado was inspired by the tales and the rituals of the Musica. When a new king was crowned he had to undergo, a series of rituals. In one ceremony the newly appointed king was taken to Lake Guatavita, which was sacred to the Musica.[4] He would be covered in gold dust and placed on a raft with a treasure trove of gems and other valuables. In the center of the lake, the king would wash the gold dust from his naked body and throw valuables into the Lake, as a sacrifice to a deity.

During this time, the new King was known as the ‘Golden One’ or ‘Gilded Man’. This was apparently mistranslated by the Spanish and as a result, the phrase El Dorado gained common currency. Lake Guatavita, because of the many sacrifices, was believed by the Conquistadors to hold a great deal of treasure and possibly inspired the story of a fabled city. In the 1540s, some Spanish adventurers tried to drain the lake in order to seize all its gold and other valuables. However, they only recovered a small amount of precious metal. Later attempts also failed. However, modern archaeologists have managed to recover some amazing golden artifacts from the lake, including one that seems to portray the ritual with the king on the raft that may have inspired the stories of El Dorado.[5]

Civilizations in the Amazon

Many people in the 18th and 19th century mocked the idea of a lost city that was fabulously wealthy in the inhospitable and wild jungles of South America.[6] Some believed that this was not the case such as the British adventurer Percy Fawcett. His expedition to discover a legendary city in the heart of the Amazon was lost and it inspired the movie ‘Lost City of Z’ (2015).

However, modern archaeologists, using advanced technology has made some astonishing discoveries about the Amazon basin, which have forced experts to rewrite the history books. Using satellite imagery and other technologies they have identified a large number of settlements. Many of them now are little more than large earth mounds. Before the arrivals of the Spanish and the Portuguese, these settlements were once home to a large population, especially from 1200-1500 AD. Archaeologists have unearthed some of these mounds and they have found evidence of pottery and other artifacts. It appears that they were once large fortified settlements.

Researchers have found dozens of these habitations, especially in Brazil, and there are probably many more. It is possible that diseases brought by the Europeans led to the collapse of these societies. Previously researchers believed that the Amazon could not support a large population, because of the lack of resources and especially arable land. However, the people who lived in the Amazon before the arrival of Europeans were very sophisticated and they even built a network of roads in what is today near-impenetrable forest.[7]

Archaeologists have found evidence that the people created a system of gardens, which allowed them to grow food in the heart of the Jungle. Moreover, they have also found evidence of fish-farming. It has been estimated based on the dimensions of the settlements that they could be home to thousands of people. Not all of the Amazon is not pristine virgin forest and is an environment that was much influenced by human activity, for millennia. It is believed that these cultures went into decline when diseases brought by the Europeans, caused the population to collapse. It is believed that the original inhabitants of these settlements or ‘cities’ are the ancestors of the tribal people who now live in the jungle.[8] Moreover, the Amazon jungle has many deposits of gold. The stories of the settlements in the jungle and gold mines may have played a crucial role in the development of the legend of El Dorado. Indeed, one of these jungle cities could have been the model for the Lost City.

Lake Parime

One possible origin of the El Dorado is the story of Lake Parime. This was a legendary lake reputedly to be found in what is now the uplands of Guyana.[9] There have been a number of attempts to locate the lake. In the stories about El Dorado, the city is on the shores of this lake. Indeed, during the Renaissance, the city was shown on the shores of the Lake on many maps. Walter Raleigh in his expedition to find the fabled city, sought out the body of water.[10]

For many years the Lake was seen as only a myth and pure invention. However, in recent decades, some researchers have concluded that Lake Parime was a seasonal lake that appeared during the wet season, in previous centuries. More recently, geologists have hypothesized that there was once a lake in the general area of the Guyana-Brazil border but that it dried up at some point. It is entirely possible that the Lake may have inspired the story of El Dorado. When it existed, gold was deposited on its shores, by a river flowing out of the Amazon and this may have led to stories of a fabled and wealthy urban center.

The myth of El Dorado

The story of El Dorado was first told in the early decades of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. They were relatively new to the continent and much of it was still unexplored and unconquered. The Spanish were also obsessed with gold, they had a mania for the metal. They traveled a great distance and slaughtered entire communities in their search for the metal. Moreover, they had conquered the fabulously wealthy Empires of the Aztecs and the Inca and they supposed that other rich kingdoms, could still be found. In their fevered imagination, they generated a myth about a fabled lost city, based on rumors and misunderstanding.

Moreover, many of the stories about the fabled El Dorado were told by natives. It is entirely possible that wandering Indians only told the Spanish what they wanted to hear. They knew that the Conquistadors were obsessed with gold and telling them where they could find it, meant that they could be spared the brutal attentions of the Spanish. It is entirely possible that some Indians told stories about the city in the jungle to get the Conquistadors, who were even feared by their fellow countrymen, away from an area.[11]


El Dorado has become a by-word for wealth and fabulous riches. It is now widely agreed that there never existed a city of that name. It is, in short, a fable or a myth. However, like many other myths, it has a basis in historical fact. The famous fable of the Lost City in the jungle was based on real-life societies and places. It is almost certain that the great Musica confederation and their coronation rituals for their kings encouraged the idea of a wealthy city in the jungle.

It is entirely possible that memories of the settlements that once flourished in the jungles of what is now Brazil also contributed to the development of the fable. Then the gold that was found in Amazonia also contributed to the development of the story. In short, while El Dorado never existed, it was based on actual historical societies and events.

Further Reading

Naipaul, Vidiadhar Surajprasad. The loss of El Dorado: a colonial history (London, Pan Macmillan, 2001).

Bandelier, Adolph Francis Alphonse. The Gilded Man:(El Dorado) and Other Pictures of the Spanish Occupancy of America (London, D. Appleton, 1893).


  1. Nicholl, Charles. The creature in the map: a journey to El Dorado. University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 13
  2. Meggers, B. J. (2001). The continuing quest for El Dorado: round two. Latin American Antiquity, 12(3), 304-325
  3. Meggers, p 310
  4. Bahn, Paul. Archaeology, Theories, Methods, and Practice. 2nd edition. London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p 123
  5. Bahn, p 137
  6. Meggers, p. 113
  7. Heckenberger, et al, "Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?", Science (2003), pp. 1710–14
  8. Heckenberger, et al, 1739
  9. Meggers, p 115
  10. Dotson, Eliane. "Lake Parime and the Golden City" (London, Wash Map Society, 2011) p. 4
  11. Meggers, p 137