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Camino Real: History, Culture, and Adventure

The Camino Real that now appears in the middle of the forest connected Europe to South America and revealed, to what was known of the world at that time, the existence of the great empire of the Incas. It also was the first “canal” in Panama and the one which would forever define its role in conducting vessels between the Atlantic and the Pacific, a vocation it still holds today.

By: Margarita de los Ríos
Photos: Javier Pinzón

It’s Sunday morning and I wake up thinking about middle school, when my teacher, Melva Estrella, would tell us stories about the merchants and their mules that traversed Panama from south to north. They were tales of adventurers who crossed the isthmus, laden with gold and silver from Perú and Europe, trying their luck in the middle of a jungle full of obstacles, poisonous insects, and thorny trees. These are the memories that inspire me to rise at dawn today with intention of putting on my hiking boots and seeing the Camino Real of Panama for myself, the “hub of the Americas,” a route used to transport 60% of all the riches that arrived in Spain from the New World some five hundred years ago.

For history buffs, today’s journey will be a dream come true: the opportunity to walk on the same way that Francisco Pizarro walked on, when he left for good in 1532 to conquer Perú. The same stones walked on, perhaps, many years later, by the arquebusier Gaspar Flores, father of the first saint of America, St. Rosa of Lima. The road I’m traveling on today connected Europe with South America and revealed, to what was known of the world at that time, the great empire of the Incas. It was also the first “canal” in Panama, the one which would forever define its role in conducting vessels between the Atlantic and the Pacific, a vocation it still holds today.

And Christian Strassnig is the new explorer of these ancient rocks, covered with moss, dressed with lichen, and hidden by thick vegetation. This Austrian social worker was haunted by the secrets of the Panamanian forest and, first as a student of tourism in 2003, and later as a scientific researcher in 2008, he was determined to bring to light the history that remained hidden beneath the forest. In fact, the Camino Real had been abandoned since 1855 due to the construction of the Panama Railroad. The jungle, which is unforgiving, had swallowed it up completely.

Our trip began in the small town of El 20, named because it is located at mile twenty of the Trans-Isthmic Highway, on the shores of Alajuela Lake. We are a group of eighteen people with different backgrounds: biologists, anthropologists, journalists, students, and even Panamanian historians who have come to “listen to the story” of this 21st century “conqueror.” On the lakeshore we have the pleasure of meeting Molinar Toribio, leader of the Quebrada Ancha community and our guide’s adventure partner. He invites us to board his wooden canoe and enter the waterways of Chagres National Park.

The day is a bit cloudy, making the green of the forest seem timid behind the mist. Christian takes advantage of the water being at its lowest level to explain to us the marine origin of the rocky formations that create white walls on the shore, which are deposits of calcium carbonate compressed until they formed soil layers. Three million years ago Panama was under the sea bed and what we see now is just one more example of its tremendous rise: a geological event that —because of the climatic consequences it caused worldwide by separating the ocean into two seas— changed the history of humanity.

After about forty-five minutes we arrive at the start of the overland route. We leave the water’s tranquility behind to begin our trek through the jungle, which welcomes us with dampness and a singular sound. Under a thick canopy, while we listen to a toucan’s unique song, Christian takes out an old map of Panama and shows us how the Camino Real of Panama originally began in Nombre de Dios, on the shores of the Caribbean, and ended on the edge of what today is known as Panamá Vieja, in the Pacific, stretching almost fifty miles. Over the years, the route of Nombre de Dios proved to be vulnerable to pirates, so the Spaniards built another section starting in Portobelo, the bay of which could be more easily protected with Spanish fortifications built by the Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli.

The Camino Real was all on land and it took travelers around four days to cross it, transporting valuable goods. According to records, one to two hundred tons of silver were transported on it per year. The road is only about four feet wide, so only one mule could fit at a time. However, according to royal letters, each mule could carry up to 220 pounds. A good indicator of how much wealth traveled along the Camino Real are the 1,300 lbs., give or take, of gold that the pirate Francis Drake was able to capture during one of his attacks on a caravan.

It wasn’t just the construction of the railroad that determined the fate of the Camino Real. In 1935 the dam was built to contain the waters of the Chagres and create the water reservoir now known as Alajuela Lake. The water flooded large sections of the original road. So what Christian has done to date is search, in the tangled forest, the sections that were saved from the water.

The work to discover the road’s original design has not been easy. In the course of his fieldwork, our explorer traveled approximately 185 miles in the middle of the jungles of the Chagres and Portobelo National Parks. Accompanied by archeologists from the National Institute of Culture (Institute Nacional de Cultura – INAC), jungle survival experts like the legendary Luis Puleio, and some area villagers, including our host Molinar Toribio, Christian used a machete to clear six to nine miles a day in the middle of the impenetrable forest, uncovering just one to two miles of the forgotten route. And although just a relatively short section has been cleared, what’s certain is that during the field research period the team was able to identify more than 80% of the original route.

As this historically charged feat progresses, we approach the community of Quebrada Ancha, home to approximately one hundred people from the countryside who believed in the project and saw an opportunity for the development of their village if tourists began to arrive. Since then, Toribio, Agustín, and the husband and wife team Ismael Núñez and Isabel Montero have organized a tourism committee and begun to prepare everything that will close today’s historical visit with a flourish.

The first visits to the villages along the Camino Real began in 2011. “I first promoted the trips among my friends and acquaintances, and finally, I was able to get a group of students for an outdoor ‘history class’,” recalls Christian. The first town they visited was La Tranquilla, situated right along the Camino Real. Molinar wanted the groups to be able to visit his village, Quebrada Ancha, but a long section still needed to be cleared. Yet as we know, there is no obstacle too big when the desire is great. Molinar and his neighbors organized a committee and cleared the section needed for visitors to be able to arrive at their village in 160 days. On September 17, 2011 they welcomed the first group of tourists.

Since then, Christian has dedicated himself completely to the project and in 2013 he founded the tour company, Cultour, to promote sustainable community tourism, bringing additional projects in the zone together with the Fundación Parque Nacional Chagres (Chagres National Park Foundation), Caminando Panamá, and Sendero TransPanamá, to improve the tourism infrastructure and train community members.

After many stories we finally arrive at Quebrada Ancha. The boys grant us their blushing smiles and the girls, beautifully ornamented, prepare for a folklore presentation. It’s lovely to be here on this afternoon full of sun and rain, surrounded by friendly people who have put all their efforts into the development of tourism. The men of the community have not only cleared the path, but they have also built a beautiful hut for performances; the women have built a spacious communal kitchen where they are now preparing a sancocho stew. Soon, the music begins and the children perform traditional Panamanian dances for us and even a short, entertaining play. Next came the delicious soup, filled with locally grown ingredients and the aroma of firewood.

The work with the communities didn’t end in Quebrada Ancha. In collaboration with the Cooperativa de Santa Librada, the project received a small donation in 2013 from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and this past October another seven miles of newly restored road was opened. Little by little and thanks to the help of the community, this piece of American history has come to light.

All we have left to do is to buy some of the exquisite honey cultivated by the community, some wooden handicrafts, and to top it off, a cold lemonade that makes a perfect ending to this adventure that is full of history and culture. We say goodbye to the community, the road, and the lake, with the promise to continue touring each of the newly cleared sections, one by one.