- Language: Spanish
- Corregimiento area total: 94.5 sq. mi. (244.7 sq. km) (includes town of Portobelo and surrounding township)
- Latitude/ Longitude:
Forts: 9°33'14.0"N 79°39'21.0"W
- Elevation: From 14 ft to over 200 ft above sea level
- Calling code for Panama: 507
- Time Zone:
UTC - 5
- Currency: U.S. Dollar and Panamanian Balboa
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Introduction to Portobelo:
Portobelo is a small town on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Panama, in the province of Colón.
It is known for its Spanish fortifications, the oldest dating back to the late 16th century. In 1980, UNESCO designated these forts and the forts of San Lorenzo as a World Heritage site. In 2012, UNESCO inscribed the site on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, due to degradation and poor management by the Panamanian government.
Trivia & Quick Points:
San Jeronimo Fort overlooking Portobelo Bay
Portobelo is 30 miles (49 km) from the city of Colón and 60 miles (97 km) from Panama City
According to the 2010 census, 1,393 people live in the town of Portobelo.
The name Portobelo is said to be derived from the name given to the bay by Christopher Columbus: Porto Bello, or 'Beautiful Port', in 1502.
- The Spanish fortifications at Portobelo "are among the most characteristic adaptations of Spanish military architecture to tropical climate and landscape features," according to UNESCO.
Facts & Information:
Old Customs (Aduana) House
Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, on his fourth voyage to the New World, Portobelo eventually became an important port city for the Spanish empire. After 95 years, the town was finally founded by Francisco Velarde y Mercado in March of 1597.
The Spanish had used the port of Nombre de Dios prior to this for transporting gold and silver from the Inca of Peru to Spain. Once established, Portobelo became the port city from which the precious metals, which were trekked overland from the Pacific side of the isthmus, and then by boat on the Chagres river, were finally carried back to Spain in galleons that arrived in the port each year.
Canons at Fort San Jeronimo, Portobelo
When the Spanish fleet arrived, the town hosted a trade fair, centered around the Customs (Aduana) house, where the gold and silver were kept.
During the fairs, which lasted from 30 to 60 days, merchants from distant cities came to trade their goods. Traders exchanged 10 to 12 million gold pesos during these fairs.
Because of the wealth concentrated in Portobelo, the town was attacked frequently by pirates and privateers. The most famous of the strikes were those by Sir Francis Drake in 1596, William Parker in 1601, and Captain Henry Morgan in 1668. Drake died in Portobelo Bay of dysentary in 1596, and is said to be buried at sea in full armor near Portobelo.
After the British captured Portobelo in 1739, and destroyed the forts and warehouses, the Spanish began using smaller fleets for trading and transporting precious metals and sailed around Cape Horn instead of using the shorter route through the isthmus of Panama. As a result, Portobelo declined in importance for the Spanish empire.
Portobelo's culture today is Afro-Caribbean. During the Colonial era, Africans were brought to Portobelo as slaves. They brought with them the Congo dance, which is still performed today in Portobelo.
The Festival de Diablos y Congos celebrates the culture of Portobelo and the triumph of good over evil with music, dance, masquerading performers dressed in colorful devil-inspired costumes, traditional food and drinks, and arts and crafts.
At other times of the year, tourists can take in the local culture at artisan workshops, where local woodworkers create vibrant sculptures and decorations and craftspeople make colorful beaded jewelry.
Travel & Tourism:
Portobelo attracts visitors as a result of its historical significance as well as its outdoor activities and beaches. As a small town, its options for lodgings are few; however, it is easily accessed from Colón and Panama City.
Highlights & Features of the City and Surroundings:
The Spanish fortifications built in the 17th and 18th centuries are the main attractions in Portobelo. These, along with the fortifications of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are several fortifications in Portobelo: the San Fernando fortifications - Lower and Upper Battery and Hilltop Stronghold; the San Jerónimo Battery Fort; the Santiago fortifications - the Castle of Santiago de la Gloria, Battery and Hlltop Stronghold, and the old Fortress; the ruins of Fort Farnese; the La Trinchera site; the Buenaventura Battery; and the San Cristóbal site.
The Cristo Negro (Black Christ), or Nazareno, is a life-size statue of Jesus carved with a dark wood that dates back to the 17th century. Each year during Easter Holy Week and on October 21st, during the Festival of the Black Christ, the statue is taken from the Church of San Felipe and carried in a procession around the town with bands playing and pilgrims following the statue. Tens of thousands of pilgrims come to the festival from all over Panama and beyond. Legend has it that the statue is responsible for many miracles, including sparing residents of Portobelo from the Cholera epidemic of the early 1800's.
Inspired by Renaissance architecture in the Old World, with large open spaces, columns and arches, the Aduana, or Customs house, was built in 1630 and 1634, and used for a number of functions, including as a storage building, treasury building, and governor's mansion. After the William Drake attacked the city in 1744, it fell into disuse. It was restored in 1998, and now houses a museum that displays artifacts from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and dioramas depicting the Spanish galleons and their exploits in and around Portobelo.
What to Do & See
In addition to visiting historic sites and participating in the cultural and religious festivities that take place in Portobelo, many tourists enjoy outdoor adventures, both aquatic and land-based.
Portobelo has several dive shops and adventure tour companies that offer hiking trips, snorkeling trips, zip lining, and kayaking.
Several beaches are accessible from Portobelo. The nearest is Playa Blanca. Further up the coast, a 13.6 mile drive and a short ferry ride away is Isla Grande, with sandy beaches and the Bananas Village Resort.
The city of Portobelo is surrounded by the Parque Nacional Portobelo (Portobelo National Park), which extends to the sea and includes coral formations, mangroves, and sandy beaches. The total area of the park is 86.5 acres. The park is home to a variety of native wildlife, including iguanas, turtles, otters, monkeys, toucans, and parrots.
Where to Stay
Information on where to stay in Portobelo is coming soon...
Getting There & Away
Most tourists get to Portobelo by car from a base in Panama City or Colón. From Panama City, the route to Portobelo follows the Corredor Norte and the Panama-Colón Expressway and takes about 1.5 hour, passing by Colón. From Colón, the trip takes under an hour.
By Rail and Car:
Tourists can also take the Panama Canal Railway train from Panama City to Colón and then drive to Portobelo. The railway offers one trip per day each way and takes one hour.
It is possible to get to Portobelo from Colón or Panama City by a combination of buses,
including Panama's famous Diablos Rojos, which are brightly colored old buses. This can take two to three times as long as driving.
Having a car in Portobelo is ideal. Taxis are not available, so tourists who arrive with a taxi or bus would be able to get around with buses in town.
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