The Pirates of Panama’s Beautiful Port

During a recent stay in Panama, I took a trip to the country’s under-explored Caribbean side in the hope of getting some photos I might sell.

My destination was a little town called Portobello. Christopher Columbus landed here back in 1502, naming it “Puerto Bello” or “Beautiful Port.” It later became a key strategic asset of the colonial Spanish, to export gold and silver.

With this type of loot regularly taking to the seas, Portobello also became a hotbed of piracy. In 1668, Captain Henry Morgan went beyond snatching the occasional transport ship and, with a band of 450 men, captured the entire town and spent two weeks plundering it.

The British also set their sights on Portobello, capturing it in 1738 only for it to be later recovered by the Spanish with the loss of 18,000 British lives. There are few places with such a bloody, turbulent history.

Today, Portobello is a picturesque sleepy little Caribbean town of around 3,000 inhabitants. The scars of its early life are everywhere–the town is home to sprawling ruins and fortifications which earned the town recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The landscape around the ruins is that beautiful patchwork of greens found all along the Caribbean coast. Looking out to sea, the dark blue, almost cloud-free sky blends into the sea on the horizon. Today, the high-masted clippers and battle-scarred frigates no longer rest in the bay. Instead, the waters are dotted with the snow-white hulls of a fleet of pleasure yachts.

Wandering around the fortifications, taking pictures as I go, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like when the Spanish were here. The fierce battles…the stench of burning gun powder…the agony of the injured.

The scenery would have been just as beautiful as today, but walking the ramparts of an old fort where so many died in days gone by, the thought made me pause for a moment. I was thankful I was seeing this special place today, and not then.

I came away from Portobello with a bunch of photos I can sell. But I also left with what will no doubt be a long-lasting memory of that hauntingly gorgeous corner of the world.

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