Civic Imagination

El Dorado

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The story of El Dorado has multiple variations. The main narrative involves a tribal Muisca leader (cacique) who covered himself in gold dust and bathed in the waters of Lake Guatavita. Europeans explorers did not know the location of the lake and believed the ritual indicated golden treasure in the northern parts of South America remained to be discovered. The search for this gold inspired several explorations, most notably the those of Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1500s. The Spaniards also tried to drain the lake in that time.

The legend has special significance to me because bathing in those same waters probably saved my life. When I was born, I was very sick. I was in many ways a lifeless baby who did not cry, did not suck his thumb, and was generally lethargic. My family thought I might benefit from some fresh air, so we went to the recreational park area of the lake. My grandmother thought it would be a good idea if I bathed in the water. She took me in her arms, waded into the water, and fully submerged me and lifted me up again. At that moment, it was like I had finally woken up. I began crying – healthy crying, life-affirming crying. After that, I gained my strength and grew up healthy.

I'm not sure when I first heard the story. In fact, I didn't even know the location of the lake, or that it was the sacred lake that had inspired the El Dorado legend, until this past year when I visited Lake Guatavita. On my trip, I visited the local museum and heard more about the Muisca tribal people.

Unfortunately, the lake became incredibly polluted throughout the years. Recently, it became the focus of conservation efforts, that also led to initiatives to protect the indigenous culture. In fact, the Muisca people worked with the Colombian government to clean up the lake. The project took several years, and the lake area was closed to the public during that time. When the park was re-opened in the last few years, the decision was made to not allow people to swim in the lake. It has in many ways become a museum piece unto itself in that you can see the lake only from a distance. So while the lake has been saved, it has nonetheless become a cautionary tale. Unless we take care of our resources, they are destined, at best, to become museum exhibits.

While the legend of El Dorado is a famous myth around the world, many people don't know it's about a lake in Colombia or what the lake has been through – or what it has taken, and will continue to take, to preserve it.

National geographic story:

gold, exploration, lake, water, environment, Colombia, resources

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