Bogotá | Lake Guatavita | Nemocón | Villa de Leyva | El Infiernito | Sogamoso | Ráquira | Barichara | Guane | Cartagena de Indias
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas is one of history’s most fascinating stories. Following Columbus’s first contact between the civilisations of the old and new world, a series of brutal expeditions commenced that plunged deep into the heart of South America, which for sheer endurance, distance and discovery, rank as one of the most dramatic bursts of exploration in history.
As these almost unbelievable tales of adventure, heroism and suffering unfolded, a myth emerged that became a thrilling new inspiration for the conquistadors – El Dorado. The legend took shape in 1539 during a famous moment in South American exploration when three conquistadors converged on the kingdom of the Muisca near modern Bogotá. It was after this meeting that tales of a native ruler arose who coated his body in gold dust in a ceremony on a sacred lake. It became an obsession, luring Europeans to roam the interior for over two centuries, searching for hidden treasures that were rumoured to exceed even those of Mexico and Peru.
Led by renowned historian and author Fernando Cervantes, this unique expedition is an immersion into the world of the conquistadors and the native peoples they encountered. We search for the truth behind the El Dorado myth, trace its origins and visit intriguing sites connected to some of the great expeditions of the Conquest – from Guatavita, the sacred Muisca lake, to an exclusive after-hours private visit and dinner at the famed Gold Museum in Bogotá, where we witness for ourselves pre-Colombian masterpieces that fuelled the insatiable gold fever of the conquistadors.
Staying in Colombia’s very best luxury hotels, our journey takes us off-the-beaten-path to some of the country’s prettiest colonial towns where we indulge in the finest food, wine tasting and market visits. Our expedition culminates in Cartagena de Indias, the stunning jewel of the Spanish crown, where we meet with local experts, cruise the waters of the Caribbean and soak up the atmosphere of one of the world’s great colonial cities.
Every Arcadia expedition provides you insider access to the most unforgettable and thought-provoking local experiences, curated exclusively by us for our travellers. Here are some of the Arcadia Exclusives on this trip:
Day 01 – Arrive Bogotá
Upon arrival into Bogotá, you are met at the airport by an Arcadia representative, who will transfer you by private vehicle to your hotel – the luxurious Four Seasons Casa Medina. A landmark heritage building designed by renowned Colombian artist and architect Santiago Medina Mejía, the Four Seasons is ideally located in the fashionable Zona G neighbourhood, home to the city’s best restaurants and cafes.
At our 6pm group meeting you will meet our Storyteller, Fernando Cervantes, which will be followed by a very special welcome dinner in a private dining room at Castanyoles Restaurant, located in our hotel.
Hotel Four Seasons Casa Medina, Bogotá | Meals: D
Day 02 – Bogotá
In February 1539, a celebrated meeting took place in Bogotá between three rival Conquistadors. The first of the expeditions to arrive was led by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, who with just 170 emaciated men and 70 horses, conquered the indigenous Muisca federation and killed its leader, the Zipa of Bogotá. The Muisca, whom at that time had a population approaching one million in an area the size of Belgium, was one of the four grand civilisations of the Americas and just as advanced as the more famed Aztec, Inca and Mayans.
We spend today exploring the highlights of the Colombian capital, delving deep into this vibrant city’s rich culture and history and investigating how the El Dorado myth evolved from this extraordinary and unplanned meeting of Spanish expeditions. We begin with a visit to Monserrate, a mountain-top lookout that affords spectacular views over the city and the Colombian Andes. The mountain was called ‘Grandmother’s Foot’ by the Muisca, who considered it a sacred place. During the summer solstice, the sun rose precisely from the tip of the mountain when viewed from today’s Bolívar Plaza, which was the site of various Muisca temples when the conquistadors first arrived. For lunch, we visit a fabulous restaurant in Monserrate that specialises in traditional Colombian food.
