The Camino Real
Getting into the mouth of the Chagres River is not easy. As our captain is navigating along the Caribbean coastline in the middle of the night, a big tanker approaching the Canal gets in his way and refuses to change course. Our captain has to take the long way around it, hitting rough waves for an hour before plowing through the even rougher surf where the river meets the sea. The next morning though, we awake to find a scene as serene and peaceful as anyone could want, sitting docked on the calm river with a chorus of morning birdsongs around us.
After breakfast and tales of who got seasick the night before, we explore the shore by Zodiac and then some go swimming while a few of us take out the kayaks. With nothing but the sound of paddles and birds, with no sounds of cars or even airplane tracks in the sky, I'm as calm and stress-free as I've felt in months.
We spend the last day and a half absorbing the world of gold in the middle of the last millennium. We head back out after lunch, visiting Fort San Lorenzo. This was a strategic outpost protecting the gold trade, which moved up from Peru and then by land and river across to the Pacific. Even among these stone walls and old cannons the birds are a big attraction: a group of noisy Chestnut-headed Oropendolas has taken over a tree near the entrance and has strung up a line of hanging nests.
We move on to the attractive bay of Portobelo, the real center of the gold trade for centuries, whether it was coming up from Peru with the Conquistadors or down from San Francisco with the Gold Rush 49ers. Now it's a little town that has an air of faded glory, with UNESCO World Heritage site status and three imposing forts, but enough garbage to sink a trash tanker. The forts themselves show that an uncaring attitude toward the environment is nothing new in these parts: the walls are made from huge chunks of coral harvested from the seabed.
Columbus landed here in 1502 and the town was established at the end of the 1500s. It was frequently attacked, however, with Sir Francis Drake dying near here in 1596 and the pirate Henry Morgan sacking the city in 1668. So the three huge forts were built up after, adding to the San Lorenzo one by the Chagres.
We visit two of the forts and pop into the big church on the main square, where a big statue of "the black Christ" is housed. He is the main draw of a festival each year that draws throngs to Portobelo. We down a round of 75-cent beers at an open-air cantina and then return to town that night for a local music and dance show in the square. Afterward we take over a bar nearby, where the crew joins us for drinks and dancing, first to reggaeton music and then helping with some merenge steps. (Note to self-you need lessons.)
This is just one more display of talent from the Panamanian crew. Once you get past the captain, there's a pretty flat hierarchy on the Discovery. One day I watch a young female crew member pull up the anchor, serve breakfast, help clean up the cabins, drive a motorboat, slice the bar limes, and pour wine for dinner. One of the men makes coffee, serves all three meals, sorts the lifejackets, takes the wheel as first mate, and catches a fish that becomes part of our dinner ceviche appetizer.
Reluctantly, we depart the next morning, packing up our cabins and riding a bus across the narrow land strip to Panama City. We're chattering about what we saw and how we'd like to do this again with friends and family along. Nobody is in a hurry to get home, but it's definitely time to go. If we continue eating and drinking this well we'll start looking like the whales we saw a few days earlier...
- Story and Photos by Timothy Scott
Doing it Yourself:
Rates for the 8-day journey on the M.V. Discovery are currently $3,950 per person double occupancy including meals, activities, and house beverages. Airfare, transfers, and tips are additional. Book through your travel agent or direct with Panama Marine Adventures
Some tour companies will work with you in chartering the whole ship for a group and taking care of all the travel arrangements. Check with International Expeditions or Holbrook Travel.
Copa Airlines is the best option for getting to Panama quickly, with direct flights from Miami, Orlando, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles. They generally offer the most competitive fares (including in business class) and the friendliest service.
Guides for the Discovery come from Ancon Expeditions, a leading tour company based in Panama.
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