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Costa Rica history: Manuel Antonio Quepos pirates
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Costa Rica history: Manuel Antonio Quepos pirates

Pirates of the Quepos Coast

pirates costa rica henry morganSir Francis Drake, William Dampier, Sir Henry Morgan—flamboyant British pirates such as these have endowed Costa Rica's Central Pacific coast with one of the richest pirate histories in the Americas. Perhaps the most intriguing tale from the Quepos and Manuel Antonio area recounts Henry Morgan's final act of piracy, the sacking of Panama.

Panama was the richest city in the world during the Spanish Conquest. All the gold and all the jewels from North and South America were shipped to this centrally situated port on the Pacific. From there it was pack-muled across the isthmus to the Caribbean side and loaded onto great galleons bound for Spain.

When Morgan sacked Portobello on the Caribbean around 1670, he boldly told survivors he would return in a year to loot Panama. The Spanish, upon hearing the news, burned all the villages and destroyed all the fruit trees in Panama in order to deprive Morgan's army of shelter and food. The also amassed nearly 4,000 fighters to defend the heavily fortified city, and encircled it with forts and cannons

The Sacking of Panama:

This was a smart move, because Morgan did travel back to Panama right on schedule in 1671 with an army of 2,000 cutthroats who had disembarked from a fleet of 37 ships on the Caribbean coast and marched across the isthmus. Despite their state of exhaustion and near starvation, Morgan's crew defeated the Spanish in a three-day battle and looted the city of all the treasure they could find.

But they missed the lion's share of Panama's wealth, which some reports say weighed as much as 700 tons. The Church had loaded it onto the Santísima Trinidad and two other great galleons that sailed away before Morgan had reached the city. To ensure Morgan couldn't torture the information out of the survivors if he captured Panama, the treasure map was burned and the hiding place kept a secret — and it remains a mystery to this day.

One legend says it remains hidden in the hills of Manuel Antonio, not far from today's hotels, resorts and million-dollar real estate. British pirate John Clipperton (for whom the Clipperton islands 700 miles west of Costa Rica are named) befriended the Quepoa tribe while living in a villa there sometime between 1709 and 1722 to look for the treasure of Panama

The Lost Treasure of Quepos

Clipperton figured the only logical destination for the treasure-laden galleons was the Pacific coast region of Quepos, a beach town now popular for fishing, diving, surfing and tours. The Church, he reasoned, did not have sufficient manpower to unload 700 tons of gold, silver and jewels from the galleons and move it to a hiding place.

Only in the Quepos area did the Church have enough friendly contacts with local tribes to move so much cargo. (The Church in Panama was Franciscan, an order of the Catholic Church, and the Quepos mission was also Franciscan.)

Eventually Clipperton, the last famous pirate to live in Quepos, departed empty-handed—but remained convinced the fabled treasure of Panama lies hidden in the forested hills of Manuel Antonio,. Even today, some residents and people on vacation suspect the huge mass of precious metal is the reason for the poor radio and television reception in the area.

So on your next nature hike in the hills around Quepos, keep an eye open for a glint of gold or emeralds!

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