This is the second installment of a 2-post journey back in time to explore Panama’s historic Caribbean coast. Read Part I: Fuerte San Lorenzo and continue with the post below to walk in the footsteps of pirates through Fuerte San Jeronimo and Fuerte San Fernando, the Church of the Black Christ and the festive capital of Afro-Antillean Panamanians: Portobelo.
Part Two: Portobelo
It was 11 am, the day after Thanksgiving, but it was dark outside. Storm clouds from squalls blocked the midmorning sun and sheets of rain occluded the entrance to Portobelo, our port of refuge from the last 24 hours of sailing.
Bobbing in the Caribbean just a few miles offshore, my co-captain and I could only see the two peaks on either side of Portobelo Bay’s inlet between breaks in the weather as the seas broke on reefs and towering rock islands framing the bay’s entrance. Good thing we were headed straight into the bay, rather than trying to cut any corners.
We’d been here before, but this was our first approach by sea and I was excited to see if, through the downpour, I could make out the 16th-century forts lining both sides of the bay.
300 years ago, had we been the famed pirate Henry Morgan and his motley crew, the foul weather would have provided us the perfect cloak for a stealth entrance into the bay. In this white-out rain, Morgan and his men could have easily dropped anchor, rowed ashore, snuck into and sacked the Customs House and plundered all of its treasures – in fact, that’s just what they did! Several times!
Perhaps it was the vision of Henry Morgan and his crew running through Portobelo seeking doubloons (or, more likely, it was the last 24 hours of boat food on Thanksgiving) that made us hungry for our own 21st-century flavor of fortune: jalapeño-bacon cheeseburgers at Captain Jack’s, an expat, sailor and backpacker watering hole with killer views of the Bay (and wifi!).
Above and beyond the burgers, my wild, pirate-infested imagination, and the stunning landscape of this humble hamlet, there was something really special about this day. A year prior we had sat at this very same bar, eating the same cheeseburgers, dreaming of a life aboard – and here we were again, except this time we had arrived on our own boat… joining our history with that of countless sailors over the last three centuries who sailed from faraway places to re-provision, rest and recreate in this beautiful bay.
Needless to say, we were excited to re-trace the many steps along Portobelo’s past – including our own!
As insatiable travelers always wanting to see more of the world, there are few places to which we return. So, it was a real treat to feel “at home” strolling the cobblestone streets of the main square, crossing the small stone bridges that guide rainforest runoff out to sea, visiting the old church which hosts the Black Christ and lining up a modern-day sailing vessel in the sight of an old cannon on one of the bay’s numerous forts.
It was also a real treat to cross to el otro lado (the north side of the bay), trudge through the rainy season’s muck covering the bottom two layers of Fuerte San Fernando and make on our way up to the third level, to discover with delight the same family of Panamanian night monkeys we’d spotted the year before! (We found out later that these monkeys are very territorial, so I guess it should’ve been no surprise to see them guarding their tree as if we’d never left.)
As with our experience at Fuerte San Lorenzo further up the coast, we had little company atop Fuerte San Fernando. That is to say, we were the only visitors to hike to the top that clear day. From the summit, in the thick jungle air, 500 feet above the Caribbean ocean, we claimed a great treasure: a sweeping view of the town below as well as a sprawling sea vista of over thirty miles! I was almost certain I could see the point of land that represented the great fort of San Lorenzo. (Of course, in my mind, I could even see a signal fire lit by sentries of centuries past, warning our “beautiful bay” of danger’s approach.)
From this vantage, it’s clear why this “beautiful port” was founded here four centuries ago: its steep, sloping peaks, long, relatively-narrow bay and proximity to Colón (with its proximity to Panama City) lent the perfect topography and location for a strategic trading port – which, like many New World ports, operated seasonally due to prevailing winds headed East off the Atlantic (hence the moniker “Trade Winds”).
During the month-long trading furloughs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, sailors, merchants, pirates, privateers (and those who serviced them) all descended on this sleepy hamlet of a few hundred families to load up silver, gold, gems, spices and fruits from South America onto waiting European galleons.
Accessory to its fate was Portobelo’s welcoming attitude towards all manner of men, meaning pirates were able to familiarize themselves with the landscape. They raided Portobelo several times; Morgan’s men once even bypassed the famous Bay, rounded the bend and proceeded over the mountains to invade the town!
And, legend has it that another famed pirate-come-privateer, Sir Frances Drake, loved the area so much that upon his death he was tossed overboard in full set of armor in a lead coffin just off Drake Island, which is one of the islands we were happy to avoid as we made our entrance to the bay.
