The Canal and Central Panama: Places to Explore

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Portobelo

Portobelo has an inspiring mix of colonial fortresses, placid waters, and lushly forested hills. Christopher Columbus named it "beautiful port" in 1502 during his fourth and final voyage to the Americas. Unfortunately, cement-block houses crowded higgledy-piggledy amid the ancient walls detract from an otherwise lovely setting. Portobelo contains some of Panama's most interesting colonial ruins, with rusty cannons still lying in wait for an enemy assault, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with San Lorenzo. Depending on your timing, you could see congo dancing, or the annual Festival del Cristo Negro. Between the history, turquoise sea, jungle, coral reefs (great for scuba diving or snorkeling), beaches, and local culture, its an enticing spot to spend a few days.

Once the sister city of Panamá Viejo, Portobelo was an affluent trading center during the 17th century, when countless tons of Spanish treasure passed through its customs house, and shiploads of European goods were unloaded on their way to South America. The Spaniards moved their Atlantic port in Panama from Nombre de Dios to Portobelo in 1597, since the deep bay was deemed an easier place to defend against pirates, who had raided Nombre de Dios repeatedly. During the next two centuries Portobelo was one of the most important ports in the Caribbean. Gold from South America was stored here after crossing the isthmus via the Camino de Cruces and Chagres River, awaiting semiannual ferias, or trade fairs, in which a fleet of galleons and merchant ships loaded with European goods arrived for several weeks of business and revelry before sailing home laden with gold and silver. That wealth attracted pirates, who repeatedly attacked Portobelo, despite the Spanish fortresses flanking the entrance to the bay and a larger fortress near the customs house. After a century and a half of attacks, Spain began shipping its South American gold around Cape Horn in 1740, marking the end of Portobelo's ferias, and turning the town into an insignificant Caribbean port. What remains today is a mix of historic and tacky, twentieth-century structures surrounded by spectacular natural scenery that looks much the same as it did in Columbus's day.

You can explore Portobelo's historic sites in a couple of hours, which leaves plenty of time for outdoor diversions. Several beaches in the area are worth visiting, half a dozen diving and snorkeling spots are nearby, there is decent fishing, and the bird-watching is excellent. It's also an ideal spot to kick back and unwind.

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