Lake Guatavita - Colombia's Lake of Gold

Lake Guatavita, Colombia

Lake Guatavita is located 56 kilometers from Bogota the capital city of Colombia and 30 minutes away from the small town of Guatavita.

When driving, it takes about one hour to reach the climbing trail to the lake from the capital city Bogota. The lake is stunning and is also known as Laguna de Guatavita.

The location is very convenient as you can easily make a day trip from the city. The lakes beauty is not the only thing that pulls visitors to its shores, the magical history and stories also play an important factor to the allure.

History of the Lake Guatavita

Lake Guatavita

The lake has a very rich history and has many legends surrounding it. The most famous of all is the one of El Dorado, which centers around the lost city made of gold.

This legend of the lost city is what attracted the Spaniards to Guatavita. This lost city of El Dorado is actually a myth in which it has been handed over from one generation to another the years. As a result of this, the real story has evolved and is greatly exaggerated.

The real story originates from a cherished ancient ceremony by the Muisca in which a new king would throw in jewels, precious stones, and gold into Lake Guatavita as an offering to the gods.

The lake is one of the sacred lakes of an indigenous population, Muisca who lived in Colombia before the Spanish arrived. It is said that in the ascension ceremony, the king performed the ritual while covered in gold.

He then would float to the middle of the lake with his trusted subjects in a wooden boat and drop offerings of gold into the lake.

Apparently, this was just the beginning of the story. For the aspiring King to reach this stage in his ascension to the throne, he must have undergone a thorough vetting process that took up to 9 years.

The aspiring king at just 9 years is chosen and is to live in a cave for nine years. In the cave, he was not to interact with women. He was also not to eat salt or pepper. Going out during the day was also forbidden for the chosen boy who aspired to be king.

After the nine years, when the boy was 18 years old. He was taken out and given a final test where the most beautiful women in the kingdom were presented to him. These women were to serve and pamper him. The test was to see whether he will give in to his sexual desires.

When this final test is passed, this is when he is taken to Lake Guatavita for the final ceremony where he will return as the ruling king.

The story of the lost city comes in when the Spanish expeditions began searching for gold. The locals told the exaggerated story of the city of gold to lure the Spanish into saddling up and go to look for gold.

The locals benefited from these expeditions because they were paid to be tour guides. Due to their greed, the Spanish spared no time and money in looking for the lost city of gold.

With time the story of El Dorado told of a city, of a town and eventually of a whole empire. The legend of El Dorado took root and was even on maps sent to Europe.

This served as proof that the city of gold was lost somewhere and if it was on the map, then it was somewhere just waiting to be found.

The Spanish eventually ended up forming colonies in the valley of Bogota. With time, they learned of the ancient ceremonies and of the gold offered to the gods in the lake Guatavita.

The El Dorado myth was also politicized and the Spanish administrators used it to their advantage as a way to get rid of old rivals who stood in the way of development. Once sent to find El Dorado, there was a good chance that they will never be seen again.

This was the fate of Aguirre who is said to have killed his daughter to protect her virginity. He was out for blood and roamed the Amazon and Orinoco rivers murdering people. He eventually met the same fate when he was murdered by his own men.

Because they learned from the best, they shot him and his body was cut up in bits and pieces. These pieces were then sent to Venezuela in different cities.

Another unfortunate victim was a British aristocrat Sir Walter Raleigh. He was determined that he should find the lost city before the Spanish. As a result, when he encountered them in the Orinoco River there was a war and he lost his son in combat. He eventually sailed home where he was beheaded by King James.

A naturalist by the name Alexander Von Humboltdt visited the Guatavita and he served to spice things up by assessing the value of treasure sunk in the lake.

He took measurements of the lake and estimated that if around 1000 Muisca had dropped 5 gold items over a span of 100 years then the gold in the lake was worth at least 300 million dollars. This huge figure served to attract even more treasure hunters to Lake Guatavita.

What von Humboldt’s estimation failed to consider was that unlike other ancient civilizations like the Incas and Aztecs, Muiscas had no gold mines and the little gold they had was got from barter trades with their neighbors. So it stands to reason that they could not have thrown that much gold into the lake.

For more than four centuries many different expedition teams attempted to drain the lake and retrieve the unlimited treasures in the lake. Some treasures were found but the profits were not worth the time, labor and lives lost.

The first attempt was in 1545 where the subjugated locals were to empty the lake using clay pots. This method, of course, did not succeed and ended up killing many locals.

