Can a resurgence of interest in Colombia’s original lucrative export – gold – finally shake off the country’s powdery reputation? Boyd Tonkin travels to Bogotá to find out

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One moment the landscape feels like the hills of Devon or Shropshire. Cows browse by farm gates on gentle slopes and grey skies threaten rain. Then flowering trees flash beside the road.

A poncho-wearing donkey-rider trots amiably by. We stop for a snack of soft cheese and sugar-cane jelly at a makeshift stall; the farmer’s little daughter wears a cow-shaped hat. Humans and animals blur a lot in this story.

Driving north from Bogotá through the province of Cundinamarca, the moorland grows steeper, wilder – more Wales or the Highlands. Once inside a national park, our group sits down with a friendly Venezuelan family in a modern version of the circular thatched building that served the Muisca – the dominant indigenous people here – as village hall and council chamber. It’s pelting down outside now, as a guide spins tall tales of lovestruck cannibals and even UFO visitations – all totally fanciful and romantic, British Museum curator Elisenda Vila Llonch assures us afterwards – about the nearby, sacred focus of our quest. To her, “the reality behind the El Dorado legend is so much more intriguing than the myth”.

For that – an almost 500-year-old legend, and the blazingly material riches that gave rise to it – accounts for our presence on a damp, late rainy-season day in this hut, in this park, and in the north Andean uplands (almost 3,000m high) of Colombia. Next Thursday, the British Museum will open its exhibition, Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia. It has borrowed more than 200 treasures from co-organiser, the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá – “the best collection in the world of pre-Colombian gold,” confirms Elisenda Vila – and supplemented them with its own ample holdings of the gorgeous artefacts via which leaders and prophets summoned and channelled the forces of nature.

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