Portobelo, Panama is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Founded in the 16th century, it is now a haven for vacationers seeking a tropical paradise without the crowds. Thanks to its natural deepwater port, this is a popular stop for both private yachts and small cruise ships exploring the western regions of the the Caribbean. While Panama City and Colon are among the most cosmopolitan places in all of Central America, Portobelo remains a laid-back town with only a few thousand permanent residents. This makes it a great place to enjoy a slow-paced Caribbean vacation away from the tourist crowds. Historic attractions, diving, ecotourism and other water-sports options can help anyone who ventures here create a complete itinerary that is equal parts culture, excitement and relaxation. There are a few luxurious bouqitue resorts that combine the area's nature and history to create a unique feel.
Many people arrive via boat. However, keep in mind that the quality of vessels can vary widely, and the waters can sometimes be rough. If you aren't traveling on a commercial cruise vessel, then it is best to explore other options. Luckily, Portobelo is quite easy to reach by car. The drive from Panama City only takes about an hour and a half on the well-kept roads. From Colon, the journey by road takes a little over an hour. Getting around once you reach Portobelo is very easy. You can get to some of the historic sites on foot, and taxis are pretty cheap and easy to hail. Outlying islands like Isla Grande, which is popular amongst ecotourists, can be reached easily by boat.
Parts of Portobelo have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. There are several fortifications that were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. You will even see canons left over from the days when pirates threatened the settlement here. Most history buffs include stops at the Customs House and the local museum on their itinerary. Even people who are not interested in the colorful past of Portobelo will experience its historic charms in the colonial-era architecture and the atmosphere created by the ruins.
Besides the awesome historic ambiance, the abundance of land-based adventures and water-sports make Portobelo an attractive destination. For some people, simply taking a boat to beaches like Playa Blanca is adventure enough. For others, a trip below the waves to the teeming reefs is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. PADI-certified outfitters like Panama Divers take regular dive trips to the best spots around the area. It is also possible to simply rent a kayak from your hotel or cruise around on one of the many launches that are moored in the harbor. On land, Portobelo Tours offers a variety of experiences, from horseback rides along the beach to jungle hikes that pass through untouched forests.
Portobelo has a few bars and restaurants, including some that serve fresh seafood. Local artisans sell their artwork and crafts from simple storefronts. The best place to find good eats is at the local resorts. El Otro Lado, for example, has a kitchen that creates gourmet fusion dishes that take advantage of the best fresh, local ingredients. The Octopus Garden Restaurant, meanwhile, serves up delicious seafood in a casual setting. Captain Jack's Canopy Bar and Restaurant is certainly not high-end dining and drinking, but it is something of an institution in Portobelo and is definitely worth a stop.
Not only is El Otro Lado a good stop for tasty food, it is also the best place to stay in Portobelo. Offering large suites and private cottages, El Otro provides privacy and luxury that other accommodation options in the area cannot match. Diving trips, jungle hikes and cultural experiences can be arranged directly through the resort, and the onsite spa offers plenty of chances for pampering and relaxing after a day of diving.
Have you spent time in Portobelo or in another destination along Panama's Caribbean coastline? Use the comments section to share your insights and experiences with us.