The colonial-era ruins in Portobelo, Panama, are the primary reason to visit this small Caribbean town at the head of a scenic bay, 55 mi/90 km north of Panama City. For more than a century, the colonial settlement served as the main departure point for Spanish treasure fleets, and the heavily-fortified town was sacked several times by pirates and English warships.
The remnants of two Spanish fortresses, Santiago de la Gloria and San Jeronimo, surround Portobelo. The forts are not massive, and there isn't a lot to see, but it's interesting to look out over the bay and realize that Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, died in Portobelo and lies buried under the silt in the sea nearby. You can also visit the restored Royal Custom House, where gold and silver taken from Peru were stored before being shipped to Spain in the 1600s. It now houses a small museum.
Portobelo's other point of interest is the Church of San Felipe, a simple structure that houses a statue of the Black Christ. The likeness is said to have special powers. The town comes alive every 21 October for the Black Christ Festival, when the statue is carried through the streets on a platform covered with flowers and candles. The procession is followed by feasting and dancing.
The clear waters and tropical forests around Portobelo are another draw, as is the mangrove estuary system in the bay—a tremendous place to see sloths, monkeys and other wildlife on guided boat tours. Several dive centers offer trips to the area's best reefs. Isla Grande, a small island 7 mi/12 km to the east, has a handful of accommodations as well as pretty beaches, diving and surfing. An impressive French-built lighthouse adorns the northern tip of the island.
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