The first port founded by the Spanish on the Caribbean coast (and the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas – it dates back to 1510) was not Portobelo, but a little place called Nombre de Dios, built on one of the narrowest parts of the Isthmus of Panama.
All the silver the Spanish generated in the mines of Potosí, Bolivia passed through Nombre de Dios, making it filthy rich. But Nombre de Dios was situated near a swamp and was hard to defend. It was sacked by pirates, namely English privateer Francis Drake, on two separate occasions, the first time in 1572, and then again in 1595.
Attack by pirates
Following the second attack by Drake, the Spanish decided to build a new port, one set on a deep water harbour, with land upon which fortifications could be built. They wanted the new port to be defensible from future pirate attack.
In 1597 a site was chosen: Portobelo.
Defensible or not, with all that silver passing through, Portobelo was a prime target for pirates. In 1601, while still in its infancy, the city was attacked by another English Privateer (and associate of Drake’s) named William Parker. It’s nascent defences failed; the city was captured, its silver plundered.
Skip forward half a century and the settlement has become one of the most important Spanish cities in the New World, making it especially attractive to pirates. In 1668 it was attacked by one of the most ruthless and successful privateers of all, Welshman Henry Morgan (the guy from the Captain Morgan Spiced Rum bottle).
The War of Jenkin’s Ear
In 1739, as part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear (a conflict between the British and Spanish that was started by a man’s ear being cut off), British forces captured and destroyed Portobelo. To honour the victory the word Portobelo was incorporated into place and street names across the British Empire, including Portobello Road, London.
The destruction of Portobelo proved so damaging to Spain that from that time on they began to phase out their use of centralised ports, such as Portobelo and Cartagena, in favour of sailing around Cape Horn.
Portobelo was rebuilt in 1751, but it never rose to its former prominence, and was soon abandoned. It lay in ruins, unused, overgrown by the jungle, for centuries.
In 1980 Portobelo was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it was declared to be a magnificent example of 17th and 18th Century military architecture.
In 1990 Portobelo was included in UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, due to erosion of the site, lack of maintenance, and encroachment by urban development.
Practical information on reaching Portobelo:
There are plenty of tour companies in Panama City that offer day trips to Portobelo. You can do it by public transport as well, but will need to change buses at Sabanitas just outside of Colón. More transport info here.
Read more on Portobelo and the Spanish fortifications on the Caribbean side of Panama in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.