Often used as a base by sale boats headed to San Blas, Portobelo is actually a nice tourist destination in its own right. This now small fishing town is a charming place with a few interesting historic sites. It is surrounded by thick jungle it and provides easy access to some lovely, secluded beaches on the Caribbean coast.
Portobelo is a fantastic place to relax for a few days before you sail off to San Blas. And in fact, it’s a nice place to get a break from the chaos of Panama City too. I happened to visit – like many – right before sailing to San Blas, and quickly realized that it definitely deserves more attention than what it currently gets.
Curios to find out more? Great, let me put Portobelo, Panama, into your radar!
Make sure to also read my posts 7 Absolutely Incredible Things To Do In Panama and A Guide To Bocas Del Toro, Panama: 12 Best Things To Do.
Where is Portobelo, Panama?
Portobelo is a city on the north coast of Panama. Lapped by the Caribbean Sea, it’s a historic port that was once an important trading post. It was founded in 1597 by a Spanish explorer, who claimed it for the Spanish crown.
Throughout the centuries, the prized deep-water port at Portobelo has been fought over, and been attacked, and blockaded by British pirates and privateers.
Today Portobelo lies in the shadow of the more modern port of Colon, 32 kilometers (22 miles) to the northeast. Colon is essentially the entrance to the Panama Canal on the Atlantic side.
Though the Spanish no longer ship their treasures from Portobelo back across the Atlantic to mainland Spain, Portobelo remains something of a cultural hub. In fact, there are colonial Spanish remnants that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Today it’s obviously no longer an important port, and is more like a fishing village with a laid-back atmosphere, living out life on the backdrop of its colonial legacy — and the Caribbean Sea.
Weather In Portobelo, Panama
Generally speaking, the temperatures experienced in Portobelo, Panama, don’t really vary all that much throughout the year. There is a wet and a dry season, of course, but the average temperature is almost constant.
In January, for example, the average daily high is 28°C (83°F) with lows of 25°C (78°F), while there’s only an 8% chance of rain. However, when I visited in February, it certainly rained a lot!
As spring rolls around, the rainy season sets in, towards the end of April. You can expect heavy rain showers to affect this part of the Caribbean coast throughout June, July, and August. Throughout the wet season, there’s an 83% chance of rain.
Generally speaking, from around April to October is the low season on the Caribbean coast of Panama as it’s the rainiest time of year. The wet season is pretty much always overcast and often raining, while the dry season features clear, windy days. Either time is warm, though the wet season is also very humid, with July featuring a 96% chance of cloud coverage.
So if you want to experience a drier, cloud-free trip to Portobelo, then the best time of year to visit is between November and March (which is also the high season for tourists visiting this part of Panama).
Best Things To Do In Portobelo, Panama
Discover colonial history at Fuerte San Jerónimo
This fort makes up part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (part of the wider Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo). Not far from the heart of the modern-day town, Fuerte San Jeronimo makes up a portion of the once larger fort that was built here by the Spanish military between the 17th and 18th centuries.
This defense system, funded by the Spanish Crown, was intended to protect its lucrative trans-Atlantic trade. Today all that remains is the lower battery, upper battery, and a hilltop stronghold, among a few other ruins. Plans for fortifying the bay of Portobelo were laid out all the way back in 1586, and visiting allows you to see the different layers of fortifications that have been skillfully slotted together over the years, adapting to change to new technologies of the era (for example, more powerful cannons).
Speaking of cannons, two dozen embrasures (the gaps that cannons fire through) as well as some of the original cannons remain. Some of them are actually still in the same places where they were left by Spanish troops in 1821 when Panama declared independence.
Aside from the fortification itself, you can also see colonial offices, barracks, and a terrace that overlooks the water. It’s easy to access and wander around, making it one of the top sights in Portobelo.
Learn more at the Aduana
The Aduana was the Royal Customs House of Portobelo. The attractive two-story building was built all the way back in 1638 and worked as the contaduria, or counting house. All of the wealth and treasures that made their way from the region via Spanish colonial fleets ended up here, to be cataloged and accounted for.
Officials here recorded and stored items before they were placed on galleons and shipped back to the motherland. Records from the 17th-century state that the equivalent of $200,000 passed through this building.
The space is now used as a place to remember the history of this trade in riches and treasure. Exhibitions show objects such as rifles, cannons, and documents of the time. At the entrance there’s a bronze cannon that was manufactured in 1617, complete with the Spanish coat of arms emblazoned on it; this was actually dredged up from a sunken galleon.
Marvel at Iglesia de San Felipe
Located close to the Aduana, this important Catholic church was built in 1814 — one of the last things the Spanish built before they left for good. It’s a white-washed building that looks fairly simple from the outside, but it’s the interior of the church that attracts worshipers from far and wide.
Just to the left of the main altar is the revered Christo Negro (“Black Christ”). This life-sized wooden statue was found floating in Portobelo’s harbor, but where it came from remains a mystery. Wearing a robe that is changed twice per year, and carrying a cross, the statue plays an important part in the religious culture of Portobelo.
It’s the focal point of a festival, the Festival of the Black Christ, which takes place yearly on the 21st of October. During this time, it’s dressed in a red robe that’s donated by devotees. Aside from the festival itself, the statue is said to work miracles. People from nearby villages and as far afield as Panama City make pilgrimages to Iglesia de San Felipe to pray at its altar to Christo Negro. Some even crawl the last mile to seek extra blessings.
