Portobelo, Panama

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9°33’N 79°39’W  (published March 2012)

Bus station in PortogelloMention Panama to a typical cruiser and they’ll usually think of the Panama Canal, the San Blas Islands or Bocas del Toro. But there’s another special little spot worthy of attention. Once the most important port in the entire region, the natural harbor of Portobelo had, until recent times, slipped out of prosperity and into obscurity. What was once considered the best natural harbor between Cartagena and Bocas del Toro had become a virtually deserted backwater, and by the 1990s, reports of occasional dinghy thefts and a rough and dirty town had most cruising yachts placing Portobelo on their “no go” list.

On our third visit to Portobelo last July, I was happy to see a real turnaround occurring. With the declaration of Portobelo as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the accompanying influx of money, some dedicated cruisers and a small number of visionary Panamanians have begun to establish promising new enterprises that will help put Portobelo back on the cruisers’ highway.

Portobello yet to be restored cobblestone streets and Customs House built 1630   Portobelo’s protected harbor has depths ranging from a few feet at the head of the bay to 80 feet in the middle. Large enough to hold 500 ships, there are some 30-foot deep areas where it is easy to sit at anchor in the evening. If you squint a little and let your mind wander, you can imagine looking out over an assembled treasure fleet on the verge of departure for Spain. Walking down the cobblestone streets over beautifully constructed arched bridges built to carry wagons filled with gold, images of armored conquistadors, gallant horses and throngs of laborers are easy to conjure up.

Today, there is a scattering of small restaurants, several grocery and hardware stores, and a bakery. A new yacht club is being built, a marine consignment shop has just opened, and some veteran cruisers have established a hostel and cruiser’s hangout, offering a host of services ranging from diesel and propane refills to a book trade. Each morning at 9am, there is a local Portobelo cruisers’ net on VHF channel 72 where information, help and services are offered. There is now a port captain and immigrations office in town, so boats arriving from foreign destinations may be cleared.

With Portobelo’s charming village, historic batteries and fortifications, secluded nearby beaches and winding jungle trails, there is much to see and do. It is enchanting to bring your vessel to anchor in this wonderful harbor, nestled beneath ancient ruins and jungle-covered hillsides, off of one of the most important settlements of the colonial Americas. If you find yourself in this far-flung section of the Caribbean, don’t miss experiencing lovely Portobelo.

(photos courtesy Gayle Suhich)