El Dorado – The Source of the Legend

An "atmospheric" photo of the lagoon.
An “atmospheric” photo of the lagoon.

Imagine that is an inky morning, just before dawn, six hundred years ago. A warming amber light spreads first on the crest of the crater, and then rays of light rush, like happy children, down the banks of the emerald green slope, to skim like eagles across the opal water. Your eyes are fixed on the center of the lagoon. On a youth covered in gold dust. From the shore, he is small, like a pebble. As dawn breaks, he appears, his body, nude but for gold dust, shimmering like flecks of sunrise on a lake. When his raft reaches the center of the sacred lagoon, the youth offers gold artifacts into the water. He then performs ablutions in the lake, the gold dust disseminating like a million stars on the milky way. Once again, he, the golden seed, has impregnated the female lagoon. The cycle of life ensured once again.

One of those boxes of mangoes cost 12,000 pesos ($5).
One of those boxes of mangoes cost 12,000 pesos ($5).

That is the tale you will hear, sort of, from the guide as he tells you about the Muisca people who lived in the area outside Bogota before it became Bogota.The guide will tell you about the local people and the pitiful grams of gold that the Spaniards and others dredged out of Gautavita Lagoon, centuries ago, and then again, a century ago. Until, finally the Colombian government put a stop to it. It took longer for the government to make this area a protected area, but it is now. About a decade ago, the organization that runs the tours, was set up and now, it runs like Disney for adults.

The steps up.
The steps up.

The Details: I recommend making a day of it via the town of Guatavita and the reservoir, not to be confused with the lagoon. Try to go in an SUV as the last stretch of road is a dirt road pitted with potholes (perhaps also take motion sickness pills if you don’t take well to being jerked about in a car. Or swaying and sashaying up the “dangerous curves” of lovely Colombia). From Bogota, set out to the east along the toll road (it costs around 3,000 pesos or $2). It’s a pleasant drive that starts with a good view of the mega-city. Then it goes through some industrial looking towns before a turn off at a mango stand. Once you get to the town of Guatavita, stop at a bakery and pick up some guava bread or some other snack.

The plant from which Scopolamine is made.
The plant from which Scopolamine, the date rape drug, is made.

Along the way, one of the towns is Guasca (like the herb they put in ajiaco), also known as the town of the Muisca people. It is a village and has a pleasant feel to it. I enjoy seeing all the old men in hats and ponchos.

The el dorado raft in the gold museum.
The el dorado raft in the gold museum.

Then head off to the sacred lagoon. The last seven kilometers (about 5 miles) is dirt road. There are many great photo opportunities along the way like picturesque fincas (country houses), cows being milked by hand, and great swathes of countryside that looks like New Zealand.

Ajiaco, with guasca leaves, from my lunch in Guatavita.
Ajiaco, with guasca leaves, from my lunch in Guatavita.

Once you get to the entrance of Guatavita Lagoon, take a tour to the actual lagoon (you may not walk their by yourself). The tours start every half hour and are guided. The cost is around 17,000 pesos ($7), but I can’t remember the exact amount. There are gift shops and bathrooms. The tour actually takes about two and half hours and is one way, up a lot of muddy steps. The end of the tour is at a local corn and drinks stand. To return to your car, there is a bus service that costs 1,500 pesos ($.75), or you can have your driver bring the car to the end point.

A display at the Guatavita museum.
A display of el dorado himself at the Guatavita museum.

I won’t spoil the tour for you by explaining it. That said, without the legend, it does just look like a small pond (hence why most Bogotanos seem more into visiting the “lago” which is really the reservoir). It’s basically a 45 minute walk interspersed with 90 minutes of educational talk (about the planet, about nature, and preserving the native plants, oh, and about the legend), and about 40 minutes of selfie-stick photo ops. The nice part is that once you get to the top, the guide leaves you to take lots of photos and walk downhill by yourself. In terms of difficulty, I’d guess that this is about 900 steps at 9,000 feet elevation. But, mostly, the steps are done in small segments. Just enough to make you regret the guava bread or empanada that you ate for breakfast.

I would have liked a laser and smoke show with an ethereal gilded (hence “el dorado”) youth appearing out of the water. Apparently, there is one somewhere nearby.

After a refreshing three hour walk, it’s nice to settle in back at Guatavita town and enjoy a lunch. Guatavita town was re-located 40 years ago when the Bogota reservoir (“reprisa” in Spanish) flooded the old town. The town has a museum, tourist shops, lots of bathrooms, and restaurants. It is also possible to rent a horse to ride down to the reservoir. Or you can walk, drive down, or take the mini-train. At the reservoir’s edge, people like to picnic and enjoy the view. Up until two years ago, it was possible to rent a launch and visit some of the islands and ruins. I noticed lots of yachts and yacht clubs but for the common folk, well, I don’t know if they are allowed out on the water anymore. The reservoir is very large (the hydroelectric dam provides the power for 8.5 million Bogotanos) and beautiful.

