One of the most important sites in Panamanian history sits on a small promontory near the mouth of the Río Chagres. Fuerte San Lorenzo, a Spanish fort originally built in 1595, was built to protect its gold transport route and Panama City after repeated attacks by pirates. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the fortifications at Portobelo.
The fort was seized by Sir Francis Drake just one year after its construction. After being rebuilt and made stronger, it was later destroyed twice more by Henry Morgan in 1670 and Admiral Edward Vernon in 1740. The current structure dates back to 1761.
Visiting the Fort
A short ride through the jungle in the Parque Nacional San Lorenzo will take you to Fuerte San Lorenzo, from which the mouth of the Río Chagres can be seen along with great views of the bay that it flows into.
A short walk through a grassy field will take you to a rickety old wooden bridge that doesn’t look very sturdy. Once across, you’re free to explore the fort. Roaming around, I uncovered cannons, ruins of crumbling structures, and what I believed to be storage areas and barracks. There are no signs marking different features of the fort.
The ride to the fort through the surrounding jungle that is part of the national park is impressive, with many unique plants and birds to spot. If you aren’t satisfied with the drive, there are many trails to explore.
It’s impossible to get to Fuerte San Lorenzo with public transportation. It’s best with your own car, but a taxi can be hired at the Colón bus terminal if necessary. We took our own car but according to various sources a taxi could have cost anywhere from US$60 to US$80. In either case, it’s a great idea to combine a trip to Fuerte San Lorenzo with a visit to the Gatún Locks and dam on the Panama Canal since you have to pass the locks on the way to the fort. If driving, cross over the Panama Canal and follow the signs to Fuerte San Lorenzo.
The road to Fuerte San Lorenzo passes a military checkpoint at the entrance to Fuerte Sherman, an old military base built by the US to protect the Panama Canal. Tell the guards you’re visiting the fort and they’ll let you through. We weren’t asked for ID. Once through the checkpoint, you’ll pass several hollowed out buildings remaining from the Americans. Fuerte Sherman and the surrounding jungle were used by the US as their Jungle Operations Training Center.
A fork in the road will point left to Fuerte San Lorenzo and right to Shelter Bay Marina, which provides a shop, hotel, and restaurant to boaters. Turn left and you’ll come to the entrance to the national park. Admission is US$5 per person. Follow the road to the end and you’ll find Fuerte San Lorenzo. It’s about 45 minutes from Colón and 30 minutes from the Panama Canal. Hours are 8am to 4pm.