El Dorado: lost cities, previous expeditions and more research… 1Feb10

I’ve had a lot of questions about the origins of El Dorado, Paititi and previous expeditions in pursuit of dreams, fact and fiction.. so here’s a write up of some of my research, some pulled offline (cited where possible) and some from books, accounts etc……. Enjoy! Read below….

El Dorado (Spanish for “the golden one”) is a legend that arose with the Spanish invasion and destruction of the Inca Empire. The concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of the legendary city. The resulting El Dorado enticed European explorers for two centuries. Among the earliest stories was the one told by Diego de Ordaz’s lieutenant Martinez, who claimed to have been rescued from shipwreck, conveyed inland, and entertained by “El Dorado” himself (1531).

The Spanish believed there to be a city full of gold somewhere deep in the jungles and a place where the remainder of the Inca gold would be found. In the gold-greedy minds of the Spanish and others, the legend of El Dorado often changed and some believe it could have begun with the story of a South American tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust and would dive into a lake of pure mountain water. The legend originates in present-day Colombia, where conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada first found the Muiscas, a nation in the modern day Cundinamarca and Boyacá highlands of Colombia, in 1537. The story of Muisca rituals was brought to Quito by Sebastián de Belalcázar’s men; mixed with other rumors, there arose the legend of ‘El Dorado’ (meaning the Golden Man rather than a place – ‘el indio dorado’, the golden Indian or ‘El Rey Dorado’, The Golden King). Imagined as a place, El Dorado became a kingdom, an empire, the city of this legendary golden king. Deluded by a similar legend, Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro would depart from Quito in 1541 in a famous and disastrous expedition towards the Amazon Basin; as a result of this, however, Orellana became the first person to navigate the Amazon River all the way to its mouth.

Tribal ceremony
The Zipa used to cover his body in gold dust and, from his raft, he offered treasures to the Guatavita goddess in the middle of the sacred lake. This old Muisca tradition became the origin of El Dorado legend. This model is on display in the Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia. The original narrative is to be found in the rambling chronicle, El Carnero, of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the king or chief priest of the Muisca was said to be ritually covered with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá. In 1638 Juan Rodriguez Troxell wrote this account, addressed to the cacique or governor of Guatavita:

“The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler. Before taking office, he spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives, and also resin and many other perfumes. The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns…. As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day. At this time they stripped the heir to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They placed him on the raft … and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold. They, too, were naked, and each one carried his offering …. when the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence. The gilded Indian then … [threw] out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. … After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes, and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.It is believed that these rituals[citation needed] were carried out by the Muisca in several lakes along their territory.”

The Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadores. Taking stock of their newly won territory, the Spaniards realized that — in spite of the quantity of gold in the hands of the Indians — there were no golden cities, nor even rich mines, since the Muiscas obtained all their gold in trade. But at the same time, the Spanish began to hear stories of El Dorado from captured Indians, and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita. There were Indians still alive who had witnessed the last Guatavita ceremony, and the stories these Indians told were consistent.

Guatavita today bears a curious notch in its cliffside, evidence of an attempt to drain the lake in 1580.


Expeditions in search of El Dorado:
In 1540 Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, was made the governor of the provenance of Quito in northern Ecuador. Shortly after taking lead in Quito, Gonzalo learned from many of the natives of a valley far to the east rich in both cinnamon and gold. He banded together 340 soldiers and about 4000 Indians in 1541 and led them eastward down the Rio Coca and Rio Napo. Francisco de Orellana, Gonzalo’s nephew, accompanied his uncle on this expedition. Gonzalo quit after many of the soldiers and Indians had died from hunger, disease, and periodic attacks by hostile natives. He ordered Orellana to continue downstream, where he eventually made it to the Atlantic Ocean, discovering the Amazon (named Amazon because of a tribe of female warriors that attacked Orellana’s men while on their voyage.)

Other expeditions include that of Philipp von Hutten (1541–1545), who led an exploring party from Coro on the coast of Venezuela; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Governor of El Dorado, who started from Bogotá (1569).

Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parime far up the Orinoco River in Guyana. This city on the lake was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin-America expedition (1799–1804)


Paititi refers to the legendary lost city said to lie east of the Andes, hidden somewhere within the remote rain forests of southeast Peru, northern Bolivia, and southwest Brazil. In Peru the Paititi legend revolves around the story of the culture-hero Inkarrí, who, after he founded Q’ero and Cuzco, retreated toward the jungles of Pantiacolla, to live out the rest of his days at his refuge city of Paititi. Other variants of the legend see Paititi as an Incan refuge in the border area between Bolivia and Brazil.

