Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo arrived in Cartagena after a journey across the sea that most men would have recalled as the adventure of a lifetime. Bartolomeo put it out of mind almost the moment he stepped on dry land, so that years later the entire chapter was covered thusly: “We sailed from Almeria on a Sunday and arrived in Cartagena before the start of Lent.”
The fortress city of Cartagena overflowed with the fabled riches of the New World. Gold dangled from every earlobe and around every neck. Even the rudest citizens seemed weighted down with jewels. The city’s taverns filled the night air with the sound of men spending fortunes on fleeting pleasure, and the churches glistened with the generosity of their shame.
Bartolomeo had been warned not to be seduced by the city. “What you see there is barely a taste of what lies at El Dorado.” In Cordoba he had met a man with an incredible tale, a man who had been captured by Indians and taken to their capital deep in the jungle. It was a city made entirely of gold, from the dizzying heights of its ziggurats to the earth beneath their feet. The man claimed to have lived there for years, to have married a pagan and sired four children before he became homesick and asked to returned to the white men on the coast. He returned to Spain, but along the way became overcome with regret. Now he was too old to return, and begged for help retrieving his lost family. “I wish for them to be brought her, to become Christians and live in the glory of His salvation.” In exchange he offered directions to the golden city.
Bartolomeo heard his tale and dismissed him at first, but the man’s sincerity touched him, and Bartolomeo took a little time to investigate his circumstances. Much of his story could be corroborated, and interviews with others who had gone to the New World convinced Bartolomeo that the old man’s claim were worth investigating. He offered to find the man’s pagan children, and the man gave him a detailed account of how to find the city of gold.
Cartagena was exactly as had been described. The old man’s directions led him straight to an inn where he and his men could sleep and, more importantly, could find guides to lead them out of the city.
Word of his expedition spread fast through the city, as well as his sterling reputation, and when Bartolomeo finally departed Cartagena he led more than a hundred men, an equal number of donkeys, a half-dozen priests, thirty slaves, and another dozen Indian guides. Many of these men brought along wives and even children, but Bartolomeo didn’t consider any of them his responsibility and so he didn’t bother to count them.
They followed the well-used roads into the interior, and their party attracted considerable attention. Imperial officials stopped to demand information and occasionally bribes. Church leaders insisted they deviate their route in order to enter their parish and be blessed. Merchants stopped them to trade and thieves lurked around, patiently awaiting the opportunity to ply their trade.
As they ventured further, the road became rougher, and the parishes smaller, the imperial officials more petty, the thieves more desperate. After many weeks of relentless movement they passed through the last Spanish settlement of note, a battered and militaristic encampment that formed the crumbled edge of the Empire. Here they bedded down for a final night in civilization. They were blessed at the church, paid the necessary bribes, and in the town’s single tavern a few of the men arrogantly challenged a local drunkard, and the ensuing brawl left two men, three slaves, and an Indian dead.
Bartolomeo gave a speech commemorating the men he had never known, and warned the others on the dangers of vice. They prayed for divine guidance, and left the civilized world behind.
The Indians guided them to a great river up ahead, one that would carry them deep into the continent. The going was hard, and a fever began to spread through the expedition. When they reached the river, the slaves immediately began constructing rafts to carry the enormous party. The others waited. On the first night an Indian abandoned them, and on the second two slaves escaped. Bartolomeo then imposed a constant watch on both, and order the slaves to build themselves a pen where they would be locked in at night. The next time a slave attempted to escape, he was found and executed for all to see.
The great rafts took weeks to build, and in that time the fever spread over the camp. During one long day four men, two slaves, and an unknown number of women and children succumbed, and Bartolomeo ordered the women and children to return to Cartagena, dispatching a dozen men and two priests to follow the trail back to the coast.
Once they were gone he rallied his men, recounting for them every detail said to him in Cordoba, and reminding the unconvinced of their holy duty to save those souls for Christ, and so the men redoubled their efforts and built the rafts and set sail for the Indian capital.