This afternoon we explore the historic neighbourhood of La Candelaria, the eclectic heart of the city, where we take in the magnificent examples of Spanish colonial architecture such as the neoclassical National Capitol building and the Cathedral. Situated on the grandiose Bolívar Plaza, the Cathedral houses the tomb of conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, who ordered the construction of Bogotá’s first church on this same spot in 1539.
Bogotá’s legendary Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) contains the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world. Our group will have the privilege of visiting the Museum after-hours for a private tour followed by a lavish dinner on-site.
The civilisations of pre-conquest Colombia are renowned for the outstanding masterpieces produced by their goldsmiths, who had evolved virtually all of the known metallurgical techniques. Whilst only a fraction of their work survives, with over 55,000 pieces in their collection, the works of these brilliant craftsmen on display in the Gold Museum give an unmatched insight into life in Colombia before the Conquest.
The highlight of our behind-the-scenes visit to the museum is what many consider to be the embodiment of the El Dorado legend, the remarkable golden raft. This exquisite Muisca artefact depicts a tall central figure atop a raft, flanked by attendants; some carrying musical instruments and others wearing jaguar masks. Our expert museum host will share with us the fascinating story of the ceremony depicted in this piece and its links to El Dorado.
Hotel Four Seasons Casa Medina, Bogotá | Meals: B,L,D
Day 03 - Lake Guatavita & Nemocón Salt Mines
Departing early this morning, we leave Bogotá and venture north to explore the region where Jiménez and his men initially encountered the Muisca, the very first visitors to do so from the New World.
We visit Lake Guatavita, a key destination in the El Dorado legend. This beautiful forest-fringed crater lake brings together two important elements of how the myth of El Dorado was formed – gold dust and water. It was Sebastián de Benalcázar, a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro and the leader of one of the expeditions that converged on Bogotá, who first came upon native peoples in possession of gold dust in southern Colombia. This idea was combined with the belief that El Dorado was linked to a lake, first mentioned by Gonzalo Pizarro (brother of Francisco) in a letter sent to the king of Spain.
Muisca artefacts have been found on the beds of many old lakes in this area, including Guatavita. Jiménez himself reported that the Muisca threw gold and emeralds into lakes during lavish ceremonies, particularly when a new chief was appointed. It was from these elements that the first full account of El Dorado (the term which in these early stages was attributed to an individual) was recorded in 1541 by Fernández de Ovidedo, who stated cautiously:
“…a great prince goes about continually naked and anoints himself every morning with a sort of resin that sticks, covered in gold dust as fine as ground salt. He feels it would be less beautiful to wear any other ornament. It would be crude and common to put on armour plates of hammered gold, for other rich lords wear these when they wish. But to powder oneself with gold is something exotic and more costly, for he washes away at night what he puts on each morning, and he does this every day of the year.”
Treasure hunters have made various attempts to drain Lake Guatavita, the first in 1562 by royal licence, and others made over the centuries by diving and scouring the lake with varying levels of success. Even the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited Guatavita in 1801 and estimated this sacred lake could contain as much as $300 million worth of gold.
After lunch, we visit the great salt mines of Nemocón enroute to Villa de Leyva. Salt cake production was one of the Muisca’s major industries and was traded up and down the Magdalena River. It was particularly useful in securing raw gold, which was not found in Muisca territory. In the north of Colombia, when Jiménez first saw these salt cakes, he correctly assumed it was a sign of an advanced civilisation. He then changed the course of his expedition and literally followed the salt trail straight to the Muisca. We head 80 meters underground, visit the salt museum and explore the spellbinding network of tunnels.
Over dinner this evening, our Storyteller Fernando gives us further insight into the conquest of the Americas through the context of the unique political, religious and cultural climate in Spain at the time.
