The quest for El Dorado, the mythic city of gold, is at the heart of the tumultuous history of the Americas. In the decades after Columbus landed on these shores, the Spanish conquest grew only hungrier, more feverish in its search for gold. Hernán Cortés ransacked Aztec temples in Mexico; Francisco Pizarro
plundered the Inca kingdoms in Peru after capturing and murdering the Inca ruler Atahualpa in 1533. Then, the marches of his brother, Gonzalo, and his lieutenant Francisco Orellana across the Andes and into the Amazon jungle–half starved and lost, but still driven by a bloodthirsty greed. Each time, however, the location of the mysterious El Dorado eluded them, taunted them–literally drove them insane.
That’s what happened, also, to the most celebrated of the explorers on its trail, Sir Walter Raleigh, who in 1595 charted a course through the labyrinthine delta of the Orinoco River and into the highlands of southern Venezuela. Twenty years later he tried again but, frustrated and forlorn, barely escaped with his life and his wits (only to be beheaded when he returned to London). Clearly, a pattern had developed, and the all-consuming search for El Dorado, if at first quixotic, became a curse. And yet its seductive powers have lasted through the centuries and still exert a magnetic pull on imaginations across the region.
The hidden riches, buried deep in the soil and below the rivers, continue to draw the strike-it-rich dreamers, drifters and gunslinging prospectors–as well as the giant multinational mining companies. And still they search through the thick interiors of the Amazonian rainforest, along the Orinoco in Venezuela and the Essequibo River in Guyana, along the ancient trails hacked away by the conquistadors. “Five centuries after Columbus, nearly to the year, treasure maps in old history books and geological maps in modern investment newsletters were identical. The people who had searched for El Dorado had been right all along,” writes Marc Herman, a freelance journalist who’s been bitten by the gold bug himself. “About the time I was sitting down in the library [to research the subject], a billion-dollar gold mine was opening for business on the banks of the Essequibo at a spot in the jungle called Omai. Raleigh’s deputy Lawrence Keymis had passed the site in a longboat four hundred years prior, noticed nothing, and continued on his way blithely unaware.”
So, does El Dorado exist, deep in the jungle somewhere? And can the search for it sustain yet another book? In the late 1980s and early ’90s it certainly seemed so, and Herman was determined to find out on both counts. A footloose University of California, Santa Cruz, grad freezing his way through an upstate winter in the Catskills, the young would-be writer was desperate for a change of scenery. It was 1994, and without much in the way of work to tie him down, he jumped at a good airfare to Caracas, Venezuela, where he figured he could wait out the winter, play a little soccer and kick around on some beaches on the Caribbean coast. But on an eye-opening–and gut-wrenching–bus ride down to the Brazilian border near the end of his trip, he encountered a cagey American prospector and made a further discovery: There was a gold rush on, only starting to heat up. So, his head swimming with new plans, Herman returned home with a mission of his own: to get back down to South America and write about this new stampede in search of El Dorado.