It was but an outpost in the jungle after all. No man alone dared travel the royal road from the city's gate after nightfall. In the streets, snakes, toads and iguana were frequently seen. The native wildcat prowled in the suburbs and, besides carrying off fowls and pigs, sometimes attacked human beings.
But Portobelo was a market town as well as a fortress. It came to life at least once a year during the trading fairs which lasted from 40 to 60 days. The flood of gold that poured through the trails across the Isthmus, after Pizarro began his plunder of Peru, was traded for goods from Spain and Europe. The fair began when the fleet of merchant ships and galleons arrived in port from Cartagena and Spain loaded with goods to be traded for gold and silver. The goods were shipped to South America and even to the Philippines.
The town took on an air of bustle and excitement at the time of the fair. The houses were crowded with people, the square and the streets crammed with goods, the Customs House with chests of gold and silver, and the port filled with vessels. Portobelo became the emporium of the riches of the two worlds and the most important commercial depot of that period.
In the square facing the Customs House, merchants erected cane booths and tents made of sails from the ships while all available space was filled with goods. With the fleet of merchant and warships came nearly 6,000 soldiers, merchants with their clerks and porters, buyers of all nationalities, and of course, the sightseers. So crowded was the little town that it appeared to be in the possession of a mob.
The Customs House, built in 1630 during the administration of Álvaro de Quiñones, served until the end of the Spanish colonial period in 1821. The Council of the Indies had ordered the Customs House to be built in the most convenient spot with one entrance and one exit only to help prevent fraud. A royal tax collector was on hand to collect the royal fees.
Because of the wealth stored at Portobelo and its use as a trading center, its fame spread over the Spanish Main. Although Portobelo was substantially built and protected by four strong fortresses and sever minor batteries, the town was repeatedly taken by the British and other marauders. The first to attack was the English pirate William Parker in 1602, and the last was Adm. Edward Vernon of the British Navy, who captured the town in 1739. He caused the most damage when he blew up and dismantled the fortress.
The most savage of all the scores of raids was made by Sir Henry Morgan, who according to Esquemeling, the Dutch historian, attacked for the first time in 1668 and killed or wounded a majority of the inhabitants. At that time the garrison consisted of 300 soldiers and the town was inhabited by 400 families.
The main forts are La Fortaleza de Santiago and San Felipe, both dating from 1600; Fort San Geronimo, which is located within the present town; and the famous Fort San Fernando, built about 1753, across the beautiful bay. This fort has a 17-cannon line that somehow has escaped most of the ravages of time. High above San Fernando, a second platform of cannons points toward the sea and atop an even higher crest stands Casa Fuerte, Portobelo's prime lookout and vantagepoint, which gives a superb view of the complex of forts below.
San Felipe, once known as Todo Fierro or the iron fort, was built in 1600 at the entrance to the bay and was partially destroyed by raiders. At the time the Panama Canal was being built, the site was turned into a quarry, and it was said that what the English pirates started to do, the Americans completed.
The fort of Santiago de la Gloria was built in 1604 within the town limits while Santiago was built on the coast road leading to the town. The Fort known as Farnese or Farnesio is on the south side of the harbor and not too far from the island where history says Drake is buried.
The parish church of San Felipe, which was still unfinished when it was dedicated in 1814, is one of the oldest buildings in the town still in use. It replaced a smaller church of the same name, the ruins of which still remain.
The most interesting thing about San Felipe church is that it houses the image of the Nazarene of Portobelo, a handsome effigy of Jesus bearing the cross, hewn from wood of southern Spain more than 300 years ago. Called the "Black Christ," it has become one of the most revered images throughout Panama and the focal point of an annual church festival which draws thousands of visitors each October.
Legend has it that the image of Christ came to Portobelo aboard a sailing ship bound for Cartagena, Colombia. When the galleon sailed from Portobelo, a fierce storm sank it. The boxed image floated free and was washed up on a nearby beach. There it was found by the townspeople and taken back to Portobelo.
The annual celebration of the "Feast of the Black Christ" began in 1821 when a cholera epidemic ravaged the Isthmus. The Portobelo residents made a vow to celebrate a feast day of the Black Christ each October 21 if the town were spared. The epidemic bypassed the town.
The present day town of Portobelo has only slightly more than 500 citizens and they have developed a personality of their own. They are descendants of the Spanish and Indians and the Spanish and African slaves, with a third group made up of people of distinct African ancestry. Members of this group "carry in their blood centuries of tradition," Among these traditions are primitive dances with a definite African flavor, called "congos," which they perform wearing costumes fashioned from the bark of the palm tree and decorated with multicolored feathers.