Dreams of El Dorado & golden cities

The gold of the Americas

This story starts not in America, but in Asia. Dreams of gold born from legends and myths, from reading Marco Polo's description of foreign lands where “the King's palace is roofed with pure gold, and his floors are paved in gold two fingers thick” would lit the imagination and sent Columbus on a quest to Cipangu, that is Japan.

In return for the great dangers of crossing the sea, Columbus asked for a share of 10% of the riches of the new lands, “that of all and every kind of merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever, of whatever kind, name and sort, which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired and obtained within the limits of the said Admiralty, Your Highnesses grant from now henceforth to the said Don Cristóbal... the tenth part of the whole, after deducting all the expenses which may be incurred therein”.

Hernán Cortés and the gold of the Aztecs

For the first thirty years of the discovery of the New World, Columbus promises “to make as short story of the profits of this voyage, I promise, with such small helps as our invincible Majesties may afford me, to furnish them with all the gold they need” seemed to only be based on illusions.

Until Hernán Cortés, with 500 men and their 15 horses landed, and saw the envoys of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma bringing gifts of gold, gems and pearls. Receiving such offerings, Cortés said “send me more of it, because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold”. Having seized an Empire and proved the New World was a land of riches, the attention turned to Peru.

Francesco Pizarro and the gold of the Incas

Pizarro captured Emperor Atahualpa. In exchange for his life he offered that “he would fill with gold a room, and that he would twice fill another, with silver, as his ransom”. Faced with incredulity, Atahualpa added that “he would not merely cover the floor, but would fill the room with gold as high as he could reach”.

Back in Spain officials already described a “torrent of gold”, but there had to be more.

El Dorado was like a mirage, somewhere out on the horizon. The land of gold was over the next mountain, further through the jungle, or down the river. From coast to coast, North to South, treasure seekers died of disease, hunger and exhaustion in their hundreds.

Searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola explorers traveled in modern day Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas, pursuing mirages in a barren and dry landscape. Neither gold or fabled cities were found, just a natural treasure, the Grand Canyon.

El Dorado - legend & truth

The expectations for gold cities was such that a critic said “I do not believe that any of those who took part in this expedition would have taken so much trouble to get into Paradise”.

Or in the words of an Aztec witness when Cortés' men received gold treasures “they seized upon the gold as if they were monkeys, with expression of joy, as if it put new life into them and lit up their hearts. As if it were certainly something for which they yearn with a great thirst. Their bodies fatten on it and they hunger violently for it. They crave gold like hungry pigs”.

Yet the real El Dorado had actually been found : lake Guatavita, an extinguished volcano shaped like a natural amphitheater where the chief of Guatavita, covered in gold powder (therefore El Dorado, the Golden One), threw gold, emeralds and treasures as an offering to the lake.

It did not meet expectations, so the explorers kept on going. But of all the legends that brought the Conquistadors to search over thousands of miles for gold treasures, it was the only truthful one.

This is a preview of the chapter about the quest for El Dorado, the gold of the Americas, from the book Lost Treasures.