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The lost roads that inspired the Panama Canal

Panama City, Feb 13 (EFE).- In Panama’s dense jungle there are two narrow, historic paths that inspired the creation of one of the world’s most important maritime passages and an outstanding work of modern engineering: the Panama Canal.

The Camino de Cruces and the Camino Real, built in the 16th century during Spanish colonization, linked the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and played a significant role in the transport of goods. These roads now form part of the Colonial Transisthmian Route, Panama’s cultural initiative that aims to make the route a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“These paths are important because they are antecedent to the Canal and the construction of the Panama railway,” Roxana Pino, head of the Department of Cultural Landscapes and Extension at the Ministry of Culture, told EFE.

The function of both tracks was to connect the Caribbean coast to Panama City on the Pacific, and transport merchandise to and from Spain. The Camino de Cruces connected the capital to San Lorenzo, while the Camino Real ended in Portobelo.


The Camino de Cruces is a river and land route that crosses three protected areas – a national park that bears the same name, the Soberanía Park, and the Protected Forest and Protected Landscape of San Lorenzo – and has been in use since 1527.

It covers 25 kilometers (15 miles) of land, 50 kilometers (30 miles) along the Chagres River, and 60 kilometers (37 miles) to Portobelo. The slower route, which took up to two weeks to complete, was cheaper than the Camino Real and was used for transporting goods and by private citizens.

“The Camino de Cruces is one of the main arteries for communication and transportation of the Spanish empire during the Colony. It has continued to be used over time as a brand that preceded what was later to have the Panama Canal and what Panama means as a transit area,” said Pino.

Venta de Cruces, located in the current town of Gamboa in the Canal area, was a strategic town at the beginning of the second section of the Camino de Cruces, where customs control was carried out.

“The importance of this site is that it has not changed, I would dare to say, since the 1520s in the way it is accessed; it is reached by water and from here the journey began,” said Samuel Valdés, a biologist who is responsible for the composition and environmental interpretation of the file sent to UNESCO.

Despite being largely invisible today, Venta de Cruces was populated with some 40 houses, which no longer exist, and a majestic church demolished by the 7.7 magnitude earthquake of 1882.

The route still features cobblestones, excavations in the rock, and mule tracks marked in stone. Valdés believes that the route’s excavations and roadwork served as the basis for the concept of the Panama Canal.

“After the fall of the (Spanish) crown, the site fell into disuse, but it turns out that the California gold rush of 1849-50 stimulated a new demand to use the isthmus, which prompted the establishment of the railroad company” of Panama, built by the United States and is the predecessor of the interoceanic highway, Valdés told EFE.


The Camino Real, exclusively a land route, has been in use since 1521 and covers 80 kilometers (50 miles) of land with limestone paving through the Portobelo National Park and Chagres National Park. It was faster and more expensive than the Camino de Cruces, but less well-known.

Marixa Lasso, a historian who studied the routes, explained that the Camino Real mainly transported silver.

“The Camino Real was faster because it could be reached on mules in four days, although the terrain was very difficult towards Portobelo…it was also used in the dry season and all the treasures were transported to Portobelo and later transferred to Spain.”

Both roads, now used for professional hiking, are crucial to the Panamanian Culture Ministry’s Colonial Transisthmian Route project. The Panamanian authorities are working on projects to rehabilitate the routes and make them more accessible to the public.

The Colonial Transisthmian Route is also made up of the Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo and the Historic District of Panama (World Heritage since 1997), the Fortifications of the Caribbean Coast of Panama: Portobelo and San Lorenzo (World Heritage since 1980 and on the Heritage in Danger list since 2012). EFE


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