“Travelog Tuesday”- Portobelo

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”― Jawaharlal Nehru
From Coronado, we continued on our next travel adventure to Portobelo. Crossing the Panama Canal at the Centennial Bridge, we continued north on a beautiful toll highway to Colon, located at the Caribbean end of the canal. But once in Colon, we had to make our way through the city streets around to get to the road that would take us to Portobelo. We use our WAZE navigational app to direct us, but this time it took us through a residential neighborhood instead of a better road that went around the barrio. There we ventured uphill on a narrow street with speed bumps and potholes. At one point there was a taxi parked on the road. Mikkel thought he could squeeze around it. Uh oh! Too narrow! He drove off the blacktop and the front left tire dropped directly down about a foot. Tried to drive forward and backwards, but the car was stuck. Could have done it with a 4-wheel drive, but not with the rental car (Toyota Yaris). Fortunately, a neighbor standing nearby recruited the taxi driver, who first moved his car, to lift the front end up onto the road, and no damage to the car. You got to love Panama. On several occasions complete strangers have come to our rescue.

So once back on the correct road to Portobelo, we traveled about 25 km along the Caribbean coastline to our hotel. We actually missed the turnoff to the hotel, drove all the way to Portobelo (8 km) and had to turn-around; again no thanks to the mis-directions of WAZE. Usually it gives pretty good directions, but not this time. The hotel, Rancho Juancho, failed to share on their website the steep inclining and winding road off the highway you have to drive up to get the hotel. It is so steep that you best get a running start in first gear and don’t let off the gas. Some of it is paved, some only gravel. But we made it. It offers beautiful scenic views of the Caribbean ocean and surrounding jungle, but beyond that, I would not call it a luxury hotel. The other thing was that the owners were not there when we arrived. They had business in Colon and forgot about us coming that day. When we first arrived, we waited around, left messages on their phone and door. Went for lunch and a little sightseeing. We returned about 3 hours later. They still weren’t there, but this time I was able to contact them by phone. They arrived back from Colon at almost 5pm with apologies and an offer for another night’s stay free anytime we want. Although our cabin was clean with air conditioning, tv, and a small kitchen area, there is no hot water, the double bed was two thin mattress pads, and no internet in the cabins (only up the hill at the covered patio next to the owner’s small residence where we were served a sufficient breakfast). But Mikkel and I have roughed it before and camped a lot in the past in the U.S. So this wasn’t really “roughing it” for us and it is great for families on a budget. The cabins or cabañas have a bunk bed and trundle bed as well.

View from our cabaña
View from our cabaña

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The jungle around Rancho Juancho
The jungle around Rancho Juancho
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The front of our cabaña.

Portobelo is a town full of history, but forgotten by the Panamanian government as far as upkeep and financial support. The locals are trying to change that. It is a bayside community of about 4000 people. Many of the streets in town are not in the best shape; there are open sewage canals and lots of trash around; and when you first come into town, the main highway narrows down to one lane. So you must stop and wait to see if no other cars are coming the other way. It is the home of 17th century Spanish forts and a Custom house where the gold stolen from Peru and Bolivia was stored. There are many islands around, a perfect place for pirate ships to hide or ambush other ships for their treasure. They say Sir Frances Drake lies at the bottom of the sea, Henry Morgan came through on his way to burn down Panama City, and Christopher Columbus landed nearby. Also many African slaves were brought to this port; hence it is called the “Black Coast” and many of the Panamanians in this area are of darker skin. Unfortunately most of the historic landmarks, although apparently restored at one time, have gone to ruin, but after talking to some local residents, hopefully that is being changed. The country side around is beautiful-lush, green jungle and farmland. Today many yachts dock in the bays around the town and islands which offer many good spots for diving for treasure and snorkeling. You can take a water taxi to Isla Grande, a popular resort area, or some other islands where you can explore some of the historical forts.

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There are a few restaurants around the area. We ate at El Castillo, located on the waterfront and a little run-down, but the Thai menu was delicious.

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Waterfront view from our table. Lights from one of the islands.
Waterfront view from our table. Lights from one of the islands.

We also enjoyed a seafood meal at Restaurante La Torre and lunch at Panaderia Refresqueria Rico Rico in the middle of town with fresh baked bread. But the town and restaurants close early, so be sure you arrive before 7:30pm or you won’t get dinner, which was the case for the 2nd night for us. Luckily we had several snack and drink items in the cabin to munch on.

We did not explore too much of the historical ruins other than stopping to take pictures of the ruins of Fort Bateria Santiago when you first come into town,

and then at the church in town where the statue of the “Black Christ” is displayed (strange).

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As I had written previously, this was a business trip and Mikkel was meeting with a few perspective vendors/dealers for his products. We first met with one young man, Jason, who has a tour company and possibly setting up a gift shop at the beginning of the town.

Then we had an appointment with a couple who had inquired about the guides and maps through email. They live about 15 kilometers on the other side of Portobelo. In the process of building a tour office and gift shop, Portobelo Tours, on the highway towards the fishing villages of Puerto Lindo and La Gauira where you can catch the water taxi to Isla Grande, they are also building their home about 6-7 kilometers north from there near a town called Cacique. We were to meet their associate Austin at the tour office, but for some reason he was not there. So as instructed, we drove the 6 kilometer narrow dirt road to the small village of Cacique and parked in front of a blue house where they sell coconut oil. Then we waited and were met by Heather. At this point, we left the car and hiked up another kilometer or so through the jungle, on a muddy rocky road, over streams to where she and her husband Jim live basically outdoors while slowly building their home. They offer hiking tours around their home and host a pizza night once a month cooking pizza in a open wood-stove stone oven. Thank God we had a car that would not have made it up that road because what we saw through the jungle as we slowly walked both to and from was amazing, and we may have missed it if we had a 4-wheel drive car to drive through. And once we arrived, the views were spectacular. Jason finally joined us and we all sat outdoors on stone carved benches, drinking fresh local coffee and eating homemade organic cookies, talking not only about business, but their adventures. They had been living on a yacht for many years, traveling around, when they came to Portobelo and decided to stay about 2 years ago. So now they are living on this mountain, building their home piece by piece, room by room. They have partnered with Jason and Amy in a tour company offering snorkling, horseback riding, and jungle hikes. The land was fully overgrown by tall grass and trees and they have carved out many areas, planting a variety of fruit trees and other native trees and plants such as bamboo and vegetables while allowing much of the trees and jungle to remain. They are self-sustaining with solar energy for electricity and water from a nearby stream above. They even have satellite internet. Heather took me further up the hill to show me their bedroom, basically a separate concrete slab on the mountain with a very comfortable-looking bed with a mosquito net and some furniture with a roof but completely opened to the nature around (monkeys, birds, etc.). The view of the bay and ocean was amazing. She plans to offer it in Airbnb in October when they apparently will have finished building their home, or at least the bedroom. The bathrooms and shower are outdoors (no roof), but nicely built; and the dining/kitchen area has a tarp covering it temporarily. Both Mikkel and I agree that we probably would never do this, but they seem to be enjoying this way of life just fine. It was an awesome afternoon and I am glad we decided to accept their invitation. We have some new friends as well.

We will probably go back some day to explore more of Portobelo. I will write about the adventures for rest of this trip next week.

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