This last festivo (public holiday) I wanted to visit the Guatavita lagoon, which is about a 1.5 – 2.5 hour drive outside of Bogotá (depending on traffic and exactly where you live in the city). Guatavita is one of a number of places just outside of Bogotá which is worth visiting, along with La Calera, Sopó, Zipaquira and its Salt Cathedral, the Nemocón salt mine and Chingaza National Park, among others.
The Guatavita Lagoon is a former sacred site of the Muisca indigenous tribe, who inhabited the central highlands of what is now Colombia. At Laguna Guatavita, the Muisca Cacique (the leader of the tribe) would cover himself in gold dust, sail out into the laguna and rinse himself off, while fine handmade goldwork was thrown into the lagoon as an offering for Chie, the goddess of water.
This led to the birth of the legend of El Dorado, which means “the golden one” in Spanish and refers to the gold covered cacique. Several efforts were made by the Spanish conquistadores to drain the lagoon to reveal the gold treasures submerged therein, and some of the golden offerings are now on display in Bogotá’s Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in the city center.
So.. is Guatavita just a lake?
In a word – no. Some reviews I’ve read have said that it’s not worth visiting Guatavita, but I disagree. The Guatavita lagoon is situated in a beautiful natural reserve which is now protected by the state. Once you arrive, you will pay for your entrance ($15,000 per person at the time of writing) and you’ll be able to join a guided tour of the reserve, with a knowledgeable guide who will explain a bit about the history of region, the muisca culture, traditions and ceremonies and the legend of El Dorado. This part is all in Spanish; if you would like an English-speaking guide, you should probably book through a tour agency. However, a guide isn’t absolutely necessary, as there are signs throughout the reserve in Spanish and English with information about the wildlife, the history of the area, the geography and climate etc.
The ascent to the lagoon involves climbing 150 steps and a bit of a walk, which takes about half an hour if you’re doing it alone without rest breaks, or longer if you’re with a tour. On the way there are stunning views of Cundinamarca’s countryside (which remind me a bit of Switzerland in parts), beautiful flora including the infamous frailejones, which grow at high altitude in páramo ecosystems, toadstools, ferns, and all kinds of flowers that I don’t know the names of! Here are a few photos I took to tempt you!
How to get to Guatavita – Option 1 – north via Autopista (by car)
If you’re driving there are a couple of options for getting to Guatavita, mainly depending on which part of the city you’re living in.
You can drive north out of the city via the Autopista, and then take highway 55 (towards Tunja). Eventually you will see signs for Guatavita, but if you’re on highway 55, you’ll need to double back at some point because the exit to Guatavita is on the side of the road which goes south (where is says La Playa on the map below).
Once you exit the highway at La Playa, you will continue down the Guatavita-Sesquilé route, and soon notice a large reservoir to your right (the Embalse Tomine), which is not Guatavita! Once you see a sign on your left which says Via Laguna de Guatavita, take that turning and follow the road up until you get to a car park. Beware that about 3km of this road is unpaved and rocky, so you will need to drive really carefully, and if you’re prone to travel sickness, I would make sure you’ve taken a pill in good time before you reach this part!
When you reach the car park you’ll walk up the hill to the entrance to the reserve, and pay for your tickets, and choose whether you want to join one of the guided tours.
How to get to Guatavita – Option 2 – via La Calera
The other option for driving to Guatavita (which we didn’t take) is via La Calera. From Carrera 7 at around Calle 84, drive up to Carrera 5 and bear right, taking the Transversal 5 which eventually becomes the Bogotá-La Calera route. There will be lovely views and photo opportunities from La Calera, as well as plenty of restaurants along the way so you might want to make a couple of stops.
That same road will eventually become the Bogotá-Guatavita road and you follow it through the town of La Calera and beyond until you reach route 50, then drive on and follow the signs to Guatavita. Bear in mind that from this direction you will drive through the small town of Guatavita, which is actually some way away from the Guatavita lagoon and the reserve, so you’ll need to carry on driving some way till you get to the little turning on the right leading to Via Laguna de Guatavita.
Where to eat
There is a restaurant on the Via Laguna de Guatavita, on the way up to the lagoon, so that would be one option. At the park entrance there is a small..’kiosk’.. selling soft drinks, peanuts, biscuits etc. but the rules are that you’re not allowed to bring food into the park. In practice, I bought some peanuts, kept them in my pocket and nobody checked, so as long as you keep your food hidden, you won’t be stopped from entering. The rules, I guess, are intended to minimise the amount of rubbish that people would otherwise leave on the trail. I actually recommend bringing a sugary drink and snacks up with you because the altitude can make you light-headed and breathless, and I find that sipping a coke and eating crisps or nuts along the way helps with this (just keep them hidden!).
Once you’ve finished the tour, you head down the other side of the lagoon and there are buses (which you have to pay for) which will take you back down to the car park. There a small place to eat and a couple of kiosks near where the buses wait.
My recommendation on where to go for a meal, however, would be to drive down to the lovely little town of Guatavita, have a wander and look at the souvenirs on offer, and find somewhere to eat there. The town is really cute and definitely worth a visit. The original town was flooded to make way for the reservoir, and thus the new town was built all in one go, and looks exceptionally well-planned in comparison to other towns/cities in the region.
How to get to Guatavita without a car
At weekends, take a bus from the Portal Norte and change in Sesquilé to get to the town of Guatavita, or take a bus from calle 72 with carrera 9 to La Calera and take a bus to Guatavita town from there. If you want to visit the lagoon, you can take a taxi or a colectivo bus from Guatavita town.
However, it would be much easier to book a tour to Guatavita from Bogotá in order to be able to travel there direct and have an English-speaking guide!
Final thoughts – is Guatavita really worth the time and effort to get there?
I do think that Guatavita is worth a visit, but possibly only if you’re living in Bogotá or are planning to stay here for a longer period of time. This is because it does take time to get there and there will be so many other places you might want to visit just outside of Bogotá – Zipaquirá and the Salt Cathedral; Chingaza National Park; the Coffee Farm at Tibacuy – that you may not have time for everything, so you might prefer to keep Guatavita as a back-up option if you’re going to be in Bogotá for, say, less than 2 weeks.
If you combine a trip to Guatavita lagoon with a trip to the town and/or to Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, or the Nemocón Salt Mine then it’s definitely worth going; it’s so pretty and the history really is interesting.