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Inca Gold and the Royal Road

Dear Luke and Leia,

Today we went on our own Indiana Jones adventure to learn about Inca gold and the Royal Road, which is called the Camino Real here in Panama. We went with the guidance of a scientist and historian named Christian Strassnig, a scientist and historian who had mapped the entire trail.

The Panamanian rainforest reclaims an Ancient Spanish wall
Venturing deep into the Panamanian jungle to search for the royal road that once carried Inca gold back to Spain.

The Royal Road adventure begins

Our adventure started at a local coffee shop in Panama City where our group gathered for a final meal before beginning the trek into the unknown. Okay, maybe that is a little exaggeration, but it added to the fun we had learning about the Inca gold and the Royal Road that carried their pilfered gold back to Spain.

Wooden boats on Lake Gatun
The “Marina” with boats waiting for our departure.

After loading onto a small bus we drove to a very small marina. Okay, again I'm stretching the truth some. Actually it was a muddy place where small wooden boats were resting on the side of the lake. The fun was walking single file onto these boats without turning the other guests into crocodile and caiman food.

Preparing to boat on Lake Gatun
Pondering how we are all going to fit on these luxury liners.

Once loaded, off we went into the vast expanse of Lake Gatun, which was formed when they built the Panama Canal.

Boating on Lake Gatun
Cruising the lake in style.

Our boats wound through flooded graveyards of trees that used to make up the Panamanian rainforest. The tree tops made for beautiful pictures and dangerous navigation for these sailor captains. Not all of the tree tops are visible; some lie just below the surface of the lake.

The flooding of Gatun Lake created a graveyard of trees
The graveyard of flooded tree tops to navigate through.

After a while we arrived at the first stretch of the Camino Real and just as gingerly as we loaded, we attempted to unload. So far, so good. There were no mishaps and everyone was still high, dry and fully alive.

Carefully unloading from a narrow wooden boat
Carefully unloading without feeding any caimans and crocs.

At the Royal Road

The old trail was built of dirt and flat stones. Very interesting and in surprisingly good shape for having been constructed in the 1500’s. It stretched as far as we could see, sinking into the water and back out again on the other side. We then got a lesson about the trail origins, how it was used and what to expect as we explored the area hoping to find a bit of the hidden treasures of gold that fell from the mule teams transiting.

Remains of the Camino Real dating from the 1500's.
Remains of the Camino Real remain, dating from the 1500's.
Traces of Camino Real remain in Panama
Christian explains the use of the Royal Road back in its glory days.
Rocks laid for the Camino Real still remain
Surprising how well preserved the Camino Real is.

Inca gold?

While conducting a search, I found an old horseshoe which I showed our fearless leader and he passed around to the group. We found many artifacts, but as to our high hopes of becoming filthy rich? No gold was found by anyone.

Looking for Spanish artifacts on an island in Lake Gatun
Searching for our treasure of Inca gold.
a horseshoe dating back to the 1500's
Dan's found treasure, a horseshoe dating back to the 1500's.

All this heavy, hard work in the hot Panama sun brought us to near exhaustion and in desperate need of food. Carefully loading back up, we chose a small winding river to raid a local Indian encampment, just like those soldiers of the 1500’s would have done back in the glory days of the Camino Real.

Small winding river in Panama
Small winding river we navigate to conduct our raid.

Lunch in a local town

But much to our surprise, the welcoming committee of these warriors had been tipped off about our secret mission. The campesinos paraded us up a trail and deep into their jungle city. Okay, village. They sat us down at tables and brought us plates of their food and cups of their local fruit drink, all of which we quickly consumed. Nana made sure to get the recipe for their Sancocho, a Panamanian chicken soup. It was really delicious.

Panamanian campesino children
The Natives were tipped-off to our arrival with this welcoming group.
Campesinos walk on a trail in Panama
Parading up the trail into their town.
Enjoying a campesino lunch
Beautiful sit down lunch prepared with chicken and fresh fish and a local fruit juice.

Then again, paraded to what we knew was our final destruction, we were taken to another open building and sat in a circle around what could only be a staging area for mass executions. Then it happened…

Campesinos relax in their village
Campesinos relaxing in their village

Suddenly accordion music began and the children, dressed in local costumes, started dancing right in front of us. This must be the tribal death dance we had heard about back in school, when the locals selected their victims and made them dance the dance of death. I was selected as a victim. Oh, no.

Children prepare to dance in a Panama village
The savages of our death dance. The little shy ones you have to watch the little shy ones extra carefully.
Celebrating campesino children in Panama
Their accomplices. Don't let the extreme-cuteness factor throw you off.
Dancing in Panamanian village
A captive being forced into dancing. She looks like she is enjoying the torture.
Learning a local dance
Dan has been selected for this torture as well.

We must have made a great impression of the tribal elders, because when the music stopped, we were paraded back through the jungle and loaded, yes carefully and in single file, onto our boats and sent away. We had escaped a fate far worse than death: More dancing by us unschooled new tribal members.

walking to boats in Panama rainforest
We are escaping to live another day as we file down to our get-away boats.

Still searching for Inca Gold on the Royal Road

For one last lesson which involved an excursion deep into the rainforest, we explored a beautiful cave.

exploring a rainforest cave
Christian guards our backs as we enter the small cave.

It was not a large cave, but quite interesting nonetheless. One lady screamed when a bat flew over our heads.

Inside a small cave
Small, but very nice, cave with cramped quarters.

Seeing what could become of us, we preferred to load back onto those stupid boats, of course single file, and return out of the deep dangerous jungle and back into civilization.

Animal skull found on the ground in Panama rainforest.
Skull found on the ground. Looks like another who didn't make it out.

We must have made the news or something, because a group was gathered to celebrate our return. They disguised it as a baptism service.

Baptizing believers in Lake Gatun
Let the celebration begin! We survived the treacherous Inca gold and the Royal Road adventures.

Well, Luke and Leia, your grandparents are back safe and sound and still missing you guys.


Nana and Pap

Panamanian accordion player
Panamanian accordion player performing.
The rustic kitchen of a Panamanian campesino village
Rustic kitchen used to make our lunch in the jungle.
Dressed in Panamanian cultural costumes these young girls put their hearts into dancing
Dressed in Panamanian cultural costumes these young girls danced wonderfully.


Written by Dan

Professional photographer specializing in street, food and travel shots at As We Saw It travel blog. Enjoys catching children at play, showing their innocence in every situation … we all can learn that, to be content with what our Father in heaven has provided. Photography is unique in that it captures light in all forms, and since the Bible says YHVH (God) is light, photography captures Him in many forms.

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6 thoughts on “Inca Gold and the Royal Road

    1. Thank you for your kind words Michele. There is a myth that if you lose a penny, drop another and watch where it lands to find the first one. So maybe we all should get a few donkeys loaded down with gold and travel the trails and see where they fall off, then we’d all be rich… No wait, we’d need to be rich just to get the gold so we can all be rich.

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