Searching for El Dorado: A Journey into the South American Rainforest on the Tail of the World's Largest Gold Rush

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Overview

The real land of El Dorado, deep in the Amazon rainforest, is a far cry from the mythical city of gold: though its soil could potentially yield billions of dollars, Guyana is a nation of “gilded paupers,” one of the very poorest countries in the western hemisphere.

In this adventure-filled narrative, journalist Marc Herman takes us down a supply road in a limping cargo truck, treks into a muggy and muddy mine on foot, and soars above the forest canopy in a skittering plane. He ...

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Overview

The real land of El Dorado, deep in the Amazon rainforest, is a far cry from the mythical city of gold: though its soil could potentially yield billions of dollars, Guyana is a nation of “gilded paupers,” one of the very poorest countries in the western hemisphere.

In this adventure-filled narrative, journalist Marc Herman takes us down a supply road in a limping cargo truck, treks into a muggy and muddy mine on foot, and soars above the forest canopy in a skittering plane. He falls in with a rowdy crew of gold miners who measure manliness by the number of times they’ve had malaria, and wear their life savings in the form of oversized rings and huge gold necklaces. He also penetrates the corporate façade of international strip-mining operations, which despite tremendous technological and political power have failed to alleivate the area’s poverty. Searching for El Dorado is an eyeopening look at the scandals, the business, the mythology of gold—reaveling a fascinating, contradictory part of the world and of the human psyche.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Terrific. . . . Each sentence transports us immediately into the jungle, the mine or some dry-goods store deep in the Amazon.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“You can’t deny it; [Herman] is good, and he’s found an interesting subject to sharpen his claws on. . . . He blends in perfectly in one of the funkiest countries on earth.” —National Geographic Adventure

“His ear is terrific: one 45-page chapter, about a road trip with two bickering miners turned truckers, is a comic masterpiece.” —Outside

"Playful and rangy...mixing history, environmental critiques, and swift-moving descriptions of a circuslike cast of local gold diggers. Parts of Searching for El Dorado have the gleeful momentumof an adventure story . . . [but it] ultimately calls the entire mining enterprise into question." —The Village Voice Literary Supplement

