99km (62 miles) from Panama City; 43km (27 miles) from Colón
Portobelo is a modest seaside village made of clapboard homes built around and among the ruins of what was one of Spain's richest and liveliest ports from the mid-16th to early 18th century. The village, squeezed tightly between thick jungle and the blue Caribbean Sea, is less than an hour from Colón, and it's a very popular destination on the Central Caribbean Coast for day excursions. You wouldn't know it today, but this historical site was once the scene of the famous Portobelo fairs that took place for 2 centuries, when Spain's plundered gold and silver from South America passed through here. Around Portobelo are well-preserved forts that are splendid examples of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture, as well as a recently restored Customs House. The ruins, along with Fort San Lorenzo , were named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1980.
Portobelo's residents call themselves congos, and are descendants of African slaves brought here during the Spanish colonial era; they are culturally different from the Afro-Caribbeans in Colón. The congos possess a rich folkloric expression that arose from slavery and African traditions and religion fused with Catholicism, and which is now best expressed by their colorful costumes and devil masks that they don during festivals such as Carnaval and the famous Black Christ Festival on October 21.
Sailors and yachties like to anchor in the calm Portobelo bay, and you'll see lots of boats bobbing in the turquoise sea. There is decent scuba diving and snorkeling around here, too. Portobelo is not exceedingly dangerous, but it is an economically depressed town with run-down homes and a worn-out central plaza, and there are always a lot of people hanging around without much to do. If you use common sense and don't flash expensive equipment or money, you shouldn't have any problems.
The London-Panama Connection -- Portobelo was named "Puerto Bello" (Beautiful Port) by Christopher Columbus on his first visit here in 1502, a name that gradually became known as Portobelo. Known for its 3-month-long, grand and lively trade fairs and the hordes of gold and silver that flowed through here, Portobelo was irresistible to pirates. But it's a battle led by British Adm. Edward Vernon in 1739 for which the town is most remembered. Vernon attacked Portobelo during the War of Jenkins' Ear, a 9-year British war against the Spanish, and his victory resulted in the use of "Portobello" as a commemorative name for a well-known farm in what is now the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. The road leading to the farm was called Portobello Road -- today this road is itself internationally famous for its own lively market. Vernon is also associated with the term "grog," which was his moniker and therefore the name his sailors gave to the watered-down rum he served them to avoid drunkenness.