Fort Ruins & the Customs House
If you're a history buff, plan on spending about 2 hours touring the ruins and the Custom House -- more if you take a water taxi to the ruins at Fuerte San Fernando across the bay. You'll only need an hour if you plan to just walk around a bit and snap a few photos. Portobelo is tiny enough to see all sites on foot.
Entering town, the first site you'll encounter on your left-hand side is the Batería Santiago, a defensive fort built after the famous raid on Portobelo by the British Admiral Edward Vernon in 1739. The fort is remarkably well preserved, with rusty cannons, ramps, and a sentry box. Across the road is a short uphill path to Casa Fuerte Santiago, which overlooked the bay and acted as a depository for ammunition.
Farther into town is Castillo Santiago de la Gloria, built in 1600 but destroyed after an attack by Henry Morgan, before he sacked Panama City. The fort was rebuilt, but attacked again by Vernon; after this the fort was left in ruins and abandoned. From here you can take a water taxi at the pier ($2.50/£1.25) to Fuerte San Fernando, which really isn't much of a fort any longer because much of the fort's stone was taken and used for construction of the canal by the U.S. Leading up from the Castillo is another short, uphill hike to Mirador el Perú, a lookout offering a lofty view of the Portobelo bay.
The Real Aduana de Portobelo (Customs House), located in front of the parque (plaza) in the center of town, is a highlight of Portobelo. There is also a small museum here (no phone; daily 8am-4pm). This fine old building is the restored version of what was known as the "counting house" during the Spanish colonial days, so-named for the gold and silver that was counted, registered, and distributed here. For a century, a third of all the gold in the world passed through this spot. The Spanish built the Customs House in 1630, but it was damaged in both 1744 (by a cannon) and 1882 (by an earthquake). The museum will hold your attention for about 15 minutes -- there's really nothing much to see in the main section except a jumbled collection of clipped articles about Portobelo, cannonballs, coin collections, and other items that are not very representative of the Spanish colonial days. A free map of Portobelo is available here, however. The museum has a short informational video, in Spanish and English, for $1 (50p) per person. On the second floor is a Spanish-only folkloric display.
The best-preserved fort in town is Fuerte San Jerónimo, next to the Customs House. Like the other forts of Portobelo, this one, originally built in 1664, was attacked by Vernon and rebuilt using a more streamlined design.
Iglesia de San Felipe & the Black Christ
One of the most curious churches in Panama is Iglesia de San Felipe, home to the famous "Black Christ" statue and the source of Portobelo's largest yearly festival, on October 21. Legend has it that a ship headed to Cartagena, Colombia, left the statue behind in Portobelo either to lighten its load or because the crew believed that the statue was causing them bad luck. Later, Portobelo residents prayed to the statue to spare them from a cholera epidemic -- and indeed they were spared. Praying to the statue has become so widespread that every year pilgrims don ornate purple robes and walk to San Felipe Church, sometimes from as far away as Sabanitas and beyond, either to give thanks or pray for something they need in their lives. It's a spectacle, and not always as religious as you might suspect, with music and drinking thrown into the mix. The best way to see this festival is with a guided tour, because parking is impossible and you might need someone to get you out after a long day.
Behind San Felipe Church is Iglesia de San Juan, the original hospital of Portobelo that eventually became a church. Now it holds a small museum that displays dozens of the purple robes used by pilgrims during the Black Christ Festival. It's open daily from 8:30am to about 3:30pm.
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