Publishers Weekly
Herman's enthralling report juxtaposes the myth of El Dorado (a hidden city of gold) with the present-day reality of gold hounds scrambling for every extractable gleaming ounce. While Spanish conquistadors may have envisioned heaps of gold ready for the picking, the enormous deposits that started a rush in the 1980s along the Guyana-Venezuela border aren't so exciting: digging them out is fantastically expensive, not to mention messy. Herman goes to a huge mine near Omai, Guyana, with the potential to produce a billion dollars in gold, but learns that "El Dorado, in the end, was real, had been discovered, and was a pile of dirt." He uses the Omai project to portray a common plight faced by an impoverished country blessed with vast natural resources: unable to develop its own riches, the country enters into deals with international companies that simultaneously benefit and exploit. In this case, Guyana allowed a Denver firm to build a $260 million operation with 95% of the proceeds going to outsiders. The operation, which began in 1993, accounted for about a fifth of Guyana's national income, but came at a cost. Millions of gallons of cyanide-rich toxic waste spilled into a nearby river; the surrounding forest was razed; and devastating diseases spread into the once-pristine area. Herman laments these effects, but a Guyanese miner reminds him, "Look what happened in the United States. You cut down all them forests, do the mining... that's what make you rich. This country want to be rich too." Illuminating the complex intersection of economic development, Third World politics, ecology and culture, Herman's lively book will mesmerize armchair travelers and ecology-minded readers. Agent, Jill Grinberg. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Guyana is a strange place, a country of gold mines and poverty, of impoverished people wearing diamond rings. Marc Herman, a young man looking for adventure, becomes a journalist by saying he is one, and finds himself in Guyana, trying to understand gold mining. He looks at all aspects: the lives of gold miners and owners of gold mines; the environmental and economic aspects of mining for gold; and the seemingly everlasting mythology connected to gold. He concludes his book with a look at his sources of information about Guyana, finance, geology, cyanide use, environmental politics and other related issues. Some of the book reads like an exposé of financial misconduct, other parts like a Charles Dickens novel filled with weird characters. Overall, this is a fascinating look at a largely unknown part of the world. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 253p. illus. map., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
This is as much an exploration of capitalism as it is of the culture and geography of Guyana and Venezuela. Sure, Herman camps alongside Guyanese gold miners and treks through nearly uncharted rain forest, but the promise and disappointment of gold and wealth and of "America" itself seep from the pages as easily as the deadly mercury used in the mines seeps into the South American water table. Herman, who has written for Harper's and Spin, among others, has created a telling narrative that covers mining techniques, border disputes, environmental activism, and global economics without sacrificing the hard facts in front of him: El Dorado is a place where residents ride for hours on unpaved roads and work alongside cyanide lakes while anxiously searching for their chance to get rich. Unfortunately, they seem doomed to poverty. Recommended for public libraries and all travel collections and environmental collections.-Mari Flynn, Keystone Coll., La Plume, PA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A crisply rendered account of "gold fever" in the southern Guyanese rainforest, attuned to the marginalized minor players on the ground. In refreshingly straightforward prose, freelance journalist Herman explains why he was repeatedly drawn to the same hardscrabble South American region that once bewitched Spanish invaders: "El Dorado was surrounded by gold and diamonds [but] it was not a place easily associated with abundance or riches." Herman effectively depicts two distinct, competing forms of gold mining. Determined and impoverished individual miners band together to work small, independent claims reminiscent of 19th-century prospecting; they excavate mud with crude pumps and hoses, then treat it with mercury, causing minute quantities of gold to solidify (and creating numerous patches of denuded rainforest and waste mud). These hazardous grassroots operations are overshadowed by internationally financed industrial mines, "enormous factories producing gold with advanced geology and chemistry and millions in heavy equipment." Favored by the Guyanese government, such operations are bedeviled by the pitfalls of global trade. The Omai mine, for example, became notorious for a massive cyanide spill and despite its large production capacity is unlikely to become profitable due to fluctuations in the world gold market. Herman shrewdly addresses this paradoxical situation, noting that the gold industry’s 1990s campaign to make gold ornamentation ubiquitous actually devalued it as currency. Also, gold-mining stock shenanigans (particularly the huge Bre-X fraud) crippled the industry’s reputation among venture capitalists, which almost ensures that much of Guyana’s mineral wealth will remainburied. The author’s laid-back style and youthfully curious perspective help him capture minor moments of surprising gravity, as when he visits a backroom jewelry factory where local gold is diluted and made into rings that serve as the miners’ bank accounts. Elsewhere, his natural empathy results in solid and affecting portraiture of the Guyanese people; in a remote settlement, he observes that the wildcat miners’ meager profits are evidently invested in their well-clothed, healthy schoolchildren. Sensitive, thought-provoking travel narrative.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375727030
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2004
  • Series: Vintage Departures Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Marc Herman's work has appeared in publications including Mother Jones, Spin, Harper's, and McSweeney's. He first earned an enthusiastic following for his coverage of the 1996 elections for Might Magazine. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

THE MYSTERIOUS PROSPECTOR

It is a misconception that you sleep in a hammock with your feet at one end and your head at the other. You'll fall out. The proper way to do it is to lie diagonally across the hammock's width. In southern Guyana, where they make some of the world's better hammocks, people sometimes sit entirely sideways in theirs. The best come from a group called the Wapisiana. The Wapisiana make their hammocks with cotton twine woven back and forth like a fishing net. Nothing special. But you could hang your entire family in one and it wouldn't break. The hammocks are also nearly impossible to fall from because the design is a long, luxuriant oval that will catch you no matter how you move. An example is in the British Museum and another in the Smithsonian's collection in Washington, D.C.

A North American hammock by comparison is small, tippy, and not appropriate for use in the forest. So my first night in Guyana I did not sleep well. I was hanging over the ground in a hammock made from a few strands of crudely tied nylon. I had bought it in ignorance the prior month at a sporting goods store in Los Angeles. It proved too small to hold my legs and distributed weight badly. I also rigged it wrong from the poles in the shelter where some local gold prospectors and I were sleeping. It hung too low.

I was tired from riding to the camp all day in the back of a truck so ignored the problem at first.

