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  • Rediscovering the Camino Real of Panama:Archaeology and Heritage Tourism Potentials
  • Christian Strassnig


The exact course of the Camino Real de Panamá, the colonial-era predecessor of the Panama Canal, has been unknown for over two centuries. An interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, historians and experts in sustainable development is currently carrying out a research project in order to locate the colonial road in cooperation with the National Institute of Culture (INAC) and the Patronato de Panamá Viejo (PPV). The project has been funded by the National Secretariat for Science and Technology (SENACYT) since June 2008. The objectives of the project are: (1) an archaeological survey of the original course of the Camino Real, especially the documentation of cobbled sections and the location of ventas;1 (2) the preparation of a plan for cultural tourism, preservation of the cultural and natural heritage and sustainable development of communities along the road; (3) the implementation of a pilot project for sustainable development based on cultural tourism in one selected community; (4) to gain official declaration of the Camino Real and Camino de Cruces as national heritage sites and eventually as a World Heritage Site.

The term camino real described all major transport routes in the Spanish colonial realm. In Panama, several roads were in use during the colonial era, the most important of which were the Camino de Cruces and the Camino Real de Panamá (Figure 1). Both connected the central isthmus between Panama City and the Caribbean. The designation "de Panamá" was omitted for the Camino Real de Panamá over the years and the abbreviated version will be used here.

In addition to its importance for the Spanish colonial empire and global trade, the Camino Real had a lasting mark on Panamanian history and molded the formation of the Panamanian economy, population and culture. Its historical role is often compared to the current importance of the Panama Canal for the country and the world economy; and in fact, Panamanian society flourished with the fluctuations in the success and failures of the ferias and trade along the Camino Real.

Research and publications on the Camino Real de Panamá are very limited compared to literature available on caminos reales elsewhere in Spanish America, in particular the Spanish roads of Nueva España (Castleman 2005, Crosby 1977, Rees 1975, [End Page 159] Staski 2004, Suárez Argüello 1997, West 1941) and Nueva Granada (Amodio, Navarete and Rodríguez 1997, Larrichio 2008, Melo González, et al. 1988). Hussey (1939) authored the most comprehensive article on the history and course of the Panamanian colonial roads, but without having defined the routes in the field. The article by Bohn and Joly (1978) describes the characteristics of construction of the Camino Real and the Camino de Cruces, using the example of a few sites, but without mapping the course of the roads.

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Figure 1.

Route of the Camino Real. Nombre de Dios was the terminal city until 1597, when Portobelo replaced it.

Following the discovery of the South Sea in 1513 by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the City of Panama was established in 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila as the first European city on the Pacific coast and the Camino Real became the vital transport route across the isthmus. It connected Panama City with Nombre de Dios (after 1597 with Portobelo) by a land route of approximately 95 kilometers. Travel along this route took about four days and goods were transported by mules, as the steep road, the muddy ground and the numerous rivers, did not allow the use of carts or carriages.

Panama was initially still seen as a station on the way to the Spice Islands (Fernández de Oviedo 1851: 332), however, the principal route for the East Asia trade was later established between Manila-Acapulco-Veracruz. With the conquest of the Inca Empire by Francisco Pizarro in 1532/33 (who accompanied Balboa at the expedition to the Pacific in 1513), the transit of plundered and mined gold and silver over the isthmus to the Caribbean began, from whence it continued to Spain via Cuba. Although gold was highly valued by the early conquistadores...


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