Mark Read


This Caribbean fishing village is so laid-back and languorous, it's hard to imagine it was once the greatest Spanish port in Central America. Mules carried Peruvian gold and Oriental treasures to Panama City via the fortresses at Portobelo. Though English privateers destroyed them many times throughout their history, several of these atmospheric colonial fortresses still stand amid village homes.

Today Portobelo’s residents scratch out a living by fishing, tending crops or raising livestock. Though economically depressed, Portobelo is experiencing something of a cultural revival, with renewed interest in Congo art, music (especially punta, better known abroad as reggaetón) and dancing. The town bursts to life every October 21 for the Festival del Cristo Negro, one of the country’s most vibrant and spiritual celebrations.

There are also nice nearby beaches, accessed by boat, and worthwhile diving and snorkeling.

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