Lake of Guatavita, also known as Laguna de Guatavita, is a beautiful natural reserve located just two hours outside of Bogotá. After climbing 150 steps up to its crater-like edge, travelers can soak in views of the lush surrounding countryside of Cundinamarca and nearly perfect circular lagoon below. The verdant lake was also once a sacred ritual site of the Muisca civilization (the original indigenous peoples of Central Colombia), which eventually led to the rumored myth of El Dorado.
Here’s how the story goes: the Muisca Chief (later referred to as the zipa by Spanish conquistadors) would anoint himself with oils and gold dust and set sail to the center of the lake on a ceremonial raft. There, he would throw offerings of jewels into the lake —including emeralds, gold, metalwork, and other sacred trinkets—before plunging himself into the water.
The ritual reportedly marked the transition between Muisca chiefs, as well as showed reverence to the gods; the precious offerings were not used for material wealth but seen as religious or spiritual offerings for worship. By the 16th century, however, Spanish colonizers got word of the ritual and the mystical Lake Guatavita and began the now-infamous quest for El Dorado.
Translated from Spanish, El Dorado literally means “the golden one” (referring to the gold-adorned chief and his raft), but over time the legend was exaggerated to also include a city or even an empire made of solid gold. Armed with greed and an insatiable dream of wealth, Spanish conquistadors searched all over Latin America for the rumored mythical land.
The Spanish colonizers attempted to drain Lake Guatavita several times in search of treasure, but their efforts were all unsuccessful. Although jewelry and artifacts were recovered from the lake, the rumors of a plentiful golden bounty hidden beneath the waters of the tree-lined, crater lake proved to be false. It wasn’t until over 300 years later that the quest for El Dorado finally began to exhaust itself and was ultimately dismissed as only a myth.
Today, Lake of Guatavita is located roughly 30 minutes from the town of “The New Guatavita.” The original town, which was once the capital of the Muisca people, was destroyed after it was flooded during the construction of the reservoir Embalse de Tominé. Built in the 1960s for the town’s displaced inhabitants, New Guatavita was recreated in the Spanish colonial style with rustic stucco buildings. The small town is now home to just under 7,000 residents, and visitors can enjoy artisan and souvenir shops, as well as the Museo Guatavita.
Know Before You Go
Before heading out to the lake, check out the Museum of Gold in Bogotá, which offers a detailed history of the lake and the quest for El Dorado, as well as 55,000 pieces of gold and the ceremonial Muisca Raft.