A little off the tourist map, the small Caribbean fishing village of Portobelo is a popular weekend spot with locals and expats. Located just east of Colon, it is thought that Christopher Columbus once referred to Portobelo as ‘che porto bello ’ (that beautiful harbour). And the name has stuck ever since.A Family Guide to all that's great in #Portobelo #Panama! #FamilyTravel Click To Tweet
A Family Guide to Portobelo
Although today the town is somewhat run-down (expect dilapidated buildings, flea-bitten dogs and cobblestone streets lined with rubbish) the bay itself is remarkably pretty. A blanket of dense vegetation lines the northern shores and moored sailing boats dot the harbour. Unless your visit coincides with a festival or national holiday (see below) expect a peaceful, laid-back spot, steeped in swashbuckling history.
Portobelo is a very easy weekend escape from Panama City and we have visited on a number of occasions with our kids over the last three years. Here is our guide on what to do and see, and where to stay and eat in this sleepy coastal town.
Things to do in Portobelo with Kids
1. Be The King (or Queen!) of the Castle
During the Spanish colonial times, Portobelo was one of the most important ports on the isthmus. It was here where the conquistadores stored their South American treasures before shipping them across the Atlantic to Spain. Consequently, the coastline soon because a prime target for English pirates. To ward off the marauding buccaneers the Spanish built a number of fortresses, the remains of which can still be seen in Portobelo today. Together with San Lorenzo fort near Colon, the forts at Portobelo are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
San Jerónimo Fort
One of the first forts we head to after the 1.5 hour drive from Panama City is San Jerónimo. Positioned in the centre of the bay, the ruins of this 17th/18th century fort double up as a great playground for kids! There are no signs, official opening hours or payment booths. On all the occasions we have visited, we have seen very few visitors and with the exception of a few local kids kicking a football around, we usually have the entire site to ourselves.
A long line of rusty cannons remain positioned along the thick walls of the fort, pointing towards the moored boats in the bay. Here the children happily burn off their excess energy scurrying up and down the cannons, and along the walls.
Pirates of Portobelo
As Portobelo became Spain’s richest port in the New World, so did it become one of the prime targets for English pirates. The town was first attacked in 1602 by William Parker and then again by Henry Morgan who sacked the city in 1668. Soon after Morgan joined forces with practically every pirate in the Caribbean (including Francis Drake and Edward (“Old Grog”) Vernon) and once again raided the town of its treasures.
The famous market in Portobello Road, London (in the UK) was named after Vernon seized the port from the Spanish in the 1739 War of Jenkins Ear (The British occupied the town for three weeks, destroying all its fortifications and warehouses before leaving).
Although Portobelo was rebuilt in 1751, it never regained its former prosperity and the forts slowly declined into ruin. Years later, many of the big stones were removed and used in the construction of the Panama Canal.
As you enter the village from the west, look out for Fort Santiago. Some of its walls were built with coral, a building material that was easy to cut and just as strong as granite.
2. Visit Spain’s Old Treasure House
One of the most prominent buildings in Portobelo is the old Custom’s House. The stately warehouse was built in 1630 to store, count and register the Spanish treasures coming in from Peru. Now the structure houses a small museum to showcase old photos and a handful of colonial relics. (It always appears to be closed though during our visits). In front of the custom’s house is a bronze cannon bearing the Spanish coat of arms.
3. Pay Your Respects to The Black Christ
The 19th century Catholic church, Iglesia de San Felipe, is best known for its famed Cristo Negro (Black Christ). Legend goes that the wooden statue was discovered by fisherman after it was washed ashore in Portobelo, having been tossed overboard by the crew on a Colombian ship that was moored in the bay. The ship’s departure was repeatedly delayed by storms. Attributing this to the statue, the crew believed it to be cursed. After discarding it the storm subsided and the ship was able to set sail.
