Tag: Tourism in Colombia

CultureTravel

The Muisca and the Search for El Dorado

Gold makes monsters of men.

Erin Bowman, Vengeance Road

Gold, glory and God

The origins of the quest for El Dorado can be traced back to the early 16th century when a story about a place containing vast golden treasures began spreading from one Spanish settlement to another along the Caribbean coast of South America. In contemporary times, the name has been exploited in fiction and film, and has long carried the connotation of a search for riches.

Despite the Spanish translation of ‘el dorado’ being ‘the golden’–an adjective meaning ‘the golden one’ and not denoting a city of gold–the legend quickly became embellished to refer to an entire city made of gold which was said to be located in the Valley of Dorado, a place hidden deep in the mountains of the continent’s northern Andes. It was this feverish quest to acquire gold in all its forms that drove numerous European expeditions–from which most adventurers would never return–over the high ranges of the Andes and through dense jungles filled with wild animals, deadly reptiles, unfriendly tribes and jungle fevers.

The first regional expeditions in search of gold were led by German and Spanish explorers traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela. Soon after, Spanish conquistadors stationed in the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta heard stories from wandering natives of an Indian chieftain living high in the mountains whose wealth in gold was so great that he covered his entire body in the precious mineral.

A mural depicting traditional Muiscan figurines rendered from gold and silver. Artist: Edgar Diaz.

Encountering the Muisca

In 1636, the news of this gold-laden chieftain led Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men to abandon their mission of finding an overland route to Peru, and instead head east and up into the Andes. There they encountered the Muisca people, a highly advanced civilization whose territories were divided into a confederation of states without a single centralized leader or ruler.

Physical map of Colombia indicating the approximate range of Musica territory along with the locations of the 3 main Muisca administrative centers in the eastern range of Colombia’s Andes Mountains.

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Culture

Popayán, Colombia–Romantic Colonial Jewel

 

Francisco José de Caldas Park, with it’s ancient towering trees and floral gardens, has marked the heart of Popayán’s colonial era historic district for almost 500 years.

Detail of sculpture on the front facade of the Church of San Francisco. This beautiful church–see header image above–is one of the few buildings in the historic district that is painted a color other than white.

If American playwright Tennessee Williams had been born in Latin America, it surely would have been in southern Colombia’s former capital of Popayán. Walking the lonely streets of Popayán’s historic center after nightfall reminds me of discovering a forgotten antebellum town in the southern USA, albeit with Spanish Colonial architectural roots.

Old Town Popayán gets up early every morning and makes sure to put on just a bit of lipstick and rouge for the day, but by nightfall she has lost her energy so she walks slowly home, closes her shutters and abandons her streets to the happenstance traveler who is curious enough to seek out unique cultural experiences not too far off the well-trod tourist trail.

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