The veil rises little by little on the mysteries of Paititi, one of the most attractive stories of the Inca mythology. An immense city which, according to the legend, would be hidden in the green ocean of the Peruvian Amazonian forest. The starting point of the legend is little after the death of Atahuallpa, the Inca reigning when the Spanish arrived. Captured by Pizarro, he proposed, in exchange of his freedom, a fabulous treasure. Covetous, Pizarro had accepted. The ransom of the emperor then started to flow in Cajamarca, in the Spanish camp, of all the provinces of Tahuantinsuyu. The Spanish believed that this was just a part of the Inca wealth, being brought along a secret network of routes and secret cities. Ever since, the word “Paititi” was mentioned…

Could it be the hidden face of the Empire of the Sun, or a secret Inca stronghold? Nobody knows, partly because no one has ever found it. If it did exist, it seems likely that it was at first the place where all the raw gold from around the mines of the Inca empire was brought and then worked by the finest artisans. Once crafted it was then distributed across the Empire wherever the leader’s saw fit – including the capital Cuzco. But how to find it?

Historical accounts suggest that the Incas believed that the land of Paititi was associated with the ‘hacha hacha’, the exotic yet terrible jungle, perhaps as far away as the Río Tambopata and the plains of the Mojos in Bolivia. The mysterious jungles of Cosñipata, to the northeast of Cusco, were the target of great military campaigns by the Inca Pachakuti Yupanki, and his son Topa Yupanki, and Incan roads were built heading north along the ridge of the Paucartambo range overlooking the selva to the east, and from Pisac to Paucartambo and then over the puna, the highland tundra, and down into the lowlands of Pilcopata. This was the Antisuyo, the forested eastern quarter of the Incan world, the concept of which was just as important to the Incan psyche as its jungle products were to Incan sumptiousness. To Spanish Conquistadores such as Gómez de Tordoya and Juan Alvarez Maldonado, Paititi was that rich land beyond the Río Madre de Dios, which lured most of those they led to their deaths.

To followers of the great 18th Century insurrectionists Juan Santos Atahualpa and Tupac Amaru the second, Paititi was the mysterious realm to the east of the Andes over which these leaders ruled and into which they would retire to escape death. And to Peruvian and gringo adventurers–as well as to the many Inca aficionados who see Pizarro’s entry into Cusco in 1533 as that of a feared and despised conquering force, Paititi means another Machu Picchu, waiting to be found in some hidden corner of mountain or jungle: a ruined refuge city to which the Incans fled in the wake of the Spanish invasion, and a site which contained, most importantly, that which was most conspicuously lacking at Machu Picchu–gold and treasure.

As Cusco’s contemporary historian Victor Angles Vargas has emphasized in his 1992 ‘El Paititi No Existe’, the Incas of Cusco in 1533 did not view Pizarro’s entourage as one to be feared as enslavers, but, rather, as liberators who had just killed the Cusco faction’s most feared enemy, the Inca Atahualpa, leader of the Incas of what is now Ecuador, who had just vanquished the Cusqueño armies in a civil war of extreme cruelty. The Incas would thus have had no reason to flee en masse from Cusco, and, as well, it would not have been in their mindset to hide gold and treasure, which for them had a spiritual and ritual and artistic–but not a financial– significance.

Recent expeditions to seek Paititi

1925 Percy Harrison Fawcett (Mato Grosso, Brasil) – in search of the City of Z – film with Brad Pitt coming out soon!

1954/5 1955 Hans Ertl, Bolivia)

1972 Bob Nichols

1984-00 12 expeditions by Gregory Deyermenjian (who we undertook our expedition with) in the remote mountain and jungle areas of the Departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios, including the following: extensive explorations and documentation of Incan remains in Mameria (1984, ’85, ’86, and 1989); first ascent of Apu Catinti (1986); documentation of Incan “barracks” at Plateau of Toporake (1989); exploration and documentation of Petroglyphs of Pusharo (1991); traverse of Incan “Road of Stone” past the Plateau of Toporake (1993); discovery and documentation of Incan and pre-Incan remains in Callanga (1994); first ascent of, and discovery of Incan complex at base of, Callanga’s peak “Llactapata” (1995); first reaching on foot, exploring, and documentation of the true nature of Manu’s the “Pyramids of Paratoari” (1996); following furthest north the Incan “Road of Stone” onto the Plateau of Pantiacolla, 1999 – discovery of “Lago de Ángel” and its Incan platforms north of Río Yavero on the headwaters of the Rio Timpia: http://www.athenapub.com/timpia1.htm and 2000: full investigation of claims that “Paititi” was to be found on Río Choritiari - http://www.athenapub.com/timpia2.htm

1997 Lars Hafksjold (Madre de Dios, Peru)

1998-00 In August, 1998, the exploratory Chilean young man Camilo Valdivieso realizes his first investigations in Pusharo’s petroglyphs and his relation with the lost city. 2000. Researches towards the river Alto Madre de Dios, developed by Valdivieso and an international group.

2001: Kota Mama II expedition led by John Blashford-Snell (The Scientific Exploration Society) located significant ancient ruins in the jungle east of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and which are believed to have been those discovered earlier by Hans Ertl.