The river was broad, and the vast distance from shore to shore allowed it to behave less like a river and more like a sea. The surface was calm and immobile, but underneath lurked invisible currents, rapid and unpredictable. The raft in the lead, carrying supplies and men, came upon a submerged obstacle and capsized. The men in the other rafts at first lamented their lost supplies, but their thoughts soon turned to horror as the waters began to churn and the men in the water began to scream. The screams and the splashing continued for a few moments until they suddenly stopped. When the other rafts passed the spot, all they saw was placid water, stained with blood and dotted with gleaming bones that had belonged to living men only moments before.
The Indians did their best to explain, and men who had heard tales of the carnivorous fish of the interior did their best to interpret. In the end they all agreed to move slowly and stay out of the water.
At last the Indians indicated that it was time to disembark, and Bartolomeo led his men to the far shore. Beyond here was jungle, an impenetrable wall of green and black. They left the rafts on the shore. The Indians showed them a narrow track, and the slaves were ordered to enlarge it so the men could pass with the animals and supplies.
One morning Bartolomeo woke to find the Indians had gone. The men threatened to revolt, but Bartolomeo stood before them and reminded them of the great riches in store, of a city where the paving stones were gold bricks. The priests reminded them of the souls to be saved, and in this the disturbance was quelled. The Indians had been leading them in a certain direction, and if they looked carefully they could see signs in the jungle that men had passed through here before. The most expert trackers too the lead, and soon the expedition was moving again, although a few men turned away without saying anything, stealing animals and supplies for the return trip.
The expertise of at least one tracker was overestimated, and he followed a slender trail that led him and an unfortunate number of men straight to a sleeping jaguar. The great cat was startled awake and attacked. The tracker, who had come from Almeria to seek his fortune, bled to death from a slash on his neck.
Fevers claimed another half-dozen men and a priest, and overwork in the heat took two more slaves. Tempers flared and even Bartolomeo was challenged to a duel. But just as the expedition threatened to collapse into chaos, a man came forward to show that he had found proof, a small lump of gold half-buried in the dirt, carelessly discarded. The lump was large enough that only a person on unimaginable wealth would have failed to return for it, and the men regathered themselves and set off in the direction the trackers suggested.
In time they found an Indian village. It was small and bore no obvious gold. The men rained devastation upon it, both as a precautionary measure and because after a long journey they needed something with which to amuse themselves, and when they were finished they had killed perhaps a hundred men, women, and children. They searched the huts and found very little of value, but in the hut that had belong to the chief they found a necklace of gold and jewels whose superior craftsmanship, they all agreed, was beyond the power of these savages. They journeyed on, sensing they were growing close.
In the night they were attacked as they camped. Arrows and spears flew at them from all sides, quelled only when they were able to load and fire their guns into the darkness. More than a dozen men had been killed, a dozen more gravely wounded, and in the confusion a great number of animals and a few slaves escaped.
Still, the glitter of the gold lured them on, and they passed through the jungle as quickly as they could, keeping a safe distance from the Indians in the region. The jungle continued to claim the lives of men, slaves, and animals, and though they did their best from time to time they encountered and fought with Indians. Their numbers dwindled, but on the rare occasions when their faith in gold faltered, the priests would rally their faith in God, and when that faltered they could reasons that the road back was too difficult to traverse alone. In this way they continued until they reached a massive spine of white-peaked mountains and, at last, a proper Indian city.
They skirted alongside it. In truth it was no more than a village, but a substantial one, with some impressive huts in the center. They observed it for a few days and concluded that with their reduced numbers they couldn’t possibly attack it and succeed.
In a field they found a boy of perhaps twelve and quickly kidnapped him. He wore a necklace with a gold pendant, and Bartolomeo was certain he could lead them to more. The boy was bewildered by these men who looked unlike any he had ever seen and who spoke in a language he couldn’t understand, but Bartolomeo kept showing the boy the Indian necklace from the smaller village until the boy thought that he understood. He pointed to the mountains, and after the Spaniards demonstrated the power of their guns, he agreed to lead them.
