The sleepy Andean lake town that is the source of the El Dorado myth.
About 35 miles north of Bogota, Colombia is the sleepy lake village of Guatavita. From Bogota, you take the main highway leading to Tunja, that makes up the broad and wide central valley of the Cundinamarca department of Colombia. Guatavita is nestled on a quiet ridge of mountains to the east of the main valley.
The less adventurous approach to Guatavita is from the north; you turn off the main highway and head east at the town of Sesquilé, a dusty little town that is named by the indigenous Muisca people for it’s relaxing and therapeutic hot springs. From there, you head south as you enter the picturesque valley that contains Guatavita. The drive is smooth and short, about 10 minutes, and you get occasional glimpses of a lake and several gates indicating private marinas and luxury estates from which you can arrange to rent sailboats.
The road into the town pulls away from the lake and up and you start seeing cottages and properties, with horses and cows lazily meandering in the fields. Most cottages are of white stucco and classic curved terracotta roof tiles. As the houses get bigger and fields turn into yards, you come to the main road. You know you are at the center of the town when you see the Main hotel to the right of you.
From there you look down to your right, and you see the winding streets of Guatavita and a short curved road that leads down to the lake. As with all such towns, you see the main square and the high steeple of the rustic church in the square. You can stay at the fancy hotel, or you can find lodging for the night above one of the many little stores off the main plaza.
Before a walk around the town, a little history. The name Guatavita is derived from the language of the Muisca people, and “gwate” means high mountain peak, or alternately the end of the farm fields. Guatavita is the germ of truth that surrounds the myth of El Dorado, the lost city of gold that the Spaniards sought. For the Muisca people, Guatavita is a sacred place and the center of the succession ritual. The new leader, the “golden one” would paddle out to the center of the lake with gold trinkets and emeralds and covered in a fine gold dust and make offerings to the gods for the wellbeing of his people. Historical examples of the trinkets used can be found in the Museo de Oro in Bogota.
From the high road of the town, off to the east are majestic mountain ridges and bike and hiking trails, to the west is a soft slope that leads to the town square and a lake. Beyond the lake is the mountain ridge that cuts off Guatavita from the main high plains of the region.
On the south end of town from the high street, you can see the unmistakable outline of a bullfighting ring. This ring has not been active for many years and instead is a place to walk around and imagine the past and to enjoy the few shops selling antiques and trinkets in the stalls that surround the ring. From there it is a small walk to the town center, an excellent example of colonial architecture which is a large plaza of several different levels all of it in traditional clay brick.
On the plaza, you find stalls selling traditional Andean clothing an elegant colonial church with impressive stained glass and wood and a tall white stucco spire with little openings at the top for the bell tower. Below the plaza, on a curving road with fancier homes with lush private gardens and grillwork for privacy is the lake.
Just to be clear, though, this is not the ceremonial lake which is about a kilometer away. This is the Tominè reservoir, the beautiful tear-dropped shaped body of water that flanks the town of Guatavita. The actual lake of Guatavita is a small but deep circular crater that is at the crest of one of the mountain ridges and quite invisible from the surrounding area until you are upon it.
Leaving the town from the southern end is much more dramatic as you must pass through some exhilarating and winding mountain roads and majestic vistas as you make your way to the main valley. This road is full of bicyclists on sunny days and leads you to Sopó which is an important dairy town in the region before getting you back to the main highway to Bogota.