Bogotá, Colombia

In the glare of El Dorado

While Europeans once flocked to Bogotá for its links to a mythical city of gold, the lively Colombian capital shines for a different reason these days, and is making waves with its glittering cultural and gastronomic scenes.

I was surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of pieces of pre-Columbian gold artefacts. Gleaming shapes representing jaguars, snakes, condors and all manner of anthropomorphic figures stared blankly at me, fixed side by side on a huge circular display. It created an effect akin to being inside a gargantuan golden temple. This was what the El Dorado of my imagination looked like, echoing the fantasies of European visitors down the ages, who once flocked to the Americas in search of a mythical city of gold.

Yet this was 2022 and I wasn’t lost in some far-flung jungle, but admiring one of the central halls of the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Colombia’s renowned Museum of Gold. It holds an impressive collection of over 60,000 pieces, making it the largest cultural institution dedicated to gold metallurgy in the world. As I wandered its displays with Maria de la Paz, conservator at the museum, I mentioned my visions of glittering cities.

“There is a strong connection between the museum and the legend of El Dorado, but it is not quite what you think,” she corrected. “There are many real-life links to the legend across the Americas, but the most historically accurate origin story comes from Bogotá’s broader region and its indigenous people, the Muisca.”

The Muisca inhabited the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in around 1000 BC, but the peak of their cultural powers didn’t arrive until after the 7th century AD. Sadly, the Spanish conquest of the region later brought an abrupt end to their advanced civilisation.

“The Muisca didn’t build monumental structures like their more famous American counterparts, the Inca, the Aztecs and the Maya, but they left behind incredible artefacts that tell many stories,” smiled Maria, pointing to a tiny golden creation. “Right here, before your eyes, lies the origin of the legend of El Dorado.”

The item, known as the Muisca Raft, was surrounded by an impressive installation that made it appear as if it was floating in the air. Maria explained how it represented the ceremony that inspired the legend of El Dorado, more correctly known as ‘El Rey Dorado’ (or ‘The Golden King’). As I tried to make sense of the human figures on the tiny raft, she narrated its curious story.

“Every time a new Muisca chief, or Zipa, took over, his investiture ceremony included an initiation rite in Laguna de Guatavita. The Zipa would be covered in gold dust and would go out on a raft just like this,” she paused, pointing to the central figure towering at the back of the raft. “He was accompanied by hundreds of gold artefacts that would be thrown in the sacred waters as offerings to the gods, before the Zipa himself jumped in.”

To emphasise her point, Maria gestured to a photograph of Laguna de Guatavita, the most sacred of the Muisca lakes and where the ‘Golden Indian’ ritual was traditionally performed. To think that it was this that gave rise to the legend of El Dorado, a tale that led thousands of Europeans to these lands, causing countless deaths in pursuit of its mythical riches.

(Alamy)

(Alamy)

An hour and a half later, after leaving Bogotá’s congested streets far behind, I found myself at the entrance to Laguna de Guatavita Park alongside hundreds of locals. We were all waiting to join a three-hour guided tour that culminated with a visit to the miradors (viewpoints) overlooking the mythical lake, which we were soon to learn was in fact a large sinkhole.

Before the walk, I met up with Eduardo Acosta, the park director, who explained that the obligatory guided tours were a way to limit the environmental impact of thousands of visitors to the lake and park, as well as make it more educational.

“At 3,000m, the uphill hike to reach it isn’t the easiest,” he warned me as we made our way to the first mirador. It certainly didn’t stop the conquistadors. The list of people who tried to raid the lake’s riches is too long to mention, but the Spanish were the most persistent, even altering the landscape in the process. Eduardo pointed to a man-made gap alongside the crater-like perimeter. This had been opened up long ago in an unsuccessful attempt to drain the lake.

“It is impossible to know exactly how much gold or how many precious artefacts were found in the water, but we do know that thousands of pieces have been reclaimed over the past five centuries,” commented Eduardo. As we took in the majestic views of the lake, it turned myriad shades of green as the sun shone through the clouds.

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Back in Bogotá, I met with Angelina Guerrero, an independent curator, museologist and part of a generation of young Bogotanos driving a cultural renaissance in Colombia’s sprawling capital. We began our visit in the city’s historical core, the Candelaria district, which takes its name from the colonial-era Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.

Angelina was eager for me to experience the many cultural institutions that have underlined Bogotá’s status as a rising star on the global arts scene. The Museum of Gold is now just one among many highlights, and she was soon directing me to a monumental complex housing the Art Collection of the Central Bank, the star attraction being the works of Colombia’s universally celebrated artist, Fernando Botero.

Instantly recognisable for his chunky, sometimes comical figures, Botero’s unique artistic style is explored across a series of masterpieces that he donated to the state back in 2000. The museum’s permanent collection helped to decipher some of the allegories found within his creations while juxtaposing his work next to that of the artists who inspired him. The Botero Museum’s noteworthy international collection features works by Picasso, Dali, Monet and Matisse, among others.

