Camino de Cruces
by Rebeca, since 2016 guide in Panama
Long before you could cross the Isthmus of Panama by rail, highway or canal there were trails and paths through the dense jungles and mountains of Panama. The two principal routes were the Camino de Cruces trail and the Camino Real, built in the early 16th century by Spanish colonizers. These key routes linked Panama City on the Pacific coast with the communities and ports of Nombre de Dios and Portobelo on the Caribbean– thus connecting the two oceans and converting Panama into an important trans-shipment point for transporting the stolen wealth of the Inca empire from Peru to Spain.
The Camino de Cruces was a multimodal route (terrestrial, river and maritime) – From Panama City, slaves and mules loaded with gold, silver and other merchandise from the New World carried their cargo along the cobbled trail to the settlement of Venta de Cruces on the banks of the River Chagres. The cargo was then transferred onto small boats, bongos, and transported downriver to the Caribbean coast.
The journey wasn’t easy, and it took several days, sometimes even up to 2 weeks to traverse the isthmus. Travel through the tropical rainforest was gruelling and difficult, with snakes, mosquitoes and the constant, stifling heat. Frequent downpours and storms turned parts of the trail into a muddy and slippery quagmire and there was the constant threat of attack from bands of cimarrones and pirates.
The river wasn’t any easier. Fast flowing and dangerous, the Chagres was also full of crocodiles and claimed many lives. During the rainy season travellers feared flash flooding, whereas during the dry season there was often not enough water to sail, forcing the travellers to haul the cargo overland!
As the transport of goods across Panama evolved; first with the construction of a railway, then the canal, and more recently, highways, the trails gradually lost importance and were abandoned. Today the trails are overgrown and neglected but it is still possible to hike parts of these historical routes and walk in the footsteps of conquistadores, pirates and adventurers.
We decided to hike a section of the Camino de Cruces trail in the Soberania National Park. From Panama City it’s a 40-minute drive to Gamboa where our boatman was waiting to take us a short way up the river to the trail head.
It was early in the morning and the steam was rising from the rainforest canopy. Our small boat pushed through the mass of water hyacinth to the water's edge, we jumped overboard and scrambled up the steep bank into the rain forest. A small trail, barely noticeable within the forest led us to a small clearing with stone foundations and steps, completely overgrown and hardly discernable as a former settlement, we were standing within the ruins of Venta de Cruces, an important waystation on the trail. It was from here the merchandise was loaded on and off the boats. Now almost entirely lost within the jungle, it is hard to imagine that this was once a busy and important river port.
With the help of GPS we found the beginning of the Camino leading away from the ruins. Luckily the trail is well marked with bright orange markers attached to trees about every 20-30 metres. After a short walk the forest suddenly opened and we found ourselves walking on a cobbled road, nearly 2m wide in some parts. Then, just as quickly, the path narrowed and we were walking uphill in a narrow ravine, crossing small streams and dodging low branches. In some parts trees had crashed down, blocking the trail and forcing us off the path.
The biodiversity along the route was astounding. We came across a candle tree, so called for its long, thin yellow fruits, like candles, hanging from its branches, saw all kinds of palms, some covered with long 10cm spines, and observed many different fungi such as earth stars, elf cups and ‘dead man’s fingers’. Along with the amazing flora there were also many different insects; from annoying mosquitos to stick insects, leaf cutter ants and brightly coloured caterpillars. We could hear plenty of birds and saw howler monkeys high above us in the canopy and on the ground small frogs and leaf litter toads jumped out of the way as we walked. We spotted a small terciopelo (bothrops asper) snake curled on a stone right in the middle of our path, we quickly walked past, careful not to disturb it and, needless to say, continued our hike carefully watching our steps as the ground was uneven and slippery, and no-one wanted to accidentally step on a snake!
After several hours, the heat and humidity became increasingly oppressive and although it was now midday the sky turned dark and we were startled by a flash of lightening followed by thunder. Large heavy drops started to rain down, we quickly packed away our cameras and put on our ponchos, within minutes we were in the middle of a heavy downpour.
The trail was now a small stream and we were ankle deep in mud and water and soaking wet. Walking much faster now we covered the last kilometre quickly and after a total of 5 hours, arrived at our destination; Madden Road. For hiking and outdoor enthusiasts, the Camino de Cruces hike is a fantastic and exhilarating experience, and without a doubt, one of my favourite hikes in Panama. It’s the perfect combination of adventure with nature and history. The section we hiked was one-way from Venta de Cruces to Madden; 10.5 km, with an elevation gain of approx. 270m. The trail is rocky, muddy in parts and very uneven. Hiking in the tropical heat can be exhausting, so a reasonable level of fitness is required as well as proper boots and clothing.