From History to Snorkeling in Exciting Portobello, Panama
Much has been written about every corner of the Pacific side of Panama, and deservedly so. Surprisingly, this is not the case with the vibrant yet laid back Caribbean side.
The historic town of Portobelo is a prime example. Located in Colon province in the northern part of the isthmus it is lush with forests, rivers, beaches, and coral reefs side by side with ancient Spanish forts and the original old customs house dating from the days when Portobelo was the greatest Spanish port in Central America. The Customs or Aduana House now contains a wonderful museum which is well worth a visit.
In the past the estimated four thousand residents eked out a living by fishing, tending crops, or raising livestock but the economic depression that has been endured for many years is lifting. This is due to a cultural revival, with exciting new interest in Congo art, music called punta, or reggae as we know it, and traditional Congo dances.
As well Portobelo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a treasure trove for history buffs. It is the site of the relics of two stone fortresses in use during the glory days of the thriving sea trade. Throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries seagoing vessels carried gold from Peru and treasures from the Orient to this area, where mules carried the precious cargo to Panama City.
English privateers such as the infamous Sir Henry Morgan tried their best to raze these fortresses but thankfully enough of them remain to allow visitors to visually imagine the raw excitement and danger of life back then. Black hearted pirates. The resonant ring of clashing swords. Glittering treasure beyond imagining. Slaves carrying out the bidding of their cruel masters.
When first approaching Portobelo you will spot Fuerte Santiago, or the “reef rock” as referred to by the Spanish. Having walls of cut coral three metres thick, the ruins include officers’ quarters, watch towers, and artillery sheds.
The larger fort is Fuerte San Jeronimo and was built to protect the harbour from pirate invasion. Eighteen ominous cannon embrasures face the bay, making their message clear.
Visitors to Portobelo will appreciate and savour the vibrant Caribbean flair, from the rich food culture to the traditional Calypso music and Congo dances. Discover their African legacy with a visit to the Casa de la Cultura Congo which is an open public space providing informative workshops and the creation of stunning arts and crafts. Their mission is to honour and exalt their colonial Latin and African legacy.
The most popular event held here every October 21st is the Festival de Cristo Negro or Black Christ Festival. To celebrate this event thousands of pilgrims flock to the Iglesia de San Felipe, the church, where they demonstrate their devotion to a black wooden effigy of Christ, which was found on the shores of the town’s harbour, and is ceremoniously carried through the streets to the impressive church, which dates from 1814. Also known as the Nazareno, this wooden statue is the most revered religious figure in the area. The true origin of the Black Christ is unknown as it was discovered by a black slave who was fishing at the water’s edge and noticed the wrapped bundle floating by.
During the festivities the altar is adorned with gold images depicting emblems of the crucifixion including nails, instruments of torture, and even the dice used by the Roman soldiers to win His robe.
At this time pilgrims hike for literally miles to reach their destination of Portobelo, wearing ceremonial robes. The most devout crawl the final mile to the church to show their reverence. The Black Christ statue has its clothing changed and it is carried on the backs of the faithful, imitating the distance it was originally dragged from the sea. It is then returned to the church at midnight.
This ceremony and the local beliefs mix race, religion, and a mysterious event, thereby creating one of the most revered Christian devotional objects in the world.
Although small, Portobelo draws thousands of tourists each year. As well as history and culture, there are the inevitable kiosks run by the locals and boasting intricate and beautiful hand made wares. While visiting there I was privy to an amusing sidebar. A tiny but mischievous monkey whose owner has taught him to pick coins from the pockets of unsuspecting tourists has become adept at this feat. Hilarity ensues when the pockets are empty and the punishment is a sharp but not painful nip on the behind by the indignant thief.
Scuba diving, snorkeling, boat tours, and more provide vigorous physical activities for those so inclined. One all encompassing tour company located in Portobelo is called Portobelo Tours and offers horseback riding, kayaking, snorkeling, and spearfishing. Prices vary as to length of activity and what is included.
Hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts are available, as well as several quaint and enjoyable restaurants. Casa Congo is a small but lovely hotel on the water which also contains an authentic and delicious seafood restaurant. The price is in the vicinity of $120 US per night. Scubaportobelo is another unique, yet typically Caribbean hotel on the water complete with small onsite restaurant. It runs $70 US per night and offers onsite booking for activities such as scuba diving, boat tours, and kayaking.
Restaurants are quite plentiful in the area for the size of the town. Restaurant Pizzeria Don Quijote is very popular and boasts “best pizza in Panama.” It is also a bakery (panaderia) with delicious pastries and excellent food. It is owned by a German couple and charges very reasonable prices.
El Castillo on the water provides lovely sunset dining including ceviche, and an assortment of dishes from Caribbean to Latin to Vietnamese and Thai. Also reasonably priced.
Nearby Isle Grande, which is a funky, tiny island only fifteen km from Portobelo by water is also home to several modest hotels and restaurants.
The people are friendly and accommodating, jolly and colourful. The area is very safe, if the usual tourist precautions are adhered to. One caution I would express is that nearby Colon City is not known for its safety and should probably be avoided.
Transportation from Panama City consists of three options – bus, taxi, or rental car. Bus fares are very reasonable as well as plentiful. The trip takes approximately two and a half hours, including a twenty minute transfer. Taxis cost from $35-$50 and take about an hour and twenty minutes. Rental cars are readily available and the fuel costs for the 92.7 km trip are considerably lower than in Canada or the US.
Whether you visit for a day, a week, or even longer boredom will never be an issue in this vibrant Caribbean hotspot.