However: "This hammock not a jungle hammock, boy," a miner hanging to my left said.

He was only a few inches away but it was night and the shelter was very dark. Even when I shined a flashlight he was impossible to see through his hammock; rather than a net a miner's hammock is a large cloth rug, usually decorated with a colorful design, and the fabric obscured his head. He had a low, disinterested voice and his body was long and hung heavily.

"You want? Tie up higher, boy?" he said from the depths of his hammock.

"It's okay." I didn't want to interrupt his rest.

He rolled onto one shoulder, the ropes strained and he stuck his head over the edge of the fabric. I shined the flashlight. He was a young man sporting a wild pile of dreadlocks that pointed in many directions.

"Lot of snakes in Frenchman," he said. Frenchman was the camp's name, the legacy of two French prospectors said to have died in a cave collapse nearby.

People sleep tied to poles in a tropical forest rather than on the ground in tents because the forest floor is damp and filled with alarming creatures. It is preferable to hang at least a few feet out of reach.

"Okay. Okay," I said.

He got out of bed and showed me how to tie the ropes so they stayed as high as possible. He was a muscular young man wearing only some jockey shorts; he seemed sleepy and did not say much. He tied some loops into the ropes securing the hammock and nodded with satisfaction when it was hanging higher, then sat back into his own hammock and gave a two-fingered wave good night over the edge.

I had come to be in a gold miner's camp in Guyana as the result of a chance encounter.

A little over a year prior I had been living in a family cabin in New York's Catskill foothills when a storm hit. This was in 1994. Seven feet of snow fell, the furnace failed and my car died. By the end of the week it grew so cold in the cabin the water in the toilet bowl froze. It proved to be a long week.

But the previous Sunday's paper, which I dug from the snow and borrowed from the house next door included a chart of "lowest airfares." I scanned flights to the equator where it was warm. Venezuela's national carrier offered to fly from Miami, Florida, to Caracas, Venezuela, for only two hundred dollars. I had not planned to flee the cabin but suddenly it seemed like an ideal option. I had just left the first job I had gotten after graduating college and had yet to find a new one. Two days later I climbed over a snowbank that surrounded the house, walked down the hill, hitched a ride to the train station and as soon as possible connected with a bus to Miami.

From there I was in balmy, dirty Caracas the next day. Because in most of the world life is easy if you hold American currency, I figured I could afford to wait out the winter on Venezuela's Caribbean coast playing soccer and lying on the beach. That's roughly what happened in the end.

But.

Late in my trip I decided to head south by bus on a vague plan to see the Amazon forest. In North America the Amazon is associated most often with Brazil, sometimes Ecuador and Peru. However its north edge reaches into Venezuela and Guyana as well. Some of the jungle's least-known corners are across those borders. The first paved road from Venezuela to Brazil only went through as recently as 1991 and no road to speak of exists from either country through Guyana even today. Three days later I got off the bus at a town named for its milepost: Kilometro Ochenta y Ocho, Kilometer 88. I debarked to a clearing by the road's shoulder to get some lunch.

Halfway through lunch a man and a woman walked out of the trees. The man was large and white. He looked bad: his shirt was covered in mud; a potbelly strained it; he wore a two-week beard and his hands were pink with abrasions. He had not bathed in some time. His shoes were foam shower sandals, and insect bites and welts covered his feet. He was one of those men whose age could have fallen anywhere ten years to either side of forty-five.

The woman who walked with him was young enough to be a daughter but seemed by their manner to be his girlfriend. She was Latin, presumably Venezuelan. I said hello to them in my halting Spanish. The young woman appeared not to notice. The man said hello but was unfriendly. He wouldn't give his name.

They ordered lunch from the tin-roofed barbecue where I was eating; a tired-looking young woman on the other side of the restaurant was cooking chickens over a fire in an oil drum. While the couple waited for their food I asked what they were doing in Km 88.

The man said--reluctantly, and in English--that he was a gold miner in Guyana. The border was across the street behind some low buildings, he said.

