Published on June 21st, 2015 | by Mark Chesnut
Panama Travel: 5 Ways to Experience Portobelo (PHOTOS)
The historic town of Portobelo was once one of the most important ports in Central America. Christopher Columbus gave it the name “beautiful port” back in 1502, and the town became a hub for wealth and commerce in the 17th century. Today, it’s decidedly more tranquil (and far from wealthy), but the area’s beautiful historic sites and great natural beauty make it a popular stop on many Panama vacation itineraries.
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I recently paid yet another visit to Panama, to research two chapters for the 2016 Fodor’s In Focus Panama travel guide. Wandering around central Panama, I revisited and rediscovered some amazing things — a couple weeks ago, I shared some photos of the amazing architecture of Colón — a city that can be easily combined with a visit to Portobelo. So as you’re looking for some Panama travel tips for that next trip, consider these 5 ways to experience Portobelo.
1. Historic Proportions: Portobelo is home to several photo-ready historic sites, including the Real Aduana, a royal customs house built in 1630, destroyed by an earthquake in 1882 and rebuilt in 1998; it’s open to the public. You can also visit Iglesia de San Felipe, church that dates to 1814 where you can view Panama’s revered Black Christ figure. Parque Nacional Portobelo — Portobelo National Park — includes areas inside the town itself, most notably the ruins of three Spanish fortresses: Fuerte Santiago de la Gloria, Fuerte San Fernando and Fuerte San Jerónimo.
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2. Natural Beauty: Portobelo National Park is also home to a large rainforest reserve, which can be explored on hiking and boat trips. Tour operators like Rain Forest Adventures by Panama Excursions are recommended for making sure you get to the best spots to enjoy the view.
3. Artistic Leanings: Portobelo is a the cradle of an art form called Congo, which is colorful, African-influenced painting and decor. One of the best places to view it, meet artists and perhaps pick up a few original pieces to take home is at Casa Congo, a gallery operated by a foundation called Fundación Bahía de Portobelo. There’s also a restaurant and a small hotel in the same building, both of which are decorated with original Congo works.
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4. Luxury Getaway: For an ultimate escape, consider checking in for a couple nights at El Otro Lado, a decidedly luxurious retreat located just across the bay from downtown Portobelo. You arrive by boat, and can spend blissful hours relaxing in your own spacious suite, lying by the pool or perhaps taking boat rides to nearby beaches and other natural sites. In case the pricey rates are too much, you can also visit for the day for lunch and pool time (although it’s still not for weak wallets).
5. Outdoor Excitement: You can easily spend a day or two enjoying the great outdoors in and around Portobelo. Take a boat ride on the bay (try to spot the abandoned yacht once owned by an Australian organized crime family; I posted a photo in the slide show), relax on the white sand beach called Playa Blanca, or perhaps on a Bali-style day bed on Playa La Angosta, where Mamani restaurant can bring fresh seafood specialties right to you. It’s a bit of Panama vacation heaven, on the Caribbean coast.
HOW I GOT THERE: It’s easiest to set up a customized day tour with a Panama tour operator like Rain Forest Adventures by Panama Excursions. Setting up a customized, individualized tour makes it easy to include a visit to Colón with other sites nearby, including the Panama Canal expansion visitor center, the Gatún Locks and Portobelo.