Sunday, August 26, 2012

'El Camino Real' - A Path Worn Through Time

by Jenny Barden

This picture sums up what is left of el Camino Real: stones disappearing into the undergrowth, lost in darkness, veiled by forest mist. Very little remains, but what does conjures up the shadows of the pack trains that used to traverse this vital road across Panama, bringing bullion from the mines of South America from the Pacific side of the isthmus to the Caribbean by the quickest overland route. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, el Camino Real, 'the Royal Road', bore the riches that helped sustain the might of the Spanish Empire and its domination in Europe. It stretched from the city of Panama in the south, across mountains and through rainforest, to Nombre de Dios in the north. Over the stones once laid by some 4000 native slaves under the command of Gaspar de Espinosa in 1517-9, pack trains in convoys, often of two or three together totalling some 200 mules or more, would walk, plod, climb and struggle over this path until their hooves wore hollows that can still be seen in places today.

The road was never easy. It was only just over sixty miles in length, yet it passed through thick forest and vegetation that proliferated so rapidly the road was in constant need of repair. In the rainy season it became impassable because of the many rivers that had to be forded which turned into torrents once swollen by tropical storms, and even without rain (as I know only too well from experience) the high humidity would soon leave the clothes of any traveller completely saturated. Those who took the Royal Road had to contend with mosquitoes that carried malaria and yellow fever, and up in the mountains, where drops were precipitous, when a mule lost its footing it would be gone for ever. There were other dangers too: the risk of ambush by Cimaroons - bands of runaway African slaves - and towards the end of the sixteenth century there was the very real threat of pirate attack.

Chris Haslam noted some of the hazards in his article 'The World's Wildest Walk' for the Sunday Times*: 'Some 300ft below, the Nombre de Dios river roars through unseen cataracts, a constant reminder of where you end up if you fall. And falling is a constant possibility. The problem is that if you slip, you need to grab something to stop you falling, and if you grab something it will either bite you, spike you or try to tear your hand off. Scorpions, tarantulas and lethal bullet ants lurk in the leaf litter. Deadly eyelash vipers and enormous fer-de-lances lie disguised as branches and roots, and even the flora threatens armed response. Thorns, hooks and barbs shred clothes and skin, causing wounds that go septic in hours, and peaceful looking leaves cause cruel and unusual burns. It's hard enough hauling a rucksack around here: imagine driving a stolen mule train.'

Francis Drake was the first Englishman to realise the vulnerability of the Spanish bullion supply while it was in transit over the Royal Road, and after several raids along the coast and attacks on shipping for little gain, many setbacks and a thwarted attempt to ambush the 'Silver Train' (as the bullion pack trains were called), he finally achieved a remarkable victory in April 1573 by capturing a convoy carrying almost 30 tons in silver and over half a ton in gold.**

This was Drake's first great enterprise: the triumph that began his meteoric rise to fame, fortune and a place in English history books.

After that attack, the Spanish began to store their treasure at Puerto Bello to the west of Nombre de Dios. (Drake later died of dysentery near Puerto Bello after a failed expedition to raid the City of Panama; he is buried at sea in the bay)
The Camino Real and its offshoot connecting the Chagres river with the City of Panama: el Camino a Cruces (part of which still survives as Las Cruces Trail) continued to be used to carry bullion north and merchandise south for another two hundred years. In 1671 the buccaneer Henry Morgan used Las Cruces trail to reach the old city of Panama which he then looted and burned to the ground, and in the nineteenth century prospectors used the trail to cross the isthmus on their way to join the gold rush in California. The trail finally came to an end with the construction of the Panama Railroad in 1855. The railway reduced the time needed to cross the isthmus from a minimum of three days, and sometimes several weeks, to only an hour.

With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 most of the old road was lost forever, flooded by the damming of the Chagres to form Lake Gatun and by the Madden Dam behind which Lake Alajuela now covers a large part of the old trail. The development of Panama City as a metropolis has obliterated much more, and the forest and rivers have swallowed up the rest. There are only a few traces left of the highway that once played such an important part in the history of world affairs, but here is one: the Puente del Matadero in Panama la Vieja - the bridge over which Camino a Cruces began.

If you look under this bridge, you can see the channels worn in the stones by the rush of the tide over nearly five hundred years.

There's a very good website about the Camino Real here:

Michael Turner of the Drake Exploration Society describes the route Drake took to reach both the failed ambush and his successful attack near Nombre de Dios in his book In Drake's Wake: the early Voyages. I gather he's planning another route march across the isthmus this coming February...

My debut novel, Mistress of the Sea, is set against the backdrop of Drake's attack on the Silver Train along the Camino Real. The book will be published by Ebury Press and launched this Thursday, 30 August 2012. It will be released first in hardback with the paperback to follow.

The book is available for pre-order here:

** There's a piece about how Drake and his men got away with the haul on the EHFA site here: 'Carrying Away the Booty' - Drake's attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train'

* Chris Haslam's article appeared in the Sunday Times 03.09.2006

All pictures taken by the author. Map drawn by the author. ©JennyBarden


  1. Lovely post. I lived in Panama during the mid-'80's and never even heard of the road.

  2. Hi Ella - Yes, it's really difficult to find - mostly destroyed or submerged. But that makes the traces that remain even more fascinating, I think

  3. The El Camino Real sounded like an exciting and dangerous road. I grew up hearing about California's El Camino Real because I lived there (streets are still named after it), but I had no idea there was one in Panama too.

    Thanks for sharing!


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