When I arrived in Portobelo, I was greeted by a collection of ramshackle houses and other buildings. There were very few people in the streets of this run-down town of just under 3,000 inhabitants. There was absolutely no indication that this tiny fishing village was once one of the wealthiest and most important port towns under the Spanish crown. It was from Portobelo where gold from Peru and many other parts of the New World were shipped to Spain.
History of Portobelo
Christopher Columbus stopped in Portobelo and supposedly gave it its name on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. The Spanish took advantage of the deep natural harbor and founded the town in 1597. The town became so rich that it was constantly under attack from English pirates such as Henry Morgan. As time progressed, the Spanish built fortifications to protect their interests. Many of them survive to this day, making Portobelo a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Fuerte San Lorenzo. The site was unfortunately listed as “in danger” by UNESCO in 2012 due to deterioration from the elements and lack of maintenance. The photo below of an interpretive panel illustrates this point.
The most important site in Portobelo lies on its small main plaza. The Real Aduana (Royal Customs House), or Contaduría (Counting House), was built in 1630 to serve as the counting house for the gold that was plundered by the Spanish. The gold was stored here until it could be shipped to Spain. Up to 233 soldiers were stationed in this building at one time.
The building contains a small air-conditioned museum with a US$5 admission. A short film greets visitors and explains the history and importance of the town.
Fuerte San Jerónimo
Just outside the Real Aduana is the 17th century Fuerte San Jerónimo. This fort was the biggest of the three remaining forts built to protect the bay.
One interesting fact about the fort is that most of the cannons are situated exactly where the Spanish soldiers left them when they went home in 1821.
Another fort, Fuerte Santiago and its castle sit at the entrance to town, while Fuerte San Fernando sits across the bay. Boats can be hired to take you Fuerte San Fernando, but I didn’t bother to go.
Castillo Santiago de la Gloria
There’s also Castillo Santiago de la Gloria, a ruined fort near Fuerte Santiago. An old Spanish lookout, Mirador Perú, is on a hill above Fuerte Santiago. From there, you can get good views of the bay.
Capilla San Juan de Díos
A couple of restored churches are located in Portobelo. Capilla San Juan de Díos is the smaller one located a few steps from Fuerte San Jerónimo.
Iglesia de San Felipe
The bigger more important church is the Iglesia de San Felipe. It houses the famous Black Christ statue, which was apparently found by fishermen floating in a box at sea. A huge festival for the statue is held every 21 October drawing people from all over Panama.
It’s impossible to get lost in Portobelo. There is one main road through town. Also, it seemed like a ghost town and a bit eerie at times walking among run down buildings, but it was perfectly safe. I had hoped to get lunch but none of the restaurants seemed to be functioning when I was there at 1pm. I had to settle for an ice cream and some chips from a mini market.
Portobelo is located about 90 minutes from Colón. Buses from Colón leave about every hour. The trip took me about 90 minutes on the way there and an hour on the way back. It’s possible to save about a 20 minutes coming from Panama City by not entering Colón and catching the bus as it passes the REY Supermarket in Sabanitas, but chances are the bus will be jam packed and you’ll be left standing. My recommendation is to just go into Colón and take the bus from the beginning. To get back to Colón, wait in the main plaza for a bus to pass through town. The buses to and from Colón cost about US$2.50 depending on the bus company.