Laguna de los Xarayes in Rare Maps

The Lake of Xarayes

The Lake of Xarayes

The Laguna de los Xaraies is a large and mysterious lake that appeared in maps of South America from about 1600 to 1850. The Laguna, located near Matte Grosso, was often associated with the gateway to the Amazon, legends of El Dorado, and the Earthly Paradise.

The Xarayes, a corruption of “Xaraiés” meaning “Masters of the River”, were an indigenous people occupying what is today parts of Brazil’s Matte Grosso and the Pantanal. When Spanish and Portuguese explorers first navigated up the Paraguay River, as always in search of El Dorado, they encountered the vast Pantanal flood plain at the height of its annual inundation. Understandably misinterpreting the flood plain as a gigantic inland sea, they named it after the local inhabitants, the Xaraies. The Laguna de los Xarayes almost immediately began to appear on early maps of the region and, at the same time, almost immediately took on a legendary aspect. Later missionaries and chroniclers, particularly Díaz de Guzmán, imagined an island in this lake and curiously described it as an “Island of Paradise,”

…an island [of the Paraguay River] more than ten leagues [56 km] long, two or three [11-16 km] wide. A very mild land rich in a thousand types of wild fruit, among them grapes, pears and olives: the Indians created plantations throughout, and throughout the year sow and reap with no difference in winter or summer, … are the Indians of that island are of good will and are friends to the Spaniards; Orejón they call

A view of the Pantanal.

A view of the Pantanal.


them, and they have their ears pierced in which are wheels of wood … which occupy the entire hole. They live in round houses, not as a village, but each apart though keep up with each other in much peace and friendship. They called of old to this island paradise Terrenal by its abundance and wonderful qualities.

To this north of this wonderful “Island of Paradise” appeared the “Puerto de los Reyes” which was considered by many to be a gateway to the Amazon and the Kingdom of El Dorado. Sadly, later explorers, in addition to being disappointed by the absence of an El Dorado, also discovered that the Paraguay River does not connect to the Amazon system.

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