For over 2000 years, the native Muisca people performed a ritual in a small circular mountain lake located north of what is now Bogotá. In this ritual, the newly crowned Muisca tribal chief covered himself in gold dust, took a raft to the center of Laguna de Guatavita, and offered treasures made of gold to the gods by dumping them into the lake.
In Europe, rumors of this ritual grew and grew, and turned from a ceremony into a place, into a city, a kingdom, and finally an empire – all made of gold. This rumor spurred several expeditions and cost the lives of countless people. That is the very condensed version of the story of the Legend of El Dorado.
Visiting Laguna de Guatavita
To get closer to this legend, it’s possible to visit Laguna de Guatavita on a day trip from Bogotá. This lake, which was dredged and drained several times over the past few hundred years, is now heavily protected and part of a nature reserve, Laguna del Cacique Guatavita y Cuchilla de Peña Blanca. Admission to the park is COP$14,000 for foreigners and includes a guided nature walk that lasts just over 90 minutes. Hours are 9am to 4pm. Round trip transportation to the park can be purchased in the nearby town of Guatavita, just a half hour away (see below for more info).
The walk is fairly easy on a developed trail with some steep uphill for a short bit. The first stop is in a replica Muisca hut where the guide talks about the Muisca people and their culture and language. It gives a lot of background for what’s to come on the tour.
Next, we walked along a trail and started our ascent to the lake. The guide stopped at a few spots to lecture about the history of the park and the Legend of El Dorado while we were given an incredible view of the landscape.
Finally, we stopped at a few different lookouts each with stunning views of this magical lake. The guide lectured at each one about the ritual, attempts to dredge the lake, and recent history. We learned that in the past, backpackers would show up with metal detectors and other equipment in attempts to find gold. We also learned that the water level is more than 30% lower than it was in the past because of attempts to drain the lake. Nowadays, nobody is allowed to go near the lake and it is monitored with 24 hour surveillance. It was a very impressive and interesting talk.
The tour finished with a short walk downhill to shuttles back to the park entrance (COP$1,000) or previously arranged transportation back to the nearby town of Guatavita (more below).
Town of Guatavita
Guatavita is a small town that was built in the 1960s to replace an older town with the same name that was flooded during the construction of a reservoir.
It’s very well built for tourism and includes a beautiful little town center with a couple museums, a contemporary church, and plenty of restaurants, cafés, and souvenir shops. It’s a great place to spend an hour or two during a trip to Laguna de Guatavita.
A small tourist booth across from the Plaza de Toros sells tickets for transportation to Laguna de Guatavita. We paid COP$12,000 each and were lucky to get on the last departure for the day at 2:30pm. The company was called Lineas El Dorado.
To get to Guatavita, there are two routes. The easiest, most direct route is to take a bus from Portal del Norte in Bogotá. It takes roughly 90 minutes and cost COP$7,000 per person at the time of writing. It’s best to go earlier in the day.
The more “scenic” route involves taking a bus from Calle 72 to La Calera and/or Guasca. There are direct buses to both, with buses to Guasca passing through La Calera. We stopped in both towns on our way to Guatavita. In the end, the direct route would’ve been the wiser choice.
La Calera is first, about 30 minutes from Bogotá, and costing COP$3,000 each. Along the way there are several restaurants on the side of the mountain with great views of the city. There’s really nothing to see in La Calera, but we stopped and saw the small plaza which was very nice.
From the main highway passing through La Calera, we caught the bus to the sleepy town of Guasca (COP$3,000), which also has nothing of interest except a large plaza. That ride took 30 minutes, and it was another COP$3,000 and 30 minutes before reaching Guatavita.