Portobelo, Colón, Panamá
THE TOWN AND ITS HISTORY
In the innermost part of a bay with calm waters, Portobelo is a small town of great historical interest. Here are some ruins of the colonial period, such as the battery of Santiago de la Gloria, San Geronimo, San Fernando and the Royal Customs, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth century welcomed goods from Spain and its other colonies in America .
Other nearby fortifications are “la trinchera” (the trench), situated in the hills surrounding the village, and defense walls that are just outside of Portobelo towards the Guaira (reaching the 3 crosses, take road left) which was the last fortification project, San Cristobal, whose construction was never finished.
The Bay of Portobelo was baptized with that name in 1502 by Christopher Columbus, but was actually founded in 1597. At the time it had only about 50 homes of Spaniards, as there was “live time” during fairs and “downtime” when there was no trade. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Portobelo experienced a boom and loomed large, as the wealth of the Spanish kingdom passed right through here, the goods traveling from Peru to Spain and from there to the colonies.
Today, inhabitants are mainly descendants of enslaved Africans brought by the Spanish to cultivate the fields and build royal buildings. Many are, in turn, descendants of the Cimarrones, who escaped slavery and founded their own villages called “palenques”. The story of the Cimarrones has great historical significance.
And thus it is born what is known as The Congos, folk ensembles that keep alive the tradition of their ancestors. From the first days of February to Ash Wednesday, on weekends there is music and dancing in many villages of the Costa Arriba. March marks the Festival of Diablos and Congos.
Portobelo’s beaches, forests and rivers are a tourist attraction for nature lovers, as well as for those who just want to rest and relax on pristine beaches. Along with its tropical forest, Portobelo is a National Park since 1976 and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980.
BLACK CHRIST OF PORTOBELO
The Black Christ Church of San Felipe de Portobelo is located in the center of town. It houses the famous image of the Black Christ, also called The Nazarene, to whom the famous salsa singer Ismael Rivera dedicated a song thanking him for halping him away from drugs. They say that the image of Christ arrived on a Spanish galleon in the eighteenth century, and each time the ship tried to sail away with Christ, a storm prevented him. They had to leave the Black Christ at Portobelo, where today tens of thousands of pilgrims (and more than two thousand police) go every October 21.
Many of the pilgrims, traditionally dressed in purple, come walking from far away, sometimes on their knees, carrying heavy crosses or long hair that has not been cut all year, in a sign of devotion and gratitude for some miracle. The procession is more of a festival to which the Church does not always look favorably because Christians and pagan rituals are mixed, while the figure of the Nazarene is revered by people around the Caribbean.
If you want to see this massive and chaotic festival, you’ll also have to walk, as the small town is filled to the brim and it’s best to leave your car behind. The party begins a few days before 21 October, with music and liquor. Pilgrims begin to arrive early in the morning, and the procession starts at 8 pm, finishing around midnight. Then you can continue the party or try to escape to one of the nearby beaches for a little peace.