Portobelo, one of Panama's hidden treasures

By Juan Carlos Martinez


Portobelo is a tiny, historic town on Panama's Atlantic Coast.  It has approximately 3,000 inhabitants who have lived there for many, many years.  Portobelo is one the places in Panama with the greatest potential for attracting tourists.  About an hour away from Panama City you can literally immerse yourself into the past while basking in warm, clear tropical waters.  It is located in the province of Colon where the well known Colon Free Zone is located as well as Manzanillo and Cristobal Ports. 

In 1502, during his fourth trip, Admiral Cristobal Colon discovered a beautiful, secure bay on the Atlantic Ocean and exclaimed Porto belo! (beautiful port).  In 1597 the town of San Felipe de Portobelo was officially established.  The topographical conditions of this bay made it a top notch port which gradually became one of the three ports in Latin America which two centuries ago was part of the Colonial Compact which forced Spanish galleons to stop at three ports: Veracruz in Mexico, Portobelo in Panama and Cartagena in Colombia.  This made Portobelo quite famous as it hosted the Portobelo fairs which lasted 40 days and were fairs in which all types of goods and merchandise were traded. 

All this activity left Portobelo with quite a number of colonial buildings including San Lorenzo and San Jeronimo Forts, a Customs Hall, a Church, the ruins of Santiago de la Gloria and San Felipe Castles, plus several dwellings from what used to be the colonial city.  In 1980 these structures were declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO.  Currently these structures are under scrutiny as many of them are abandoned and are in danger of collapsing from disrepair.  Recently a Council for the preservation of the Portobelo and San Lorenzo monumental complex was created with an allocation of $350,000 in order to repair and restore these historical structures over 400 years old. 

In addition to being a historical site Portobelo is also a National Park.  The Portobelo National Park was created on December 22, 1976 and has an extension of 35 thousand 929 hectares with amazing biodiversity.  Its status as a national park makes it a protected area and a rich site for eco-tourism.

Portobelo is a wonderful combination of many things to do and experience.  You can take the historical route and tour the sites, then take the afternoon off to go sight seeing and snorkeling or diving in one of the surrounding areas, then the next day take a drive up the coast to unspoiled beaches and lagoons.

Several businesses, approximately 15, have spotted this possibility and have already set up shop in Portobelo anticipating its take-off as a ecological and historical tourism site.  Some of the businesses include two hotels, small hostels, restaurants and extreme sports centers.  Most are owned by foreigners. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg for Portobelo which is also rich in Afro-Caribbean culture.  You will see congo dancing and listen to Caribbean music with more than a hint of African drums in it.  And the food, fresh seafood with a coconut Caribbean taste that is hard to replicate elsewhere.  Be sure to schedule a trip.  You can even drive out in the morning and come back to Panama City in the evening.


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