On the mountain overlooking Lake Guatavita there are four placards summarizing the words of the elders of the Muisca tribe.
I had packed all my bags and managed to talk my airline into connecting me through Bogota on my way back to the United States so I would have one full day with a missionary I had met and become close to while in Ecuador. When he picked me up at the airport, he didn’t ask many questions and talked only of his new projects around Bogota. The next morning he had me out of bed early for a day excursion to a lake about sixty miles outside the city. During the ride, I tried to figure out a way to tell him my story, but I didn’t know whether to begin with an apology or to plunge right into it. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the park containing Lake Guatavita was strangely devoid of tourists. Colin apparently knew the area well and talked the park ranger into allowing us to climb to the top without the aid of a guide.
After a thirty-minute hike we reached the top of the ridge overlooking Lake Guatavita. Colin leaned against the railing and faced me. “Do you know the legend of El Dorado?”
“The city of gold, right?”
“That’s right. But the name refers to ‘the golden man.’ Did you know that legend has its origins in this lake?”
“Really? I’ve never heard of Guatavita.”
“People have done crazy things in the search for El Dorado. But it was all a misunderstanding. The Muisca people who lived here worshiped the earth. When a new chief came to power after having been prepared for his role since childhood, he would take part in a ceremony to honor the lake. Dipped in honey and covered in gold dust, El Dorado would go out on a boat to the center of the lake and when the sun emerged in the sky, he would jump in.
“The gold dust represented seeds. So when he went into the water he symbolically fertilized the womb of mother earth and in return received the power necessary to rule his people. After he came out of the water the people would throw offerings – many of gold – into the middle of the lake. Can you imagine what an outsider would have thought when he saw a man of gold rowing out there or when he witnessed the people participating in the ceremony throwing gold and emeralds into the water?” Colin gave me a moment to let it sink in. “This is how the legend of El Dorado came to be. Of course the legend grew to where the Spanish believed there were cities made of gold and went deep into the jungles searching for El Dorado. And it all started because of outsiders misinterpreting a religious ceremony. El Dorado was not a city. El Dorado was a man. He was a man who worshiped and understood our connection to the earth. This is the treasure of the Muisca people. In the good ol’ days people didn’t come to take from the lake. They made a pilgrimage here to give to the lake. The crater itself was the womb of mother earth.”
I looked out over the perfectly round lake. It was completely peaceful. “Where are the tourists?” I asked.
“People are afraid to come to Colombia. Even though a tourist hasn’t been kidnapped in nearly ten years, there’s a history of violence that lingers in people’s minds. We know it’s safe, but people have so many countries to choose to visit so they figure, why risk Colombia. It’s a shame. They’ll never know what a great country it really is.”
I looked out over the nearby hills that made the shape of a man lying on his back. “That’s sad. It’s sad that this country will forever be viewed through a prism of violence.”
“Not forever. Forever’s a long time. Perceptions change over time.”
I was overcome with a feeling of calm. My heart seemed to slow and my face relaxed into a smile. “Did the Spanish ever find much gold at this site?” I asked.
“Of course. But everyone who has come trying to extract the gold from the bottom has been bankrupted in the process. The Spanish tried. The Dutch have tried. Americans have tried. It’s not meant to be. Do you see that ‘V’ carved in the mountain?”
“That was a failed attempt to drain the lake. They extracted a lot but always invested more to find what lies at the bottom. That’s supposedly where the good stuff is. The water level has dropped considerably because of the attempts. Do you see across the lake there about midway above the water? That’s how high the water used to be before the lake was drained. If you look across the shore you can see an entrance to the caves where archaeologists have found a bunch of artifacts including a boat made of gold.”
I studied Colin carefully. I didn’t know if this was the best time to bring it up. “Did you know there are caves near Misahualli?”
“Sure,” he said. “But they’re a muddy mess when they’re not full of water. But they also hold the cleanest water.”
“And the shamans know of them?” I asked.
He gave me a wry smile. “The Spanish left many written accounts of shamans who spent extended periods of time in caves with no exposure to sunlight. It was a place to think. It was a rite of passage. Here in Colombia, not far from Bogota, they’ve found human bones that are oddly curved. The lack of exposure to the sun creates a deficiency of vitamin D causing the bones to warp, so scientists believe these bones belonged to shamans who confined themselves to the caves.”
We climbed to a higher vantage point and looked out over the lake. Apparently there is debate over how a crater lake came to be in a non-volcanic region. Some say a meteor crashed into the mountain. Another theory is that the lake is the result of a caved in salt dome. Nevertheless, the water is said to be over 250 meters deep and so murky near the bottom, scuba teams were unable to see enough to find anything. A few years ago, the government put an end to the searches and created a national park to protect the lake.
Colin turned his back to the water. “Today people don’t throw things into the lagoon. What they do—many people from many religions from all over the world—is come here and put their backs to the lagoon, to keep the old traditions, and make a meditation for about a minute. And you ask for something. Then you take your thoughts…” He made a fist, then turned around, opened his hand, and blew his thoughts into the lake. “…and you give it. It’s the gift.”
I stood there at the highest point of the mountain overlooking the crater-lake. I turned my back to it and closed my eyes. Prayers filled my mind and I was overcome by hope. I knew what I had to offer and took it from my pocket. I thought of her as she drifted into my consciousness. I turned and faced the lake and took a deep breath. I opened my hand and released it. I think I saw the glint of gold as it fluttered toward the deep waters.