The legend began in the 1530s, in the Andes of present-day Colombia, where conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada first found the Muisca, a nation in the modern day Cundinamarca and Boyacá highlands of Colombia, in 1537.
The story of Muisca rituals was brought to Quito by Sebastián de Belalcázar's men; mixed with other rumors, there arose the legend of 'El Dorado' (meaning the Golden Man rather than a place - 'el indio dorado', the golden Indian or 'El Rey Dorado', The Golden King).
Imagined as a place, El Dorado became a kingdom, an empire, the city of this legendary golden king. Deluded by a similar legend, Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro would depart from Quito in 1541 in a famous and disastrous expedition towards the Amazon Basin; as a result of this, however, Orellana became the first person to navigate the Amazon River all the way to its mouth.
The original narrative is to be found in the rambling chronicle, El Carnero, of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the king or chief priest of the Muisca was said to be ritually covered with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá...
In 1638 Juan Rodriguez Troxell wrote this account, addressed to the cacique or governor of Guatavita:
It is believed that these rituals were carried out by the Muisca in several lakes along their territory.
The Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadores. Taking stock of their newly won territory, the Spaniards realized that — in spite of the quantity of gold in the hands of the Indians — there were no golden cities, nor even rich mines, since the Muiscas obtained all their gold in trade. But at the same time, the Spanish began to hear stories of El Dorado from captured Indians, and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita. There were Indians still alive who had witnessed the last Guatavita ceremony, and the stories these Indians told were consistent.
Guatavita today bears a curious notch in its cliffside, evidence of an attempt to drain the lake in 1580.
In 1540 Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, was made the governor of the provenance of Quito in northern Ecuador. Shortly after taking lead in Quito, Gonzalo learned from many of the natives of a valley far to the west rich in both cinnamon and gold. He banded together 340 soldiers and about 4000 Indians in 1541 and led them west down the Rio Coca and Rio Napo. Francisco de Orellana, Gonzalo’s nephew, accompanied his uncle on this expedition. Gonzalo quit after many of the soldiers and Indians had died from hunger, disease, and periodic attacks by hostile natives. He ordered Orellana to continue downstream, where he eventually made it to the Atlantic Ocean, discovering the Amazon (named Amazon because of a tribe of female warriors that attacked Orellana’s men while on their voyage.)
Other expeditions include that of Philipp von Hutten (1541–1545), who led an exploring party from Coro on the coast of Venezuela; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Governor of El Dorado, who started from Bogotá (1569).
Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parime far up the Orinoco in Guiana. This city on the lake was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin-America expedition (1799–1804).
Meanwhile, the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to El Dorado County, California, and to towns and cities in various states. It has also been anglicized to the single word Eldorado.
In literature, frequent allusion is made to the legend, perhaps the best-known references being those in Milton's Paradise Lost (Book xi. 408-411) and in Voltaire's Candide (chs. 18, 19). "Eldorado" was the title and subject of a four-stanza poem by Edgar Allan Poe. In the 1966 John Wayne film El Dorado, most of Poe's poem is recited by the character nicknamed Mississippi El Dorado is also referenced in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. Within Conrad's work, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition journeys into the jungles of Africa in search of conquest and treasure, only to meet an untimely demise.
El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or "Holy Grail" that one might spend one's life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success. It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or at least may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Poe's poem "El Dorado". In this context, El Dorado bears similarity to other myths such as the Fountain of Youth, Shangri-la, and to some extent the term "white whale" which refers to Captain Ahab's obsession in the book Moby-Dick. The disillusionment side of the ideal quest metaphor may be represented by Helldorado, a satirical nickname given to Tombstone by a tardy miner who complained that many of his profession had traveled far to find El Dorado, only to wind up washing dishes in restaurants.
Werner Herzog's film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, also explores the El Dorado metaphor. The main character, Lope de Aguirre, is historically based, but is actually an amalgam of Aguirre and Francisco Orellana, mentioned in the historical section, above.
El Dorado reappears in the Donald Duck universe, this time in a Scrooge McDuck story, The Last Lord of Eldorado by Don Rosa. Scrooge locates evidence that the lost city of gold exists and, with the help of Donald and his nephews, sets out to find its location. Shadowed by his rival Flintheart Glomgold, their clues take them into Colombia and to the lake of Teusacá.
In the game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, there is a statue made of gold known as El Dorado, which the plot revolves around.
In the 1982 animated television series The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Esteban, Child of the Sun, and his companions Zia and Tao search for the seven lost cities of gold: "They long to cross uncharted seas and discover unknown countries, to find secret gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes. They dream of following the path of the setting sun,that leads to Eldorado, and the Mysterious Cities of Gold."
The legend of El Dorado and Francisco Orellana's expedition is featured in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the city is more often referred to as "Akator". In the film, the "city of gold" turns out to be a mistranslation of the Mayan word for "treasure", as the city isn't actually made of gold. The treasure is the knowledge of the advanced beings who founded the city.
In the Digimon Media franchise, notably appearing in Digimon Data Squad there is a digimon called ElDradimon (ElDoradomon in the original Japanese) who is a giant turtle with a city on his back which is very South American in design.