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Views of Panama

The Road Detective

Panama boasts four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Old Quarter of Panama City, the ruins of the original Panama City (on the Pacific coast), and the fortifications of Portobelo and San Lorenzo (on the Caribbean coast). A series of caminos reales (royal roads) linked these sites until the 19th century; the country’s history cannot be understood without these roads. A civic group, inspired and led by retired military man Luis Puleio, is fighting to identify and save the remains of these roads and integrate them into the collective mythos of the Canal nation and the world.

By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Cristian Pinzón

We leave behind the breakneck traffic that enlivens the Centennial Highway linking the Panamanian capital with its northern and eastern suburbs; we park on an access road to one of the city’s newest shopping centers. Nearby, the right of way for the electricity pylons that carry energy to the capital serves as an entry point to Camino de Cruces National Park, one of the green zones that demarcate the city. “It’s this way,” says our guide, stepping away from the barren ground and plunging into the undergrowth, which is rather scraggly owing to a merciless El Niño. A few minutes later, some rather rundown stone walls disappearing under shrubs heave into sight.

The ruins, known as “The Cárdenas Chapel,” form part of a network of archeological remains connected to the caminos reales (royal roads) that crossed the Isthmus of Panama during the Colonial era. Many of these sites have been integrated into Panama’s national mythos and included in the country’s historical heritage, but others have not, and they are in danger of being forgotten, or worse, destroyed by the persistent construction boom spreading across Panama. This is precisely what our guide, Luis Puleio, seeks to prevent. Retired from law enforcement after a spell in the military, Puleio began to learn about these ruins and others in 1958, when he explored the rain forests north of the city as an adolescent.

“In 1965, I found a map left by U.S. personnel in a chapel. It was marked with a number 4, since it represented the fourth station on a survival course for soldiers at the Tropical Survival School the U.S. ran in Panama,” he remembers. “I was really surprised, since I could see all the sites I was familiar with on a topographic map; it confirmed the geography of the area and allowed me to improve my plans for adventure and exploration.”

He was so passionate about exploring nature that he decided to join the military, since in the Panama of the time, “That was a way to serve the community, earn a living, and stay in contact with the forest.” After retirement, he and some friends formed Jungle Explorers Panama to offer jungle survival training and raise awareness of the value of the country’s natural heritage.  Following his passion for nature seemed the ideal way to live out the autumn of his life after retirement, but no one expected that threats to the spaces he had known since childhood would bring him back into public life.

Puleio tells us this as we head toward the second point on our tour: the cobblestones and pavers of the Camino de Cruces, which runs from the edge of the Chivo-Chivo antenna park to north of old Fort Clayton. “This stretch represents the road’s new route after pirate Henry Morgan destroyed old Panama City in 1671 and the inhabitants moved to San Felipe de Neri in 1673,” explains the explorer.

Under the previous government, the expansive area was destined to be the site for construction of an enormous hospital complex, a huge agricultural market, and a maintenance yard for the Panama City metro. “We approached the construction companies involved in the works to notify them that remains of the road could be found here. FCC, the company building the Hospital City, took measures to preserve the road, and in an unprecedented move, modified the project’s original design so as to avoid destroying the archeological site. In contrast, the company in charge of building the Wholesale Market destroyed some 1,640 feet of the stone road to the utter indifference of the authorities in charge of historical assets at that time.” Traces of several sections of the trade routes that crossed the Isthmus during Colonial times and well into the 19th century are in the hands of fate, since there is no clear strategy for saving them, appreciating them, or incorporating them into the architectural and historical legacy of the city and the nation.

Such a strategy is absolutely essential, since the flow of goods and travelers through the inter-oceanic route did not always follow the paths traced by the Spanish empire; the roads were often modified to reflect the needs of traders, weather phenomena, or political changes. Camino de Gorgona, unknown to most Panamanians, is a good example. To reach the stretch Puleio wants to visit, we once again take the Centennial Highway and turn off near the Camino de Cruces National Park office, from which we enter the forest.

