Will El Dorado turn into gold for Colombia?

A safer and friendlier Colombia beckons tourists with its riches. Photo: Gold mask from Gold Museum in Bogota

BOGOTA, Colombia, May 23, 2013 – Bogotá is a large city, both in surface area and in population. It is located in a plateau in the eastern branch of the Andes in Colombia With a population of between eight and ten million, it is congested, loud and vibrant.

It was founded in 1538 by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada one of the few educated “conquistadores” that took land in the name of the King of Spain in the new world. One of my ancestors, Sebastían de Belalcázar as well as a German contractor for the crown (Nikolaus Federmann) arrived at the same place several months later.

Contrary to custom and tradition, these three gentleman did not engage in a battle to claim the riches of the fertile (and some thought rich) “Sabana de Bogotá.” They met and agreed that each one would consolidate lands in different directions. Of the three, only Belalcázar achieved relative greatness as founder of over 20 cities, some of them like Cali and Popayán in Colombia and Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador still thrive.

Even stranger was the fact that if any place in the new world could claim ownership to the “El Dorado” legend, it is the area around Bogotá. From documents of the era, when a new Múisca (one of the tribes that spoke the Chibcha family of languages in Colombia) chief took the crown, he would be covered with a resin and sprinkled with gold dust.

He would then be conveyed to the middle of a lake (many believe it is the Guatavita Lake) at dawn to witness the sunrise. He would also have worn gold adornments all over his body. The spectacle would have been amazing as the first rays of the sun would have reflected off all the bling. Paradoxically, his subjects were banned from looking straight at him.

Guatavita Lake Photo: M. Salazar

During the ceremonies, gold “Tunjos” and precious stones and other jewelry were thrown into the lake. Some believe that the culmination of the ceremony would see the new chief jump into the lake to wash off the gold. However, many believe that such a pampered man would never suffer the extremely cold water.

For several centuries there have been efforts to recover these riches. A British company tried to dewater the lake and actually recovered a few artifacts. Reports are that they amounted to less than 100 pounds sterling in value. While the lake was drained, there remained several feet thick stratum of mud that would have been impossible to sieve through with the tools available at the end of the XIX century. Furthermore, as the mud dried it is said that it turned to the consistency of concrete.

Another widely circulated story is that a significant amount of the gold that used to back up the Spanish currency came from Colombia. This gold was shipped out to Russia and other countries during the last months of the Spanish revolution to pay for weapons by the bona fide Republican government just before defeat by Franco’s forces.

While the transfer did take place, it is impossible to know whether Colombian gold and what portion was part of the shipment. A controversy has reigned about this shipment since the late 1930s about who benefited from such a late transfer.

Ever since the colonial days, gold was found in several areas of central Colombia. Artifacts of this precious metal were found in tombs and in other random places. Some of these “guacas” contained what appeared to be the ritualistic attire made of gold and other precious metals and other items that the interred person would have needed to enter the underworld.

Others were found in random places like crossroads and the like that experts speculate Indians had considered important. It is likely that tons of gold and other archeological wonders were simply melted for their intrinsic value.

[Read: MORE ABOUT AMERINDIANS: The only native American country, the Mapuche]

Finally in the Twentieth Century, several scientists and politicians gathered to begin a campaign to collect the artifacts that continued to be found. From this effort the “Museo del Oro” or Gold Museum was born. It is located in the National Bank (Banco de la República) in Bogotá.

El Dorado Barge Photo: M. Salazar

Questions about the legend of the Múisca chief inauguration ceremony were finally answered when a farmer near Bogotá found an exquisitely designed barge. It shows the new chief standing in the center, adorned with gold items and surrounded by shamans and other subjects. All secondary figures face away from the chief.

The Gold Museum is one of the places to visit if you travel to Bogotá. It can have at one time five full floors of exhibits. The permanent exhibition is housed on two floors. The second floor includes the tools used by the Amerindians to work metals and the third the amazing works that have been recovered.

The fourth floor houses repair rooms and other maintenance shops. There are three underground floors for special exhibits. The museum is located in the old historic part of the city within view of several colonial churches.

A particularly haunting exhibit is one in which visitors are led into a dark room called “The Offerings Room” (Sala  de la Ofrenda), the doors closed and chants and lights are strategically combined to saturate the senses (see video). Thousands of gold and other precious metal artifacts come alive with a simulated distant storm. 

The question has been posed whether the legendary El Dorado was a person or a place. Visiting the Gold Museum in Bogotá and learning the history of the Amerindians of the region will convince you that it was both. The legends and actual artifacts will transport you to the magic reality that is Colombia.

Not accidentally ,Colombia is using the Magic Reality theme to promote its tourism. A safer country, less restrictive travel requirements and fabulous destinations all synthesize a successful effort to make Colombia a tourist mecca.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist < http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/21st-century-pacifist/> at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.

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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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