2002 Camilo Valdivieso achieve towards the nearness of the Sinkibenia river , finding important archaeological evidences on the presence Inca in zones not explored previously.

2002 Jacek Pałkiewicz expedition

2004: “Quest for Paititi” – http://www.paititi.com – exploration team of Deyermenjian and Mamani discovered several important Incan ruins along branches of the Incan Road of Stone at the peak known as Último Punto in the northern part of the Pantiacolla region of Peru.

2005 French Thierry Jamin and French-Peruvian Herbert Cartagena record Pusharo petroglyphs and discover large geoglyphs in a valley nearby. They think they may have found a “map” where Paititi might be localized. (Further details below) Further expeditions are set up each year – click here to follow links to all these expeditions. http://www.granpaititi.com/AN/paititi.php

2006: Paititi Expedition: Beyond the Pantiacolla Plateau and the Furthest Reach of the Incas, carried out in June 2006 by Gregory Deyermenjian and Paulino Mamani to the Río Taperachi north of the Yavero, found the furthest Incan settlements yet identified beyond the highland remains they had found in 2004 at “Último Punto.”

2009: Expedition Antisuyu: organised by Thierry Jamin to search for a larger settlement, possibly Paititi thought not far from the archaeological complex of Mameria, small agrarian center of Inca origin, discovered in 1979 by his friends Nicole and Herbert Cartagena:

6 Responses to “El Dorado: lost cities, previous expeditions and more research…”

  1. Tan Says:

    Hi, Olly
    That was very good information (sum it up in one short note). I’m just curious about the Guatavita and the lagoon/lake. You say that there is evidence about the attempt of draining the lake in 1958. Do you know if they succeed on draining it? If they did not success in draining the lake, what were the problems that prevented? Are there any reasons for them to abondon the idea of draining the lake? Do you think they did success on drained the lake, but since they did not find anything so, they let everyone think that they did not succeed? I guess that enough questions for you to answer ’cause I definitly can give you more but I have to go study so I will have time to watch your show tonight. Take care and stay safe, Tan

  2. Kasumi Says:

    OS-check out:
    The examples are very interesting and raise a lot of questions-I was wondering if you’ve seen any of these in person or studied these specifically at all before in your travels?..
    Also-will you be looking into la serenissima at all and their mysteries? besides languid lagoons, sinking buildings, beautiful spots, and lovely simple gastronomical delights..??
    Or maybe it’s a much ado about nothing..the mysterio-

  3. G.Forero Says:

    Chek this link out, It is an old report. I grew up and lived Colombia until 20 years ago and I always heard that el Dorado was Besically a huge reserve of gold figurines, pectorals and artefacts made by the indias for trading but ultimately for the purpose of offerings the the gods. When the Indians realized that the spaniars wanted the gold they moved the gold to a very hard place for spaniars to find it in the Serrania of the Macarena area in the south east end of cundinamarca. A lot of the gold pieces kept at the gold museum today were found at the Guatavita lake, by the way the lake but there is another lake in the Tena area called Pedro Palo which aparently has lots of gold in the bottom, how ever Colombians are not as hungry for gold so finding the tresure has not been
    as important at to keep it as it is, an offering to the gods which for the chipcha or muisca people they were the sun and the moon. Makes sense to me.


  4. Kristina Says:

    Tan – That is my question as well. I am sure that there have to have been teams of divers who have gone down to check it out…right?

    Still, I can’t get that visual out of my head…the guy sitting on the raft, covered in gold, the smoke of the incense burning,,.very compelling image.

    Oh, and ‘The Gilded Indian’ is possibly the best bar name I have ever heard, though change one ‘i’ to an ‘e’ and you have a very different Indian.

  5. admin Says:

    Tan: Draining Guatavita: I think they drained some of it and did find gold offerings. More info at Wiki (not always reliable but concurs with my other sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Guatavita )

    Kasumi: sorry the link doesn’t work… any other links?

    G.Forero: New leads: Lake Pedro Palo? Wow – sounds fascinating – I hadn’t heard about this place, but it does sound very possible. I think a lot of these stories and events contributed to the legend of a lost city of Gold… in history, as in life, rarely black and white, lots of interpretations, complexities and contradictions! And the joy is, we can all be right!

  6. Tan Says:

    Hi, Olly: Thank you for the link but now I’m more into the new Lake that G. Forero is mentioning. That story could be truth about they moving the gold to the new location. For Kristina; thanks for putting the new visual image in my head, but somehow the thought of 5 naked men with gold dust cover from head to toe on the raft with incense burning seem weird to watch. I guess, that could depend on how big is the raft they are talking about. When they mention the lagoon I just thought of the small tiny raft, but if it the lake the big raft might not be look so weird. Anyway, that just my opinion. Thank you for the info, Tan.

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