San Lorenzo, lower fort, 2016
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Panama Papers

San Lorenzo, lower fort, 2016

In September 2016, Norma Barbacci went to Panama to visit some of the forts on the nation’s Caribbean coast. The forts were originally built as part of the commercial Trans-Isthmian Route that connected Spain with the city of Panama and eventually to South America during the mercantilist period of the Spanish colonization of America. The forts were included on the World Monuments Watch in 1998, 2000, and 2002.

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Panama is an unusual country. It is located in Central America, but if you ask its citizens, they do not consider themselves Central Americans—a distinction that may have to do with the fact that, just over 100 years ago, Panama was part of Colombia, while from 1903 until 1999, the Panama Canal Zone—its most important real estate and the main source of income for the country—was part of North American territory.

In the last few years, Panama has been in the international news for some big stories in urban development and international finance. In 2012, the construction of the Cinta Costera (Avenue 3 de Noviembre), an ocean causeway built around the Historic Center of Panama (Casco Antiguo), gained headlines because of its effect on the views of the historic skyline to and from the sea—views many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pirates would have enjoyed on their way to pillaging the city (Drake, Morgan, and Vernon had their way with Panama and Portobelo, despite the city’s magnificent defensive fortifications). The Cinta Costera, considered by UNESCO to have irreversibly affected the Outstanding Universal Value of the Casco Antiguo, brought Panama a stern warning and a dramatic wrist-slapping from the international organization. However, according to most preservationists, the UNESCO response was extremely measured considering the gravity of the offense.

The most recent big news regarding Panama, of course, centers on the Panama Papers, the collective exposé of a local law firm whose attorneys made a living helping corrupt businesspeople and politicians around the world set up offshore accounts in order to avoid paying taxes or to launder money. I wonder if this was all done while they were wearing Panama hats, which, by the way, were made in Cuenca, Ecuador, the site of Todos Santos and Remigio Crespo Toral Museum.

The Fort of San Jerónimo

My first stop on this visit was Portobelo, a historic town of 5,000 people that was protected during colonial times by a complex system of fortifications built of local coral stone between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries by Juan Bautista Antonelli and other military engineers. San Jerónimo, one of the seven structures that make up the Portobelo defensive system, received a grant from American Express through WMF for emergency conservation interventions. Although parts of the fort are now practically under water because of rising water levels caused by the silting of the bay, WMF’s work—implemented over a decade ago—is holding up beautifully. 

Although the town of Portobelo has urban and social problems that need to be addressed, its spectacular ocean setting, natural parks, historic architecture, and important cultural offerings—such as the celebration of the feast of the Cristo Negro (Black Christ) and the Afro-Panamanian dance and music carnival Diablos y Congos (Devils and former slaves)—could make it a very pleasant place to live and a highly popular visitor destination, if properly preserved and developed. Across the bay, near the San Fernando Fort, there is a boutique hotel aptly called El Otro Lado (the Other Side). This high-end resort takes great advantage of the lush landscape and unobstructed views of the bay, and its tasteful decor features locally made furniture, crafts and artworks, potentially providing a standard for future tourist developments in town.

The Fort of San Lorenzo

About eighty kilometers west of Portobelo, on the other side of the Limon Bay but still within the Province of Colon, is the eighteenth-century neoclassical fortress of San Lorenzo, built by Manuel Hernandez to protect the entrance to the Chagres River. San Lorenzo was included on the Watch and also received funds for urgent conservation interventions. These included the waterproofing of the main terrace and the rehabilitation of the historic drainage system. It was rewarding to see that those interventions were still keeping the structure dry and well drained.

For almost a century, access to this monumental structure and its surrounding natural setting was protected by the U.S. military because it was part of the Sherman Base, a restricted area. Although the site is now open to the public, few visitors make the circuitous trek from the City of Colon across the Gatún Gate of the Panama Canal to reach it. Additionally, it has no visitor services or interpretation facilities, although some are being planned (see paragraph below). The limited human presence in the protected natural area made for a truly special visit that included close encounters with a strange rodent (ñeque), a large family of crab-eating raccoons (gato de manglar), as well as many kinds of birds, lizards, and butterflies. Furthermore, upon leaving the former military base I saw several abandoned housing complexes, and roads claimed by vegetation and partially-buried concrete bunkers that would provide a fitting backdrop should ABC ever make a sequel for the television series Lost.

The pristine seclusion of the fort of San Lorenzo and its surrounding protected area may become a thing of the past when the construction of the third bridge over the Panama Canal, the Atlantic Bridge, is completed later this year. The Panamanian government hopes that the bridge, which will provide a shortcut to the area, will entice many of the thousands of cruise ship tourists arriving in Colon (a popular shopping stop in the Free Trade Zone), to make their way to San Lorenzo and its new visitor center and eco-trails, currently in the planning stages. On the preservationist side, we hope that those who visit this special place in the near future will find a well-managed site and will in turn contribute substantially to its long-term preservation. Fingers crossed.