The city of Portobelo lies 20 miles northeast of Colón and was connected by a stone highway with Panama City athough at one time it was accessible only by launch. The highway now makes reaching Portobelo very easy by modern-day autos. It is situated in a splendid harbor which was discovered and named by Christopher Columbus when, in 1502, his vessels sought shelter in the "beautiful port" from a great storm. The town was founded in 1597 and was given the name of San Felipe de Portobelo in honor of King Phillip II of Spain.
Portobelo was the port of entry and of exit for all of South America. The 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 place was a beehive of activity. Transactions frequently totaled from 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 fever before he could capture it and was secretly buried at sea off the entrance to the harbor. In 1668, Sir Henry Morgan attacked the town from the land and launched a surprise attack on Fort Santiago el Principe. He 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. 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 but 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" (see personal photos below). 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, Portobelo declined. (Courtesy of "Lving At The Crossroads, A Guide To The Isthmus of Panama", Interamerican Women's club, 1957, and Bartlesby.com, 2000)
The first set of photos were taken during a visit with my mother in the Canal Zone in April 1974. They are of Maria Chiquita Beach and the old Spanish ruins (notice the cannons) located at Portobelo (also spelled as Puerto Bello and Porto Bello), a small town on the Atlantic side of Panama. My photo of the Black Christ is from an actual statue in a church located in the town of Portobelo and the statue is highly regarded. Portobelo itself is very old and was not considered a "real" tourist town in 1974 but as you will note, it does have a number of artifacts and structures worth seeing. This made it attractive to both residents and tourists alike.
All of these photos were taken by private individuals, including me. They may not be reproduced, duplicated, or printed without the owner's permission.
For photos on the old "Customs Buildings at Portobello, see this page.
Click on the thumbnails for full-view photos.
Maria Chiquita Beach
Portobelo and the Spanish Ruins
The photos of Portobelo's Spanish fort ruins below were taken by Ruby Hai Yocum during a visit to Panama in November 1999. As you can see from one of them, the parade in Portobelo indicates the annual celebration of Panama's Independence Day (from Colombia) which is similar to our celebration of the 4th of July. The celebrations may go on for days with almost everyone participating.
Many thanks to Ruby and Jayne Yocum for the use of their photos. For these and others, please visit
their website,"PANAMA PRINTS" where you may view more of their photos. For those of you who
once lived in Panama or the Canal Zone, these will bring back many memories.
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