Guatavita, the lake that inspired the legend of El Dorado
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Guatavita is the name used to describe both the lake at the centre of the legend of El Dorado (seen the film?) and the small, peaceful town that sits nearby, on the edge of the Tominé Reservoir (which some people mistake for Lake Guatavita when they first get off the bus!).
Lake Guatavita started a gold rush when the Spanish discovered that the indigenous people there used to throw large amounts of gold into the water as an offering to the gods. The Spanish even dug away at the sides of the mountain to drain the lake at one point, but little gold was ever found (Colonialism 0 – Pachamama 1).
Guatavita is a lovely day trip from Bogotá, so make sure you save some time during your visit to the capital to get out and explore the surrounding countryside.
How to pronounce Guatavita: gwah-tah-BEE-tah
Unfortunately, the first time we tried to go to Lake Guatavita, we maxed out on the Bogotá day trips and tried to do it in the same day as visiting Monserrate and the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, so when we arrived with our driver at the entrance to the national park at just after 4pm, we were told it was already closed to entry.
If doing the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá AND Guatavita, visit the lake first, and don’t try to cram Monserrate into the same morning. Also, try to avoid a Sunday as this is the day that everything tends to be rammo.
After reading this guide to how to get to Lake Guatavita, you may also be interested in:
However, fear not! We were determined to see one of the most popular Bogotá day trips through, and so returned to Lake Guatavita 9 months later to conquer that pesky hike in broad daylight. This guide is going to take you through all the info we gathered about getting to Guatavita from Bogotá, how to see Lake Guatavita, where to stay and other things to do around Guatavita.
How to get to Guatavita from Bogotá
Although we had a driver the first time, the second time we got the bus to Guatavita from the Portal Norte in Bogotá (it also goes past Terminal Norte and picks people up on the street from outside there, but doesn’t actually go into the terminal officially). This bus costs 8000 pesos (£2) each way and takes 1.5 to 2 hours – annoyingly, the route goes all the way round the reservoir before terminating at Guatavita town.
Alternatively, you can first get to the town of Guasca from the bus stop at Calle 72 Carrera 13 in Bogotá, and then catch one of the frequent local buses to Guatavita from there. This will take less time as it goes the other way round the reservoir, but you might not be able to rely on signage helping you get on the right bus since it doesn’t leave from a terminal.
Visiting Lake Guatavita
The main attraction of Guatavita is of course the lake. You can hike around Lake Guatavita, which has beautiful turquoise water on a sunny day. Unfortunately you cannot swim in the lake, due to dangerously cold temperatures and poor access down the sides of the mountains. Also, ya know, it’s kinda sacred.
The best time to go to Lake Guatavita is around midday with clear skies for the best chance of that turquoise blue you see on Google Images. We got a little unlucky on the colour front, but it was still incredible.
The lake is 7km from the town, so if you don’t have your own car you’ll need to get one of the buses that you can buy tickets for just opposite Plaza de Toros in town. These buses leave more or less every half hour. A return ticket will cost around 14,000 COP (£3.50), and when you arrive at the entrance to the park the entry fee + official tour guide is 17,000 COP (£4.25). It’s a 90 minute tour.
This tour takes you on a guided hike around the lake, which isn’t particularly hard, but you may struggle if you have particularly bad knees. We only saw Spanish options for this official tour, but if you’re a Spanish-speaker it’s really interesting and in-depth! You can of course book private or group tours from other agencies, which can guarantee an English-speaker and include the transport to and from Bogotá.
Lots of the experience of visiting Lake Guatavita is around learning about the people who lived in these lands before the Spanish came to pillage. A typical Lake Guatavita tour will not only lead you on the path up and over the mountain, but will also take you into a mock house used to demonstrate how the indigenous Muísca people lived when the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
We sat down inside the house to learn all about their legends and coming of age rites, including how the new chief spent a considerable period of time on his own in a cave before having to come back to the village and resist the charms of the 5 most beautiful girls (who danced naked for him all night long) to prove he deserved to be chief.
If he passed the test, he would be covered in gold dust and pushed out on a raft for a swim in the sacred lake, with a barrage of gold and emeralds being sent out shortly after.
We then heard all about how the lake came to be, how and where the Spanish attempted to retrieve the treasures, and about the surrounding nature (there’s plenty!).
Note that the official Lake Guatavita tour ends at a different place to where it begins, so if you drove yourself you’ll have to pay 1500 pesos for the public bus that takes you back to the car park. You’re not allowed to walk back along the trail the way you came. The good news is that there is the chance to buy snacks and beers from one of the stalls at the end of the trail, though.
Other things to do in Guatavita town
The town is pretty small, with not much more than a little museum and some souvenir shops, but a lovely place to chill out before or after your hike (which to be honest is fairly painless). It’s not a very old town, since the original Guatavita was swallowed when the man-made Reservoir Tominé came to be in 1967, but it still has a certain charm.
There’s definitely a lovely afternoon to be whiled away checking out the beautiful waterfront of the reservoir and having an amazingly rich hot chocolate with a cheesy almojábana bun in one of the many coffee shops in Guatavita town. It’s also a great place to try the Colombian delicacy of dipping cheese into hot chocolate, which is surprisingly good.
At the centre of town, near where you buy tickets for the bus to Lake Guatavita tours, there is a bullring called Plaza de Toros. Rather than bull-fighting, it’s mostly just used for artisans to sell souvenirs, but it’s of colonial-style architectural interest, nonetheless.
Can you stay at Lake Guatavita?
You cannot stay at Lake Guatavita itself; there’s nothing at all around that, but you can stay in the town of Guatavita and the surrounding countryside.
While there are some cheap guesthouse options such as Hospedaje de Guatavita, we highly recommend taking this opportunity to do some glamping in the mountainside domes and teepees of Bajo el Cielo. It’s a wonderful place to see the stars away from any light pollution on a clear night, and catch views of the misty valley as dawn approaches.
There are actually a large number of small house, cabaña and glamping options to stay in around Guativita. Make the most of this beautiful Cundinamarca countryside!