You probably know already that the Guativita Lagoon is said to be the birthplace of the El Dorado legend, and that it’s a beautiful, magical place to go have a sticky-beak at. There’s another Guatavita secret, though…
Confusingly enough, Guatavita also refers to a – dare I use the word, “quaint?” – little town of colonial-style whitewashed houses not too far away from El Dorado Central. It’s a beautiful little symmetrical town, replete with restaurants and little hotels; a tiny plaza full of tooth-achingly good desserts (be warned: they’re pretty damn tempting); and eager young tykes who will recite the history of Guatavita at the drop of a coin. All of this set up for the local weekend tourists that inundate this amazingly clean, white, and charming town outside of Bogota.
But there’s something a bit eerie about this little pueblo and its friendly inhabitants. Being gullible by nature, if I hadn’t already been let in on the secret, I would have just thought this slightly haunting atmosphere was a result of how old the place was – with its picture-perfect church, museums, plazas and Lovers’ Bridge all recalling the colonial life way back when.
But that’s the thing. The secret of Guatavita (the town) is that it’s only 43 years old. It’s actually a replica of the old Guatavita that lies at the bottom of the nearby dam. So, part of this eerie nature is that the town’s a little bit like a lived-in amusement park, or a colonial-style Truman Show set. The town is actually whitewashed by law; and it was all designed by one architectural firm, explaining the remarkable symmetry New Guatavita displays. Well, what happened to the old one? Why is the original church now attended by a congregation of trout?
Pretty much any information you’ll get on this phenomenon will blithely mention that New Guativita was designed to replace the old town, that was inundated when the Tominé river was dammed to form a reservoir used for hydro-electricity, water supplies, and water sports. That’s generally the extent of the explanation. I think this still leaves a few questions to be asked.
Why flood a perfectly charming, functioning, and – what’s more – genuine – historic town, just to build a replica of it instead? Weren’t there other alternatives open? What happened to the people of the old town?
I’ve had a bit of a dive into the murky depths of Guatavita’s secrets, and it seems that, once the plan for the reservoir was already in the works, the municipality of Old Guatavita was faced with three options about their town: destroy the town, and offer indemnities to the inhabitants to allow them to relocate; divert the water to save it; or build a new town to replace the old one. The final decision was… you guessed it, Door Number Three.
These answers just lead to more questions, though. Why not save a town with obvious historical importance instead? I’d guess, like in most of these cases, that the reason was the almighty peso. Perhaps it was just cheaper to build a new replica from scratch. It could also have appealed to those who made the decision to have a go at improving history – getting a chance to create a whole town from carte blanche, so to speak.
Still more questions, though. The old town was flooded in 1967, and the new one built in 1970. What did the Guatavitans do for three years, tread water?
It seems that most actually took the plunge (sorry) and relocated to Bogota and its surrounds. New Guatavita quickly became a tourist hotspot, and the town of today’s economy is driven by that industry. This accounts for how eagerly everyone in the town welcomes visitors, and how amenable it is to a nice, cosy couple of days away from the metropolis.
It also accounts for that slightly spooky feel I referred to. It is said that, if you look at the right time, part of the spire of the old church can be seen jutting up from the lake, a reminder of what once was. The present-day town itself, something like a hologram, gestures towards the original, while somehow still functioning as a town in its own right.
So, when you visit the true-blue lagoon itself, check out this town with its bizarre history, and its haunting secrets. And try to stick to just one dessert plate from that plaza. Just try.