Navigate the Chagres River as the Conquistadores and Pirates

I received an invitation from Juan Vasconez to go sail the Chagres River. His tour operator, Xplore Panama is dedicated to creating unique experiences for local and international tourists. We left the city of Panama headed to the province of Colon where we passed through the new locks of Agua Clara. They did not let us through the locks, so we had to take the old ferry that will soon be replaced by the Atlantic Bridge. I thought it would probably be the last time I would ride that ferry that is part of the adventure.

We arrive at Gallo Pier in a beautiful bay to board the catamaran to begin our journey.

At that time we were all hungry so we ate the fruits and snacks that were on board. Followed by a welcome toast with champagne where we all gave thanks for being able to spend a Monday like that.

They stopped us in a section of the Chagres River to go out in kayaks and stand up paddle (SUP) by the tributaries. I decided to explore in a kayak which was easier since I had help paddling. The nature of the area is pristine. In the Panama Canal watershed there are 97 species of endemic animals. At the end we decided to take a dip that probably was not the best idea because there are crocodiles, but we are all still alive. A curious fact is that Christopher Columbus sailed the Chagres River in 1502 and originally gave it the name of the ‘alligator river’.

Historical navigation along the Chagres River

The route we sailed was the same route that the Spaniards used from 1569 to cross the gold they looted from the Incas.

When the city of Panama was founded in 1519, Pedro Arias Dávila ordered a path to be built from the city of Panama to Nombre De Dios, which then reached Portobelo. This path is known as the Camino Real. The necessary provisions for maintaining the city passed through this path. The problem is that it took 27 days through the jungle. Many Spaniards lost their lives due to dangers such as malaria, attacks by jaguars, dehydration or being bitten by animals with rabies.

In 1530, Francisco de Pizarro begins another expedition to discover the site that was until then was a legend. The Indians in Panama had told the conquistadores of a place in the south where the Indians ate and drank in gold dishes.

13 explorers arrived in Peru in 1532. They became so famous that they were known as the 13 of fame. They conquered the Incas trapping their emperor, Atahualpa. They demanded as a ransom that a room be filled with gold to a certain level. They gave him the gold and they killed him anyway. Since they had gotten more gold than they imagined they decided they needed a faster way to cross the gold through the Isthmus of Panama.

In 1569 that path is discovered. The Viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo, enters the mouth of the Chagres River and navigates it to a point that approaches Panama City.

At that time the city was known as Castilla de Oro, today we know it as Panama La Vieja. From the city there were two ways to enter, the Camino Real that begins with the Puente del Rey in the north and west, which now is Coco del Mar, was the Matadero Bridge that goes to the Camino de Cruces. Following what is now the Technological University and then Merca Panama to the north by Gamboa. The wineries to store gold were in front of the current Gamboa Rainforest Resort. There, smaller vessels would arrive to be loaded.

The pirates also wanted the gold

Spanish ships reached the Caribbean Sea where they were attacked by pirates. At the end of the 16th century, it was decided what ships should be protected.  A military engineer named Bautista Antonelli was commissioned to build a fort on a cliff at the mouth of the Chagres River.

The cannons at Fort San Lorenzo had a range of 1,200 meters which now a days would be the equivalent of a Tomahawk missile. Canons of pirate ships had less weight and could not reach the fort. Gravity made it impossible for pirates to attack it. Ships were sunk and defeated again and again.

In 1668, Henry Morgan attacks Portobelo with the help of a slave who escaped and tells him about the formation of the coast. They enter between 3 and 5 kilometers to the west and attack through the jungle. He took control of Portobelo and thinks that the only way to take Fort San Lorenzo was by land. But he knew that this fort had a battery that protected the rearguard.

He did not want to take the risk so he convinces a younger Dutch pirate named Joseph Bradley to do the same. There is a point west to disembark he says. In December of 1670 the pirates take the fort but Bradley dies. A month later Henry Morgan returns and takes what is left of the fort and starts sailing towards Panama City.

A destroyed city

To Morgan’s surprise, when he arrived in Panama City it was already destroyed. Historians say that there was a land captain named Juan Perez de Guzmán, who was a drunkard. The Spaniards who managed to escape the fort said what the pirate was coming. Guzmán decides to set fire to the gunpowder warehouses used by the Spaniards. And the fire destroyed the whole city.

Morgan plunders the city and stays there until the Spaniards bring reinforcements of soldiers from Ecuador and Peru to retake the city of Panama. He leaves almost a month later. The gold that Morgan took was never reported. There are several theories, one is that the Spaniards mounted it in galleons that sank in the Pearl Islands or right outside in the bay. Another theory says that it sank in the exit of the Chagres River in the Caribbean.

National Geographic Explorer found ships out of the Chagres River but the government of Panama has no plans to make expeditions to recover them.

Arrival at the Fort of San Lorenzo

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. In the end you reach the Fort of San Lorenzo and tour it. All the area we visited is a national park of 12,253 hectares. In winter season, when the sea is quieter, it is possible to enter the beaches.

In 1980, UNESCO declared Portobelo-San Lorenzo as World Heritage sites. We went from the fort to Shelter Bay Marina on electric bikes down the road in the jungle. To then ride our bus and return to Panama City.

Talk to me