(Investigator 59, 1998 March)

EI Dorado was a mythical land in South America where the streets were paved with gold.

The search for this myth has cost thousands of lives!

One search started on a sweltering February morning in 1540 when Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of the governor of Peru, led 350 Spaniards plus 4,000 chained native slaves out of Quito (Peru) toward the east.

No one knew where EI Dorado lay. Native chiefs may have invented the story in the hope of getting the Spaniards to leave.

Originally EI Dorado was the name given to the king of a fabulous city, Manoa, believed to be on the Amazon River. The king was said to be covered in oil and powdered with gold dust. The name of this mythical king came to be applied to his equally mythical domain.

Many expeditions from Spain and England (including two by Sir Walter Raleigh) attempted to find this territory. None succeeded.

Pizzaro (1506-1548) had helped defeat the Incas and conquer Peru in the 1530s. His EI Dorado expedition, however, was a fiasco. All 4,000 natives died and only 90 of the Spaniards returned.

Thousands of hogs were taken along to provide meat. Two thousand dogs were taken to hunt game as well as runaway natives.

The natives began to die when the snow line of the Cordilleras was reached. Hundreds more died as they headed down into the jungle. An earthquake opened a huge crevasse into which fell and perished hundreds more natives.

Fever and diseases took more lives as they hacked their way into the endless jungle. They camped in the valley of Zumaco 170 km from Quito. Exhausted Spaniards and natives were tormented by leeches and insects.
Leaving the main body and the horses behind, Pizarro with 80 men reconnoitered on foot. Some Indians encountered were burned alive or torn apart by dogs for not knowing the way to EI Dorado. Others said it lay a few days march ahead!

The camp at Zumaco was summoned to catch up and the whole expedition marched 100 km downstream. The heat and rain rotted their clothing and destroyed their provisions. All the native bearers were now dead.

The Spaniards got busy building a boat. They melted horse shoes to make nails and sealed the boat surface with resin from trees.

Fifty men led by second-in-command Orellana went down-river on the boat and eventually reached the mouth of the Amazon.

Pizarro and the remaining 160 followed the Napo River to its confluence with the Amazon. Their firearms were rusted, their food gone, hostile natives surrounded them and they were 1,500 km from Quito!

There was no way out but back to Quito. Boa constrictors, exhaustion, wild animals, eating poisonous toads and berries, natives and fever all took a toll.

Back up into the Andes they went and more died from cold. A year after the expedition to El Dorado started, ninety emaciated survivors staggered back into Quito.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) led expeditions in search of EI Dorado between stints in prison.

The first expedition in 1595 took him to the Orinoco River and failed after much suffering. The second in 1616, again to the Orinoco, led to the death of his son during a skirmish with the Spanish followed by his own arrest after returning to England and execution.

El Dorado is simply one of numerous myths and fantasies in pursuit of which humans have wasted their resources, their health and their lives.