Francis Drake was the first Englishman to realise the vulnerability of the Spanish bullion supply while it was in transit over the Royal Road, and after several raids along the coast and attacks on shipping for little gain, many setbacks and a thwarted attempt to ambush the 'Silver Train' (as the bullion pack trains were called), he finally achieved a remarkable victory in April 1573 by capturing a convoy carrying almost 30 tons in silver and over half a ton in gold.**
This was Drake's first great enterprise: the triumph that began his meteoric rise to fame, fortune and a place in English history books.
After that attack, the Spanish began to store their treasure at Puerto Bello to the west of Nombre de Dios. (Drake later died of dysentery near Puerto Bello after a failed expedition to raid the City of Panama; he is buried at sea in the bay)
With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 most of the old road was lost forever, flooded by the damming of the Chagres to form Lake Gatun and by the Madden Dam behind which Lake Alajuela now covers a large part of the old trail. The development of Panama City as a metropolis has obliterated much more, and the forest and rivers have swallowed up the rest. There are only a few traces left of the highway that once played such an important part in the history of world affairs, but here is one: the Puente del Matadero in Panama la Vieja - the bridge over which Camino a Cruces began.
There's a very good website about the Camino Real here: http://www.bruceruiz.net/PanamaHistory/el_camino_real.htm
Michael Turner of the Drake Exploration Society describes the route Drake took to reach both the failed ambush and his successful attack near Nombre de Dios in his book In Drake's Wake: the early Voyages. I gather he's planning another route march across the isthmus this coming February...
My debut novel, Mistress of the Sea, is set against the backdrop of Drake's attack on the Silver Train along the Camino Real. The book will be published by Ebury Press and launched this Thursday, 30 August 2012. It will be released first in hardback with the paperback to follow.
The book is available for pre-order here: http://amzn.to/PUavyS
** There's a piece about how Drake and his men got away with the haul on the EHFA site here: 'Carrying Away the Booty' - Drake's attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train'
* Chris Haslam's article appeared in the Sunday Times 03.09.2006
All pictures taken by the author. Map drawn by the author. ©JennyBarden