Good, Evil or Mischievous: The Legend of Latin America's El Duende

Updated on August 21, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

From Tattoo Design Bild website
From Tattoo Design Bild website

“Beware,” a Latin American mother told her children before they went off to bed. “He’s out there waiting for the right moment. El Duende will take you away in the middle of the night to his cave in the middle of the forest.

“He’ll keep you there and no one will know, because you’ll be deep in the forest where nobody can hear you scream!”

From that motherly advice, El Duende sounds like someone (or something) no child wants to mess with. And, further description seems to confirm this. According to legend, this elf-like creature either dwelled in the forest or lived inside the children’s bedroom walls. It is said that when the opportunity arrives, El Duende will lead children deep into the forest to his cave, or will come out of the walls to clumsily clip a sleeping child’s toenail … most often taking the entire toe off!

It’s no wonder why El Duende is feared; after all, with such a warning, El Duende should be viewed as an evil entity… but, nothing is black and white with this legend.

“And if you get lost and need some help,” another mother may say. “El Duende will be there to guide you to safety!”

In other words, the same entity that is viewed as evil and/or mischievous by some is considered a good spirit who protects lost hikers, children and critters lost in a forest.

from Youtube clip in which someone claimed to have have caught El Duende in Argentina
from Youtube clip in which someone claimed to have have caught El Duende in Argentina

And if the story of El Duende is not strange enough, there are many, to this day, that believe that El Duende is an actual creature -- akin to famous cryptids such as the chupacabras and big foot -- lurking in the night throughout the countryside.

Whether good, evil or mischievous, the legend of El Duende has been garnering a lot of attention on the Internet and in Hollywood. Is it possible that this beast of lore from Latin American countries is going to follow in the same way the legend of Chupacabras? It’s possible. Then again, El Duende is a legend in his -- or their since nobody is sure how many is out there -- own right.

The “Real” El Duende According to Cryptozoologists

The website, “” states that people in Belize were talking about an entity called Dwendi. The name is derived from the Spanish word Duende meaning goblin. The site goes on to conjecture that the Dwendi (or El Duende) was different from another famous cryptid, Big Foot.

The site claims the writer Michael Cremo first detailed the eye-witness accounts in a book entitled Forbidden Archaeology. Also, he included writings from Ivan Sanderson a “researcher” who collected the accounts from “dozens” of “men of substance who worked for responsible organizations” (mainly the Forestry Department).

Sanderson wrote in 1961 that a junior forestry officer had “described in great detail two of these little creatures that he had suddenly noticed quietly watching him on several occasions…near the foot of the Maya Mountains.”

The description seemingly matches those of a spider monkey (although the size given doesn’t match the actual species).

spider monkey
spider monkey

The description of the creatures were that of being three to four-foot tall, with heavy shoulders, long arms, brown hair, flat yellowish faces, and long hair down the back of the neck and back.

Interestingly, Belize is the home of several primate species such as the spider monkeys and howler monkeys. The description seemingly matches those of a spider monkey (although the size given doesn’t match the actual species).

However, there are more descriptions that matched the Duende of legends. reported that Sanderson also wrote that some eye-witnesses saw the Dwendi carried or wore dried palm leaves that looked like some type of hat.

El Duende Goes to the New World

Sanderson stated in his account that the Mayans believed in a deity that looked like a very small man wearing a big hat and nothing else. According to their myths, this deity roamed the forest. This being supposedly came out of hiding to place gifts before temples.

While this version of the Duende legends gives one the impression that it is a myth among tribal people of Central America, the truth is that the Duende legend has much of its roots in Europe.

El Duende’s origin was the Iberian Peninsula. He was a magical being who either did good or bad. Most often he was mischievous. He was akin to elves, woodland spirits, goblins, and leprechauns.

Most notably, he was three-foot tall, wore a big red hat and clothing made from of animal hide. Also, as mentioned before, he either lived in a cave deep in the forest or somewhere in the walls of a child’s bedroom.

On top of that, he whistled, usually while strolling through the forest. As legend has it, if one were to hear him whistle, he or she better get out of the forest or be lost in it forever.


As Spanish and Portuguese colonists began expanding their empire into the new world and beyond, they spread the stories of El Duende to the indigenous people. As a result, El Duende became a worldwide phenomenon who supplanted or was combined with folklore from the indigenous people of Latin and South America, The Philippines, and Guam.

And, depending where the stories are told, El Duende is either a benevolent force or an evil entity. In places such as Guam or Belize, he will kidnap kids. In other places he is protecting them. In other cases, he’s guarding the forest and animals from wrong-doers.

Some physical features were also added. He had a cane or a long beard. Also, he had no thumbs (in fact, in Belize, legend has it that children can escape from El Duende by hiding their thumbs in the palm of their hands. This will trick him into believing that the children were related to him in some fashion).

Most often, El Duende served as a warning to children who misbehaved or didn’t listen to their parents, as was expressed in Angel Nunez’ article entitled “El Duende – San Pedro Folklore.”

El Duende as a Cryptid

It’s highly likely that the Dwendis of Belize are probably howler monkeys or spider monkeys. Still, this misidentification has spawned a new twist to an old legend. The Internet has helped to raise the possibility of an actual “Duende” running around the forest.

Is Duende a legend such as elves and leprechauns, or is he a legendary modern creature such as Bigfoot or chupacabras?

In the meantime, the elusive El Duende has managed to garner other forms of attention. Recently, a Disney Channel show Elana of Alvador dedicated an episode to them. They weren’t exactly the nicest creatures, however.

So what does the renewed interest mean for El Duende. The likelihood is that El Duende will endure as a legend whether that is literally or figuratively true.


Questions & Answers

  • Can the El Duende talk?

    The evidence I gathered never mentioned if El Duende can talk. One can only speculate.

  • How do you get el Duende to stop taking your things?

    Hide your belongings is the best thing to avoid theft from them.

  • What continent did the El Duende legend come from?

    The myth supposedly came from Europe (Spain); however, it really took off in Latin America (North and South).

  • Can a child under 12 see el Duende?

    There's no definitive evidence or accounts that children under 12 are the only ones that can see them. The eyewitnesses varied in ages.

© 2017 Dean Traylor


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    • profile image


      12 months ago

      The first piece of art which is credited as "From Tattoo Design Bild website" is actually original artwork by Brian Froud, named "O! That Gnome". It's the number 26 card in the "The Faeries' Oracle" Deck by Froud & Macbeth.

    • CYong74 profile image


      3 years ago from Singapore

      This little beastie needs to appear in some fantasy games. :)


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