This post is also available in: Spanish
For centuries, Panama was the place where the Spaniards accumulated the riches from the Inca and Maya empires to send to Europe. The conquerors built the “Camino Real de Cruces” around 1527. This cobblestoned trail linked Old Panama City to the port of Venta de Cruces on the banks of the Rio Chagres, on the Atlantic. From this port, goods (textiles, spices, gold, and silver) from South America were loaded into ships that would sail out of the Chagres River, into the Atlantic, and onward to Spain.
The Camino Real de Cruces became the favorite target of muggers, killers, pirates and corsairs, seeking to strip the Spaniards of their gold. The path itself was quite passable, but very narrow, with numerous cliffs and dangerous paths, built with different-size stones, but firmly attached to the soil.
Travellers started at Chagres town, on the river mouth, traveled upstream in canoes, fought the strong current to arrive in Gorgona Town or Las Cruces and then followed the cobblestone path, crossing mountains to reach Panama, covering a distance of 60 miles. This was the first intercontinental route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans in America.
This was the same route utilized by the most famous English pirate of the time, Francis Drake, who, with two ships, pillaged the small town of Nombre de Dios. After strong resistance from the Spanish, Drake managed to take over the town on July 30, 1572. However, after reinforcements arrived, Drake had to flee.
He continued raiding the area, until finally he hit the jackpot by capturing a shipment of gold and silver, that was so big that the hold of his ships were too small for it and he needed to bury more than two dozen casks full of silver under the sand of a creek south of Nombre de Dios.
Today Nombre de Dios is still a small town, ideal for fishing, surfing, loafing around a deserted beach or simply enjoying the wonderful Afro-Caribbean food.
After the success of Drake, other pirates decided to attack Panama, especially Portobelo where the Spanish had a Customs building. Henry Morgan assaulted Portobelo quickly and successfully, where he managed to collect a great loot of jewelry, metal and other goods. He even asked for a ransom of 150,000
pesos from the Spanish Governor to leave the city intact.
Morgan returned to Panama in 1671 with 38 ships. He pillaged and destroyed Fort San Lorenzo on the Chagres river and after a few days march through bad roads and creeks he arrived in Panama City. He conquered the city and returned to Jamaica a rich man.
Much of the route Morgan followed is now submerged. To tread the pirate trail through modern Panama, you need to transit the canal.
However, you can visit Portobelo and Fort San Lorenzo which are now tourist attractions and efforts have been made to preserve them for future generations.
Other pirates that attacked Panama were William Dampier in 1681 and 1685, but his loot was meager in comparison with Drake and Morgan. Dampier later became a well respected scientist. Gabriel Revenau de Lussan (also in 1685) and Sir Edward Vernon who in 1739 sacked Portobelo.
For more information about Colón, Panama City and Pirates visit Atp.gob.pa