Km 88 was obviously not an official border crossing. It consisted of a hotel with an aggrieved toucan shrieking in a cage, a small dry-goods store and a cinder-block garage. The town seemed too small to be more than a highway stop, but the man said it was a supply outpost for a few thousand gold prospectors. The surrounding forest was full of them he said. A gold rush was underway in that part of the forest. One of the world's largest gold mines was under construction in the trees a few miles east of town and another was scheduled to open within a few months on Guyana's side of the border.

He leaned on the card table where I sat. It strained. The young woman with him had wandered off to gossip with the chicken cook in Spanish.

The forest around us held five, ten, twenty, maybe fifty billion dollars in gold he said. Thousands of people local and foreign were looking for it. His camp had only a few men digging so far. He had been there a few months. But if they discovered enough traces of gold he planned to head north to the United States, talk to bankers and find backing to return with larger tools. Then he could hire more employees and mount a proper exploration effort. When he found enough gold he would make a claim with the government, sell the claim to an international gold company for millions of dollars and retire to the Bahamas. That was his plan.

After a few minutes he took a paper plate of chicken from the woman cooking over the oil-drum fire, paid her a dollar in local bills and walked back across the road with his companion. They disappeared around the hotel and into the forest and crossed back over the border to Guyana.

When I got back to the United States a few weeks later I went to a library. It took about an hour to confirm the prospector's story. Geology journals and stock market reports--not anything in a respected newspaper, but those breathless newsletters Wall Street fetishists read for investing tips--were full of articles on gold discoveries in that part of the northern Amazon.

It took longer to find out how outsiders had even known of the gold there. It turned out they had followed a very old trail. History books said that four hundred years ago the part of the forest where gold was turning up was also the last presumed location of El Dorado: the city of gold from conquistador myths.

How a golden city came to be located in an obscure patch of rain forest on the Guyanese border appeared to be a matter of some argument.

The story was five centuries old. El Dorado had been a person at first, not a place. A few years after Columbus a story had emerged in South America of what was likely a Chibcha or Muisca Indian king living in what is today Colombia. This king would cover himself in sap or oil to which he adhered a layer of golden dust. Thus the name El Dorado--"the gilded one" or "the golden man."

All aglitter, El Dorado would be the image of a god walking the earth. On ceremonial occasions he would hurl gold and sometimes himself into a lake. The gold would wash away and the next morning he would cover himself in more from an apparently inexhaustible supply.

The Spanish heard the story and decided Lake Guatavita in Colombia was the site of the ritual. They tried to drain a number of Andean lakes; to do this required cutting away the stone on one side at great effort with hand tools, perhaps the first foreign attempt to excavate a piece of South America to recover something valuable. This was in the 1520s. Nothing came of it. (Modern archaeologists, however, have found gold artifacts at the bottom of some of the same lakes.)

The Spanish were happy for their agents to start looking elsewhere for the gold. Indians in Colombia had many golden objects, so the Spanish presumed there had to be a gold mine somewhere. This was the germ of the eventual misapprehension that El Dorado was a place and not a person: that there was a single source for South America's treasure.

The effort to find this source drove the first European expansions through South America. Also North America. The word "California" comes from a similar Spanish myth of a utopian land of riches. The Seven Cities of Cibola, which the conquistador Coronado presumed to exist somewhere in what is now the American Southwest, were mythical cities of gold as well. De Soto was looking for something along the same lines when he first saw the Mississippi. Other utopian myths existed concurrently. Francisco Pizarro seemed to think a gold land was adjacent to an equally miraculous land of cinnamon, or was itself a land of cinnamon. Spices were nearly as valuable as gold at the time.

Hundreds of searches got underway from the Colombian coast. Most went sharply awry. The explorers would hack into the unknown forest and get lost. They were facing the Andes Mountains and the Amazon jungle, both basically impassable. Before long they had to ask the people living nearby for directions. Some of the locals cooperated; others had every incentive to send the invaders charging toward a rival village, over a waterfall or slugging into some forest of no return. Within a few weeks the explorers and their helpers and slaves would bog down in the mud and grind to a halt. The expeditions would fall into mutiny and disarray. Boats sank, horses died, disease spread. The resources on hand soon ran out and from there the only options were to straggle back defeated or never be heard from again. Both occurred.

