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Plundering, Protecting The King’s Gold And Pirates: Fort San Lorenzo

San LorenzoBy the map it’s only eight miles west of the Caribbean port city of Colon, Panama to the UNESCO site of the colonial Spanish fort at San Lorenzo on the northern border of Panama.  However, this abandoned citadel hidden away at the end of a two-lane road through dense jungle is a world away from the hub-bub of the Canal Zone of which it was once a part.  As with many things Spanish in Central America, San Lorenzo represents conquest, exploitation, untold wealth in precious metals and empire.San Lorenzo on the bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea

The remains of the crumbling fortress, perched atop a bluff eighty feet above the Caribbean Sea and further protected by a dry moat on the landward side, provided a clear vantage of ships approaching to attack or to blockade the mouth of the Chagres River.Facing the Chagres River

This ability to protect was a vital necessity, for the Chagres River was the eastern terminus of the wet season treasure route that funneled gold and silver from the Incan empire in Peru down through Panama City and across the isthmus and, eventually, to the royal coffers in Spain. Old cannon, some with insignia still visible, litter the site lying awkwardly in broken cradles or sprawl about near crumbling fortifications no longer capable of defending the interests of the crown.

scattered cannon

At one time San Lorenzo was a player in the game of international wealth. The initial fortress was a battery built at sea level. But starting in 1560, shortly after its construction, pirates began to assault the lucrative target and the trail of gold stretching back to Peru. The attackers were persistent and in 1670 Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer, brigand and English admiral, defeated and leveled the original fort. Using it as a base, he provisioned his troops and took his motley assemblage of buccaneers across the isthmus and sacked the mother lode – Panama City.San Lorenzo facing towards the Chagres

The old fort destroyed by Morgan was abandoned and the current fortress that commands the heights above the River Chagres was constructed by the Spanish only to be attacked anew by pirates and adventurers as well as by the English navy.  When the Spanish fort at Portobelo, further east on the Panamanian coast, fell to Admiral Edward Vernon, San Lorenzo was left the preeminent military garrison on the Panamanian coast.  However, the decision by Spain a few years later to ship its booty around the tip of South America at Cape Horn left the bastion on the Caribbean headland bereft and inconsequential.San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo’s star faded quickly. It was used as a prison for over a century.  Undoubtedly an ignoble death awaited as age claimed the deteriorating brick, wood and stone structures. As a part of the agreement with Panama in 1903 the lands containing the fort and those adjacent to the Chagres River were folded into the Canal Zone administered by the United States until December 31, 1999. But little was done by the Zone administration to conserve the structures that they had acquired in the transfer and the decay continued virtually unabated.San Lorenzo

In 1980 UNESCO designated San Lorenzo a World Heritage Site. There is much to be done. The fortifications at San Lorenzo remain in a state of ruination. The mosses, grasses and plants grow in profusion on a majority of the buildings allowing the eradication to continue day by day. The unabated destruction of the site is almost palpable.San Lorenzo

However, Fort San Lorenzo is a visually engaging site awaiting the attention that once brought it to prominence as a guardian of the riches of the new world. It now needs to be resurrected as a custodian of the history of a world long since passed away.San Lorenzo

By Richard and Anita, July 2014, Panama

 

By Bus to Merida, Chichen-Itza, Uxmal and “The Yellow City”

Here in Antigua, Guatemala, the buses have names; Esmeralda, Carolina, Johanna, Camelia, Dulce.  They are the old, reliable Blue Bird school buses given a second, and this time glamorous, life. Painted by fanciful artists, arrayed with chrome, pampered and shined these queens are… the Chicken Buses: the crowded but cheap system for local travel. There are other ways to get around (rental cars, taxis and private shuttles) but, for our money, the chicken buses win hands down as some of the most entertaining transportation.

A tricked-out chicken bus

A tricked-out chicken bus

In Mexico, the bus system, while not as colorful, is reliable, convenient and very affordable and ranges from luxury and 1st class buses to the more local 2nd class buses and collectivos or combi-vans. The 1st class buses have assigned seats, restrooms at the back and televisions which tend to play movies at full volume. The 2nd class buses lack restrooms and seats aren’t assigned but they are clean and very orderly. However, if the people are there, the drivers just keep filling the bus long after all the seats are gone so that to get on or off a rider kind of “surfs” their way through the crowd, fitting themselves (very politely) around the various bodies. We’ve been using a combination of combi-vans, (12-15 person vans), buses (1st and 2nd class) and a few times taxis. Everywhere else we walk.Paseo de Montejo intersection

We arrived in Merida, in the state of Yucatan, Mexico, on December 30th, after a 4 hour bus trip from Playa del Carmen.  This was our first time staying at a B & B and it was such a great experience that we’ll continue to use other B & B’s and hostels as we travel.

El Ave Blanca B and B

El Ave Blanca B and B

Originally we had thought that we’d be sacrificing some of our treasured privacy but instead we met many new people, made several friends, and exchanged stories and travel information. Far from feeling isolated and disconnected from home, we’ve felt our world expand as we meet and make new friends.

East side of the Grand PlazaMerida, Mexico is a beautiful colonial city that was founded in the 1540’s and has an historic central area filled with museums, art exhibits and markets.

Casa Montejo and a graphic illustration of the Spaniards conquering the Maya

Casa Montejo and a graphic illustration of the Spaniards conquering the Maya

There are numerous plazas for people-watching and an enormous mercado that assaults you with smells, noise, the frantic hustle and pushing of crowds of people plus restaurants with awesome, traditional Yucatecan food.Street Scene One of our favorite things about Merida was the glimpse behind plain, unassuming facades into the colonial homes. Some interiors are original but many houses have been bought and renovated by expats into one of-a-kind gems. After a tour of several of these homes we were even entertaining the idea of making one of these our own (this after a year of getting rid of all our stuff!).

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

We could have kept ourselves entertained for months in Merida but the area around Merida is also filled with fascinating ruins  including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Uxmal and Chichen-Itza.

The iconic El Castillo at Chichen-Itza

The iconic El Castillo at Chichen-Itza

Temple of the Pillars - Chichen-Itza

Temple of the Pillars – Chichen-Itza

The "Nunnery" at Chichen-itza

The “Nunnery” at Chichen-itza

Also near Merida is the colonial city of Izamal, called “the Yellow City”. Izamal, which dates from the mid-1500’s, has the distinction of having its main plazas surrounded by buildings painted a cheerful, bright yellow and was designated by Mexico in 2002, a “Pueblo Magico” because of its great charm.

Izamel - The Convent of St Antonio de Pauda

Izamel – The Convent of St Antonio de Pauda

??????????????? And last, but not least, there is the fast-growing “Progresso coast”, an ex-pat haven radiating from the port city of Progresso thirty miles north of Merida on the Gulf of Mexico.

By Richard and Anita, May, 2013