The residents of Portobelo prayed to the effigy and asked for salvation from a cholera epidemic that was sweeping the isthmus. When they were spared many thought it to have miraculous powers. Today, ‘Nazareno’ or ‘El Naza’, as its otherwise known, has become the focal point of a pilgrimage. Every October, the Festival del Cristo Negro sees hundreds of pilgrims (and party goers!) flock to Portobelo to give thanks.
4. Snorkel the Caribbean Sea
Certainly the highlight for most visitors, particularly younger ones are the nearby beaches. The bay of Portobelo does not have any beaches but visitors can take one of the many pangas (small boats) to one of the nearby bays up the coast. The most popular beaches are Playa Blanca, Playa Huertas and Playa Frances. Our favourite is Playa Blanca, which can be reached by boat in around 20 minutes. It’s sheltered waters are full of colourful corals and fishes and are ideal for kids to snorkel in.
Remember to bring all food and drink with you!
5. Search the Ocean for Lost Treasure
One of the top scuba diving destinations in Panama is off the shores of Portobelo. I’m longing to explore its ocean treasures but I need to a refreshers course first (it’s been a while since I last went diving!).
For those interested, there are a number of PADI certified centres offering tours and courses in Portobelo such as Scuba Panama. Popular dive sites include Drake Island (named after the English naval officer/pirate, Sir Francis Drake) and a plane wreck of a B-45. Remember to keep an eye out for Drake’s lead coffin, believed to be lurking somewhere in these waters. Or maybe you’ll stumble upon more of Henry Morgan’s buried treasure or even one of Columbus’ sunken ships?
Kids must be 10 years and older to become PADI certified. You can read more about getting kids ready for scuba diving on PADI’s website here.
6. Paddle Up Stream
We have yet to go kayaking in Portobelo, but our friends (pictured above) who regularly visit the bay with their kids highly recommend the tours led by Francesco of Panamore.org.
Families are given a choice between a plastic canoe or kayak or a ‘Cayuco’, a traditional canoe carved from a single piece of wood. The river tours range from around 3-5 hours and include snorkelling equipment, transport, dry bags.
7. Discover Panama’s Afro-Panamanian Culture
Portobelo has a rich Afro-Panamanian culture, made up of Afro-Colonial Panamanians (descendants of the slaves brought to Panama during the colonial times) and Afro-Antillean (West Indian immigrants who came to Panama to work on the canal). Many of the cimarrones (runaway slaves during the Spanish era) sided with the English pirates and eventually came to settle in these parts.
Today, this culture is honoured and celebrated in many ways, and is strongly supported by The Portobelo Bay Foundation (Fundación Bahía de Portobelo). The aim of the foundation is to promote sustainable development through culture, while preserving the community’s identify. Some of their projects that families can interact with and contribute towards include:
- The art gallery and shop within the hotel and restaurant, Casa Congo. Located on the edge of the bay this space is full of colourful paintings, sculptures, furniture, crafts and photography, including a number of black and white portraits by Sandra Eleta, one of Panama’s most distinguished photographers.
- La Escuelita de Ritmo (‘Little School of Rhythm’). Founded in 2009 to promote culture, art and discipline through music education, this little school offers free classes (to locals) and workshops including the art of make musical instruments from rubbish collected in the street. Tourists can participate in the workshops and can ask for more information at Casa Congo.
- The Devils and Congo Festival. Every year in March, Portobelo hosts the ‘Festival de Diablos y Congos’ for one extremely loud street party! Expect lots of elaborate costumes, beating drums and dancing devils!
8. The Panamaze / Treasure Hunt
This is something we have yet to experience first hand, but I found this online and thought it worth a mention. Located just north of Portobelo, near the small fishing village of Cacique is Tesoro Verde B&B. Although their current accommodation is best suited to couples (at the time of writing their main house was still under construction), they do offer some interesting activities, including a Caribbean Treasure Hunt!
The hunt is based on the nature and history of the region and takes visitors on a tour of the property using maps, clues, puzzles and stories. One of the challenges for example is to find your way through ‘The Panamaze’. Taking the form of a map of Panama, this hibiscus hedge maze is set within the hillside of the property. Visitors can cross from the ‘Caribbean coast’ to the ‘Pacific coast’ via a bridge that represents the Panama Canal.
