Fort San Lorenzo, Panama
Tuesday, January 11 2005 @ 11:01 PM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
Fort San Lorenzo on the Canal Zone Brats page;
Epinions - Fort San Lorenzo - One Person's trip report after visiting Fort San Lorenzo.
Escape Artist's Fort San Lorenzo Article; This one says it all, has great pictures and descriptive text.
Getting There: It's possible to rent a car, grab a map and head out in search of Fort San Lorenzo but I would not recommend it. The problem is that if you take a wrong turn or two you can find yourself banging around over near Colon and if you don't know where you're going or what you're doing, you might find youself in an area you really don't want to be in. If your Spanish is pretty good and your "street smarts" are dialed in, then you can pull it off without a guide.
But, for the wandering rookie, it's advised that you hire a guide or driver to take you over there. Any of the tour services can set you up with a driver, tour, and guide for not too much money.
One really cool part about getting to Fort San Lorenzo is that you have to cross the Panama Canal at street level by crossing the bridge at the Gatun Locks. Be prepared to wait awhile, because if there are vessels coming into or out of the locks they take priority over vehicle traffic. Once they clear out and the lower lock doors are closed, then they let cars pass. You can get within 20 feet of the lock doors, and it's just fun to to get that close to the heavy doors of the canal locks.
Once you've passed the locks, then you drive down the coast toward the former military base of Fort Sherman. At the gate they will ask for your ID or cedula number and will write down the tag number of your vehicle.
There are some signs to lead you to the fort, but it's really pretty easy and a straight shot. After passing the front gate, take the next left, and then turn left again when the road comes to a "T". From that point it's a straight shot through the jungle.
And jungle it is. On this point of the trip you're driving through virgin triple canopy jungle that has never been cut. This area was the former home of the famous "Jungle School" of the US Army. They sent green troops here from the US to learn how to survive and fight in a jungle environment before deploying them to Vietnam. A great many of Vietnam Vets passed through this school on their way to war, that for many of them that was their only exposure to Panama.
The road turns from blacktop to gravel a few meters past the turn into the jungle. For the most part the road is in pretty good shape. The Panamanian government is taking pretty good care of the road, but it is in much rougher shape than it was when the road was part of the military base. There are several places along the road where it washed out during the rainy season. The patches are a little rough some times, and I was very glad to be driving my Jeep. As I said earlier, I would not recommend making the drive in a small little sedan (unless it's a rental, in that case go for it...)
The road going out to Fort San Lorenzo is in pretty bad shape. There are several places along the route that have been washed out during the rainy season and then repaired. As we were driving out there, I was constatly evaluating the route to see if it could be done by a little sedan with two wheel drive and low clearance. About half-way into the drive, I decided that there's no way I would recommend anyone to make the drive in anything other than an SUV (for the clearance) but a 4x4 is not really necessary.
There are several turn-offs (all to the right) along the road that will lead you to the old "battery's" which were WWII era heavy gun emplacements for costal artillery. Battery Pratt and Battery MacKenzie can still be accessed along this road. We didn't take the time to go check them out, but it's fun to see some more history. Here's a link to an excellent history of Fort Sherman.
Down toward the end of the road you will come to the turnoff for Fort San Lorenzo. If you go to the left you will go down to the boat launch on the Chagres River. Turn to the right to go to the Fort. This is the only turn you have to make from this road. It's more like a "Y" where the road to the left goes downhill to the river, and the road to the right goes down a narrow trail to the fort. Turn right here.
About 200 meters later you'll come out of the jungle in the parking area for the fort. There is a caretaker that lives there full time who cuts the grass and basically takes care of things. Don't worry about his dog, he's just looking for handouts and knows not to mess with the tourists.
You'll notice right off that there are no signs or desciptions of what you're looking at. If you have not done your homework, you really won't appreciate it all that much. On the outside it's just an old fort on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There are no guided tours, no maps, no giftshop, no multilingual guided tour headsets, nada.
And that's exactly why Fort San Lorenzo is one of my favorite Panama destinations. The caretaker keeps the jungle from reclaiming the place, but just barely. The location of the fort is visually stunning. At first glance you know why the Spanish put a fort here. The reasons are obvious.
Feel free to crawl all over the place and look around. Be careful for the "cistern" which is not covered. Take a walking stick and poke your way through the grass as you go (to let any ground-level residents know you're coming.)
As they say, please take only pictures and leave only footprints. I hope you find the time to make it out there, it's certainly worth the trip.