Cultura Muisca

From the time leading Spanish Explorer Cortez, while in Mexico, saw large emeralds and heard about the wealth coming from tribes far to the south, the Spanish empire set out to find the riches and treasures hidden somewhere in the jungles and mountains to the south.

In 1537 the Spanish explorers ventured deep into what is now Colombia heading straight south from the Caribbean through the waterways and the great river called the Magdalena. Facing repeated attacks from warrior tribes like the Taironas at the mouth of the river and others farther up river, the Spanish felt unsettled about their new route to wealth and riches in this new land. They had even considered this river a potential route to Peru.

Spanish explorer, Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada’s troops, journeyed far up river and began to meet up with peoples native to the area. These "Muiscas" were different from previously encountered tribes. They were far more peaceful and seemingly even more "civilized". The Spanish explorers mention in their diaries that these natives dressed in better clothing and their living structures, though made of straw and mud still, were constructed with superior engineering to that of the lowland tribes farther north.

The Muisca culture was based on two supreme rulers called the Zipa and farther south called the called the Zaque. These were considered as almost god like beings by their subjects and were never to be looked at directly.

The Muiscas anthropologically are a subculture of the larger Chibcha tribe. The Chibchas were the biggest people group between the Aztecs of Mexico to the north and the Incas of Peru to the south.

The Muiscas used sacred lagoons and forests for sacrifices and the burial of offerings of emeralds and gold artifacts. The natives would bury the offerings as only the Caciques or chieftains were allowed to throw the artifacts directly to the Gods in the bottom of the sacred lagoons.

One lagoon in particular spawned the famous legend of El Dorado, the "Golden One". Farther up in the mountains than any of the villages, about 3000 meters above sea level, lies the small round crater lake or lagoon of Guatavita. The deep round crater was thought to have been created by a meteorite strike about 2000 years ago. The Muiscas believed it was the coming of the Sun God who from then on inhabited the bottom of the lake.

The most intriguing stories that drew the Spanish Conquistadors from Peru northwards and southward from Mexico came from stories of the ceremonies surrounding the crowning of the great Caciques. When the Zipa died, his body would be entombed in a gold casket and thrown into the sacred lagoons. The new Zipa would be specially crowned in this particular hidden deep-cratered lagoon called Guatavita. He would be covered in honey or other sticky substances and then gold dust, thus visually seen to be “El Dorado”. He would then be sent out into the middle of the lake on a small reed raft with some of his most important subjects. The raft would have many golden artifacts and emeralds strewn about his feet. In the middle of the lake, the artifacts were thrown overboard and the new Zipa would jump in washing off the gold covering his body.

A historical description of the ceremony was written up about 100 years after the first explorations:

"... By that lake of Guatavita they made a great raft of reeds, decorating it as beautifully as they could ... They undressed the heir, anointed him with a sticky earth and dusted him with ground and powdered gold, so that he went in the raft completely covered with this metal. The golden Indian made his offering, casting all the gold and emeralds he had brought into the middle of the lake, and the four chiefs who were with him made their own offerings; and when the raft landed the feast commenced, flutes and horns, with great dances in circles according to their custom, with which ceremony they received the new ruler and acclaimed him their lord and prince. From this ceremony came the celebrated name of El Dorado."
Juan Rodríguez Freyle, 1636 (from Museo del Oro: Bogota Colombia).

The search for treasure then began to focus on this lake, but with very few rewards. Many items were found but the depth and difficulty of diving and exploring these waters in this crater proved the crater lake to hold its mystery.

In 1578, the Spanish merchant Antonio de Sepulveda secured a license from Spain to drain the lake to gain access to the incalculable treasures lying beneath the waters. With large numbers of Muiscas, he ordered a slice of the side of the crater to be dug away to drain the lake. This missing chunk can be seen today, and although it took the water level down some, the lake only surrendered 10 ounces of gold.

Many years later in 1801, Alexander van Humboldt initiated an enterprise to widen this gap in the side of the crater. The water level was lowered but only a few pieces of gold were discovered. In 1912 the English company Contractors Ltd. was able to drain more of the lake finding many pieces of gold, but it still did not cover the £40,000 investment.

The legend still keeps attracting treasure hunters to try and explore the lake and find its largest treasures still hidden in the dark cold and murky waters.

The little golden raft named the "Balsa Muisca" now on display at the Gold Museum in Bogota is the most representative symbol of this whole story. Some claim it was found in the lake during one of the treasure hunting expeditions. Probably the most accurate version comes from the Gold Museum historians who document that 3 farmers found it hidden inside a ceremonial Muisca clay pottery jar far south of Bogota in a cave close to the little town of Pasca back in 1969.

The raft itself was cast in the Muisca "Tumbaga" method of lost wax in clay mold. The Museum says that it was cast in a single piece out of 80% gold and alloy with copper and native silver. It weighs 287.5 grams and measures 19 cm long x 10.1 cm wide x 10.2 cm high.

As you design your emerald jewellery pieces, keep the Muisca culture and especially the little golden raft in mind. The Muisca were the first to discover the emerald mines. While you craft your gold or platinum pieces with emeralds, also remember that the Muiscas high up in the Andes Mountains back in 700-1500 AD were the first emerald jewelers to do the same thing you are doing now.

Give us a call to learn more about the emeralds you could use. If you are considering incorporating this theme, we can locate emeralds from the closest mines to the mysterious lake itself, if not from its own waters …

Call us at 1 800 EMERALD or


Although a number of us grew up right in Bogotá and some of us have even personally trekked up into the mountains to the little crater lake of Guatavita, our historical knowledge of exact chronologies and dates was supplemented by these sources among other family and friends who had information passed down in the generations.

For more information go to the Gold Museum of Bogota’s web page description of the Muisca Raft at

If you are planning a trip to Colombia or anywhere else, be sure to purchase your copy of Lonely Planet’s travel guide for that area. Visit them at:
Canadian Office: PO Box 31029, Victoria, BC V8N 6J3
USA Office: PO Box 911, Blaine, WA 98231