By 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
By Richard and Anita, July 2014, Panama