Fortunately for us, raids on Portobelo stopped in the mid-1700s when routes and vessels shifted away from the “beautiful bay”. Thus, much of the original architecture remains today; the huge bricks of coral and limestone which make up the old Port Captain’s Office, the forts, the church and the Customs House create the perfect backdrop for all my swashbuckling daydreams.
I find it kismet that Portobelo remains much the way it was 5 centuries ago: a sleepy little town, except for a few key festivals during which the town absolutely explodes. These momentous occasions include the annual Festival of the Black Christ and every other year, the Diablos y Congos Festival.
Both festivals animate this former pirate town of just 3,000 permanent residents as Panamanians from all backgrounds flock to Portobelo to celebrate the history of Panama’s Afro-Antillean heritage.
While we’ve yet to experience the Festival of the Black Christ, we did hear plenty of firsthand accounts of pilgrims traveling from as far away as Costa Rica – reportedly some on their knees – to pay their respects to the deity and view the elaborate robes of Christ created each year and displayed in the former hospital just behind the church.
On the other hand, we have had the good fortune to be in Portobelo in 2011 and 2013 – both years in which we bore witness to the festivities of the Congo y Diablos Festival. And, let me just say: it is quite the experience.
Beginning weekends in January and running through mid-February, local Afro-Antillean Panamanian men don either Diablo or Congo costumes; the Diablos (aka Spanish) consist of giant, elaborate devil masks and the Congos (representing African slaves) wear blackface, conical hats, whistles and necklaces made up of all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. Women don colorful blouses swept off their shoulders and the big, full skirts known as polleras. The festival and its dancers represent both the struggles as well as the everyday lives of the Spanish and African populations of Panama over the past few centuries.
We were delighted to witness one charming performance of Portobelo youth engaged in a back-and-forth flirt-dance version of a game of chicken: the boys, dressed up as Congos, tried to kiss the girls decked out in their polleras, while the girls flicked their dresses, turned their heels and cheeks.
Another entertaining back-and-forth performance of the Diablos y Congos Festival is the continual jesting between the two sets of contenders: the Congos testing the Diablos who, in turn, whip the Congos with all-too-realistic switches. Hilarity ensues as friendly jibes, fueled by Balboas, amicably escalate the pageantry. And, just because you’re an outsider doesn’t mean you won’t get roped into the fun, too – so you best watch out and guard your ankles lest you end up an inadvertent Diablo!
During these festival weekends, the spirit of Portobelo revelers often carries on well through the night and into the next day. These stumbling specters of Portobelo’s past-come-present make it easy to imagine the days of debauchery during Portobelo’s annual trade festivals of the 1600s to 1800s.
While the past of Portobelo has been written, quite literally, in stone, the future is uncertain: just last year UNESCO placed Portobelo and Fuerte San Lorenzo (listed together as UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1980) on its list of “World Heritage in Danger” due to “environmental factors, lack of maintenance and urban development”.
Yes, there is a garbage problem in Portobelo; there are sad, skinny dogs wandering the cobblestone streets; there is poverty among its 400 families. But, there is also a lot of treasure cached in Portobelo’s history, yours for the taking if you only visit. As with many of the world’s special places, I say “Go. Go now.” Before Portobelo, a diamond in the rough, is reduced to a lump of coal.
Inside Guide to Portobelo
- Portobelo is an easy bus ride from Panama City’s Albrook terminal: hop on a one-hour express bus to Colón but get off at the El Rey (a supermarket) in Sabanitas. Then change to Portobelo on a Diablo Rojo (red devil) bus. The whole ride should take between 2-3 hours and cost about $9 one-way. (For travelers who prefer, renting a car for the day or arranging for a driver is easily done from Panama City.)
- Just before entering Portobelo from Sabanitas, the recently-renovated exterior of the El Castillo (the Castle) restaurant belies a structure original to the town. Even if you don’t make it for their empanada breakfast, pop in and marvel at the 16th-century beams keeping the building from the crashing seas.
- Famed Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta keeps a “taller” (workshop) for artists and guests at a small bayside compound in Portobelo. This enclave is boldly named “Casa de la Bruja” (The Witches’ House). Stop by to watch local artists-in-residence work at their craft or even pick up some treasures to take home. She even has some guest houses for rent if you’re looking to stay in the area.
- Another option is the ultra-posh El Otro Lado. At $500 per night, you’ll spend your days lounging by their pool or swaying in their porch swings and nights in their über-modern lounge or secluded cabins on “the other side” of the bay.
- Although much remains of the forts built by the Spaniards to protect Portobelo, many large pieces of stone were removed and used in construction of the Panama Canal and Gatun Locks.
Photos by Laurie Felker Jones.