Travel and History In Portobelo, Panama

Why Portobelo?

Panama‘s Caribbean coast is far less developed than its Pacific one. The biggest reason for this is access. Much of this country’s Caribbean is inaccessible except by plane or boat. Even the stretch of Caribbean Sea nearest to Panama City, that bit that sits directly north of the capital as the crow flies, has historically been considered distant and remote.

Distant, remote, and unsafe. The good folks of Panama City have traditionally avoided Colon, the country’s biggest Caribbean coastal city, and surrounding areas and, if you ask them, will warn you away, as well.

We recommend you ignore the cautions and go see this part of Panama for yourself. It’s easier to get there today than it’s ever been, thanks to the expanded and paved highway between Colon and Panama City completed last year (which cut the travel time between these two cities by more than half). And it’s one of the most strategically and historically interesting and important spots, not only in Panama, but in all Latin America.

For, it was from this bit of coast, specifically from the town of Portobelo (the featured destination for this month’s issue of my Panama Letter), one of the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, today about a half-hour east of Colon, that the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish coordinated the return of their plunder from the New World to the old one. At one time in history, more than one-third of all the world’s gold and silver passed through this town, where it was weighed and counted in the mammoth customs house (still standing) before being shipped back to Spain. All this wealth coming and going made Portobelo a tempting target, for both the British throne and British pirates, which explains Spain’s investment, four centuries ago, in the impressive fortifications that surrounded Portobelo, including Fort San Lorenzo (also still standing).

Alas, the Spanish forts weren’t enough to keep the British at bay, and, eventually, the Spanish decamped. They moved their plundering operations from Portobelo to Cape Horn. Portobelo turned from boomtown to ghost town and, in the centuries since, has settled into quiet obscurity.

Why, therefore, do we recommend you ignore local Panamanians’ advice and go see the place? First, because of its historic significance. If you enjoy old forts and pirate history, Portobelo will get your imagination going.

However, is Portobelo a place you’d want to live or retire? Panama Letter Editor Chris Powers found more expats in residence in and around Portobelo than he or I expected he would. Still, this part of Panama wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It’s an edge-of-nowhere outpost, home to but 3,000. Tourism is its only modern-day economy.

That said, we nevertheless feature Portobelo in the virtual pages of the Panama Letter this month, for two reasons. First, if you’re interested in Caribbean coastal living, this is one quiet and affordable option. Frankly, I prefer it to Bocas del Toro, Panama’s much better known Caribbean lifestyle option.

Second, we’ve discovered another lifestyle option in Portobelo that is worth noting–specifically, the option to live offshore from Portobelo. One thing that Panama’s Pacific coast lacks is marinas. You find some in Panama City, but, elsewhere along the country’s Pacific, the waters are generally too rough. The Bay of Portobelo, meantime, has been a protected safe haven attracting boaters from around the world since the days of Chris Columbus…including, today, Captain Jack, who operates an informal yacht club, of sorts, for a small group of expats who have migrated here, not to live in Portobelo, but to live aboard their boats in its bay.

Kathleen Peddicord

French Course Online