Aaaaand now we know why nobody’s ever found the damn place. A city made entirely of gold? Who thought that would be a good idea? Maybe a strange group of nocturnal humans? Perhaps a society of blind people looking to start their own great civilization? Well, if they weren’t blind at first, they probably were when they gazed upon their creation for the first time in the sunlight.

El Dorado, the city of gold, a name that conjures images of ancient South American architecture wreathed in precious metal, glinting in the sunlight amongst the massive trees of the rainforest. Based entirely on speculation, rumor, and good old fashioned misinformation, nobody has ever found evidence of this fabled Columbian city, and many explorers that left their homes in search of it never returned. If no city of gold was ever truly seen, what was it that started the whole thing? Why were the Europeans of the 1600’s and 1700’s so convinced of its existence?

The story starts with greed and with a lust for gold and treasure. During the early colonial period, the Spanish made their way into the heart of Central and South America and found many cities and civilizations there to greet them, most of which contained substantial mineral wealth in the form of gold and other treasures. During these excursions, a tale arose of a people who lived high in the Andes in Columbia and their rituals. The tale went that at his coronation ceremony, a new chief was ritually covered in gold dust and made to dive into a deep lake. As he swam upward, the dust floated down into the depths along with other treasures thrown in by his subjects as a means of appeasing the god that was said to live deep in the water, a means of securing the god’s favor. Upon hearing the story, the Spanish dubbed this chief El Dorado, “The Gilded One” and it passed by word of mouth for some time and became a topic of conversation when discussing the wealth hidden in South America. Eventually, the Spanish found the lake mentioned in the story, Lake Guatavita, and tried to drain it in the mid 1500’s but only found a few hundred gold pieces along the water’s edge. They were never able to find the treasures supposedly hidden in the central depths of the lake.

As time went on, the story shifted from being about the supposed “Gilded One” and El Dorado became the name of a geographical location not associated with the lake found in Columbia, though the gilded chief was often associated with this new city of gold and seen as an emperor or some other royal figure. In time, the legend became more and more exaggerated. Rather than a man covered in gold dust, El Dorado became a village with vast sums of gold, then a city covered in gold, and then an Empire with even its roads made of the precious metal. Europeans exploring the New World and finding villages, hamlets, and towns throughout the continental interior asked after it when talking to the native inhabitants. These people would always point and give directions, indicating that El Dorado or some other wealthy city was just a ways off, if they would just keep going.

Naturally, the Europeans never found it.

The search for El Dorado, to me at least, reflects the frantic search for wealth in a chaotic world. Some explorers, confronted with immense riches, stunning new cultures, and breathtaking new lands were still not satisfied with what they’d found. There was always something bigger, something more valuable just ahead if they could only find it. It’s a little bit inspiring to hear of that attitude, especially when one considers the incredible dangers these people faced. On the other hand, it also seems that they missed the wealth and experiences right in front of them. Quite a shame.

While it’s true that nobody ever found El Dorado, it could also be true that many have stumbled upon the city and simply been struck blind by its gleaming facades in the morning sun.

They don’t say people are “blinded by greed” for nothin’!