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What to do in Portobelo

Sprawled along the beautiful Carribean coast on the hump of the Panamanian isthmus, is the port city of Portobelo. Established in 1597 by the Spanish Colonial Authority, Portobelo was one of the main Carribean trading posts for the plundering of Peruvian silver. 

Thanks to its reputation as a silver trading port, Portobelo became an extremely important wealthy city in Panama. As a result, the Spanish built defensive fortifications in the city as well as the coast around it, to fend off from pirates, of which Panama was rife with pirate attacks. With a colorful history, the city was the site of a choice of many privateer attacks. In 1668, although Portobelo held strong fortifications, the city fell victim to a slew of attacks and was plundered for two weeks, during which all of its wealth was depleted, and the city was emptied of its people. 

After many attempts at repopulating and failing due to interests of the colonists and the privateers and corporate states, the city is now home to 4,000 inhabitants, and uses its historical significance to attract tourists, which it does marvelously. Today, the city is now protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. 

What is Portobelo known for?

Portobelo is best known for its significance as a military fortification and a silver trading route. Its beauty is something well recognized even at its conception. It is said that Christopher Columbus named the city Portobelo which translates to “Beautiful Port”. 

The city is also known for its Fort San Lorenzo, which is a picturesque as well as one of the most detailed examples of Spanish Colonial fortifications in the country. A 400 year old Spanish ruin is something nobody wants to miss when it comes to a tropical adventure with a touch of history.

Is Portobelo safe?

Portobelo is a small and historic town that has not grown greatly since the 15th century. With a town where the main economic profit comes from tourism, such a mono-economic city is not ripe for a criminal underworld. For this reason, Portobelo is one of the safer parts of the Colon area. 

With this being said, it is recommended that you exercise a high degree of caution when you are out and about, specifically if you are alone, when it comes to watching your valuable possessions. Do not flash your valuables around in public, as well as flashing money. Use ATMs discreetly, and make sure to agree on prices before you use services.

Read our detailed guide: Safety in Panama

Is Portobelo worth visiting?

Portobelo is one of the most beautiful port towns in Panama, and is known to be frequented by tourists for its diverse landscape, historical significance, and laidback lifestyle. If you want a rocky coast, sandy beach and some sightseeing opportunities, Portobelo is the place to be.

What are the top attractions in Portobelo?

The Black Christ

Photo by Adam Jones

At the church of the Black Christ in Portobelo, you can experience the Festival of the Black Christ. This is one of the most important religious events in all of Panama. The church itself houses the statue of the Black Christ. The origins of the statue is not clear, however, this image was found by fishermen on the shores of the port city. Venerated soon after, it was said to be brought in by a Colombian ship that sank, bringing the statue to the shores.

On October 21, people come from all over Panama as well as places in the world to show their respects and to view this curious statue. What is tradition is that people walk the 53 mile journey from Panama City as pilgrims, and some crawl the last mile, atoning for their sins in a grand gesture. The robe is changed to a red coloured robe that is always made brand new for the statue with a different design every year. These grand shows are loved by the public and the visitors and is a great time to visit the city of Portobelo.

Where to next? What to do in Playa Venao

The Real Aduana de Portobelo

The Real Aduana de Portobelo in the center of town is the old customs house that represented the Spanish Colonial authority in the Carribean coast of Panama. Built in 1638, it was the counting house for the Spanish Emperor’s gold. The building’s foyer and receiving room has now been converted into exhibitions that contain replicas of colonial weaponry, engineer sketches of the forts in the city, historical pictures of the town as well as cannonballs and more! This relic of old Panama provides a very interesting window into how much Panama has stayed the same in terms of it being a place of great economic value. The customs house is also a great educational experience for kids as well!

Portobelo-San Lorenzo fortifications

Photo by: Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

The Portobelo-San Lorenzo fortifications are a number of 17th and 18th century Spanish Colonial forts that were built 50 miles apart from each other to protect Panama’s Carribean coast. This was built as a security cushion for the Spanish Colonial authority to protect the valuable Incan riches that were plundered in Peru and brought to Panama to be shipped off to the Kingdom of Spain. 10 different forts were built on the hills by Portobelo, which made it to be one of the most heavily guarded forts in the Americas at the time. Almost all of these forts have survived in good condition and are all protected by UNESCO. You can get a tour through most or all of these forts to get a good experience of the sights and to provide great sightseeing opportunities. Get a great view of the ocean from all the cannons and the batteries sprinkled along the beautiful coastline. 

Read our detailed guide: What to do in Fort San Lorenzo

Portobelo National Park

If you want a beach, forest and island, go visit the Portobelo National Park! If you are a lover of the sea, then this the place for you. The nature reserve has established many programs to protect the reef, and has done a great job of doing so! The sealife is unparalleled in the country, and you are able to have free range over the sights and colours of the sea. For a walk through the rainforest, you can marvel at the sheer majesty of the Panama wild and listen to the firestorm of activity with Panama’s amazing array of animals like monkeys, tapirs and pumas! Speaking of monkeys, you are able to visit the famous monkey island where you are even able to interact with the monkey population that inhabits the area! For our adventurous travelers, don’t shy away from Portobelo National Park!

Let us tell you: How to get from Panama City to Portobelo

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