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.