Boutique Hotel Casa Terra, Villa de Leyva | Meals: B,L,D
Day 04 – Villa de Leyva
Time seems to have stopped in Villa de Leyva, one of the prettiest colonial towns in Colombia. Located in a high-altitude valley away from trading routes, the town has seen little development since its foundation in the 16th Century and has thus preserved much of its original Spanish colonial architecture and atmosphere. This morning we take a walking tour amongst Villa de Leyva’s cobblestone streets, explore its magnificent square and stop in at the Luis Alberto Acuña Museum, the former home of one of the country’s most influential painters and sculptors, who used Muisca mythology as inspiration for some of his pieces.
This afternoon, we venture out to the picturesque countryside surrounding Villa de Leyva for a wine tasting at the Ain Karim vineyard. Known for its award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc’s, we tour the beautiful vineyard, which cultivates vines imported from France and the Napa Valley.
We then explore the archaeological site of El Infiernito (‘Little Hell’), a name given by the Conquistadors, who considered it a diabolical place of Pagan worship. The site was a centre for religious ceremonies, spiritual purification rites and astronomical observations and consists of numerous burial mounds and standing stones that represent the Muisca calendar. The Muisca regarded the sun and the moon as the creators of their world and considered the Spanish invaders to be sons of the sun – sent down by their Gods to punish them for their sins.
Boutique Hotel Casa Terra, Villa de Leyva | Meals: B,L
Day 05 – Villa de Leyva, Sogamoso or Ráquira
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
This morning our travellers can choose from the following included options:
The Sunday Market at Ráquira
Ráquira is gorgeous old Muisca town famed for its ceramics, pottery and handicrafts. The town is awash in vivid colours, with a colony of potters living above their workshops and stores that spill out on to the streets. We have timed our expedition to ensure we arrive in Ráquira on a Sunday, the boisterous market day, which is as much a social event as a commercial one. We attend a pottery workshop with one of the best artisans in town and spend our time shopping and eating our way through this delightful place.
The Temple of the Sun at Sogamoso
The seat of the high priests, Sogamoso was the largest religious complex of the Muisca and the centre of its spiritual power. The original sun temple was richly ornamented and contained mummies of ancient nobles. It was sacked by some of Jiménez’s men, who accidentally burned down the temple in the process. We visit the rebuilt temple in Sogamoso’s archaeological museum, which is home to a selection of fascinating Muisca artefacts and reconstructed dwellings.
This afternoon is free to allow for some down time to contemplate what we have seen so far. Wander the atmospheric streets of Villa de Leyva or simply enjoy the gorgeous surrounds of our luxury boutique hotel.
Boutique Hotel Casa Terra, Villa de Leyva | Meals: B,L
Day 06 – Barichara
After a leisurely morning, we drive north, stopping for lunch at a traditional local house in the heritage town of Socorro before arriving into Barichara.
With cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings topped by red-tiled terracotta roofs and colourful green, blue and yellow shutters everywhere, Barichara is a beautiful Spanish colonial town that is the very definition of laid-back. We take an orientation walk through this peaceful town in the late afternoon and then head back to the hotel to laze by the pool of our rustic boutique hotel before dinner with a local band.
This evening we are joined by local legend Isabel Crooke Ellison, an English woman who has lived in Barichara since 1967. A poet, sculptor, potter, historian and archaeologist, Isabel has dedicated herself to anthropological research, especially among the Huitotos communities of the lower Putumayo and indigenous groups in Cauca and the Sierra Nevada. Her book, Dreams with Jaguars, contains myths and legends of Colombian indigenous people and over a glass of wine, we have the privilege of hearing some of these stories from Isabel herself and gain a valuable insight into the long-term effects of the Spanish Conquest on native populations.
Boutique Hotel Casa Barichara, Barichara | Meals: B,L,D
Day 07 – Barichara & Guane
After breakfast, we walk the Camino Real, a historic pathway built by the indigenous Guanes people between Barichara and Guane. The road, which meanders through breathtaking countryside and farmland, was part of an extensive trail system that dates back several hundred years and was paved with stones in the 1850s by a German engineer. Following our gentle 2-hour hike (mostly downhill!), we spend some time in the small village of Guane before taking a tuk-tuk ride back to Barichara.
