Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Wonderful Visit to the town of Portobelo Panama

Let me start this article by saying the day trip to Portobelo was my absolute favorite day of the entire Panama trip.  It was simply fantastic.  If you visit Panama make the time to hop over to the Caribbean coast to check out the small town of Portobelo and its centuries old Spanish forts. 

The original plan was to do the drive from where we were staying at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.  Three weeks before the trip we had the very, very good fortune/insight to go ahead and book a personal driver and guide for the day instead of trying to do it on our own.

Boy, oh boy did that turn out to be a great idea.  Portobelo is about a ninety minute drive from Gamboa.  The way our guide took us from Gamboa was not an easy route at all through some "seedy" neighborhoods.  I am doubtful if we could have made the trip on our own without getting seriously lost.  We certainly could not have made it in 90 minutes or probably anywhere close.  So my first Portobelo advice is to hire a guide or at least a driver.

Our guide was wonderful giving us history, dates and neat facts everywhere we went.  He also knew the locals and workers and set us up with a great lunch at a local restaurant.

Portobelo is a quiet little Panama town nowadays.  It was equally quiet centuries ago.  That is for most of the time.  A few days a year Portobelo sprung to life when the Spanish gold arrived from Peru.  Led by Francisco Pizarro the Spanish had conquered the incredibly rich Inca Empire.  From the Inca they plundered amazing riches of gold and silver. 

Portobelo was the staging area where all the treasures were counted and organized for the trip across the Atlantic on the famed Spanish galleons.  The gold was kept in the Customs House of Portobelo before being loaded to the galleons in the bay.

With so much gold the Spanish needed security and they built three forts to protect Portobelo.   Fort Santiago and Fort San Fernando which sit on each side of the entrance to the cove and then Fort San Jeronimo which sits back inside the cove right next to the Customs House.

To get to Portobelo you drive right along the Caribbean coastline and come to Fort Santiago which was our first stop.  It has a entryway gate that is long lost, but you could just imagine the large gate that once protected the entrance.

There are slits along the walls offering the defenders plenty of shooting opportunities with their muskets from the lower level.  Once inside Fort Santiago there are the barracks which you can still go inside.  The strong coral and rock walls have stood the test of time for sure.

After checking out the barracks and lower area head up to the upper level where the cannon still sit.  The line of fire to protect the cove are obvious.  There is also a dry moat about ten feet deep that would have kept soldiers from entering from that direction. In the corner is a nice little covered lookout that provided a higher vantage point to see incoming raiders as well as a protected area to shoot down upon the attackers.

From there we headed into town further to the Customs House.  This is where all the gold from the Inca conquest in Peru was brought, counted and recorded.  Once a year the huge Spanish fleet of galleons would arrive with goods from Europe and the Caribbean to be offloaded and traded. The fleet of galleons would then be loaded with gold, silver and artifacts to be sent home to Spain.  The tiny town of Portobelo would explode with traders, sailors, soldiers and all else while the fleet was in port.  We toured the two story gold house.  On the first floor is a little museum to peruse that will take you about fifteen minutes.  There is also an informative video to watch that will give a nice history of Portobelo.

Just a few yards from the gold house is Fort San Jeronimo.   It was raining, but that didn't stop us from heading inside to explore.  Plenty of cannon sit in place ready to defend the treasures next door. On the second level there is a covered lookout as well as stairs down a barracks room.   There is also a neat water well.

The final fortification of Portobelo is Fort San Fernando and it is actually across the bay from the town.  The only way to reach Fort San Fernando is by water taxi.  Our guide gladly arranged for our passage at a cost of $25 for the three of us.

We piled in the small skiff and headed across the cove passing many anchored sailboats as we went.  Reaching the other side we pulled onto the beach.  There is no dock there so we had to jump from the boat.  Expect to get a little wet (ankle deep).

The whole of Fort San Fernando was ours.  Seems not a lot of tourists take the time to hire a water taxi and make the short trek (it did not take ten minutes to cross). Their loss was our gain though.  Fort San Fernando is tremendous.  Different from the other two forts.  Inside was wet.  Very wet.  I decided to trek through the middle of the grounds and was rewarded with a swamp basically.

I sank ankle deep and feared I would lose my shoes.  I trudged on eventually reaching the ramp to the second level.  Everyone got quite the kick out of my trial, but I made it.  The guide took the others safely along the wall where it was much drier.

There is also a smaller fort on the hilltop above.  Make sure to take the time to do the hike up.  It is about a hundred feet above and it will get your heartbeat up as you trudge up the steep trail.  Once on top you will be rewarded with a wonderful view of Portobelo and the harbor.  You'll also marvel at how much effort it must have taken to get the monster cannons all the way up there.  After taking in the view, I carefully made my way back down and back to the waiting boat.

Our trip was not quite over though.  The guide had a lunch planned for us at Restaurant Las Anclas.  The appetizer was a large flat fried plantain.  It was like a huge tortilla chip and our host brought out three separate types of homemade salsa to go with.   It was SO good!

We all had grilled sea bass that came along with rice and carrots.  Everything was first class.  We topped it off with some delightful grapenut vanilla ice cream.  A fine ending to a great day in Portobelo, Panama!

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