Perhaps the closest anyone ever came to making the Guatavita yield its precious gold was in 1898. Hartly Knowles through a British company contractors unlimited’ arrived with all the latest technology at that time period: Which was a large steam pump.

He began pumping the lake Guatavita’s water and channeled the water and mud in a sluice system designed to capture the gold.

This large scale industrial like attempt lasted for over a decade. By the year 1904, the lake water was completely drained and all that remained at the lake was a bottomless mud. The hot sun eventually dried the mud. But then this presented another problem, the mud became hard like cement.

The company ran a massive loss as the gold they got was very thin and weighed very little. Natural springs around the lake eventually filled up the lake again.

The last documented expedition attempt to retrieve the gold was in 1965 by some Americans collaborating with Colombians.

Shortly after, the site was declared as a national and historical site, therefore, banning private expedition teams from trying to retrieve the treasures from the lake. Swimming and diving are also prohibited.

Geographical information of Lake Guatavita

The lake has a circular shape with a 19.8 hectares surface area. This Crater Lake is 3,100 meters above sea level.There are many theories suggesting how the lake the lake was formed. Earlier theories formulated proposed that the lake was formed by a meteorite impact, volcanic cider and or even a limestone sinkhole. But these theories have been discredited and replaced with a more recent one. This more likely theory proposes that the lake resulted from the dissolution of salt deposits found in the underground resulting in a type of sinkhole.


To get to the lake up in the mountain, you have to take a hike of 150 steps up. As you climb and pass the vegetation, you will get a splendid view of the Colombian savanna and Cun Dina Marca’s countryside. There are also all kinds of diverse and beautiful flora along the trail. If you are doing the hike alone, it can take you 30 minutes to reach the top. This is you do not take any breaks. The color of the lake changes depending on the weather. So be always ready for a surprise when you finally reach the top.

Where to grab a bite

When you need to take a bite, you can visit the restaurant Via Laguna de Guatavita which is on the way up the lagoon. There is also a small kiosk at the front entrance where you can buy soft drinks, biscuits and any other snack you may need. Sugary drinks and snacks are recommended because the high altitude may affect you and make you light headed or breathless.


During the weekend, you can take a bus to Sesquile where you board another to the town Guatavita where taxis are readily available to take you to the lake. The other easy method is to book a tour with a reputable company to be able to go directly to the lake Guatavita. The advantage of this method is that you will have an English speaking tour guide.

The best time to visit Lake Guatavita is on weekends or on public holidays. This is when many people visit and you will get the chance to interact and maybe make new acquaintances. It is recommended that you get there early to avoid overflowed car packs and rushing to the top. You can get an English speaking professional guide who will enhance your exploration of the scenic shores. The hike is not a very steep one and children of above four years can comfortably do the hike if you take it easy on them. You should also remember to bring some warm clothing because the air up the mountain is chilly.

Today, Lake Guatavita reserve is managed by the descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Guatavita who live on the plateau. To enter the national park, you are required to pay a small amount of fee at the gate. The tour to the lake and back takes 90 minutes. There is a small town located near the lake Guatavita which is a must visit to learn more about the history and culture of the Muiscas.

The town of Guatavita has a 42-year-old whitewashed architectural complex. This was created to replace the older town. The Tommie’s reservoir submerged the older town and supplies power to the nearby localities by using Bogota’s water. The town is filled with much information about the legend of El Dorado. So when visitors visit this town and take a stroll they will find data inscribed in buildings, informed guides or even friendly locals who are happy to share the factual information.

The town was replicating a Spanish colonial town with the houses painted white; rusting stucco, simple wooden doors, wooden windows and clay tiles on the roof. Back in the days, it was actually not permitted to color your house any other color apart from white. The town has excellent restaurants which provide local cuisine for your enjoyment. The restaurants have professional chefs and excellent customer service.

Guatavita town also has many handicraft shops where you can get souvenirs and beautiful handcrafted jewelry.

The town has a church and a medium sized museum where you can get the chance to view historical artifacts got from Lake Guatavita. This small town is also a perfect place for water sports lovers as you will get a chance to go boating or even water skiing.

When you stand on top of the crater of Lake Guatavita, surrounded by the beautiful landscape, it is hard to imagine all those years where expedition teams toiled day and night to drain the water from the lake. The immense excitement of expedition leaders who thought they would find the lost golden city of El Dorado. You cannot even begin to imagine how many lives were lost during the four centuries that the Spaniards and the British toiled to get the gold. The lake today is serene and innocent with birds chirping all around.

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