They scrambled up the mountain along stone paths that had been carefully carved into the massif, and the men’s hearts grew as they convinced themselves that they could even smell the gold in the air.
The mountains proved as treacherous as the jungle and the river. At one point a ledge they were standing on gave way, sending more than thirty men and even more animals crashing to their deaths.
The Indian boy was shot in the back while attempting to run away. It was unclear to anyone what killing him had accomplished, but as he breathed his last a priest prayed for him and claimed that the boy had converted just before dying. The priest then took the boy’s necklace for himself.
They continued along the path, which led them over a pass and back down into the jungle. The men were elated to find steadily increasingly signs of civilization. Marks made by men, trails that had been cleared, the remains of camp fires. The high dry mountains had provided a welcome reprieve from the steamy jungle but they knew they were drawing closer to their goal.
By now their supplies were coming to an end. Many animals were abandoned to their fate, too weak to even be eaten. The last of the slaves died of a violent illness, as did a great many more men. An enormous snake fell from a tree and coiled itself around a priest’s neck. The men were eventually able to kill the snake but not before it killed the priest. Another man was bitten by a spider and shivered to death in the searing midday heat.
Drawing closer to the Indian capital meant drawing attention from more Indians, and more and more men fell to arrows and darts that came from nowhere.
At last the men reached a road that had been fashioned by hands as skilled as any in Spain. The road was broad and flat, and though the bricks were not gold they undoubtedly led to great wealth.
Bartolomeo now led a contingent of perhaps fifteen men in all, including one last priest, and three sickly animals. Guns drawn and loaded, they followed the road to the golden city, but didn’t make it. An arrow pierced the skull of one of the men, passing clean through, and after Bartolomeo and his men unloaded the last of their bullets into the empty air, the Indians appeared, bows and arrows ready, and took them.
They were taken off the path, through the jungle, into what was the largest Indian village they had ever seen. A true Indian city, though one still fashioned out of sticks and mud.
A man they identified as King sat in the largest of the huts, and after some inspection the Indians decided that Bartolomeo and the priest would serve as the group’s leaders. The other men were taken away and never seen by Bartolomeo again.
The King spoke, and Bartolomeo and the priest spoke back, and the King’s attendants did their best to act as interpreters. It was clear that the Spaniards were not welcome in the Indian city. In time it became clear that the Spaniards were looking for the golden city. Bartolomeo drew pictures, showed the necklaces, and made gestures that seemed to make sense to him, and at last the King understood.
The priest inquired about the four Christian children, and the King seemed to understand this, too. The King spoke to his attendants and made sweeping pronunciamentos in their musical language, and the men sprang to action. One group of men took Bartolomeo, and another took the priest. The King seemed quite content.
Of the priest’s fate Bartolomeo knew nothing. The attendants led Bartolomeo very purposefully back onto the highway. “Oro,” he kept saying to them, showing the necklace he had been allowed to keep, and in time they began nodding their heads to him and repeating, “Oro, oro.”
The road grew broader and firmer still, and they left the jungle behind at last, entering a sweeping coastal plain at the center of which was an enormous city protected by thick walls. “Oro, oro,” the men said, and pointed to the city. Even from this distance Bartolomeo could see gold twinkling from the rooftops in the afternoon sun. The Indians dared go no further, simply nudging him along the road and then disappearing back into the jungle. As if in a dream Bartolomeo moved down the road, and even from a distance Bartolomeo could see that this city overflowed with riches beyond the imagination of any man.
The Indians had brought him to Cartagena.
Of the return trip to Spain Bartolomeo never said anything. In his telling, “They brought me to Cartagena, and I used the last of my riches to secure passage back to Spain.”
For the rest of his life he told the story of his journey to the golden city of the Indies. Many who heard it viewed it as a cautionary tale of Spanish greed. Others preferred a prouder interpretation, wherein Bartolomeo’s journey confirmed that the greatest riches of all were already in Spain.
But for the vast majority of his listeners, the lesson learned was that in the heart of the New World there was an entire Empire of Gold, which Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo had sought and failed to find, and which remained there, deep in the jungle, awaiting discovery.