The rest of the story is well told and central to the conquest of the Americas. The conquistador Francisco Pizarro packed a small expedition over the Andes in 1532 and arrived at the court of the Incas at Cajamarca. There he made a deal in bad faith with the Inca ruler Atahualpa and took him hostage in an ambush. Atahualpa offered a roomful of gold as ransom. Gold poured in from every corner of the Inca empire. This dazzled Pizarro and lent more credence to the possibility of a nearby gilded kingdom. The Spanish took the gold and killed Atahualpa anyway; Pizarro and his various brothers proved to be glorified thugs, and in due time several succumbed to treacherous deaths themselves.

Most of the gold Pizarro saw in Peru existed as religious or architectural objects. But there was still no gold mine apparent and still no source. The Spanish satisfied themselves with looting what the Incas had, melted the objects into ingots and loaded the ingots on galleons back to Europe. It was waste. Archaeologists still lose sleep over the destruction of artifacts; economists, notably Peter Bernstein in The Power of Gold, point out that all the seized treasure did not help Spanish finances very much in the end anyway. The discovery of silver mines in Bolivia soon stole Spanish attention: they offered a way to dig up wealth from its origin and not just get it by sacking.

The myth of a golden empire persisted anyway. Its presumed location tended to move every few years to whatever part of South America was least mapped and most mysterious at the time. By then the continent's northwest was far better known to Europeans than the east. So suspicion began shifting eastward. In 1541 the youngest Pizarro brother, Gonzalo, decided he would make an expedition east from Quito, Ecuador, to find the lost empire.

He and his lieutenant Francisco Orellana headed into the western Amazon forest with hundreds of men and slaves. Before long the effort stalled in the forest as usual and the two men split. Pizarro waited upriver and Orellana headed off downriver. Pizarro eventually got tired of waiting for Orellana's return and went back to Quito. Orellana had gotten lost and unintentionally navigated the whole of the Amazon, crossed South America, followed the Atlantic coast past Guyana and finally ended up in Venezuela. He did not find any gold empire en route but did stumble onto the world's largest river and cross the continent west to east. Information from Orellana's journey and others reached Spanish governors, who continued writing guesses as to El Dorado's nature and location for the next century. Some already believed the golden city lay closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific--in the eastern jungle rather than the western mountains. Another theory suggested that the northern Amazon in Venezuela was the Incas' ancestral home, and that's why no one had ever found El Dorado across the continent in Peru.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

THE MYSTERIOUS PROSPECTOR

It is a misconception that you sleep in a hammock with your feet at one end and your head at the other. You'll fall out. The proper way to do it is to lie diagonally across the hammock's width. In southern Guyana, where they make some of the world's better hammocks, people sometimes sit entirely sideways in theirs. The best come from a group called the Wapisiana. The Wapisiana make their hammocks with cotton twine woven back and forth like a fishing net. Nothing special. But you could hang your entire family in one and it wouldn't break. The hammocks are also nearly impossible to fall from because the design is a long, luxuriant oval that will catch you no matter how you move. An example is in the British Museum and another in the Smithsonian's collection in Washington, D.C.

A North American hammock by comparison is small, tippy, and not appropriate for use in the forest. So my first night in Guyana I did not sleep well. I was hanging over the ground in a hammock made from a few strands of crudely tied nylon. I had bought it in ignorance the prior month at a sporting goods store in Los Angeles. It proved too small to hold my legs and distributed weight badly. I also rigged it wrong from the poles in the shelter where some local gold prospectors and I were sleeping. It hung too low.

I was tired from riding to the camp all day in the back of a truck so ignored the problem at first.

However: "This hammock not a jungle hammock, boy," a miner hanging to my left said.

He was only a few inches away but it was night and the shelter was very dark. Even when I shined a flashlight he was impossible to see through hishammock; rather than a net a miner's hammock is a large cloth rug, usually decorated with a colorful design, and the fabric obscured his head. He had a low, disinterested voice and his body was long and hung heavily.

"You want? Tie up higher, boy?" he said from the depths of his hammock.

"It's okay." I didn't want to interrupt his rest.

He rolled onto one shoulder, the ropes strained and he stuck his head over the edge of the fabric. I shined the flashlight. He was a young man sporting a wild pile of dreadlocks that pointed in many directions.

