Discover Panama's swashbuckling history

Panama isn’t just about tropical headgear and the world’s greatest shortcut – its jungles and crumbling colonial ports conceal a history of gold and plunder on the Spanish Main. Explore the swashbuckling history of Panama and its rich wildlife with Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Words by Roff Smith; photographs by Mark Read.

A Hoffman’s two-toed sloth moves through the jungle canopy. Photo by Mark Read.

It’s kind of spooky in the jungle, sweaty and dank, with deep growls of thunder adding a theatrical touch of menace to a shadowy old mule path. Framed by palm fronds and the trunk of a gigantic cuipo tree, the scene could be an engraving in an old, old book. All you’d need is for one of those grand turn-of-the-century illustrators to paint in a few of their trademark pirates or some haughty conquistadors in peaked helmets and shiny cuirasses, and you’d have yourself a swell cover illustration for a Boy’s Own tale of snakes, jungles and lost Incan treasure. And well you might. After all, this is the real deal: a seven-mile stretch of the old Camino de Cruces, the legendary Spanish treasure trail across the Isthmus of Panama, and a setting for one of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most swashbuckling tales: the sack of Panama City by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.

The sack of Panama City

It didn’t seem possible for even the toughest pirate captain to lead his band of cutthroats through seventy miles of pestilential jungle and launch a successful attack on one of Spain’s wealthiest New World treasure ports. But in 1671 the ‘privateer’ (an important step up the social ladder from a common pirate) made good his threat, assembling an armada of 38 ships off the pirate island of Hispaniola and recruiting more than 2000 ruthless buccaneers to the cause – English, French, Dutch, virtually every pirate in the Caribbean. Their destination was the rich mainland coast of Spain’s empire in the Americas.

The modern metropolis of Panama City rises across the bay from Casco Viejo. Photo by Mark Read

Wreaking a trail of havoc along the way, the pirates sacked the fortress at San Lorenzo, on Panama’s Caribbean coast. From there they turned inland, up the Chagres River and along this cobbled old jungle path to where Panama City lay waiting, in splendid isolation, aloof on the Pacific side. Every year, fabulous Incan treasures would arrive at this port – tonnes of gold and precious stones from Peru, silver from the fabled mines at Potosí – where they were stockpiled before being shipped on to Spain. Here was a prize well worth the taking, or at least it would have been if the governor had not been tipped off that the pirates were on their way.

Playa Galeón (Galleon Beach) on Isla Contadora (Counting House Island) – both names evoke a history of Spanish treasure and pearl diving in the Islas de las Perlas. Photo by Mark Read

As it was, most of the good stuff was packed onto galleons, to be hidden away in the Islas de las Perlas, a jewel-like archipelago of 220 tropical islands, 30 miles out in Panama Bay, where Panama City’s wealthiest citizens – those who could afford the panic-rates being charged to get out there – took refuge themselves. The pirates struck at dawn, on 28 January 1671, emerging from the jungle and swiftly overwhelming the town’s outnumbered defenders. A month-long orgy of fire, torture and pillage followed before finally, like sated locusts, the pirate hordes left, carrying their booty back down the trail to where their fleet waited on the Caribbean shore, leaving Panama City’s dazed citizenry to wander amongst the ruins of what had once been their homes.

Panama today

A lot of rainy seasons have come and gone over the old Camino de Cruces since Morgan passed this way. While the jungle remains as sinister as ever, now it’s part of the Soberanía National Park, a vast wilderness better known for plumage than plunder, with a world record 525 species of bird having been recorded in a single day. And where Morgan and his men camped in a misery of mud and mosquitoes where the trail met the Chagres River, modern hikers are within musket range of a five-star eco resort or an easy half-hour’s drive back to the boutique hotels, cafés and jazz bars in the Casco Viejo, Panama City’s fashionably crumbly colonial quarter – where they still won’t serve Captain Morgan rum.

But nowhere are the changes more apparent than along the Chagres River itself, dammed in 1913 to form Gatun Lake, as part of the Panama Canal project. At 164 square miles, the lake was the world’s largest man-made body of water when it was created. Much of the route Morgan followed is now submerged; to tread the pirate trail through modern Panama, you need to transit the canal. More than a million ships have passed through the world’s most flamboyant shortcut since it opened in 1914, and waiting to add to that tally on this thundery morning is a sightseeing vessel called the Pacific Queen, its decks bright with tourists in souvenir Panama hats, snapping photos and gazing across the water at the shimmering glass-and-steel skyline of Panama City, which looks more like Singapore or Miami than the steamy adventure port of popular imagination.

Once practically a by-word for glamorous danger, Panama City has blossomed into one of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan cities, a glitzy banking capital and a honeypot for real estate tycoons, property developers and well-heeled North American retirees looking for tropical sunshine, an expatriate lifestyle and a safe place to berth their yachts away from the hurricanes that beset the usual run of Caribbean tax havens.

A freighter off Panama’s Caribbean coast waits to enter the 50-mile-long Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Read

Built on cutlass and plunder

In Panama City’s old colonial quarter, I find myself in the incense-sweetened nave of St Joseph’s church, whose magnificent altar of gilded mahogany survived the pirate siege by being daubed in mud to look as though it had already been stripped of its gold. In what must have been as fine a piece of acting as any this side of an Oscar, the priest at the time not only convinced Morgan there was nothing left to steal in his church, but, local lore has it, even sweet-talked the hardened buccaneer into donating a bit of gold for its refurbishment. This same legend has a bemused and sceptical Morgan handing over his donation with the words: ‘I have a feeling you’re more of a pirate that I am.’ Perhaps he was. They were all pirates in those days. After all, Panama itself was built on cutlass and plunder.

This article was first published in March 2013 and was republished in August 2013.