Some time ago, I published a post about the San Lorenzo Fort located on the Caribbean coasts of Panama. This stronghold was built to protect the mouth of the Chagres River which was part of the path connecting Panama City to the towns at the other side of the isthmus. The Spaniards used to transport gold and silver from Panama City to the ports (at the Caribbean side) where galleons where waiting to take the treasures to Spain. The UNESCO awarded the San Lorenzo Fort World Heritage status due to the great range of historical events that took place there.
However, the San Lorenzo Fort is not the only fortification awarded World Heritage status in the Caribbean side of Panama. The other World Heritage structures are located in the Portobelo Bay near the town bearing the same name. The bay was discovered by Christopher Columbus during his fourth trip. Years after the discovery, the Spanish monarchy sent military engineers to prepare a plan for the continent defense. The engineers chose Portobelo because of its unique topography and harbor conditions. The apogee of the area started with the funding of a town named Nombre de Dios (The Name of God). The town was later moved to present day Portobelo.
For many years, the town was one of the most important gold and silver transfer points. Because of the importance of the area, a series of fortifications were build around the bay. Most of the individual forts remain today and can be visited.
Most of the pirates, who attacked the San Lorenzo Fort, also attacked Portobelo. Henry Morgan grabbed and destroyed the city before taking the San Lorenzo Fort and continuing to Panama City thru the Chagres River. Additionally, Admiral Edward Vernon seized the city for some time and lost it during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. As you can see, the town past is full of story and excitement.
If you visit Portobelo, you can also take a look at the Customs House. In here, Spaniards kept track of the gold and silver they were sending to Spain. Today, the place contains some artifacts from the colonization times and offers a short movie explaining the history of the area.
Nowadays, Portobelo is a small town of about 3,000 people. The number of people in town increase dramatically on October 21. Every year pilgrims from all over Panama and other countries arrive to the Black Christ Church and surrounding areas. That day the statue is taken out of the church for a four hour parade around the community. The Black Christ is highly revered in Panama. Some people walk from Panama City to Portobello as a way to give thanks to the provider of many miracles (according to believers).
Nobody is sure of how this statue arrived to Portobelo. Some say it came on one of the ships from Spain. We do know that the statue is very old (dating from the 1600s).
Another interesting fact about the city is that Francis Drake died of dysentery at sea. He was buried on a lead coffin near the bay. This story ignites all types of legends and mysteries.
In summary, it was interesting to visit an off the beaten path town with a super interesting past. I really felt like I owned the place.