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In the sixteenth century the Welser family ran one of the chief banking houses of Augsburg in Germany. When King Charles I of Spain took out a loan in order to secure the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire, as part repayment he gave the Welsers permission to settle and exploit present-day Venezuela. They arrived in 1529 and immediately set about organizing expeditions to seek wealth.

The lowland tribes of the region possessed few riches, apart from golden ornaments that hey had obviously not made themselves. From the stories told by these Indians, the Germans learned of a fabulous kingdom in the northern Andes. The leader of this legendary civilization was called El Dorado – the Golden Man – because his followers were said to anoint him with gold dust, which he washed off in a sacred lake after offerings of gold and jewels were made there.

In 1538 three separate expeditions, two Spanish and one German, converged on Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá, in search of El Dorado. The Spaniard Hernan Perez de Quesada, who led the exhibition from the north, arrived first and took a large quantity of gold, emeralds and semi-precious stones from the Chibcha Indians. He shared this wealth with the conqueror of the Inca city of Quito, Sebastian de Belalcazar, who arrived from the south, and Nikolaus Federmann, who had led his men in an epic trek over the Andes to Venezuela.

For almost a century adventurers hacked their way through jungles, drained various lakes, tortured Indians and voyaged up unknown rivers in pursuit of the Golden Man and his Golden City. The English navigator Sir Walter Raleigh sailed up the Orinoco River in 1595 and explored the Guianas in 1617 to look for the fabled wealth of El Dorado.

El Dorado’s city has never been found. Partial draining of Lake Guatavita in the 1500s revealed that offerings of gold objects had been made there. Similar precious offerings have also been found in Lake Titicaca. The remains of the Golden Man himself may still lie concealed at the bottom of an Andean lake.