The Costa Arriba, stretching northeast of Colón, features lovely beaches, excellent diving and snorkelling, and the historic towns of Nombre de Dios and PORTOBELO (“beautiful harbour”). Though Portobelo today has a somewhat stagnant atmosphere, the remnants and ruins of its former glories retain an evocative power. More powerful still – at least to the thousands of pilgrims who come to gaze on it – is the agonized face of the small Black Christ statue in the Iglesia de San Felipe.
Every two years in early March, Portobelo hosts the hugely enjoyable Afro-colonial Festival de Congos y Diablos (wdiablosycongos.org), with smaller celebrations over the weekends leading up to it. Originating from cimarrones – outlawed bands of escaped slaves (see – in the sixteenth century, these colourful explosions of drumming, dancing, devil costumes and satirical play-acting were originally aimed at mocking their former colonial rulers.
Most of Portobelo is pretty down-at-heel. Other than the highly revered Cristo Negro, which fills the town every October, the ruins are the main attraction. Walking into Portobelo along the road from Colón brings you to the well-preserved Santiago Battery, which still features fourteen rusting but menacing cannons. The road then leads to the main tree-shaded plaza.Read More
After the town of Nombre de Dios was destroyed by Francis Drake in 1597, Portobelo was founded to replace it as the Atlantic terminus of the Camino Real – the route across the isthmus along which the Spanish hauled their plundered treasures. Portobelo’s setting on a deep-water bay was supposed to make it easier to defend from the ravages of pirates, and for 150 years it played host to the famous ferias, grand trading events held when the Spanish treasure fleet came to collect the riches that arrived on mule trains from Panama City. Unsurprisingly, the pirates who scoured the Spanish Main – most famously Henry Morgan – could not resist the wealth concentrated in the royal warehouses here. Eventually the Spanish decided enough was enough: the treasure fleet was rerouted around Cape Horn and Portobelo’s star began to fade.