"Lot of snakes in Frenchman," he said. Frenchman was the camp's name, the legacy of two French prospectors said to have died in a cave collapse nearby.

People sleep tied to poles in a tropical forest rather than on the ground in tents because the forest floor is damp and filled with alarming creatures. It is preferable to hang at least a few feet out of reach.

"Okay. Okay," I said.

He got out of bed and showed me how to tie the ropes so they stayed as high as possible. He was a muscular young man wearing only some jockey shorts; he seemed sleepy and did not say much. He tied some loops into the ropes securing the hammock and nodded with satisfaction when it was hanging higher, then sat back into his own hammock and gave a two-fingered wave good night over the edge.

I had come to be in a gold miner's camp in Guyana as the result of a chance encounter.

A little over a year prior I had been living in a family cabin in New York's Catskill foothills when a storm hit. This was in 1994. Seven feet of snow fell, the furnace failed and my car died. By the end of the week it grew so cold in the cabin the water in the toilet bowl froze. It proved to be a long week.

But the previous Sunday's paper, which I dug from the snow and borrowed from the house next door included a chart of "lowest airfares." I scanned flights to the equator where it was warm. Venezuela's national carrier offered to fly from Miami, Florida, to Caracas, Venezuela, for only two hundred dollars. I had not planned to flee the cabin but suddenly it seemed like an ideal option. I had just left the first job I had gotten after graduating college and had yet to find a new one. Two days later I climbed over a snowbank that surrounded the house, walked down the hill, hitched a ride to the train station and as soon as possible connected with a bus to Miami.

From there I was in balmy, dirty Caracas the next day. Because in most of the world life is easy if you hold American currency, I figured I could afford to wait out the winter on Venezuela's Caribbean coast playing soccer and lying on the beach. That's roughly what happened in the end.

But.

Late in my trip I decided to head south by bus on a vague plan to see the Amazon forest. In North America the Amazon is associated most often with Brazil, sometimes Ecuador and Peru. However its north edge reaches into Venezuela and Guyana as well. Some of the jungle's least-known corners are across those borders. The first paved road from Venezuela to Brazil only went through as recently as 1991 and no road to speak of exists from either country through Guyana even today. Three days later I got off the bus at a town named for its milepost: Kilometro Ochenta y Ocho, Kilometer 88. I debarked to a clearing by the road's shoulder to get some lunch.

Halfway through lunch a man and a woman walked out of the trees. The man was large and white. He looked bad: his shirt was covered in mud; a potbelly strained it; he wore a two-week beard and his hands were pink with abrasions. He had not bathed in some time. His shoes were foam shower sandals, and insect bites and welts covered his feet. He was one of those men whose age could have fallen anywhere ten years to either side of forty-five.

The woman who walked with him was young enough to be a daughter but seemed by their manner to be his girlfriend. She was Latin, presumably Venezuelan. I said hello to them in my halting Spanish. The young woman appeared not to notice. The man said hello but was unfriendly. He wouldn't give his name.

They ordered lunch from the tin-roofed barbecue where I was eating; a tired-looking young woman on the other side of the restaurant was cooking chickens over a fire in an oil drum. While the couple waited for their food I asked what they were doing in Km 88.

The man said--reluctantly, and in English--that he was a gold miner in Guyana. The border was across the street behind some low buildings, he said.

Km 88 was obviously not an official border crossing. It consisted of a hotel with an aggrieved toucan shrieking in a cage, a small dry-goods store and a cinder-block garage. The town seemed too small to be more than a highway stop, but the man said it was a supply outpost for a few thousand gold prospectors. The surrounding forest was full of them he said. A gold rush was underway in that part of the forest. One of the world's largest gold mines was under construction in the trees a few miles east of town and another was scheduled to open within a few months on Guyana's side of the border.

He leaned on the card table where I sat. It strained. The young woman with him had wandered off to gossip with the chicken cook in Spanish.

