Hiking the Camino de Cruces

Panama’s famous historical trail seemed was easy to read about, popping up on loads of sites and blogs but impossible to find out about actually doing. When my sister visited recently, it seemed like a great excuse to do it properly. There’s so little information online about how get to and from the trail, whether it is easy to follow etc., that we decided to hire a guide, who in the event, came with an assistant. They turned out to be worth every penny. Here’s how we did it…

I’d been looking for information online about the Camino de Cruces and not got very far. I’d read a couple of blogs written in English from hikers who had hiked the trail with mixed success. None of the details were very convincing about exactly where to get started. The site Caminando Panama gives some basic details about the length and difficulty of the various hikes in Panama. Their page on the Camino de Cruces has links to various websites and phone numbers, none of which were useful, but includes a nice potted history on the trail, paraphrased below.

The cobblestoned “Camino Real de Cruces” was built around 1527 linking old Panama City to the Port of Venta de Cruces on the banks of the Rio Chagres. From this port, textiles, spices, gold and silver from South America was loaded onto ships that would sail out the Chagres River, out into the Atlantic and on to Spain. In 1671, the pirate Henry Morgan attacked and took Fort San Lorenzo that guarded the entrance to the Chagres River. Then, he led his band of pirates along the Camino de Cruces and successfully raided old Panama City. In 1848, following the California Gold Rush, thousands of fortune seekers from New Orleans to New York arrived by boat to Panama’s Atlantic Coast. They ventured across the Camino de Cruces to sail from Panama City up to San Francisco. This was believed to be safer than traveling by wagon across the United States. So many people came this way, that the first transcontinental railway was built in the mid-19th century, mostly paralleling the Camino de Cruces.

https://caminandopanama.org/www.anam.gob.pa/soberania/

Eventually, I came across a website Cruces Trails OBC that have a very active Facebook page. This community-based organisation works to preserve the historical, cultural, and natural legacy of the Camino de Cruces National Park. They run educational activities and work with neighbouring communities, organised groups and the general public to protect the environment. They organise workshops, talks, guided tours, reforestation, camps, bird watching, hiking, wildlife conservation, consulting, volunteering, scientific research and help conserve the old colonial roads.

I made contact by Whatsapp and quickly received a response in English, from a lady called Michelle (+507 5106 0506). She said they could offer us 2 different options.

Option 1) Camino de Cruces hasta la forestal dondé esta el canon.

  • 6 horas.
  • $160 en total.
  • Deben buscar alguien que los recoja en la forestal.
  • This option appeared to require us organize a pick up at the end of the hike and I had no idea how to do this.

Option 2) Camino de Cruces y Camino de Plantación.

  • 18 k. 7-8hrs.
  • Nivel: Medio.
  • Costo por persona: $200.
  • Que todos estén en óptimas condiciones físicas. 
  • Es un sendero histórico donde se puede notar con facilidad el empedrado hecho para conectar la ruta del oro con el río Chagres, en 1534. En épocas de invierno es muy lodoso con grandes oportunidades de apreciar aves, insectos, primates, roedores, mamíferos y anfibios.
  • Vestimenta: Botas o hiking shoes, dri-fit pantalón largo y camisa mangas largas, gorra o sombrero.  Mochila: Bloqueador, repelente de insectos, snacks, ropa y toalla extra (para cambiarse al final de la gira), dos litros de agua.
  • Que incluye: Guía bilingue e interpretative, transporte terrestre, guía asistente, traslado de bote, almuerzo en la montaña, comunicación satelital, refrescos y frutas al final de la gira.

This second option was what we were looking for, but we were initially shocked by the cost! Did we really need our guide to have a satellite phone? Did we need two guides? Why did we need picking up and not drive ourselves to the start? We had no idea. But, I was determined to walk Camino de Cruces and just hadn’t found any options except getting lost in the jungle on our own, which wasn’t very appealing.

We set a date for the following week. Our guides would pick us up from our house at 5am, and check our equipment, clothing and water before leaving. I tried to say we’d prefer to drive and meet them at the lake, and promised we’d have the exact equipment from the list, but Michelle was insistent. They would pick us up from the house, that was how it would be done.

