Portobelo: Protecting the silver of New Spain

Days: 205

Total distance travelled: 40,494.2 kilometres (25,151.68 miles)

To simply linger in Panama City was never going to appeal, especially with so much time before our ferry to Colombia was set to depart, meaning we began to look at potential side excursions so that we could both occupy ourselves, as well as see more of this country we were thoroughly enjoying.

We’d looked at other Spanish forts along the Caribbean coast, which, as a package (with all of the Spanish fortifications along the Caribbean coast) form a UNESCO listing, however some were simply too expensive, served only by taxis.

When however, Sarah discovered Portobelo could economically be reached by bus (both economical in cost and time) we committed immediately.

This particular Friday morning began with a now familiar trip to the Albrook Bus Terminal, where we fortunately found an almost perfectly timed connection on to Sabanitas, a town just shy of the coast where we could transfer to Portobelo.

Aside from us often marveling at the speed in which we travelled (something that remained a mystery when we noted that the needle on the speedometer did not move), it was a fairly uneventful trip.

Sabanitas delivered a second perfectly timed connection, so we squeezed on board for the final leg to Portobelo.

Before long we’d made it, and promptly began to explore the ruins (the first of which are literally in the heart of town) of this once important colonial city, now little more than a sleepy Caribbean town.

Once upon a time, much of the silver plundered from the Americas was channeled through this natural deep water harbour (in fact its name is derived from Puerto Bello which means beautiful port), but these days it is more popular as a backpacker stop, as they wait for a sailboat to ferry them to Colombia via the San Blas Islands.

The entrance to Fort San Lorenzo

The entrance to Fort San Lorenzo, right in the heart of town

This sailboat journey was actually something we’d originally signed up for, but rough seas and high costs ultimately saw us cancel this adventure in favour of the much newer ferry option out of Colon.

Back on the ruins, and although in pretty poor shape (one of the reasons they are listed as under threat by UNESCO), they were pretty cool, and incredibly accessible.

I think the addition of some small nominal fee would still make the trip very worthwhile, and possible generate more funds to increase any necessary protective or restorative works…

Keeping watch for marauding pirates...

Keeping watch for marauding pirates…

Despite the absence of the Spanish, the place still appears well guarded, a posse of Black Vultures certainly keeping us in line, one of which (it appeared to have claimed a guard tower as its own) scaring the life out of us as it came out squawking!

Exploring more of the Fortificaciones de Portobelo further around the harbour

Exploring more of the Fortificaciones de Portobelo, these, further around the harbour

A little further around the harbours edge, now right on the edge of town sits another small fortification, and again, like in town, it was in rough shape (although scaffolding that littered this site suggested some work is being done).

It was amazing to see so many ancient cannon, of which across the 2 sites we visited there were more than 20 pieces, slowly rusting away.

Most of the local interest in this particular spot however was centred on a choice, flat piece of land just on its fringe. The perfect place for a game of football (soccer) and accordingly being used such!

A perfect location for a spot of football... the ruins UNESCO status is under threat from more than just 'the world game'

A perfect location for a spot of football… the ruins UNESCO status is under threat from more than just ‘the world game’

Above the town sat what looked a large, grassy hill, in fact this was actually the ruins of an old castillo (castle), long since crumbled and overgrown.

Retaining nothing of its former style, it did however offer a great viewing platform from which to survey the beautiful harbour, adjacent town and the Spanish fortifications we’d just visited.

Taking in Portobelo from the heights of the ruined castillo (Click on image to enlarge)

Taking in “Puerto Bello” from the heights of the ruined castillo (Click on image to enlarge)

All of the mornings travels and adventures meant that by now, we were well and truly ready for lunch, and on this matter we had a pretty good lead.

According to our guidebook, Captain Jacks (also a popular hostel with those taking the sailboats south) had a Vietnamese chef, and the possibility of a delicious bowl of Pho (if you’re not familiar with this delicious soup, check it out here) had us salivating.Sadly, the Pho was not available on this day, however we consoled ourselves with a couple of serves of delicious Vietnamese Spring Rolls (and a couple of beers), the best Asian food we’d had since leaving home!

We also got chatting with an American couple who sat beside us, Ron & Roshelle, who were in this part of the world researching sea-change/retirement options.

Content that we’d seen enough of Portobelo, when they offered us a ride back to Panama City (after a short journey further up the coast), we relished the chance for some new company, as well as the opportunity so more of the Caribbean we would have otherwise missed.

Just shy of where the road ended, we had a brief halt so our new companions could have a quick dip and a spot of beach-combing, and it was whilst here we finished in some random conversation with a few locals on vacation.

There were certainly some intriguing topics covered (our new friend Alfonso and his son were both in favour of and undecided on former Nicaraguan dictator Noriega), and incredibly, Alfonso’s father had been a worker during the construction of the Panama Canal!

Sarah and Ron meet Alfonso

Sarah and Ron meet Alfonso

Back in Panama City, much later that evening (after a few wrong turns on various motorways) we shared a dinner on a rooftop terrace, soaked up the stunning skyline views and marveled at the random friends you meet and make on the road…



* Our journey from Panama City was a surprisingly cheap and easy affair. Our metrobus fare to Albrook Bus Terminal was a paltry $0.25 US per person.

* The bus from Albrook to Sabanitas (just outside Colon) set us back $3.30 US per person, whilst the final leg from Sabanitas to Portobelo was $1.35 US per person.

* Entry to the fortifications in and around Portobelo was enjoyably free!

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7 Responses to Portobelo: Protecting the silver of New Spain

  1. natalietanner says:

    Looks like a wonderful trip! Love the photos!

  2. Rachel says:

    It’s a shame that the fort is threatened like that. I love reading about your random travel encounters, though!

  3. Hi Chris,
    Enjoyable reading 🙂
    Agree with you that a fee should be charged to keep & restore the fort.

  4. Hi Chris: Man, you and Sarah have been having the time of your lives! It’s truly fun exploring those old forts. I’ve not yet been to the one in Portbelo, but have visited several other ones in the Caribbean. Enjoy, and stay safe!

  5. Nancy says:

    Sounds like a fun day of exploration! So much history . . . I agree, preserving the site is definitely worth doing.

  6. traciehowe says:

    Beautiful ruins by the sea! It looks like a wonderful area to explore for history and nature.

  7. lolacastilla says:

    The ruins look absolutely amazing! Very jealous 😉

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