The Pirate Trail: Fort San Lorenzo, Portobello and a Train Ride to Colon
By Louie Celerier
Running through the jungle after leaving Gamboa.
Entering old U.S. Army Fort Sherman on the way to Fort San Lorenzo.
The fort guarded the entrance to the Chagres River, Atlantic side. No sign of pirates today.
Two pirates: I am on the left with Jose, EcoCircuitos guide, on the right
Our “guides” for the East bank of the bay.
Up and at them by 6:15 AM when EcoCircuitos came for us at the Hotel Marbella for our trip to the Atlantic side.
We began by boarding the train at Corozal. The train station is the old Army Commissary at that location. When I was stationed at Fort Clayton in 1957-58 we used to buy our groceries there. Now, the building has been renovated and makes up a nice and comfortable station, very clean, cheery and with a nice gift shop. The train left right on time at 7:00 AM and we were lucky to get a good seat in the domed car. The cars are all very clean, look new and extremely good looking. Coffee was free, served by very attractive conductors, but the sweet rolls were for sale.
The view from the domed car was wonderful, but the glass impeded my photography, so I walked down to an open platform which was just perfect for my needs. Surprisingly, the morning was extremely cold. My guess was in the very low 70s, but the wind chill made it seem colder. I was, again,shooting film like crazy as I did not want to miss anything. I would recognize certain points, others gave me no indication as what they were.
Passing by Fort Clayton, I spotted the Headquarters building where I worked while stationed there. Then came the tunnel, which flooded the mind with memories, then Pedro Miguel and again the bridge at Gamboa over the Chagres River. From there on it was a wonderment of jungle, unfamiliar side roads (I never saw Frijoles Station), swamps, lake inlets, ships in the distance transiting the Canal and finally, Colon. The whole trip was over in about 50 minutes and it was too short to suit me.
The Colon station is quite a bit before entering the city itself and it is just an open siding. I immediately spotted the EcoCircuitos guide, who had driven from Panama to pick us up and take us to San Lorenzo and Portobello.
Taking the old familiar route, we crossed the Gatun Locks bridge, which is still a one lane swing bridge at the bottom of the last lock. Naturally, we had to wait until all traffic coming our way had gotten through before we got the green light to move ahead. Proceeding to Fort Sherman, we took the little unpaved road to Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres on the Atlantic Ocean. No sooner had we entered the forest than we ran into a group of howler monkeys … and were they making a racket. I had never met with these creatures, even though I had been to San Lorenzo many other times. But they were there on this day and they were loud. They were scrambling all over the branches on top of us. We, naturally, had to stop and try to take photos and listen to them. We also spotted some beautiful blue butterflies as a bonus.
Fort San Lorenzo reeks with history, as always. It is too bad that they cannot conserve this place on a permanent basis and make it more accessible for tourists. Since I became aware of the place ages ago, it has been the same story … they clean it and repair it one year, then forget about it for five. And every time they clean it up, some small part of it gets destroyed. If nothing is done on a permanent basis soon, it won’t be long before there is nothing more than a pile of rocks left. I hope this does not happen.
There is a man living in a small house nearby now. He has a restroom which he lets the public use for 25 cents a go. It is nothing more than an outside toilet dug out of the ground. But it is better than nothing. He also has a couple of coconut trees and we bought some “pipas”. They were delicious and Gene was able to see what a coconut is before it dries up to the stage one gets here in the States. Leaving Fort San Lorenzo, we went on to old Fort Gulick and the Melia Hotel, which used to be a school for the military of Latin American countries, I believe. The place has been remodeled and beautified and they certainly did a good job of it. The buffet there was $16 per person, all one could eat, and it was out of this world! There were all sorts of salads to choose from, appetizers, main dishes, soups, and desserts. We stuffed ourselves before deciding that we better get going on to Portobello.
It was a pretty ride to Portobello on the coastal road, once passing Sabanitas. The forts remain the same and, again, reeking in history. We poked around in the forts on the West bank, where the town is located, then we rented a boat, with two “guides”, to go across to the East side of the little bay to visit the two lower forts there. We did not have time, nor energy, to climb to the top fort as my son Glenn and I did in 1984. Returning to the West bank, we visited the little museum in the Custom House, which was rebuilt by the Spanish Government as a gift to Panama a few years ago. The exhibits were interesting, but the video presentation was excellent.
After having a cold drink with our “guides” and car watchers, it was time to go and return to the city by car. The highway is in good shape and we had no difficulties. That night we had dinner with my cousin Marcela Azcarraga, who also had as guests my cousin Dickie Azcarraga and a second cousin, Mimi Diaz. Her helper Zaida had helped make the dinner and it was all very good and I enjoyed being with them and meeting Mimi for the first time.
It was an outstanding day and the train ride was the frosting on the cake.
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