Following lunch, this afternoon is free to stroll the timeless cobbled streets of Barichara.
Boutique Hotel Casa Barichara, Barichara | Meals: B,L
Day 08 – Barichara to Cartagena de Indias
Today we transfer to Bucaramanga airport for the short domestic flight to our final destination, Cartagena de Indias.
Situated on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is considered to be one of the most beautiful colonial cities in South America. Founded in 1533, the city was one of the earliest colonial municipalities on the continent and was a base through which the Conquistadors commenced their deadly explorations into the unknown. Cartagena’s importance grew further for the Spanish crown once its port began to be used for the export of silver from Potosí to Spain, making it a prized target for French, English and Dutch pirates.
Cartagena was where the final catalyst of the El Dorado origin story took place. Pedro de Puelles had sailed down the Magdalena River to Cartagena with the three leaders of the expeditions who had converged on Bogotá. Jiménez had managed to convince both of his fellow Conquistadors, Benalcázar and Federmann, to return to Spain and accept arbitration by the Council of the Indies. It was the testimony of Puelles in Cartagena that officially recorded the presence of gold dust and the enticing news that his expedition had only just begun to find some rich settlements. Puelles then headed straight to Quito just before Gonzalo Pizarro arrived and it was from this city where the El Dorado legend evolved into the insatiable obsession that it became.
After checking in to the exquisite Hotel Casa San Agustín, a luxuriously restored colonial-era white-washed building located in the heart Cartagena’s Old Town, tonight we have curated a special dinner with a private chef onboard a traditional boat as we cruise the bay of Cartagena.
Hotel Casa San Agustín, Cartagena | Meals: B,L,D
Day 09 – Cartagena de Indias
Today we explore the captivating highlights of Cartagena, beginning with a walk through the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town in the company of a local historian. This well-preserved colonial gem so impressed the famed Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez that he claimed to have been reborn after crossing the fortified walls that surround this historic city for the first time.
We venture to the city’s highest point to the convent at La Popa for a splendid view of Cartagena. Our Storyteller Fernando shares with us the importance of religion in the conquest of the New World, personified eerily at the convent with a statue depicting Padre Alonso García de Paredes impaled by a spear thrown by indigenous people he was trying to convert them to Christianity. There was a theory at the time, promoted by Jesuits such as the naturalist José de Acosta, that it was God’s design to place mineral wealth in the remotest parts of the world among the most primitive peoples. According to Acosta:
“God placed the greatest abundance of mines in such remote places so that this would invite men to seek those lands and hold them, and in this way to communicate their religion of the true God to those who did not know them…”
After lunch we visit the formidable Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the greatest fortress ever built by the Spanish in any of their colonies, which for almost 500 years still stands as an active witness to the remarkable history of Cartagena. With Spain needing to defend its prized port from foreign attack, work on the fortress began in 1536 and it has seen a myriad of assaults, from 16th-Century pirates to an attack during the Spanish American Wars of Independence in the early 1800s. We explore the imposing battlements and labyrinth of tunnels, built strategically so that even the faintest noise reverberated along the network, allowing the defenders to be alerted to an enemy’s approach.
Hotel Casa San Agustín, Cartagena | Meals: B,L
Day 10 – Cartagena de Indias
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
This morning our travellers can choose from the following included options in Cartagena:
Cooking class with a private chef
Gastronomy is an important part of Colombian culture, and the people of Cartagena are rightly proud of their Caribbean cuisine. This entertaining cooking class takes place in a colonial house, with an expert chef introducing local ingredients before teaching us how to prepare some delicious typical dishes – which we then proceed to feast on!
Exploring the fishing village of La Boquilla.
A truly immersive local experience, we join fishermen in the town of La Boquilla for a unique adventure on the water. Joining the fishermen in their canoes, we head out to the local lagoon and drop a line, where we also learn how to prepare the fishing net and the art of placing traps to catch shrimp and crabs. Once we catch our fill, we head back to one of the fishermen’s houses to cook and eat our freshly-caught seafood.