A chat in Guasca.
A chat in Guasca.

But, it’s not a sacred lagoon (or maybe it is since it creates the power which fuels Bogota) where legends start and greedy conquistadors project their dreams of wealth. Gold was the oil of their time. Perhaps the guide was right that conserving the planet is the new quest. Perhaps, the quest for potable water is the new el dorado.

The road to el dorado.
The road to el dorado.

 

One Week Tour of Bogota

A view of Bogota, city of eight million.
A view of Bogota, city of eight million.

I’ve had quite a few visitors recently and I’m expecting quite a few more, so I thought I’d try to get my “tour of Bogota” blog posting done before someone else asks me where they should take their visitors.

If you visit Bogota (for work perhaps) and only have one week here, this is my suggestion of what to do.

Try to visit most of the centrally located attractions after work. The old town of Bogota is called La Candelaria and in it are located the Gold Museum, the Botero Museum, Bolivar plaza, the president’s residence, and mount Montserrate (eat up there if you want). For dinner on the other nights, eat in Parque 93 (Mercado does Colombian food) and the Zona rosa (or Zona G, etc.). The part of the street around Cevicheria Central has several good restaurants including Di Luca and Agadon though they do not specialize in Colombian cuisine. A must try is Andres carne de res (or include the Chia location on Saturday’s outing if you want the loud and raucous experience), and cevicheria La Mar. Harry Sasson has interesting architecture (don’t be deceived by the dark exterior). Also, it’s hard to find but usually there’s a car parked in the jungle that constitutes their lawn. You may catch a glimpse of the politically powerful dining there. If you want to try the other Colombian chains, eat at Crepes and Waffles for lunch, Bogota Beer Company, and sip coffee (or “tinto” as it’s called here) at the coffee chains, Oma and Juan Valdez. Colombian food to try are arepas, empanadas, ajiaco, sancocho, criolla potatoes, obleas, and fresh lulo juice.

"La naturaleza" or nature, near the Guatavita Lagoon.
“La naturaleza” or nature, near the Guatavita Lagoon. This is actually a view of the hydroelectric reservoir.

Then on Saturday, hire a car and driver (some are about $12/hour . Or you can use tour companies) and go out of Bogota to the Zipaquira town (salt cathedral fame) and go up to Guatavita Lagoon (source of the El Dorado legend). Be prepared that you can only hike to the lagoon with a tour and it takes two hours. Or visit the little town of San Francisco as you enjoy the back country lanes and the beauty of Colombia’s landscape.

On Sunday, get up early (like at 6 or 7) and go see Paloquemao market. Do breakfast/brunch (from 8-12) at Club Colombia, Avenida 82, No. 9-11 (unless you want the real deal at the market), then do Ciclovia (when the streets are closed so that people can exercise).  You can include a view of Bogota from the Colpatria Tower, Avenida Carrera 7, No. 24-89, (for the view from the 48th floor, and you only have to walk up two flights of stairs), the Calle 26 flea market, the San Alejo pulgas (stalls), Carrera 7, No. 24-70, (link in Spanish), the Macarena area (includes quirky cafes like the dog café, Azimus, Carrera 5, No. 26A-64, and La Juqueteria – the playhouse, Carrera 4), the old bull fighting ring, and National Museum (Museo Nacional), Carrera 7, No. 28-66. Then take a cab up to Usaquen to walk around the adorable streets and the Sunday market (some flea but mostly artisan). Eat at La Mar for dinner.

Colorful walls in Guasca.
Colorful walls in Guasca.

If you have a second weekend, then I’d suggest going to Cartagena (even if just for one day — or add a few days just to go there). If you have more time, then visit Medellin, Cali, Santa Marta, Letitia (for an Amazon tour).

Notes: Never let your credit card out of your sight. They will be swipe it at the table with a mobile unit. If asked “cuantas cuotas?” the answer is one (unless you want to do a layaway plan for your two dollar coffee). Use an app like Tappsi to get cabs. No cab ride should be more than 35,000 ($17). Ask to use “el metro” which is the meter. It doesn’t always count in currency, instead, it’s  a code with a corresponding amount on the taxi fare chart or on the meter. Lock the doors when you are in the cab. Also, remember that the altitude may take your breath away. Heed the need for oxygen and take it slow (like sitting in meetings) for the first day or so.

One last thing about visiting Bogota. It’s always 65 F and the sun will come out almost every day. So every day is a good day to visit. All year round (okay, it rained at 2:30 p.m. every day in October and November, but the sun came out in the morning!).

Rent a horse on the shores of the reservoir.
Rent a horse on the shores of the reservoir.