Portobelo is a sleepy town on Panama’s northern coast that is shrouded in superstition, veiled in speculation and runs deep with historical significance. The docile town of today belies the notable past it once held.
Portobelo, meaning beautiful port, due to its natural beauty, was discovered and named by Christopher Columbus in 1502, and founded in 1597 by Francisco de Valverde y Mercado. As the harbor lent itself to fortification, King Filipe II of Spain ordered defenses to be built to protect his bullion and galleons. It was to become the hub of Latin America in the transfer of silver and gold where, once a year, a fair lasting from 30-60 days was held and the town became alive with activity. More forts were built to protect the Spanish colony from pirates. Even before the town was founded it suffered attacks at the hands of Sir Francis Drake who later became ill here and died from fever. It is said his body is buried at sea just outside the harbor in a lead coffin. But despite all these forts, the likes of Captain Morgan and Admiral Vernon invaded and captured the town. The Spanish eventually abandoned the isthmus in favor of the longer sea-route around Cape Horn.
Today Portobelo, a UNESCO world heritage site, makes a logical stopping place for cruisers traveling between the San Blas and Colon. It is an excellent natural harbor and is well protected in anything other than west winds. The most popular anchorage is just off the town, however, across the bay, in the shadow of Fort San Fernando, is an alternative anchorage that is by far the less crowded. Fort San Fernando can be visited by dinghy where you can walk around the grassy remains of the ruins; unfortunately, during the building of the Panama Canal the Americans used stone from the fort’s walls to build a breakwater to protect the northern end of the canal. Fort San Jeronimo is in the town centre and was the largest built to protect the bay. Slightly further but still within the town limits and by the main pier, is Fort Santiago. Another place to visit of historical interest is the Real Aduana de Portobelo or customs house; a fine looking building dating back to 1630 when it was originally built by the Spaniards as a counting house for the king’s gold. The two-roomed building now serves as an exhibition displaying replica rifles from colonial times as well as many pictures and drawings of the forts. Dozens of purple robes are on display, which were worn by the followers of the Black Christ.
The Black Christ is a dark wood effigy in the San Filipe Church. It is cloaked in myth and speculation. There are many stories pertaining to how the statue of Jesus of Nazareth arrived in Portobelo, but it is believed that it originated from Spain, perhaps as early as 1658 and arrived aboard a ship that was washed ashore by a storm. When the statue was found, it was placed in the church out of respect. The figure, which stands 1.5m (4.9ft) high has become one of the most revered images in Panama and is surrounded by stories of miracles. Every year ,on October 21st, a festival is held and pilgrims travel from afar to celebrate and pray for miracles. The Black Christ is brought out and paraded through the streets as the pilgrims follow behind, many wearing purple robes and carrying lighted candles, before the statue is returned to its resting place within the church.
Another celebration that you may witness is Los Congos. If you are walking through the town and are stopped and held hostage by a scraggy looking clown person wielding a wooden sword, then you have been caught by a ‘Los Congos’ which is both the name of the person and of the festival. Los Congos is held on New Years Day and patron saints’ days in Portobelo and other provinces. The tradition dates back to Panama’s slave trade when black slaves escaped into the jungle and formed their own communities. Today the festivity involves taking passersby hostage and demanding a ransom fee – normally a few coins will suffice.
If walking around all these forts is too much, then why not take your dinghy up the mangrove canal at the end of the bay, where you can switch off the engine and quietly row while listening to the hum of nature under the shady canopy of the vines. Or take a bus journey on one of the old American school buses that have been painted in fabulous colors and blast Latin American music.
Next time you are sailing past Portobelo, drop anchor off this small, sleepy town with its ramshackle buildings built upon old ruins and take in a view that has been admired for centuries.
Rosie and her husband Sim Hoggarth from yacht Wandering Star have cruised the Caribbean and North America full time for nine years.