The soldier on the side of the road shifts his gun and raises a camouflaged hand to give our car a thumbs up, signaling the road ahead is safe to travel.
For the past hour we have crept past a snake of cars creeping into Bogota for the morning commute. Now that we’ve reached the mountains that wall the city, the pollution is gone and the air flowing in the windows smells like eucalyptus, pine and cow dung.
We pass a man walking a sheep on a leash and farmers raking hay. Our guide, Claudia Valencia Chaljub, tells us the red tiles on the roofs of the adobe homes around us are called knee tiles. They get their rounded shape from being smoothed over their creators’ thighs.
Claudia is taking us to Lake Guatavita, a crater lake 3,100 meters above sea level that served as a sacred site for Indians who worshiped the goddess of water.
Lake Guatavita is where an Indian chief named El Dorado supposedly covered his naked body in gold dust and bathed among the jewels and gold his people had thrown into the water as offerings.
The story took on a mythical quality among conquistadors and explorers who attempted to recover the treasures from the lake, to little success.
In 1913, a cable run in the New York Times announced that a company called The Contractors had given up on excavating the lake after spending 13 years and $75,000 on digs that only revealed a disappointing $10,000 worth of jewels and stones.
Lake Guatavita is now closed to swimmers, scuba divers and other treasure hunters.
Another hour and a sign indicates the lake is seven kilometers away. The pavement is replaced by rocks and dirt. Cows poke their giant heads over the barbed wire fences that line the path and watch us pass. Around them the purple flowers of potato plants surround houses made of brick and cement chunks. Some of the piecemeal homes have satellite dishes.
In 20 minutes we are out of the car and walking up a brick path that gives way to a stone staircase and eventually, a sandy trail. Water trickles from somewhere in the forest around us, where bears and deer may be watching. In the narrow strip of sky above the path there’s a small cloud of black butterflies.
Indians trekked days and weeks to worship and give their blessings here, Claudia says. They climbed the same incline that today makes our thigh muscles shake.
“Offerings weren’t supposed to be easy,” she says when we stop to take a break.
As we climb the vegetation clears and we can see for miles over the Colombian savanna. Around us the tops of the Andes mountains, their sides divided into green pastures, appear to sit just inches below the grey clouds.
The path ends and there it is, Lake Guatavita. Claudia tells us the lake’s color changes based on the weather. Today it is hunter green, the color of the bushes on its shore.
Claudia dismisses a sign stating the lake is 25 meters deep.
“The true depth is not known,” she says.
The football-field sized pool looks entirely out of place in the mountain top. The quiet is jarring compared to what our ears endured so far today: the street noise of Bogota, the rattle of the car as it climbed the dirt roads here, the rise and fall of our breaths as we struggled up the mountain on legs wobbly from the altitude.
Ancient tribes came here seeking a connection with their gods. Treasure hunters traveled here to dig for gold. We’ll settle for a chance to catch our breath and enjoy the quiet.
Sundays are the most popular day to visit. More than a thousand people climb up to Lake Guatavita on a path barely wide enough for one person to stretch out her arms without touching a tree.
On this Tuesday, we pass only two other groups, each consisting of one person explaining the lake’s legend to a man and women in English.
Claudia greets each guide in Spanish.
“Buenas tardes,” she says.