Step back in time by exploring Panama’s historic Caribbean coast. Find out why the Rio Chagres is known as the “world’s most valuable river” and follow in the footsteps of Captain Morgan at Fuerte San Lorenzo.
Part One: Fuerte San Lorenzo
We sought treasure: an historical treasure trove, complete with ransacks by pirates, the legends of early settlers, stunning ruins, and yes, gold. And when we learned of Fuerte San Lorenzo, Panama, we knew we’d find it there. We couldn’t wait to visit, and soon found out that getting there is half the fun!
While only about 30 miles from the bustling metropolis of Panama City, our treasure lay on the east side of the isthmus; it would take a bus ride, then a taxi through (yes, through) the Panama Canal past the old US Army base Fort Sherman and inside a national park, to reach Fuerte San Lorenzo.
It was bound to be an adventure, and we were up for it.
We boarded a morning bus at Albrook Terminal (the largest bus station in Central America) and for under $10, we were off. An hour later, we were catching a cab out of Colon, gawking at the north end of the Panama Canal out the window alongside us. Progress on the canal expansion project, slated for completion in 2014, was especially jaw-dropping: a ditch big enough to accommodate ships that exceed the PanaMax (meaning some will be longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall). Looking beyond the modern-day construction site I saw a window in time to the early 1900s when the first ditch was being dug and two sides of the world were being joined. A-mazing.
We came around a bend and up to a simple guard post marking the vehicle entrance to the Gatun Locks. Vehicle entrance? Yep. Because our treasure waited on the other side of the Panama Canal, we quickly learned we’d have to transit it by car.
Of course our little cab was a low priority for the HUGE tankers making their way from ocean to ocean, so we queued up with all the other commuters and waited our turn to pass – perpendicularly – through the locks.
Past the Gatun Locks, cruising a two-lane, well-paved road running right through the jungle, we bypassed another point of historical significance along the way: Fort Sherman.
The US only transferred full possession of the Canal Zone to Panama in January of 2000. Before that time, Fort Sherman and other bases housed hundreds of American troops who kept a watchful eye on the comings and goings through the Canal.
Today, only 12 years later, Fort Sherman is a ghost town slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. It’s just what happens out here in the tropics: the heat and humidity create a perfect petri dish for growing almost anything! Nothing ever really dies — it just turns into something else. Such is the case at Fort Sherman, where vines creep and trees grow from the ruins of only a decade ago.
As Fort Sherman slipped behind us (like its place in history), we entered the shade of an old-growth canopy which transformed midday into near-darkness and provided a welcome respite from the heat: it’s cooler in the forest. This tunnel of green brought us to the entrance gates of the Fuerte San Lorenzo National Park. We paid our park fees (just a few dollars apiece) and sprinted ahead to find our treasure.
Fuerte San Lorenzo spread out before us, an emerald triangle pointing towards the sea. Rusted cannons lined the entrance, which was surrounded by a moat. Of course.
We strolled the grounds at our leisure, the only souls to explore the park that day. Regardless of when you visit, you’re unlikely to find Fuerte San Lorenzo overrun with tourists – a pleasant surprise for such a stunning sight.
In place of people, wild creatures abounded: bellowing howler monkeys and scurrying iguanas in the trees, sleeping bats and symphonies of frogs in the darkened tunnels of the ruins, and a great variety of birds (some of which make unique “forts” of their own).
Standing by our lonesomes atop the jungle-abated cliffs of Fuerte San Lorenzo on this fat finger of land separating the Caribbean from the Rio Chagres, it was easy to imagine all who came before us in search of a more tangible kind of treasure.
From this vantage point, we took it all in: the hot tropical sun, the sounds of the animals, the water hundreds of feet below. And just like that, we were transported back in time, easily envisioning:
…the buzzing of Spanish soldiers, engineers, blacksmiths, and bakers who labored to build this fort out of tons of stone and earth. Always on their guard — but also likely to have enjoyed the sugarcane rum and other R&R activities of the 16th century;
…Captain Henry Morgan, out-manned but not out-motivated for the piles of South American riches stockpiled here for European transport, sacking this fort on his way to Panama City, where he plundered, pillaged, and burnt Panama Viejo to the ground in 1671;
…the thousands of ’49ers who, several centuries past the time of Henry Morgan, were legitimately using the Rio Chagres as a shortcut from the Californian Sierra Nevada to New Orleans;
…and, finally, the pioneering canal men, who from the mid-late 1800s surveyed this area at length, finally settling on the master plan of damming the mighty Rio Chagres, thereby flooding the valley that created Gatun Lake at the turn of the 20th century.
Tips for Planning Your Own Historic Adventure:
Follow your imagination to Panama’s historic forts just north of Panama City – and follow my advice to ensure you have the best & safest experience:
- Unclear on the layout and distances between cities? Never fear! Because I love maps, I made one so you can easily plan your own adventure on Panama’s historic north central coast. You’re welcome!
- You need only one non-stop bus from Panama City to Colon. From there, a local taxi driver can take you out to the Fort (for around $40). Buses around Panama are easy, cheap, and plentiful. I also found a helpful review of how the bus system works from the Gran Nacional Bus Terminal located just outside Albrook Mall.
- Or, even better, for the leg between Colon and Panama City, consider jumping “all aboard” and riding the beautiful glass-topped train that runs alongside the canal.
- At the Gatun locks, you may have to wait for up to an hour for your car/cab to pass through the locks – so don’t be in a hurry (to catch the train, for instance).
- Over the past five years or so, Colon has received a reputation for being unsafe and, unfortunately, it’s well-deserved. Use common sense, guard your valuables and stick close to the bus station. Do not consider visiting Colon at night.
Photos by Laurie Felker Jones.