Friday, September 28, 2012

Portobelo, Panama

This place is strange, and I mean that in the best of ways. So far, we are kicking ourselves for staying so long in Bocas when we could have been wandering around the ruins of 17th Century Spanish forts and popping in for a look at the Black Christ, which is - and I mean no offense with this - kind of creepy.

Maybe it's just me.

Anyway, now that I've gotten the blaspheming against a religious icon out of the way, we heart Portobelo. The locals are way friendlier than in Bocas, and this place is chocked full of the kind of history that little kids actually enjoy hearing about - legends of Spanish gold and Henry Morgan and battles thick with cannon smoke. For two hundred years, the town was sacked by every pirate worth his salt, and you can tell from the number of forts, batteries and castles the Spanish built in a vain attempt to protect the city.

Giant stone walls built from rock and petrified coral line the harbor. Looking up at the hills from our anchorage, we see multiple dilapidated fortifications peeking out from the tumbling green jungle. According to a guy we met on the street (I'm really good with my sourcing, don't you think?), this town was the dumping point for all the treasure the Spanish stole from South America. It was transported by either ship or mule up from Inca territory, and every now and again a pirate horde would barrel into the harbor and blow the place to smithereens.

Basically, Portobelo is a tiny town on the edge of the world complete with rusted cannons. And the old and the modern mix here on an everyday level. Typically, national treasures are roped off from the general population, presenting a kind of sanitized window into the past, but here the two are never far apart. Little kids ride their bicycles through national monuments, and people use moss-covered walls built by Spanish kings as fences. The United Nations has listed Portobelo as an endangered World Heritage Site, but I'm not sure how you could separate the old and the new here without a massive intervention.

To top it all off, Portobelo has bad ass buses. They're decorated in day-glo paint and stickers of cartoon characters and paintings of the Black Christ and naked women. Purple feather boas hang from the giant rear view mirrors, strings of lights flash whenever the driver puts on the brakes and there's always some tunes blasting through mismatched speakers. I'm utterly obsessed.

This one says "Poison" on the grill. Love it!


  1. Wow, check out that bus! Looks like you are in a different world. Are you sure Portobelos are the only mushroom crop down there?

    Reading your adventure from my Air Conditioned office feeling like i've traveled somewhere else:D Thanks.

    1. Lol! We haven't inquired about any mushrooms varieties, but the buses are definitely a trip.

      Glad I could give you an office break, though I wouldn't mind some of the AC!

  2. Black Jesus IS creepy. He looks kinda like a peeping Tom/voyeuristic yob the way he is leaning on the staff watching...always watching.

    The buses DO look cool and since I have had an obsession with brightly colored buses every since Shirley traveled around with Laurie, Keith and Danny in theirs so thanks for the photo!

    1. Isn't he?? There's the Black Christ Festival coming up at the end of the month where 30,000 people invade Portobelo for three days, and I'm pretty happy we won't be here for it. Evidently, the locals board up their doors and windows and hide for those days, though they do charge $5 for parking.

      The buses are pretty much the coolest thing we've seen in a while, and I'm going to miss our wild bus rides to the grocery store.

  3. Just one question: are the seats on that bus upholstered in black velvet? Because no painting of a naked Incan woman is complete without black velvet somewhere. That is one stunning bus.
    I am completely captivated by all of the bright colors these sunny countries get to use in their decorating. Our colors here are all muted soft grays and greens that disappear on foggy days. During the winter I would kill for a little red and purple or sunny yellow.

  4. OMG, "Most Hated" would be so jealous of that bling bling bus!

  5. Fantastic post - made me laugh, a lot. Keep 'em coming!

    The busses remind me of the matatus in Kenya, minibuses crammed to the gills with people and chickens, touts promising they go anywhere you want (even when they don't), huge speakers blasting Bob Marley (heard more Bob Marley in Kenya than in the Caribbean) and the same kind of awesome decorating sense.