After returning to the hotel in the early afternoon, we join together one last time for an exclusive farewell dinner in one of Cartagena’s most atmospheric historical locations and have a very special guest to join us for the evening.
Hotel Casa San Agustín, Cartagena | Meals: B,L,D
Day 11 – Depart Cartagena de Indias
Enjoy a leisurely morning relaxing at the hotel before your private transfer to Cartagena Airport to connect with your onward flight.
The famed ‘Lost City’ of Colombia, Ciudad Perdida was rediscovered in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in 1972 and is made up of imposing stone structures located in thick jungle. Thought to be constructed in the 9th Century, it is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern times. We can arrange private helicopter or hiking expeditions to this impressive ancient city.
Ready for a relaxing beach break after your expedition? We can arrange stays at the very best hotels and resorts in the pristine tropical islands that surround Colombia. From the unspoiled beaches of Colombia’s Mucura Island to the opulence of Curaçao and Aruba, we can tailor-make your dream Caribbean getaway.
Fernando is a historian of early modern Europe, with a special interest in the intellectual, cultural and religious history of Spain and Spanish America. Born in Mexico City, where he attended the Jesuit School ‘Instituto Patria’, he moved to the United Kingdom with his family in 1972 and read for a degree in History at Oxford University, graduating in 1981.
He returned to Mexico City, where he attended El Colegio de México as a doctoral student before venturing back to the UK in 1985, where he completed his PhD in Cambridge University in 1989. He joined Bristol University the year after, where he has taught European and Latin American History ever since. He has held visiting positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, UCLA, UCSB, and the Liguria Study Centre in Bogliasco, Italy.
Fernando has published widely in the intellectual, cultural and religious history of early modern Europe and Spanish America. His most recent book is Conquistadores: A New History which was published in the UK in 2020 and the USA in 2021. The book has been translated into eight languages and offers an enlightening, and often revisionist viewpoint of the conquistadors and the world from which they emerged.
Four Seasons Casa Medina
Located in a landmark building exuding colonial charm and luxury, the Four Seasons Casa Medina was designed by renowned Colombian artist-architect Santiago Medina Mejía and boasts some of the most elegant rooms in the city. Steps from the gourmet paradise of the Zona G, rooms are resplendent with beamed ceilings and hand-carved wooden furnishings.
Boutique Hotel Casa Terra
Villa de Leyva
This charming heritage hotel is situated in a carefully restored 16th-century house, built in the quarried stone that is typical of this region. The hotel is surrounded by beautiful gardens and the individually designed and spacious rooms feature a unique combination of traditional heritage elements and contemporary design furniture from the Modular Design Studio of Bogotá.
Hotel Casa San Agustín
Cartagena de Indias
One of the best hotels in Cartagena, the San Agustín is perfectly located in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Old Town. Exuding a luxuriously chic and relaxed atmosphere, this boutique hotel dates from the colonial era and preserves its authentic Colombian style, from gorgeous original frescoes in the Library to centuries-old wood-beamed ceilings in the guest rooms.
- Meals as per itinerary (10 breakfasts, 9 lunches, 6 dinners) including welcome and farewell dinners
- All domestic flights as per itinerary
- Private airport transfers (arrival and departure)
- Accommodation as stated on a twin-share basis
- Porterage at airports and hotels
- All land transport by private air-conditioned vehicle and boat transfers
- Services of an Arcadia Expedition Leader and English-speaking local guide throughout
- Sightseeing as specified including entrance fees to sites mentioned in itinerary
- Reusable responsible travel water bottle with daily drinking water provided
- Gratuities/tipping for local guides, drivers, hotel staff and restaurants for included meals
- All taxes
- Return international flights
- Passport and visa charges
- Items of a purely personal nature (i.e., telephone calls, laundry etc)
- Excess luggage
- Lunch and dinners not specifically mentioned as included in itinerary
- Travel insurance