El Dorado
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Esteban pointed excitedly across the lake. "See? The old Indian was telling the truth!"

Carlos looked at the small city he and Esteban had travelled so far to find. A crowd of natives were gathered at the docks where a large, ornate barge was moored. Horns from the city wall sounded and a procession emerged from the great stepped pyramid in the town's centre and headed for the barge. The leader of the procession at first seemed to be wearing some sparkling golden raiment, but as he came nearer, Carlos saw that he was naked, save for his ornate feathered headdress, and covered in glittering gold dust.

"There he is!" Esteban whispered. "El hombre dorado! The gilded man!"

Basic Information

El Dorado, or "the gilded one", is the name the Spanish conquistadors gave to a legendary South American city of enormous wealth. Such kingdoms had already been discovered in the early 1500s: the Aztecs by Hernan Cortez and the Incas by Francisco Pizarro; and so it seemed reasonable that the New World by littered with golden cities. Unlike most of these legends, El Dorado had some basis in fact.

Spanish settlers on the coast of South America heard stories about a king high up in the mountains who every year would cover himself with a sticky substance and then with gold dust. Thus adorned, he would be taken to the centre of a lake called Guatavita and he would dive into the waters.

Beginning around 1530, several expeditions were launched to find the city of el hombre dorado. One of the first was led by Ambrosius Ehinger, who went about searching for gold when he was supposed to be governing Venezuela, which had been leased by the Spanish to a German banking family. Ehinger's method assumed that if he killed and terrorized enough Indians, they would tell him what he wanted to know.

At one point in one of his expeditions, Ehinger sent one of his men, named Vascuna, with a small party to bring home what gold they had already seized. They had to avoid the vengeful survivors of Ehinger's enhanced interrogation techniques and became lost in the jungle. Since the treasure, about forty pounds per man, was impeding their journey, they decided to bury it at the foot of a large tree. That tree and the treasure has never been found again.

But the source of the legend was; not once but three times, by three separate expeditions working independently of each other. The first was led by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, who set out from Colombia and after much misfortune and hardship, managed to ascend the Cundinamarca Plateau, where the city was said to be located. There he found the Chibachas tribe who dwelt on the shores of Lake Guatavita and who had the tradition of covering their chief in gold and plunging him in the water. The practice had not been done in forty years, because it was too expensive; the Chibachas had little gold, which they got from trading with lowland tribes.

Quesada seems to have been comparatively kind and tolerant for a conqueror; still, he took it upon himself to subdue the Chibachas and take what gold they had, which was disappointingly little compared to the riches of Mexico and Peru.

Next to arrive was Sebastian de Belalcazar, an ambitious lieutenant of Pizarro's, who had heard the Guatavita ceremony from an old Indian who had actually witnessed it, but who failed to mention it was no longer performed. About the same time a third expedition arrived led by Nikolaus Federmann, another German banker turned gold hunter from the colony in Venezuela.

But by this time, the legend had grown. Now the king's annual ritual bathing was a daily event and his palace a city of gold. The meagre villages of the Cundinamarca did not match the opulence of the legend; therefore the True El Dorado must lie somewhere else. Gonzalo Pizarro, younger brother of Francisco, led an expedition into the jungles south of Colombia. At one point he sent some of his men, led by Francisco Orellana, on a side expedition down river to search for food. Instead of returning, Orellana kept going until he reached the coast. Along the way, his crew was attacked by a group of fierce native women, and so he named the river "Amazon" after the warrior women of Greek mythology.

By the late 1500s, much of present day Colombia and Venezuela had been explored, and so the search for El Dorado went elsewhere. In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to seize Guiana, hoping to find the Gilded Man there. He failed, and a second attempt in 1616 resulted in an international incident between England and Spain which led to Raleigh's execution.

The name "El Dorado" is sometimes used metaphorically to signify a place of fabulous wealth, especially a place that requires an arduous journey to find.

See Also

Seven Cities of Gold


1. Book: Candide by Voltaire
2. Movie: Road to El Dorado

Game and Story Use

  • The party learns of a treasure-filled city located in a remote location. It will be difficult to reach, but the treasure will be more than worth the danger!
    • A rival party is also seeking the city! Who will find it first?
    • Other treasure-seekers have been through these parts before, leaving the natives angry and highly suspicious of strangers.
  • The administrator of a colony has gone haring after some fanciful legendary city. The corporation that established the colony has hired your party to find him and bring him back. Of course, once you're out there, there's nothing to stop you from searching for the city yourselves…
  • What ever happened to Vascuna's treasure, anyway? Maybe your party finds a clue to its location! It may not be El Dorado, but a half dozen packs of gold weighing forty pounds each is noting to sneeze at.
  • A fictional version could have some interesting Easter eggs hidden in the journals, for example: "natives no longer perform ceremony as mines were worked out a generation ago - confirmed that the mine workings were long deserted, veins showing no gold but only a whiteish metal, lustrous and similar to silver but harder and impossible to melt and so effectively unworkable and useless." Suddenly retracing the expedition appears a much better bet…
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