The Gilded One
The legend originates in present-day Colombia, where conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada first encountered the Muiscas, a nation in the modern day Cundinamarca and Boyacá highlands of Colombia, in the 1530’s. When a new Muisca chieftain rose to power, his rule began with a ceremony where they would cover him in gold dust and float out to the middle of Lake Guatavita, where he would proceed to throw gold and precious jewels into the lake to appease their God.
The amazed Spaniards then started calling this golden chief El Dorado, ‘the gilded one’, before the ceremony ended in the late 15th century when another tribe conquered El Dorado and his subjects. However, by this time the Spaniards and other Europeans had found so much gold amongst the natives living along the continent's northern coast that they believed there had to be a place of great wealth somewhere inland.
Parallel to this, in 1536, German explorer Nicolaus Federmann undertook a second gruelling expedition searching for the legendary El Dorado. Following the salt trade route across the icy eastern edges of the Andes, he also encountered the Muisca, whose realm meanwhile had already been almost completely conquered and occupied by de Quesada. Meanwhile, conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar, fresh from founding the city of Quito, had also embarked on his own expedition in search of El Dorado. The three expeditions coincidentally met in 1539, resulting in the creation of Santa Fe de Bogota, future city of what was then the New Kingdom of Granada. However, as with most ménages à trios, this fearless threesome of exploration did not end well. In their greedy dispute to lay claim to Bogota, Belalcázar ended up killing a fellow Spaniard and died in prison, de Quesada’s debts forced him into exile where he died from leprosy and Federmann died after spending years of litigation against his German patrons. Thus, setting the standard for the fate of future explorers as they searched for this mythical city.