The forest around us held five, ten, twenty, maybe fifty billion dollars in gold he said. Thousands of people local and foreign were looking for it. His camp had only a few men digging so far. He had been there a few months. But if they discovered enough traces of gold he planned to head north to the United States, talk to bankers and find backing to return with larger tools. Then he could hire more employees and mount a proper exploration effort. When he found enough gold he would make a claim with the government, sell the claim to an international gold company for millions of dollars and retire to the Bahamas. That was his plan.

After a few minutes he took a paper plate of chicken from the woman cooking over the oil-drum fire, paid her a dollar in local bills and walked back across the road with his companion. They disappeared around the hotel and into the forest and crossed back over the border to Guyana.

When I got back to the United States a few weeks later I went to a library. It took about an hour to confirm the prospector's story. Geology journals and stock market reports--not anything in a respected newspaper, but those breathless newsletters Wall Street fetishists read for investing tips--were full of articles on gold discoveries in that part of the northern Amazon.

It took longer to find out how outsiders had even known of the gold there. It turned out they had followed a very old trail. History books said that four hundred years ago the part of the forest where gold was turning up was also the last presumed location of El Dorado: the city of gold from conquistador myths.

How a golden city came to be located in an obscure patch of rain forest on the Guyanese border appeared to be a matter of some argument.

The story was five centuries old. El Dorado had been a person at first, not a place. A few years after Columbus a story had emerged in South America of what was likely a Chibcha or Muisca Indian king living in what is today Colombia. This king would cover himself in sap or oil to which he adhered a layer of golden dust. Thus the name El Dorado--"the gilded one" or "the golden man."

All aglitter, El Dorado would be the image of a god walking the earth. On ceremonial occasions he would hurl gold and sometimes himself into a lake. The gold would wash away and the next morning he would cover himself in more from an apparently inexhaustible supply.

The Spanish heard the story and decided Lake Guatavita in Colombia was the site of the ritual. They tried to drain a number of Andean lakes; to do this required cutting away the stone on one side at great effort with hand tools, perhaps the first foreign attempt to excavate a piece of South America to recover something valuable. This was in the 1520s. Nothing came of it. (Modern archaeologists, however, have found gold artifacts at the bottom of some of the same lakes.)

The Spanish were happy for their agents to start looking elsewhere for the gold. Indians in Colombia had many golden objects, so the Spanish presumed there had to be a gold mine somewhere. This was the germ of the eventual misapprehension that El Dorado was a place and not a person: that there was a single source for South America's treasure.

The effort to find this source drove the first European expansions through South America. Also North America. The word "California" comes from a similar Spanish myth of a utopian land of riches. The Seven Cities of Cibola, which the conquistador Coronado presumed to exist somewhere in what is now the American Southwest, were mythical cities of gold as well. De Soto was looking for something along the same lines when he first saw the Mississippi. Other utopian myths existed concurrently. Francisco Pizarro seemed to think a gold land was adjacent to an equally miraculous land of cinnamon, or was itself a land of cinnamon. Spices were nearly as valuable as gold at the time.

Hundreds of searches got underway from the Colombian coast. Most went sharply awry. The explorers would hack into the unknown forest and get lost. They were facing the Andes Mountains and the Amazon jungle, both basically impassable. Before long they had to ask the people living nearby for directions. Some of the locals cooperated; others had every incentive to send the invaders charging toward a rival village, over a waterfall or slugging into some forest of no return. Within a few weeks the explorers and their helpers and slaves would bog down in the mud and grind to a halt. The expeditions would fall into mutiny and disarray. Boats sank, horses died, disease spread. The resources on hand soon ran out and from there the only options were to straggle back defeated or never be heard from again. Both occurred.

The rest of the story is well told and central to the conquest of the Americas. The conquistador Francisco Pizarro packed a small expedition over the Andes in 1532 and arrived at the court of the Incas at Cajamarca. There he made a deal in bad faith with the Inca ruler Atahualpa and took him hostage in an ambush. Atahualpa offered a roomful of gold as ransom. Gold poured in from every corner of the Inca empire. This dazzled Pizarro and lent more credence to the possibility of a nearby gilded kingdom. The Spanish took the gold and killed Atahualpa anyway; Pizarro and his various brothers proved to be glorified thugs, and in due time several succumbed to treacherous deaths themselves.

