The most important port used by the Spanish to ship their plunder from South America in the 1500s, Portobelo lies on the Caribbean Coast of Panama. According to the museum there, one third of all the gold in the world in the 16th century passed through Portobelo. It was named by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and means Beautiful Port.
The most picturesque way to get to Portobelo from Panama City is to take the Panama Canal Railway 50 miles to Colon, an hour away. The railroad was built in 1855 in response to the California gold rush. It’s a commuter train now.
The power for this railroad is quite different from what it was in 1855; but today’s rail cars are replicas of the earlier version. Leather seats, lots of hardwood, narrow wooden blinds, Victorian lamps. It’s a great ride!
A half-hour into the trip and you’re right in the middle of the huge Soberania National Park. Colon, for all its commercial importance, is poverty ridden – not the best place to spend the day. The bus station is nearby for the 27-mile ride to Portobelo.
The museum in Portobelo is in the old Customs House where the Spanish counted out their booty. It was a happening town. Portobelo’s current residents call themselves “Congos” and are descendents of African slaves brought here during the Spanish colonial era.
The Spanish built Fuerte Santiago de la Gloria in Portobelo.. If you look closely as you enter the fort, you can see the year 1758 just above the arch. The fort proved to be too little, too late. After the 16th century, the scent of all that treasure proved irresistible to the English. Henry Morgan burned Portobelo to the ground and defeated the Spanish forts by attacking from behind.
Most of us in the S.F. Bay Area have some familiarity with Sir Francis Drake, with Drake’s Bay near Point Reyes, the Golden Hind (his ship’s name) Marina on Tomales Bay, and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Marin County.
Francis Drake landed in Panama in 1572 and captured the Spanish ship Nombre de Dios with 30 tons of silver! For that the Queen knighted him. It was the least she could do. He went on to become a vice-admiral in the English Navy which destroyed the Spanish Armada in 1588. He returned to Panama in 1593, died in Portobelo of Yellow Fever, and given a sea burial in a lead-lined casket off the coast. Divers claim to have found the casket but the English government’s position is, “Let him lie in peace.”
On the way back to Panama City, The observation car of the train is the place to be. One can truly enjoy the verdant forest with its myriad shades of green. A fitting end to a wonderful experience!