The Great Treasure of Lake Guatavita - El Dorado - The Golden One
Above: Lake Guatavita, El Dorado, 35 miles northeast of Bogota, Colombia. Some have suggested that the lake was formed by a meteor impact, the crater left by the strike filling with water.
'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.' - Juan Rodriguez Fresle, Letter to the Governor of Guatavita, 1638.
Lake Guatavita in Colombia may be one of the greatest treasure repositories on the planet, it is also the site of one of the longest running treasure hunts in history. The first treasure hunters to arrive at Lake Guatavita were Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada. The pair attempted to drain the lake in 1545 using slave labourers and buckets. After three months of work they had only managed to lower the water level of the lake by three meters. They did manage to recover some gold, but exactly how much is not known.
Another treasure hunter, Antonio de Sepúlveda, attempted to drain the lake in 1580. Instead of trying to empty the lake by hand, he set his labourers to work excavating a channel through the rim of the crater in which Lake Guatavita sits. He succeeded in reducing the lakes water level by 20 meters. The walls of the channel eventually collapsed killing many of the workers, but Antonio de Sepúlveda is believed to have recovered considerable quantities of gold.
In 1911 a British company called Contractors, Limited, founded and operated by English engineer, Hartley Knowles, succeeded in draining the lake. Hartley Knowles recovered gold, emeralds, amber and even Chinese jade from the lake. Knowles had bought out a local company run by Colombian engineers (The Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita, founded in 1897) in 1900. Speaking to a reporter from The New York Times in 1912, Knowles claimed that he had recovered treasure worth around $20,000 dollars.
'I think that most of what we have taken out up to date is from the side of the lake. We have not yet dug down to the bottom, and we don't know how much more we have to dig before we reach it. But according to the stories, the bottom of the lake is where the richest treasure are.' - Hartley Knowles, Contractors, Limited, The New York Times, October 27, 1912.
However, once the lake had been drained, the silt and mud on the lake bed set as hard as concrete making further recoveries almost impossible.
'As to what is still there, there is no way of finding out except to go on with the digging. The custom may have continued for thousands of years. Certainly it went on for two hundred years. So you see a good deal must have piled up' - The New York Times, October 27, 1912.
There have been numerous other attempts to drain the lake and salvage the treasure over the years, and I do not doubt that there is still lots of gold and emeralds to be found in the muddy depths of Lake Guatavita.