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History of the El Camino Real

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Written by Editor   
Wednesday, 15 November 2006 14:50
As soon as he hacked his way through the steamy Panama jungle in 1515, Vasco Nunez Balboa strongly addressed the need to the King and Queen of Spain for a road across the Isthmus of Panama that would link the two oceans. He had no clue that the local Indians had beaten him to it thousands of years earlier. The famous El Camino Real, which the Pirate Henry Morgan used to sack Panama City was just an improved version of a trail that had been used by the natives for millennia. The trail ran around the mangrove swamps of Limon Bay (Colon) and then skirted around the headwaters of the Chagres River and then ran on high ground until it reached the Pacific. The Indians with their knowledge of the jungle crossed the Rio Chagres by using a bridge made of vines of different sizes. It was constructed from a single thick vine to walk on with two thinner vines that were used as hand rails that held up the foot path with smaller vines. The river ford was located at a place the Kuna Indians called Barba Coas or " Big Bridge".

That same year the Spanish conquistador Diego de Alvitez, along with his force of 80 conquistadors, set out to explore the route along an old Indian trail from Nombere de Dios to Panama City. In doing so he became the first European to cross the Río de los Lagartos or the Rio Chagres. After three weeks of surveying and exploring up and down the trail, Alvitez finally returned to Nobre de Dios with over 10,000 pounds of gold Stolen from the natives. Alvitez reported the trail was18 leagues. But Alvitez never reached the Pacific Ocean. That distinction goes to Gaspar de Espinosa who was the first European to reach the Pacific on that trail. Espinosa was ordered by the King of Spain to build upon the road Alvitez had discovered.

His construction began at Nombre de Di�s, which had already been abandoned, but still contained several stone building that could be fixed up. Espinosa set up the base of his operations at Nombre de Di�s. His first priority was to widen the path that went west, from Nombre de Di�s to the junction of two trails between Panama and Porto Bello. This junction was equidistance from Nombre de Di�s and Porto Bello. Here the trail continued south and ran alone this eastern bank of the Boqueron River until it reaches the junction of the Pequeni River. It then continued south until it reaches the banks of the Río de los Lagartos. It crossed the Río de los Lagartos and then climbed the Cordillera, descending onto the plain that entered the town of Panama. This was the famous Camino Real.

When they reached the Rio de Lagartos, they maneuvered large boulders at intervals in the river. They cut down the trees, split them and filed them down into sturdy boards. When they laid them across the boulders, the bridge was wide enough for two carts to pass. At the crossing they built an inn called Vento de Chagre and a store house for travelers. By the way, the name of Chagre was given by Balboa after a provincial district in Spain.

In order to build the road, the Spanish needed a large labor force; so they captured about 4,000 natives from the area and used them as slaves to construct the road. They moved smooth river stones from the nearby river bed and streams and laid them on the trail. They covered the stones with clay and then packed them tight with more clay so the stones would stick. The Spaniards ruthlessly enslaved any Indians from the villages they encountered along the way and then used the abandoned huts as shelter.

This is how the most famous road in Panama was built: with slave labor. You can still see parts of the Camino Real around Panama. You can see Kings Bridge in Panama Viejo where Henry Morgan and his buccaneers crossed into Panama City to sack the city in 1672. There is a Camino Cruces National Park where you can see part of the trail just as it look over 400 years ago.
The road was important to Panama and Spain because it was a highway for gold coming from Pizzaro's raids of Inca Territory. Later the Argonauts of the 1849 gold rush used it to get from Colon to the Pacific side where they waited for ships to take them to California. With so much history involved, I think it's high time I take a look at trail myself.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:39
 
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