Portobelo’s Spanish Forts

Because it was one of the most important ports on the route of their treasure fleet, the Spanish built several defensive forts in Portobelo. At one time, ten different fortifications were built on the hills behind the city’s port, making it the most heavily fortified Spanish coastal control point in the Americas.

Pirates destroyed them several times, but several of the fortresses still survive, and in 1980, their ruins were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (criteria for World Heritage Sites).

We first visited Fort Santiago, which sits on the south side of the harbor.

Houses now sit among part of the fort’s waterfront walls, and it’s upper battery, across the main road, is completely over grown.



Men who built these forts were definitely shorter (and most Panamanians still are). Scott seemed giant, in front of a doorway.

Our next stop was the custom house, located just off of the square in town.

Built in 1630, it was the headquarters for all of the Spanish custom offices. Gold and silver from the Inca Empire was exported through this custom house, and countless African slaves were imported to the New World from here as well. This huge building was the scene of many large trade fairs, until it was bombed by English pirates.

There was a small museum inside, with photos of the custom house in it’s heyday, in disrepair and before and after it’s reconstruction in the 1990’s. A display of period weaponry caught Scott’s eye. He especially liked this gun/hatchet thing.

The next fort, San Jeronimo, is located just outside the custom house.

This fort is affected by high tide, and we had to slop through water and mud to get to the walls, and look out to the harbor.

Several wrecked boats were visible from San Jeronimo’s walls. The most recent, from Hurriane Otto’s swells, still had people aboard, living life at a 45 degree angle.

While wandering the grounds, we were entertained by a happy group of school children, who gathered just inside the fort to sing and dance for donations.

Lastly, Fort San Fernandino sits on the north side of the harbor,  just near where we were anchored.

We beached our dinghy, and trekked through tall grass to the first battery level. There was a wobbly, narrow wooden board across the dry moat. I ran to the other side, Scott took his time.

We traipsed around the lower battery level, wandering through stone doorways, around crumbling corners, and peeking through walls, back down at Sea Life below in the harbor.

Next, we climbed a steep hill to the upper battery. The tall grass was full of burrs, that covered my shoes and pants. There were some set-in steps for part of the climb, but the remainder was just a foot path.

The views looking back at town and down to the harbor were even better at this level.

Scott noticed this small house-like structure, and had a peek inside. House-like was right, as in outhouse…the seat looked less than comfy!

Further up the hill, there is another, smaller fort that was built to store gunpowder and oversee the battery. Scott climbed the path for a bit, but decided not to leave me waiting, and snapped some photos before coming back down.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Portobelo’s boom ended. The Spanish switched from large fleets using few ports, to small fleets trading at a wide variety of locations, making them less vulnerable to attack. Ships also began traveling around Cape horn, to trade directly at ports on the western coast.

The city’s population revived briefly, during the construction of the Panama Canal. Today, Portobelo’s population is less than 5,000 residents, who now make a living fishing, farming or raising livestock.

After conquering all three forts and touring the custom house, we declared victory and headed back down the hill. It was happy hour, and Sea Life was waiting below at anchor.

Here are many more fort photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”







The Sleepy Town Of Portobelo, Panama

We left Escudo de Veraguas and made an overnight, eighteen hour run to the small town of Portobelo. Scott took watch for the first few hours, and recorded the trip log reflecting 5000 nautical miles since we have owned the boat… a nice milestone!

I came on watch for the overnight hours, and then turned things over to Scott at dawn. As early morning rain fell, he noticed a rainbow that started on our port side, and came back down on the starboard. We were inside of it…pretty neat!

As usual, my attempt at sleep added up to about an hour. I gave up, and came back to the pilothouse in time to see the many boats on the horizon, anchored and waiting to transit the Panama Canal.

Soon after, we turned and made our way into Portobelo’s harbor. Legend has it that in 1502, Christopher Columbus originally named the port, “Puerto Bello,” which means “Beautiful Port,” and it definitely is that. The green, scenic hills contained many more open pastures than we saw in the Bocas area.

Portobelo was one of the world’s first important, strategic ports of the Caribbbean, and in the 1700’s, it was Spain’s major port in the Americas. Having a natural port made the town useful in transporting riches over to Europe, that were seized in the conquest of South America. Portobelo’s deep harbor was also a center for exporting silver, before the mid-eighteenth century.

We anchored in a quiet spot, near one of several forts that surround the harbor (more on them later). It was again nice to be anchored without noisy pangas running by us at all hours.

After setting anchor, we spent the rest of the day relaxing on board. We made our way into town the next morning, past a “victim” of Hurricane Otto. The storm sent eleven foot swells into the harbor as it passed by. In another area, we noticed a catamaran being raised up off of the bottom.

Portobelo is a quiet town, with three or four small grocery stores, two bakeries and some small eateries. We also noticed several street food vendors and a “veg” truck.

Scott was amused by the many “chicken” buses that travel the area. They offer affordable service to many small towns on the way to Colon, and also travel to Panama City. The buses are quite a sight, full of color and “bling,” and also seem to be personalized, with air-brush drawings of loved ones and such.

As we’ve seen in many of the towns in Central America, the buildings are full of color, and brightly painted murals adorn the buildings.

We made our way to Iglesia de San Felipe, the Roman Catholic church in town. It is more commonly known as Black Christ Church, housing a statue that has come to be worshiped by many Panamanians and others around the world.


The statue, normally located near the alter, is brought out to the center of the church once a year, for the annual Festival of the Black Christ.


Tens of thousands gather in Portobelo for the event, walking from Panama City (53 miles), and crawling the last mile on their hands and knees! The Black Christ has been designated as the Patron Saint of Criminals, and many come to the church each year during the festival to ask forgiveness for their crimes.

There is much more interesting information about how it is believed the statue came to Portobelo, how it is displayed and cared for and details about the Festival  of the Black Christ here.

We’d read about Captain Jack’s Canopy Bar, and have been told by many that he and his staff go out of their way to help cruisers, so it seemed like a good place to have lunch. After circumnavigating the globe, Captain Jack (originally from New Jersey) settled here and opened the bar. He lives aboard his boat in the harbor, and make regular visits to the San Blas Islands from Portobelo.

After a short walk up a residential street, we found Captain Jack’s at the top of the hill.

We climbed the stairs, and Jeff, the manager greeted us with cold towels; perfect timing, as I was soaked in sweat from the mid-day heat in town.

The upper level bar/restaurant provided a nice view back toward town and the harbor, and the kitchen turned out some terrific red curry! We lingered, enjoying the shaded tables and the breeze, talking to Jeff and gathering local information.

We’d left our dinghy tied in front of a small waterfront restaurant, and decided to have a beer there before heading back to the boat. Some German cruisers opened the business, and allow boaters to tie up dinghies at no charge. This can be hard to find, as many piers in these towns are either private, reserved for water taxi pangas or come with a local resident asking for a dollar or two.

We shared a table with some “locals,” one of which took an interest in Scott’s straw hat.

After walking the town, having lunch, and an afternoon beer it was time to head back to Sea Life, where we enjoyed happy hour with Howard, in the shade of the cockpit.

Here are more photos of Portobelo.


“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”