Portobelo lies 20 miles northeast of Panama’s Free Trade Zone – the City of Colón. Historically Portobelo was only accessible by water but was eventually connected with Panama City via a stone road.
Portobelo was founded in 1597 by Francisco Velarde y Mercado, a Spanish explorer. Legend also has it that Columbus named the port, Puerto Bello – “Beautiful Port”. Another unsubstantiated legend is that after Francis Drake died of dysentery in 1596, he was buried at sea in a lead coffin near Portobelo Bay. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Portobelo was an important silver exporting port in New Granada on the Spanish Main and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. The Spanish built defensive fortifications but once again the infamous pirate Henry Morgan broke the defenses and laid the city to ruin after 14 days fo plunder. – source: http://en.wikipedia.org/
The stone road, now a paved highway, makes reaching Portobelo by car very easy. It is situated in a beautiful harbour, as Columbus noted so well, while his vessels sought shelter from a great storm. The town was formally founded in 1597 and was officially name of ‘San Felipe de Portobelo’ in honor of King Phillip II of Spain.
Historically Portobelo was the port of entry and of exit for all of South America. Exchange of merchandise took place annually at Portobelo in the form of a fair which lasted from 30 to 60 days. During this time, this sleepy little village became a beehive of activity – much like Boquete does to this day during the Coffee and Flower Fair – Transactions at the fair could total 10 to 12 million gold pesos. These fairs took place once each year until 1738 when, as a result of continual attacks by pirates, Spain was forced to abandon the Isthmian route for the longer but more secure one around Cape Horn. The frequent pirate attacks forced the Spaniards to adopt a convoy system. Each year two fleets of 40 to 70 ships sailed from Spain, one bound for Veracruz, the other for Portobelo. The arrival of the fleet signaled the opening of the great fair.
Portobelo suffered its first attack in 1596, even before it was officially founded, at the hands of Sir Frances Drake who died of dysentery before he could capture it. In 1668, Sir Henry Morgan attacked the town from the land by launching a surprise attack on Fort Santiago el Principe. Morgan then attacked the remaining Spanish garrison, using monks and nuns to place scaling ladders against its walls. The city was at the mercy of Morgan’s men who launched upon an orgy of looting, debauchery and torture for 14 dyas. Portobelo lived through this reign of terror however. Other buccaneers and pirates who attacked Portobelo were Englishmen William Parker in 1601 and Edward Vernon in 1739.
The most interesting and historic ruins are also the ones most accessible to the visitor. The forts of Santiago and San Geronimo are each just a 5 minute walk from the pier. Even closer is the “Customs House”, built in 1630, the remains of the church of La Merced, and the church of San Felipe, the last building to be built by the Spaniards. It was inaugurated in 1814. Its most carefully guarded and priceless relic is a beautifully carved statue of Jesus of Nazareth which, because of the dark wood from which it is made, is known as the “Black Christ”. Every year on the 21st of October, Porotbelo relives a day of its glorious past in a celebration in honor of the Black Christ. The city is filled with people in a candlelight procession. The statue of the Black Christ is brought out of the church on a platform borne by 80 men and is carried through the streets of the city. It is followed by hundreds of pilgrims carrying candles who march behind it until it is once again restored to its resting place.
With the building of the trans-Panama railroad (1848–55) and finally the digging of the Panama Canal, the village of Portobelo declined in importance but has begun somewhat a a renaissance as a tourist destination . (Source “Living at the Crossroads, a Guide to the Isthmus of Panama“, Interamerican Women’s club, 1957, and Bartlesby.com, 2000)
Portobelo Panama and Panama Ruins
This short video has some great footage of some of the historic ruins in Panama and most of the shots are taken in and around Portobelo. You will also see a few shots of Panama Viejo (Old Panama) – the first city of Panamá.
Have you been to Portobelo Panama? Please share your comments, suggestions and stories!
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