We finished our cultural tour with a visit to the recently renovated National Museum of Colombia, located outside the historical centre in a cleverly converted prison building.

“The museum made headlines in the art world for its innovative approach to showcasing its permanent collection,” prompted Angelina as we began our visit. Rather than exhibiting its works in chronological order, the galleries were separated into themes such as gold, power, family and struggle. The resulting medley – ranging from pre-Columbian to republican, to contemporary works – was refreshing in helping visitors to focus on understanding the commonalities and disconnections across the Colombian people.

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

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Venturing out of the historical core, I got a flavour of modern Bogotá. A metropolis of over 11 million people, the city sits on an Andean altiplano surrounded by evergreen mountains. Despite its large size, there is homogeneity in the urban fabric here, in the form of the red-brick buildings that dominate the cityscape. Bogotanos have a pioneering architect, Rogelio Salmona, to thank for this.

“Rogelio was inspired by the Islamic brickwork of Spain and North Africa, and designed prominent public and residential edifices using a cheap product that had traditionally functioned as a local substitute for stonework,” explained Angelina, adding that “the use of brick is also helpful in insulating buildings from the constant humidity.”

I could see her point. Despite its proximity to the equator, the city’s high altitude (2,600m above sea level) meant that it experienced a peculiar climate that could be best described as perennial spring, with plentiful rainfall and mild temperatures across the year.

As we continued our tour, Angelina started to touch on the country’s challenging recent past, particularly the violent 1980s and ’90s. Today, following the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, FARC, things are very different here, but it has left plenty for people to reflect on.

We stopped at a contemporary installation by the artist Doris Salcedo that paid tribute to those lost to Colombia’s five-decades of internal strife. She had used the ruins of a 17th-century house as the stage for an ‘anti-monument’ made from the surrendered weapons of 13,000 insurgents. Entitled ‘Fragmentos’, the work is centred on a grey floor built of the melted weaponry, forming a solemn and simple commemoration of peace. The eerie space was metaphorically developed as a location where weapons are looked down on rather than feared for their power.

“It is a location for all of us, present and future generations, to reflect on our history and its not-too-distant past,” remarked Angelina solemnly, before adding a note of optimism. “The city has changed dramatically over the last two decades – a real transformation from when I was a kid growing up here. It’s not only safer and cleaner, but it is also experiencing a complete regeneration in terms of nightlife and gastronomy.”

She continued enthusiastically as we made our way to Restaurante LEO. Recently named one of the 50 finest restaurants on the planet by The World’s 50 Best, LEO is among a significant roster of local establishments making global headlines. Mother and daughter duo Leo and Laura Espinosa have developed a unique ‘Ciclo-bioma’ culinary philosophy, which uses gastronomy as a tool for social and economic development in indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. We dined on Amazonian ants and coca-leaf-infused trout accompanied by fruits and plants native to Colombia. There were flavours so bold and unusual that the more familiar sensation of the Colombian coffee infusion served at the end felt almost restful.

As my time in Bogotá came to an end, I couldn’t help but suppress a wry chuckle. On the way to the airport, I noticed highway signs pointing to ‘El Dorado’ that were accompanied by an airplane icon – yes, I was on my way to El Dorado International. But before bidding me goodbye, Angelina was eager that I see one last piece of Colombian art: an enormous golden textile hanging above the check-in area. It was the creation of Olga de Amaral, another of Colombia’s internationally prolific artists – and one very fond of gold leaf. “After all, it wouldn’t be El Dorado without the gold!” smiled Angelina as she waved a gilded farewell.

About the trip

Getting there

Avianca, Colombia’s national carrier, flies daily to Bogotá non-stop from London (10 hours), with rates from around £600. Bogotá’s El Dorado International is a regional hub served by many European and American carriers.

Getting around

Bogotá’s traffic is as legendary as El Dorado, but it has improved since the launch of dedicated bus lanes and eco-buses. Taxi apps are available, but do exercise caution at night.

Where to stay

Many local and international brand hotels are found in the city, yet the two undisputed leaders in hospitality are operated by the Four Seasons Hotel Group.

The Four Seasons Casa Medina is set in a listed 1946 building designed in the Spanish Colonial-style by Colombian artist-architect Santiago Medina Mejia. Rooms come with hand-carved wooden furnishings and fireplaces. The hotel is part of the vibrant ‘Zona Gourmet’ dining district and is just a 15-minute drive from Candelaria.

The Four Seasons Hotel Bogotá is a sister property to Casa Medina and is better placed for experiencing Zona T, Bogotá’s vibrant dining and shopping district. It’s also a good base for the city’s nightlife and the cafés of the boho Chapinero neighbourhood.

The trip

The author travelled independently to Bogotá, with on-the-ground support from ProColombia and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts Bogotá. Galavanta provided guides and an itinerary and has tailor-made tours throughout Colombia. For more information on Colombia, visit colombia.travel/en 

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