Portobelo is a port city in Central Panama. It is located on the northern part of the Isthmus of Panama.
Portobelo was founded in 1597 by Spanish explorer Francisco Velarde y Mercado. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries it was an important silver-exporting port in New Granada on the Spanish Main and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets.
The city was also victim of one of Captain Henry Morgan's notorious adventures. In 1668, Morgan led a fleet of privateers and 450 men against Portobelo, which, in spite of its good fortifications, he captured and plundered for 14 days, stripping it of nearly all its wealth. This daring endeavour, although successful, also proved particularly brutal as it involved rape, torture, and murder on a grand scale.
On November 21, 1739, the port was again attacked and captured by a British fleet, commanded this time by Admiral Edward Vernon during the War of Jenkins' Ear. The British victory created an outburst of popular acclaim throughout the British Empire, and many streets and settlements in the British Isles and the Thirteen Colonies were named Portobello such as Portobello Road in London.
However, the town was quickly recovered by the Spanish and Admiral Vernon suffered a major defeat against the stronghold of Cartagena de Indias in 1741. Vernon was forced to return to England with a decimated fleet and over 18,000 casualties. Despite the Portobelo campaign, British efforts of gaining a foothold in the Spanish Main and disrupting the galleon trade were fruitless. Following the War of Jenkins' Ear, the Spanish switched from large fleets calling at few ports to small fleets trading at a wide variety of ports. They also began to travel around Cape Horn to trade on the West coast.
Today, Portobelo is a sleepy city with a population of fewer than 3,000. It has a deep natural harbor and is home to many cruising yachts. In 1980 the ruins of the fortification, along with nearby Fort San Lorenzo, were declared a World Heritage Site.
When Francis Drake died of dysentery in 1596 at sea, he was buried in a lead coffin near Portobelo bay. They're still looking for him. There are two dive centers operating here. It is also a place to book passages on boats to Colombia.
Visitors could drive from Panama City to Portobelo, taking the Transisthmian highway (Auto Pista) to Sabanitas and then turn right on the road that leads to Portobelo. It takes around one and a half-hour.
By bus from Panama City Albrooke terminal, take the Colon Express (45 min, $3.15) and get off at the Rey supermarket in Sabanitas. There switch to the Portobelo bus (1 hr, $1.30). The Portobelo bus can be caught by the front entrance of the Rey supermarket around the corner.
Buses depart Portobelo every half hour from 04:30 to 18:00 making many stops along the way to Sabanitas (Rey Supermarket) (1 hr, $1.30) en route to Colon (total 1½ hr, $1.35). In Sabanitas, cross the highway on the pedestrian bridge and catch the Panama City Express bus (1 hr, $3.15). To guarantee a seat on the Panama bus, continue on to Colon and catch it there (1½ hr, $3.15).
There are now over 30 vessels operating the route between Portobelo, San Blas, and Colombia. They vary widely in safety, comfort, and price ($300-550) depending on the boat. A person would be ill advised to book an 180-nautical-mile ocean passage (333 km) on a vessel he hasn’t inspected with a captain he hasn’t met. The waters between San Blas and Colombia can be challenging at times. Don’t depend on second hand information. Vessels depart regularly from Portobelo, Puerto Lindo, and Porvenir. Make an informed decision.
Portobelo is very small and easy to navigate. There's one road which runs parallel to the water which forks just before the village square. Take the left fork for immigration and Internet cafe, and the right fork for more food places.
You can see the sights in Portobelo in an hour. Start at the west end fort ruin. From there head east on the left hand side of the road and you'll see a staircase up to the watch tower with great views of the bay.
On your way to the eastern side stop off at the Church and Old Customs house.
- Tour the forts, Custom House, and museum.
- Take a launch to local beaches: Playa Blanca, Playa Frances.
- Rent a kayak.
- Horseback riding.
- Anfibia board: Go anfibia bording and feel what's like to swim free like a dolphin! Check Panamore [formerly dead link] website to know more about it.
- Kayuko: The kayuko is a wooden dugout canoe made by the aborigines. Panamore can organise your kayuko day to either go by the bay, rivers and mangroves or fishing with a local!
- Mangroves + Jungle + Beach + Snorkle + Kayak-Kayuko: Contact Francesco +507 6739 1685
- Hike the National Park
- Black Christ Festival, Oct 19-21.
- Congos and Diablos Festival (same time as carnival)
- Panama Divers (Octopus Garden), ☏ . Dive company owned and operated by seasoned PADI professionals dedicated to ensuring the safety and enjoyment of every customer and committed to protecting environment.
- Scubapanama, ☏ . 08:00-18:00. Diving Panama; either snorkeling or with tanks (scuba). Panama offers both, a vivid and colorful submarine world of the Atlantic Ocean, with clear Caribbean waters; also the vast and mysterious Pacific Ocean, with plenty of the great marine species.
- Panamore (next to Captain Jack's Bar), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Tours include beaches, mangroves, rivers, kayuko (dugout canoes), waterfalls, jungle, to snorkelling, anfibiaboard, horseback riding, sailboat trips.
- Pizza Place (on the left before the road forks). This small place does pizza and sandwiches roughly from 12:00 until 19:30. The food is excellent despite the grumpy staff and slow service. They also do very good real fruit milkshakes (available without milk). Beer is very cheap too.
There are several bars around Portobelo. Captain Jack's is the most lively and full of backpackers, but also the most expensive at $2 a beer ($1 during Happy Hour, 16:00-17:00 every day and 14:00-18:00 on Sunday), most others have beers from $1.
To make new friends, head to Captain Jack's, if you already have some you'll save some money by starting your own party elsewhere.
- Scuba Portobelo, Buenaventura Portobelo, ☏ . Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 13:00. This excellent Resort in Portobelo consists of six cabins and five rooms, all with ocean-view balcony, air condition, hot water, king or queen sized beds. They also have a restaurant with local cuisine prepared with products selected fresh from the sea and farm.
- Casa Congo, ☏ . Bright colors make this inn on the waterfront of Portobelo stand out. Wifi and breakfast included.
Jack, in Captain Jacks, is a wealth of local knowledge.
If you're on a boat, or have a VHF radio for some other reason, tune in to The Net on channel 72 at 09:00 every morning (run by Jack) to get in touch with the other boats in the area.
Buses run from Portobelo to Colon every 20-30 min from 04:30 until 6PM. They leave from in front of the church, but you can flag them down anywhere along the main road.
A cheap taxi boat service (langcha in Spanish) opened in November 2016, running weekly from Portobelo to Capurgana (a village on the Colombian side of the border, where you get a second langcha to the major city named Turbo). The ride is $160 per person and the langcha is named Naturalstour and is about 400 meters before the entrance of Porotobelo when arriving from the city of Colon.
Regular boats leave to Cartagenia for around $300-500. Captain Jack is selling tours for $550. You may all ask your hostel for info.
If you are lucky, you can also find cheapest passage on boats from Portobelo to Kuna Yala (around 100 km) for around $70 (specify that you need only the transport, no lunch or other amenities). Ask as always in Captain Jack or in local hostel/tour operator. Remember that the only other way to reach Kuna Yala is come back to Panama City and do another 23-3 hr driving on sickness road.