Blog: WHS #559: Portobelo
Portobelo and San Lorenzo were Spanish fortifications on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Portobelo even was the most important Spanish port of Central America in its time, the storehouse for the silver and gold that came from Peru by land or sea/river and had to be transported across the Atlantic. Both sites lie on either side of the modern city of Colón, some 80 km apart.
As most others, I only visited Portobelo. I would love to see a review of San Lorenzo on this website too, but it isn't as easily accessible. Without a rental car, your only chance is joining a day tour from Panama City. The pricing of these tours (of any guided tour from Panama City) is ridiculous: they all seem to start at 100 US dollar. That's the downside of Panama: due to the cruise public, a large number of western expats and the general Americanization of the country prices often bear no relation to real costs.
Fortunately Portobelo can be reached by public transport. It cost me 5 US dollar each way, with a change of buses at the town of Sabanitas. Taking this route, you avoid Colon which has the reputation of a hellhole (though that might be an exaggeration too). Sabanitas is easy and friendly, and Diablos Rojos race by frequently to take you to Portobelo. I wasn't the only tourist on this bus, nor in the town itself. On approach you immediately notice the formidable natural harbour, which even Columbus acknowledged. It reminded me a bit of the Bay of Kotor.
There are several fortresses and other military structures around the harbour of Portobelo. One of the most prominent lies in the center of town: the San Jeronimo Fort. It looks quite OK from a distance, maybe weathered but considering its age and Panama's climate that is no surprise. Upon entering, I noticed there are no access restrictions. Everybody can walk in as they like, and have a party inside (I saw many empty liquor bottles!). The niches are of excellent use for kissing couples. Later on I saw two caretakers picking up the trash, so there is some form of maintenance after all.
The effects of the flooding of 2011 are still there: about a third of this fort still is flooded. You can only reach the far end by crossing on two well-placed stepping stones. No health and safety standards here! Even the text on the information panel has faded away. But, in spite of all of this, this fort and its setting at the harbour has real charm. Everything shows the effects of time, but that's more convincing than so many other fortresses and castles on the List which have been overly restored.
On a prime location lies the former Customs Building. Birds have taken over the top floor for their own use, the ground floor houses the city museum which should not be missed. An introductionary video is shown about Portobelo's history. I found it difficult to get online information about the site beforehand, also the AB evaluation is very short and superficial. The site seems to be surrounded with myths. The video emphasizes the role slaves played in its construction. The focus is not so much on the story of the Spaniards and the English, but on that of the local population that is mostly from African descent.
The site has been on the List in Danger since in 2012 mainly due to neglect: environmental factors, lack of a maintenance programme and polluted water has lead to deteroriation of the site. There are even families living in the inner areas of the Santiago de Gloria Castle, though new houses are said to be currently under construction. The town seems to be too far away from Panama-City to attract the much-needed attention. It's still worth a detour to visit however.
Published 24 January 2015Leave a comment
Responses to WHS #559: Portobelo
Clyde (25 January 2015)
Thanks for the review and the photos. Unfortunately during my trip in Central America I missed this WHS and instead I decided to relax in the San Blas Archipelago with the Kuna Indians. If I ever visit Panama again I'd like to try visiting the Darien National Park although quite dangerous.