The Camino de Gorgona was built in 1735 by order of King Carlos III. Information on its construction has come down to us thanks to the report Captain Nicolás Rodríguez sent to the Crown in April 1735,” the explorer relates as we trudge up the muddy path.  Puleio’s work has been meticulous and painstaking, and if he did not enjoy communing with nature, we might say it has been torturous. For years, the retired military man resorted to old maps that he compared to the surrounding countryside. He studies a compass and uses a probing rod to clear and prod at sites that common sense and map clues suggest might be part of the roads. His efforts are rewarded when he detects rounded stones hidden under the sediment of centuries.

To locate the remains of the Camino de Gorgona, for example, Puleio used maps of the inter-oceanic region made by Trans-Isthmian railroad builder George Totten from 1850 to 1855, and published in 1857. Sometimes, the evidence is so ordinary that it can be missed by the untrained eye, but not by the skilled detective. What looks like merely a ditch carved by the brief, sudden flows of water peculiar to tropical storms leads Puleio to notice the tracks of mule trains that passed through here loaded with precious metals and valuable merchandise. “These gullies formed when mule drivers went off a damaged main road in search of better footing for their animals,” he tells us.

In fact, the Camino de Gorgona was used until the 19th century by travelers heading to San Francisco during the gold rush. Mule drivers created a new route, known as Half Gorgona, to shorten the road for adventurers desperate to reach California. During this and earlier periods of expanding trade, the routes were flanked by farms, inns, and all types of services useful to traders and travelers. Some, like the towns of Cruces and Gorgona (both on the banks of the Chagres Rivers and terminuses for the towns of the same name) were recorded in history, but others were not and soon faded into anonymity, swallowed by the jungle almost as soon as the boom times ended.

This is what happened to our fourth destination, representative of those anonymous settlements, dubbed “The Unknown Ruins” by our guide. Access is a little difficult: our group had to descend from the bridge that raises the Centennial Highway above the inter-oceanic railway, hike along the tracks for ten minutes, and finally walk through a stream bed to reach the ruins. Rough walls made of stacked slabs and bits of earthenware suggest that the settlement, built alongside the Alto Gorgona road, could have been used between the late Colonial period and the gold rush.

In his search for the roads, Luis Puleio has met with other explorers who also wish to preserve for posterity the tales told by these ruins. Together they instituted the Project to Recover the Historic Memory of Panama’s Colonial Roads. Juan Castillo is part of the enterprise. “Our country boasts four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Old Quarter of Panama City, the ruins of the original Panama City (Old Panama City) on the Pacific coast, and the fortifications of Portobelo and San Lorenzo on the Caribbean coast. These sites played a special role in trade between Spain and the Pacific colonies, and were therefore established as road terminuses.

These sites can only be understood by studying the role and importance of the Real, Cruces, and Gorgona roads in the development of the Isthmus of Panama. But their significance goes beyond this: the roads, the cities, and the fortifications at the terminuses constituted a trade system that covered half the globe,” explains Castillo.

The group seeks to raise awareness among governments and civil society in order to conserve the surrounding forests and prevent the destruction of the historic roads. In our case, we begin to feel the strain of our tour, which included nearly all the sites designated by Puleio.

We make for the last stop of the day: the remains of an old French mine. To get there, we take the Gaillard Highway toward Gamboa, get out at the El Charco trailhead, and penetrate into the bush. Less than fifteen minutes later, we find ourselves at a refreshing site where the Sardinilla stream has been dammed to form a natural pool. The site is popular among local inhabitants, but few venture beyond this point. Nearly forty minutes later (for someone in poor condition, like this writer), we reach a graveyard of 19th century equipment, lost to rust and usurped by vegetation.

“This gold mine was in operation during the excavations of the French Canal in Panama,” explains Puleio as we inspect the half-buried machinery, mechanisms, and pipes. Shortly before reaching the area, we catch sight of the stones of a road used by workers and pack animals. “The mine had a rail track for transporting the mined material in rail cars,” he notes. We had set out on our walk early in the morning, but now, after midday, the black clouds that promise the first copious downpour of the season are bunched over the jungle. As we walk back, a ferocious storm soaks us, pounding and buckling leaves, stalks, and young branches. Just as the cleansing rain washes away the dust of drought to renewed hopes, we hope that the work of road detective Luis Puleio and his group will help preserve these fragments of Panamanian and world history scattered throughout the inter-oceanic forest.