In the north of Panama, on the beautiful blue shores of the Caribbean, you’ll find a small town known as Portobelo. Today, quaint fishing boats sway to the rhythm of the sea, as lush vegetation blends with the blue of the Caribbean behind them. A closer look reveals the remains of colonial Spanish forts and the last relics of this town’s legacy as the largest colonial Spanish port in Central America, and the reason it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.
When Columbus arrived at this sparkling bay in 1502, he was said to have exclaimed “Porto Bello,” and it’s easy to see why. By 1597, the beautiful bay of Portobelo had become the main crossroads for merchandise between Europe and the Americas. It was here that gold from Peru would be shipped to Spain, where treasures from the east would make their way to Panama City and where trade markets were said to have lasted for 40 days at a time. With so many valuables passing through the area, Portobelo became a frequent target of pirate invaders, including such historic names as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, who attacked the city and took the port several times throughout the 1600’s.
When you visit, you’ll see what remains of the colonial town’s efforts to ward off pirate invaders. Start at Fort Santiago, where cannons still point toward the entrance to the bay and the views from its bastions are some of the best in the city. The biggest fort in Portobelo is San Jerónimo, which boasts 8 cannons, some watchtowers and an officers quarters that you can explore. Two more forts known as San Fernando and San Fernandino can be found on the hills surrounding Portobelo. To see models of the forts as well as reproductions of the colonial-era weapons, visit the Real Aduana de Portobelo (Royal Customs). This two-story house was built in 1630 and still maintains some of the magic of Portobelo's storied past.
Today, the vibrancy and lifeblood of Portobelo comes from the Congo culture maintained by descendants of the African people who were brought to Panama by the Spanish. Representing the Central African Kingdom that was known as The Kongo during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Congo population in Panama maintain their own culture with special celebrations and theatrical dances used as a means of expression. One such celebration, known as “Congo Game,” involves dances staged to commemorate enslaved ancestors and tell stories of everyday life. For these reasons and more, The Congo culture was declared a part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2018.
When you visit, you can taste the delicious Afro-Caribbean cuisine, which is characterized by flavorful ingredients and spices, such as curry, coconut, fresh seafood and local vegetables. You’ll also learn about the unique song and dance of the Congo culture, as well as the the most revered religious figure in Portobelo, Nazareno, or the Black Christ. This life-size wooden sculpture washed ashore in Portobelo and was picked up by fisherman and much mystery surrounds it since its exact origins are still unknown. Actually, several miracles have been attributed to it. You can see the life-size wooden sculpture of Nazareno for yourself at Iglesia San Felipe, a church built by the Spanish in 1814.
Portobelo is located in the northern part of the isthmus. From Panama City, you can reach Portobelo by bus, taxi or car in two hours or less.