Most of the gold Pizarro saw in Peru existed as religious or architectural objects. But there was still no gold mine apparent and still no source. The Spanish satisfied themselves with looting what the Incas had, melted the objects into ingots and loaded the ingots on galleons back to Europe. It was waste. Archaeologists still lose sleep over the destruction of artifacts; economists, notably Peter Bernstein in The Power of Gold, point out that all the seized treasure did not help Spanish finances very much in the end anyway. The discovery of silver mines in Bolivia soon stole Spanish attention: they offered a way to dig up wealth from its origin and not just get it by sacking.

The myth of a golden empire persisted anyway. Its presumed location tended to move every few years to whatever part of South America was least mapped and most mysterious at the time. By then the continent's northwest was far better known to Europeans than the east. So suspicion began shifting eastward. In 1541 the youngest Pizarro brother, Gonzalo, decided he would make an expedition east from Quito, Ecuador, to find the lost empire.

He and his lieutenant Francisco Orellana headed into the western Amazon forest with hundreds of men and slaves. Before long the effort stalled in the forest as usual and the two men split. Pizarro waited upriver and Orellana headed off downriver. Pizarro eventually got tired of waiting for Orellana's return and went back to Quito. Orellana had gotten lost and unintentionally navigated the whole of the Amazon, crossed South America, followed the Atlantic coast past Guyana and finally ended up in Venezuela. He did not find any gold empire en route but did stumble onto the world's largest river and cross the continent west to east. Information from Orellana's journey and others reached Spanish governors, who continued writing guesses as to El Dorado's nature and location for the next century. Some already believed the golden city lay closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific--in the eastern jungle rather than the western mountains. Another theory suggested that the northern Amazon in Venezuela was the Incas' ancestral home, and that's why no one had ever found El Dorado across the continent in Peru.

Copyright© 2003 by Marc Herman
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2012

    A stranger

    Dark amber eyes gleam in the shadows.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2012

    To Heatherseed

    Do you rp Amber at col? If so HI i rp midnight

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2012

    Sunny

    Im new. How about no post result one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2012

    Cinderleap 1

    "I know right? And I mean, Amberstar hasnt been on since the eighth..." Cinderleap[] "Do you rp someone in HorseClan?" Applepetal ps. Crap I just got grounded and my dad said I wont be on for a while. Dont count me missing!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2012

    Fgg

    Willowstar, i can be your deputy. My kits are ready to be apprentices. They are Hollykit, Spottedkit, and Blizzardkit.

    Echobird

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2012

    Everfur

    The brownish golden shecat had sparkling gold eyes. She was a bit shy. But also ferice in a battle(i made a clan at panda all resluts if anyone wants to join.) She looked around.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2012

    Sunvanish

    "We want to take our brothrt and sister home!" Sunvanish growled.

    Beetleclaw nodded.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2012

    Kit walks in dripping blood

    Help. She mews. My name Icypaw. I was betrayed as my mother gave birth to me, I am six weeks old. Please let me in Amberstar, please.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2012

    Rosiekit to Kits

    Leads the kits out. "Better yet, I might tell Goldenstar about this."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2012

    Sunstrike

    Pads in looking around "Toucancaw?!"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2012

    Dotstar to Hailstorm

    *she dips her head*thnk u for telling my clan the info.it means alot to me.(srry for tresspassing)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2012

    Firefang

    Firefang-*-*- hey mommy whos dep? -flicks his tail- Stripetooth[]•[] -he walks past- hopefully not you. Firefang-*-*- hey, look who decided to come out of his shell! Strkpetooth[]•[] -grunts-

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2012

    Hailstorm

    Hailstorm•|•"We moved to 'thundering cats' all results. Wilowstar is leader now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2012

    Dsjdh

    Hsjd

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2012

    Cats

    Im back! My mom took my nook away! Has anyone seen Woodfur or Goldflower or Hailrain?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2012

    Goldflower

    I am back!!! What happened when i was gone?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2012

    Ca

    2i say we wait!

    Beetleclaw smiled. "Of course Emeraldcreek!"

    Shank paced around, flicking his ears when ever the bell on his collar rang.

    Gtgtb... first day of school 2morrow. Night!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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