9. Admire the Iconic Diablo Rojo Buses
Having served as American school buses, these vehicles were transported to Panama. Each bus is unique and covered with colourful action heroes, music icons, pin-up girls and religious art. You usually hear them coming before you see them..
Where To Stay & Eat in Portobelo
Accommodation options are somewhat limited in Portobelo and relatively expensive compared to similar style properties in the rest of the country. It’s best not to compare but simply to accept that it is what it is, especially if you want to stay in a half-decent place!
El Otro Lado
If budget isn’t an issue, El Otro Lado is the place to stay on this strip of coastline. Positioned on the opposite side of the bay from Portobelo town, this romantic hideaway is a luxurious retreat better suited to families with older kids (or at least at an age when they are mindful of other guests!). Surrounded by pristine rainforest and overlooking the bay’s aqua blue waters, it is perfectly positioned for families looking to get away from it all.
The following properties are positioned within the tiny town of Portobelo, all on the water front:
A very good mid-range option is Casa Congo that comes with great views overlooking the bay. When we stayed here we took the Pajarito room on the top floor that has 1 double bed and a single bed, with an extra bed/mattress that slides out from under it. The property is managed by The Portobelo Bay Foundation (Fundación Bahía de Portobelo)
Casa del Rayo Verde
Also managed by The Portobelo Bay Foundation (Fundación Bahía de Portobelo) is the Casa del Rayo Verde. We have yet to stay here ourselves but but have spend many weekends on its terrace as our friends often stay here. The mint-green house sits on the water’s edge near the Custom’s House and is divided into two parts:
- Upstairs: Sitting room with a kitchenette and a small balcony overlooking the bay. x2 double rooms and 1 bathroom
- Downstairs: x2 double rooms sharing a small terrace overlooking the bay (can be booked individually).
- Best for: Families of 5+
La Morada de la Bruja
We stayed at La Morada de la Bruja, otherwise known as the House of the Witch, for a weekend and enjoyed the space and views. It is spread over two storeys. On the ground floor is a large double room (with a sofa bed) and kitchen. Upstairs are two double rooms that share a bathroom between them. The staircase between the floors is not particularly toddler-friendly so you’d need to keep an eye out if visiting with younger kids. A couple of hammocks are strung up on the balcony upstairs. Downstairs opens up to a shared garden that leads up to the water’s edge.
Renowned Panamanian photographer, Sandra Eleta came to Portobelo in the 70s – some of her work can be seen in the Casa Congo shop. The house she lives in is known as Casa de la Bruja (now a term of endearment)
Best for: Families of 5+
La Morada de la Bruja (smaller unit)
I stayed here once when I was visiting Portobelo with my kids (sans husband). This cozy self-contained unit sits next to La Morada de la Bruja (see above) and consists of 1 double bed, 1 single bed, a small fridge and microwave, and an ensuite bathroom (with shower).
Best for: Families of 3
Where to Eat in Portobelo
Portobelo is not known as a foodie destination but I believe it’s only a matter of time. There are a number of decent restaurants and a small supermarket in town with the basics if you are self-catering. You may, however, want to bring your own wine if you’re particular on that front!
Colourful Casa Congo enjoys a lovely position right on the water’s edge, which makes for great views but is not particularly toddler-friendly as there is no barrier separating the restaurant from the water! Food is simple but generally consistent.
Just before you enter the town (if you’re coming from Colon) is El Castillo. This pirate-themed restaurant is generally a hit with kids and offers great views overlooking the entrance to the bay. I’d rate the food 7/10 and the portions are big enough that two children can generally share one dish.
A Family Guide to all that's great in #Portobelo #Panama! #FamilyTravel Click To Tweet
Family Guide to Panama
For more information on family travel in Panama see my guide to Panama with Kids.
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