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  • Writer's pictureChristina Mesk

My Visit to Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita


One of our first cultural excursions in #Colombia was to Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita. Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita is part of a protected reservation and was sacred to the ancient Muisca indigenous people. This is also the source and site of the Legend of El Dorado. Because this is a protected reservation, we were not allowed to bring plastic bottles into the reservation. We could only bring glass or reusable water bottles during our hike. The tour guides are very proud of the history of Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita and most of them are are descendants of the Muisca people. The hike to Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita is slow, but not because it is difficult. The tour guides stop frequently to speak about what life was like for the Muisca people, both before and after the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. At the start of the trail, you are invited to sit inside a Kusmuy or a ceremonial house while the tour guide describes how the ceremonial house was used by the Muisca. Unfortunately I don't remember many details from this part of the hike. Our tour guide only spoke Spanish and my brain had to a do a lot of work to keep up as she was speaking. It was here that she spoke a lot about how life changed for the Muisca after the arrival of the Spanish and the importance the Zipa or their ruler held in the daily lives of the ancient Muisca people. We did bring our own translator, but I wasn't sitting near Marianna in the Kusmuy.

As we climbed higher on the trail, we stopped to discuss the plants that grew along the trail and the tour guides described how the Muisca people used these plants for medicinal purposes. Along the trail are other guides who pay attention to how the hikers are feeling as the elevation increases. The guides carry first aid kits and medication for those visitors that begin to suffer from elevation sickness. The trail is well-maintained and includes handrails to help hikers negotiate the stone steps that make up most of the trail. Visitors are not allowed to hike to Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita without a tour guide due to the protected nature of the land and the high elevation.

What makes Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita special or different?

Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita was a sacred space for the Muisca and is still treated as a sacred space today even though many tourists visit on a daily basis. There is some mystery surrounding how the lake formed and where the water came from. There are large salt deposits in the area. Our tour guide at La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá shared that this area was once the sight of an ancient sea and this resulted in Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita as well as the surrounding salt deposits. Our tour guide at Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita suggested that there had to be an underground water source for the lake.

Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita is also the site and source of the Legend of El Dorado. When the Muisca were ready to crown a new Zipa or ruler, he would be secluded for several days. He would not be allowed to have salt, chili peppers or be in the company of women. On his coronation day, he would be covered in a fine gold dust and he would leap into the waters of Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita. After the Zipa washed off the gold dust, the Muisca would throw golden trinkets into the water. This ceremony was an offering to the gods and was meant to bring blessings to the new ruler's reign. The gold dust and trinkets were allowed to sink to the bottom of the lake. (Cartwright, 2014)

What challenges did the Muisca face with Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita?

The Spanish Conquistadors were relentless in their search for gold within the Andes Mountains. The stories about the rituals the Muisca carried out at Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita only fueled their desire for gold as they colonized the surrounding area. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada arrived at Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita in 1537 and from that point forward both the Spanish and the English attempted to retrieve the gold that was at the bottom of the lake ("Lake Guatavita," 2022). In the 1580s, Antonio de Sepúlveda attempted to cut a slice out of the crater surrounding the lake so that the water would flow out and the gold could be reached more easily (Cartwright, 2014). As the lake began to drain, some gold artifacts were located along the edges of the lake (Cartwright, 2014). However, during the process a landslide occurred and blocked the cut the lake was draining through. (Cartwright, 2014). As a result of the landslide, the lake began to fill again (Cartwright, 2014). On the trail, our guide pointed out where the cut was made in the crater. The cut aligns directly with the trailhead and even through the vegetation, you can see the impact this action had on the environment around the lake.

In 1909, the English drained the lake by digging a tunnel under the lake. Unfortunately, the mud at the bottom of the lake was very soft and could not support the weight of the equipment the English were using to search for gold. As the mud baked in the sun, it became exceptionally hard and the English had to go back to Bogotá for drilling equipment. When they returned they discovered that the mud had hardened in their drainage tunnel and as a result, the lake had refilled. At this point the English had run out of money and could no longer afford to search for the gold within the lake. (Cartwright, 2014)

Although both the Spanish and English were unsuccessful at retrieving gold from Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita, they were able to take a lot of gold back to Europe. However, on our hike I learned that the Muisca did not just use gold for their jewelry, headpieces and other objects. There was also a lot of bronze within many of these objects. The Spanish were under the impression these objects were made of pure gold and did not learn about the use of bronze until they returned to Europe with them.

Colombians are very proud of their history and identify as descendants of both the over 100 indigenous groups within #Colombia and the Spaniards. There is a network of gold museums within Colombia that collect the artifacts that were taken during colonization. I was able to visit the Gold Museum in Bogotá to see some of these pieces. Although Colombians are keenly aware of the negative impact colonization had on indigenous culture, there is no resentment because everyone can trace their descendants back to the indigenous people and the Spaniards. The Colombians I spoke with on this tour felt that instead of focusing on the past, they wanted to focus on the preservation of sacred places like Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita and celebrate the pluralism that makes #Colombia unique.

How did I feel when I visited Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita?

I really enjoyed this hike because it was so peaceful. The hike to Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita feels like a pilgrimage. Even though I am not a proficient Spanish speaker, I enjoyed learning from the tour guides. The tour guides were so eager to teach us about Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita and their Muisca heritage. As the elevation increases, the view of the surrounding countryside is breathtaking. The hike to Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita is not very difficult and the tour guides went at a slow enough pace so that no one in our group suffered from severe elevation sickness and that we could all appreciate the beauty around us.

At the highest incline (3,000 meters), visitors are invited to close their eyes, hold out their hands and think about something or someone that you love or brings you joy. After dwelling on that joy, they ask you to metaphorically throw that joy into Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita so that the lake continues to be blessed. I thought this was a beautiful and soothing tradition. I really loved the idea of asking visitors to pay it forward before hiking back down the trail. It amplified the feeling that this wasn't just a hike; it was a pilgrimage. As I thought about the joy I would share with Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita, I fingered a beaded bracelet on my wrist. The bracelet had been a gift from my friend Jónina. Jónina was a beautiful and unique soul who had a huge impact on my life. Unfortunately, she had passed away about a month before I had left for #Colombia. I thought about how much she would have liked this tradition and how much she would have enjoyed this hike. I thought how much she would have liked meeting the people in my cohort as well as the Colombian teachers and students at our school visits. I thought about the 1 million questions she would have asked me about this field experience when I returned to the states. I chose to quietly reflect on the many joyful memories I had been lucky to share with her over the last 18 years and those are the blessings I tossed into Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita. Jónina brought so many blessings to so many people and it felt fitting to pay those blessings forward if only metaphorically for the moment. I walked back down the trail feeling lighter yet full of gratitude.


Laguna Del Cacique Guatavita

Location Data:

4.9776° N, 73.7750° W

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1 Comment

Aug 25, 2022

This was a beautiful post, Christina! Thanks so much for sharing, especially about your reflections on Nina at the end. She was truly amazing, and I know she's so proud of you and all you do for your students!

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