Panama is the only place on the earth where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are just a couple of hour drive apart. Another thing that will mess with your mind is the fact that the Pacific ocean is on the south and and the Atlantic is to the north. We decided to take advantage of that and take a trip over to the Caribbean side to check things out. Out target is a little town called Portobello which was a very important place to the Spanish, in the early 1600s. Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, he named it “Puerto Bello”, meaning Beautiful Port. Founded by the Spanish in 1597, it became an important silver and gold exporting port, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, for plunder that was acquired by the Spanish throughout Central and South America. Shipments were consolidated here for furtherance back to Spain and Portobello became one of the more important ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleet.
With this kind of action going on, Portobello also became of interest to the pirates in the area and in 1668, Captain Henry Morgan with a band of 450 men captured it and plundered the city for 14 days. In 1738 it was captured by the British who wanted a foothold in the new world and then recovered by the Spanish in 1741 (pay attention; there is a test at the end of this), at a cost of 18,000 British casualties.
Today, Portobello is a picturesque sleepy little Caribbean town of around 3,000 inhabitants hosting the ruins of several buildings and the fortifications built by Spain around town in various places. In 1980 the ruins were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can see that restoration work is now underway.
Portobello is also the host of an important statue called the Black Christ which arrived here sometime in the 1650s. While the details are a bit sketchy, it is known to have been carved in Spain, transported on a ship that was wrecked in a storm with the statue washing up on the shore in Portobello. Many thousands of pilgrims descend on this small town every 21 October for the celebration and festivities. The statue is carried from the Catholic Church around the community by 80 people providing a four-hour procession.
Or trip, today, was scheduled to avoid traffic. You see, this is the last Saturday of Carnival and one of the busiest days. As almost all of the festivities occur on the Pacific side of the country, we thought we would be able to avoid traffic by heading this way. Sure enough. The new toll road to Colon, accessed off Corredor Norte, was almost empty. We made the toll road part of the trip in just over an hour before getting dumped on to heavy traffic once we were back on the normal roads. You don’t actually travel into Colon but rather turn east just before the city. Heavy local traffic eventually thins out as you get farther from the city. Eventually, the road brings you along side of the Caribbean.
While there are some nice places here, generally speaking homes are not as elaborate or well-kept. The beach frontage is built up with lots of homes including large, small, new and old places. The beauty that may be missing from the houses in the area is more than compensated for by the natural beauty of the sea-side as we drive along passing small palm lined beaches and low bridges lined with kids diving off into the water of the rivers they span.
Eventually, we come to one of the forts of Portobello and park to prowl the ruins. The landscape is a beautiful variety of greens with the Caribbean water showing its well-known aqua and green patchwork color scheme. There is a large hilly island in the distance, perhaps a kilometer across the yacht strewn water. The dark blue almost cloud free sky along with the aqua waters and snow-white hulls of the fleet of pleasure yachts moored in the area paint an incredibly beautiful seascape that is only complemented by the small pieces of history from the fort that I am able to inject into the images from my camera. This place is drop dead gorgeous!
I admit to getting a little carried away with the camera here but I think you will agree that, just maybe, It can be justified! Wandering around the fortifications I can’t help but think about what it must have been like when the Spanish were here. The fierce battles, the blinding smoke from the cannons as they were fired, the stench of burning gun powder, the agony of the injured, the piles of dead bodies, the heat of the day on those heavy uniforms both sides wore and the deafening roar of hundreds of heavy canons seeking desperately to destroy their enemy.
The scenery would still have been as beautiful as today but as you walk the ramparts of this old fort where so many died in days gone by it gives me cause for just a moment of thankfulness that I wasn’t there during that time and that I have an opportunity to see such a special place today.