Spend some time at the Galeria de Arte
This interesting local art museum is the place to go to see unique art pieces created by Afro-Caribbean artists and craftspeople. Here visitors can browse the colorful display of art in Casa de la Cultura Congo, a cultural center dedicated to Congo art and culture, and a place to learn about the fight for the emancipation of enslaved people under the rule of the Spanish Empire.
The artworks here are paired with informative text so visitors can better understand what they’re looking at, with a number of themed exhibitions taking place throughout the year. The space allows artists to further awareness of their culture and preserve their heritage for future generations.
You can even get involved in a workshop — which includes cabinet making, for example — or purchase a unique piece of furniture or artwork to take home.
Go on an adventure at Parco Nacional Portobelo
This 360 square kilometer (138 square miles) national park dates back to 1976, and was officially recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1980. It extends beyond the town itself to the hills inland, and also offshore to the marine area, with islands and cays boasting turquoise seas, mangrove forests, and reefs.
Here you can see a whole wealth of wildlife and flora, from iguanas and nesting turtles to hawks and osprey. But as well as being a bastion of nature, the area is also strewn with colonial-era fortifications — San Fernando, San Jerónimo, and Santiago — making up the defenses that kept pirates away from the coveted treasures of this trading post.
Lounge around on Playa Blanca
For when you want to kick back and relax on some powdery white sand, there’s Playa Blanca. This blissful cove is completely surrounded by lush natural landscapes and is also the place where you can see some of the best coral reefs in the area.
Its sheltered location means that those looking to spot life under the waves will have much better visibility than at beaches nearer to the town itself. One of the reefs is right near the beach, in the center of the cove, so you can pretty much wade out to sea and start snorkeling right there. And all of this is just a 20-minute boat ride from Portobelo town.
How to get to Portobelo, Panama
The most affordable way to get to Portobelo from Panama City is by taking a bus. These leave from the Albrook Terminal and are bound for Colon. To transfer for Portobelo, you get off the bus at Sabanitas and get on the highway bus for Portobelo. In total, the trip costs around $3.50 USD and takes two to three hours depending on traffic and how long you stop in Colon.
By car, you can take the modern toll highway from Panama City which takes you most of the way there. You then get onto another highway, the Transistmica, before turning off when you see signs for Portobelo. It takes around one and a half to two hours to drive it.
You could also opt for a taxi. This is the most straightforward and comfortable option, with a number of different private companies that assist tourists in transiting this route. Obviously, this option does cost more money, but the exact price will vary depending on the company and the driver.
Another good way to get to Portobelo is to simply join a guided tour. Many of these start in Panama City, and range from day trips to multiple-day tours.
One such option is this tour to Mamey Island and Portobelo. This comfortable tour sees you whisked from your hotel on an air-conditioned minibus, taking you around the UNESCO-recognized coastline to see historic sights, snorkel and spend time soaking up the beautiful scenery, before heading back to your Panama City accommodation.
This other tour allows you to see the colonial heritage of Portobelo town, before heading out to kick back for a while on a private beach on Isla Grande.
Those wishing to enjoy the rich abundance of nature of Portobelo’s coastline will love the chance to sail the Caribbean coast on a catamaran.
I recommend this catamaran sailing tour that takes you around\ from Panama City (or you can also meet in Portobelo), where you’ll then be taken to beaches only accessible by boat to find secluded swimming spots, snorkel, and head out on kayak trips around mangroves. This particular Portobelo tour also features a trip to the Blue Veins Lagoon and the beautiful Playa Blanca.
Where to stay in Portobelo, Panama
There are very few accommodation options in Portobelo, reflecting how small the place is – but thankfully there is something for any budget. Here are some places I recommend.
Casa Congo – Rayo Verde
Not only is Casa Congo a cultural center; but it’s also a hotel. This colorful property has been carefully decorated to reflect the culture and heritage of the area. As a result, everything here has been thought out, from the comfortable beds to the local artwork adorning the walls.
Guest rooms here feature balconies with views out over the Caribbean Sea, while there’s also an onsite restaurant serving up hearty dishes, where you can dine on the veranda overlooking the sea. This is the kind of accommodation that will make your stay in Portobelo extra special.
For those looking for affordable accommodation in Portobelo, there’s this budget-friendly hostel to consider. The dormitory here might not be the most polished in the world, but it’s clean, has a welcoming atmosphere, and the staff are friendly. Amenities at Hostal Portobelo include a shared lounge and bar, as well as a continental breakfast, served up each morning.
The hostel’s location is convenient (it’s right in the center of town), which means you’ll be within walking distance to a number of sights. The hostel also boasts its own terrace, which comes complete with views of the Caribbean Sea and the town.
Ciel y Miel
Translating to “Sky and Honey”, this high-end accommodation option is tucked away in the hills overlooking the town, about 40 minutes drive from Portobelo. Beautifully decorated with stylish details and modern furnishings, the large guest rooms boast wide sweeping views out across the Caribbean Sea.
The hotel is run by a professional team, who will make sure your stay goes smoothly — they help to arrange tours and onward travel, among other things. The hotel also has a range of amenities which include a scenic outdoor swimming pool, spa, wellness center, a restaurant, and even its very own private beach. It’s definitely the best place to stay in the area.