Not far north of Bogota by car, but a considerable distance walking, by cart or even by horse is the lake of Guatavita. 35 kilometers, to be precise. The lake, known as ‘the womb of the world’, was sacred to the native Muiscas people of the region. Lake Guatavita played an important part in the ritual by which a chieftain was installed, and this ritual became exaggerated into the myth of El Dorado.
Not that there wasn’t a lot of gold found in the lake by the time they came around to draining it. It started with the brother of the Spaniard who conquered the Muiscas originally. The chieftain of Guatavita had been having problems, as usual, with the chieftain of Bogota and sided with the Spaniards. It was a bad move because allies fared as badly as enemies in the end. Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada was cunning in his exploitation of the Muisca people, and it was his brother Pedro who first began the attempts to drain Guatavita lake and get a hold of its legendary treasures.
Nowadays, the lake is in a reserve: guarded, maintained, and, of course, charged for. It has not long been this way, though, and the guides still ask if anybody remembers when cars were driven to the edge of the lake, trash clouded the waters, people camped, picked the leaves of the precious frailejones, washed their cars with the water sacred to the Musicas. But now it is off limits, the level of the water has been raised by ten meters from its low points, and the frailejones are again growing at their slow, steady rate uninterrupted.
The fauna is returning to that region too, thanks to the careful scruples of the organization charged with maintaining the place. There is a paved path for visitors to follow, guides to explain the history, the flora and the fauna. We saw a musaraña, a small rodent like a little black mouse, we saw many hummingbirds, we heard of foxes, and saw the spirit-bearing tymanzos, birds of carrion, soaring in circles over the waters of Guatavita. When the dead were eaten by tymanzos, their spirit was carried heavenward, the Muiscas thought.
As you ascend, the flora changes. From the cascading chusque and vines of curuba, young guayacanes they’re trying to restore (lignum vitae, in Muisca lore the guayacan is the tree that bears the world), the cedars, the beautiful, parasitic quinches (I think that’s what our guide called them: rather impertinent plants luxuriating on the branch of a tree, flowering, taking their ease) and minute orchids, up to where the frailejones start, the crooked encenillos and the romerones (podocarpus oleifolius, the king of trees for the Muiscas, apparently). Near the top of the crater that holds Guatavita lake you are in a sub-paramo ecosystem, which means it stands 3,100 meters above sea level, knows a great deal of fog and get very chilly after dark.
The lake sits low in the surrounding crater walls because it has been drained. In the sixteenth century it was originally lowered by three meters by means of bailing. Hard work, but rewarding for the brother of the conquistador. He did not find the fortune he sought, but his remuneration was not modest. The ritual of the chieftain involved bathing the gold dust off the body of the appointee every time there was a new one, and so the gold dust of ages was in the sacred lake. But what lured the gold-seekers was that the ritual also involved casting gifts into the waters: gifts to placate the gods, to invoke their aid, to show freewill devotion.
Later, one of the lake’s walls was dug into. First by means of shovel and pick, then with tunnels boring through, and last by means of dynamite and machinery. Eventually the lake was drained and all its treasures carried away.
Now the restored lake stands thirty meters below its original level. Unless the wedge made in the cup of the mountain is refilled, the lake will never reach its former levels. It is a quiet little lake, a largish pool in the cup of the hills nowadays. One species of fish and two of waterfowl enjoy it, and the tourists gaze on it and hear the story of the Muisca rituals and the European devastations.
The cultural significance, the rituals and ways of the Muiscas are interesting, and the place, to gaze on, is interesting, but not compelling. More compelling to my eye are the tilled lands one sees if one turns around and looks at the valley irrigated by the underground waterways through which the lake is drained. A pleasant land, farmed, plotted and apportioned—I’m more of a hobbit, I guess. From the lake you can walk back to the parking by means of a dirt road wandering through this bucolic landscape.
You can ride back in a crowded mini-bus; I recommend the walk. The Andes are peculiar for the height of their highlands in the proximity of the equator. The mornings are autumnal, cool and often clear. The midday summer, so full of green and wildflowers, of the eucalyptus swaying in the breeze and the sunlight drenching all is one of the gladdest things about these highlands. And the chilly evenings with their rain and damp are almost spring. The only thing missing here is winter, and you can go high enough to find that too.
Photos: Katrina Zartman