We would be on a boat crossing Gatun Lake by 6am, starting the hike by 6.30. They guessed the walk would take around 7 hours. We wanted to start early to make the most of the morning and try and avoid the afternoon downpours. We did this in May which is in the rainy season, and it really pours most days.

We were excited! Michelle had helped us organise a much shorter (and cheaper!) hike with a guide a couple of days before called Sendero La Cruz in Altos de Campana. This was a very steep climb through gorgeous lush dripping cloud forest with fabulous views from the top.

The day before our big hike, one of the guides contacted us in English via WhatsApp, his name was “Cholo” (or more officially, Alexis Flores) to arrange a few final details. Cholo was great, right from the start, funny, friendly and knowledgeable. “Muy amable” as they say here.

On the day, Cholo arrived at 5am on the dot, with his assistant Alexis Guevara, who turned out to be a remarkable ornithologist. They had a quick look over our stuff, checking our equipment, quantity of water etc, and we all had a coffee. Then, we jumped into their pick-up truck and headed off into a fine drizzle, across dark but awakening Panama City.  Please don’t rain, please don’t rain, we silently prayed, as we chatted with the guides along the way who were fascinating about Panama’s history and wildlife.

As we approached Gatun Lake, the skies mercifully cleared. The guides had arranged for a boat to take us to the trailhead. If you wanted to do all this without a guide, I imagine you could park here and request a boat to take you to the start of the Camino de Cruces.

Lago Gatún

After a short motor across the lake, where you can see huge containers slowly ploughing slowly across this part of the Panama canal, the boat skimmed in over the lilies into the long grass towards the jungle.

Cholo and our captain right by the trailhead for Camino de Cruces.

There, peeping out of the foliage, were some decrepit looking signs with information about the trail and its history. This was the trailhead for Camino de Cruces. The signs are apparently only 5 years old, but in a rapid state of deterioration and barely already legible. Glad we weren’t relying on understanding these maps!

While we were discussing the signs, within seconds, mosquitos started settling on us like snow. We were soon slapping each other in the face and neck to get rid of them, though our guides didn’t seem remotely bothered or bitten by them. My sister and I had applied a lot of repellent, and kept reapplying it throughout the hike, and even though hundreds must have landed on us during the course of the hike, we manage to get NO bites. Which proves OFF works pretty well!  

So, we started to hike, golden morning light sparkling on wet leaves. The path was a real mix. Some of it was the original ancient cobblestones, still there, sunk deep into the soft earth from 300 years of human traffic. When my little daughters had heard we were going on this hike, my youngest had warned me to be VERY careful. “Why’s that?” I had asked, thinking she was going to tell me to watch out for snakes and spiders. “Because of all the GHOSTS…” she had said very seriously. And some of the trail did feel pretty spooky! I kept thinking of all the poor souls who had perished along that path, shackled slaves, weighed down, backs breaking with looted treasure and heavy loads.  

Cobblestoned part of the original Camino de Cruces

Some of the trail was literally a riverbed. Luckily for us, recent torrential rains had cleared the path of debris and vegetation, and Cholo said the going was much easier than the last time he’d come with a group. It was very slippery, but not pouring with water as it obviously could be. The path was occasionally marked with bits of orange plastic tape in the trees and there were sporadic signs. Mostly, the way seemed obvious, but there were parts that were totally overgrown, or that had been destroyed by landslides that required diversions. I’m not sure we could have managed without Cholo clearing the way for us with his machete and his easy ability to find his way back to the route.  

Apart from being so knowledgeable about Panamanian history and wildlife, our guides were reassuringly strong looking in case one of us had broken an ankle! Thankfully we didn’t have to find this out. We stopped a few times, to marvel at poison dart frogs that Alexis caught to show us, hear Cholo’s insights and anecdotes about the path’s fascinating history, cool our sweaty faces off in streams, listen to the incredible variety of birds singing, hear howler monkeys and watch blue morph butterflies bat their way slowly past – make a wish! But, mainly, we just kept on going. One foot after another, being very careful not just where we put our feet but also our hands!

Poison Dart Frog – not very poisonous unless you actually lick them, or extract their poison then shoot someone with an arrowhead dipped in it.

