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Follow the route of the river that was explored by Christopher Columbus. From Gallo dock to Fort San Lorenzo. A journey through time and history
The nature of the area is pristine. In the Panama Canal watershed there are 97 species of endemic animals. A curious fact is that Christopher Columbus sailed on the Chagres River in 1502. He originally named it the River of the Lizards.
I received an invitation to navigate the Chagres River. Its tour operator, Xplore Panama, is dedicated to creating unique experiences for local and international tourists.
We left the city of Panama heading to the province of Colon, where we passed through the new locks of Agua Clara. We arrive at Gallo Pier, located in a beautiful bay to board the catamaran and thus start our journey. At that time, we were all hungry, so we took the opportunity to eat fruits and snacks, followed by a welcome toast with champagne.
They stopped us in a section of the Chagres River to go out in kayaks and paddle surf (SUP) for the tributaries. The nature of the area is pristine. In the Panama Canal watershed there are 97 species of endemic animals. A curious fact is that Christopher Columbus sailed on the Chagres River in 1502. He originally named it the River of the Lizards.
Navigating in history
The route we sailed was the same as that used by Spaniards from 1569 to cross the gold they looted from the Incas. When the city of Panama was founded in 1519, Pedro Arias Dávila ordered that a road be built from the city of Panama to Nombre de Dios and that later it reached Portobelo.
It is known as the Camino Real. There they passed the necessary provisions to guarantee the sustenance of the ancient city of Panama.
The cannons at Fort San Lorenzo had a range of 1,200 meters. The cannons of the pirate ships had less weight and could not reach the fort.
In 1668, Henry Morgan attacked Portobelo. They counted on the help of a slave who escaped and provided them with information about the formation on the coast. The corsairs enter three and five kilometers to the west and attack through the jungle, taking control of Portobelo. The pirates think that the only way to take the Fort of San Lorenzo was by land, what they effectively get afterwards. Seeking to reduce the risk, he convinces a younger Dutch pirate named Jospeh Bradley, who shows him a point to the west to disembark.
In December of 1670, the pirates attack the fort. Bradley dies in the attack. A month later Henry Morgan returns, takes what is left of the fort and starts sailing towards Panama City.
To Morgan’s surprise, when he arrives in Panama City, the metropolis is in ruins. Historians speak of a land captain named Juan Pérez de Guzmán, who was a drunkard. Alerted by the advance of the pirates, he decided to set fire to the gunpowder cellars used by the Spaniards. The fire destroyed the entire city.
The explorers of National Geographic found ships at the exit of the Chagres River. However, the government of Panama has no plans to make expeditions to these wrecks.
Morgan plunders the city and stays there until the Spanish bring reinforcements from Ecuador and Peru to reconquer it, which happens almost a month later. The gold that Morgan took was never reported.
There are several theories. One says that the Spaniards raised it in galleons that sank in the Las Perlas archipelago. Another one that was right outside, in the bay. Another hypothesis suggests that it sank outside the outlet of the Chagres River in the Caribbean.
The catamaran ride along the Chagres River is beautiful, but you appreciate it much more after the guide tells you the history of the place.
The tour ends at the Fort of San Lorenzo. In total, the national park has 12,253 hectares. In winter season, when the sea is calmer, it is possible to enter the beaches.
In 1980, Unesco declared Portobelo and San Lorenzo as World Heritage sites. The road from the fort to Shelter Bay Marina we rode on electric bicycles, crossing a jungle road. Then we got on the bus and started the return to the city.
Plan your Trip
Christopher Columbus sailed down the Chagres River in 1502.
In 1668, Henry Morgan attacked Portobelo with the help of a slave who escaped and told him about the formation present on the coast.
The cannons at Fort San Lorenzo had a range of 1,200 meters.