Around the halfway point, we reached a clearing where the path diverged and we stopped for a break. A signpost showed you could continue on the Camino de Cruces or take Camino de Plantación, which is the route we were going to take. I think we got here at around 11, so maybe 4 hours into our hike.

We sat here awhile. Cholo produced a juicy ripe pineapple from his rucksack, and expertly served it with his machete. Then, he pulled out a bushel of lemongrass tea and made a refreshing tea. I realised I had drunk all of my 2 litres of water already. I’d never used a camelbak (a rucksuck with a water bag and long drinking tube) before and had just been steadily sipping away at it, without realising how fast I was getting through it. I had been literally pouring with sweat.

Lemongrass tea

After we joined Camino Plantación, the walking became much easier. This trail was created during the building of the Panama Canal and has been recently renovated for mountain bikers. Shortly we came to small waterfall and I was able to fill up my bottle there. The water tasted amazing.  It was a relief not to have to carefully consider every footstep and instead by able to gaze up into the rainforest. I think “sloth neck” is an actual medical condition experienced by hikers in Panama. But we saw 5!

Our guides spotted them, I’d never have seen any on my own. We saw 3 sleeping, smaller 2-toed sloths, who are nocturnal and hard to spot. They just look like brown lumps indecipherable from the trunks they’re snuggled up against. But we were lucky enough to see two larger 3-toed sloths, who are “active” during the day, but not very! They were moving around incredible slowly up high in the trees. One was just hanging by one arm looking like he’d forgotten where he was going. Maybe he was thinking about clambering down the tree for what is apparently a once-a-week bathroom visit. They risk perilous exposure to predators to sit in state at the bottom of their tree for 45 minutes to do their business. It seems even sloths have standards.

Camino de Plantación took us all the way to the road, where our pick-up was waiting. This trail is mainly very easy, and gorgeous. I think at the weekend it might get busy with bikes, but we were there mid-week and saw nearly no one.  As you get closer to the road, there are several picturesque turquoise waterfalls cascading into lagoons which would be a great walk to do with kids from the parking area. I hope I get the chance to take mine!

One of many waterfalls along Camino Plantación

By the end, my legs were aching, and my feet were soaked through. 18k in 100% humidity is exhausting. I think in all it took us 7.5 hours, but the first few hours are much slower going than the last easier stretch.

Overall, this was an awesome hike, and our guides were worth every penny. They were obviously huge nature lovers, both originally from Darien, and infectious with their love of nature. Alexis could recognise any bird call and was brilliant at catching frogs to show us. I think to do Camino de Cruces without guide you’d have to be good enough with a machete to get through in certain spots and might find it hard to find the path in places, but it is certainly possible!

Myself, Alexis, Super Sister and Cholo.

For our hike, it was “dry”. We were so, so lucky. Even so, we were pretty soaking the whole time, wading up streams in the 100% humidity, pouring with sweat, though the dripping rainforest. Occasionally we enjoyed patches of beautiful, dappled sunshine glistening through the leaves, bouncing off a butterfly’s wings. I cannot imagine doing this hike in the rain, it would have been so much slower, the path would have been dangerously slippery and an actual river in places!

Considering the historical importance of this path and the magnificence of the Soberania National Park, it is surprising that hiking this path is not a bit more obvious. I’ve lived in Panama for 2 years and never met anyone who’s done it. Maybe one day Camino de Cruces will be a well signed hike that more people are able to get to and enjoy. But, for now, it’s still very much an adventure.

In case you fancy doing this hike try these contacts, they all spoke great English or were happy to try and understand to my bad Spanish.

  • Michelle – Cruces Trail OBC – helped organised our guides (both for Altos de Campana and Camino de Cruces) +507 5106 0506
  • “Cholo” – Alexis Flores – historical and cultural guide, naturalist +507 6672 7663
  • Alexis Guevara – guide / bird expert – +507 6112 1643

Or, if you want to do something a bit less adventurous, and free, park at the entrance for the Camino de Plantación, just past Summit Zoo, and see how far you get, just follow the path. The waterfalls are incredible and you might be lucky enough to see some sloths.

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