Portobelo is a quaint little town on Panama’s Caribbean coast that used to be one of the greatest Spanish colonial ports in Central America. If you’re wondering about what to do in Portobelo, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its fascinating history, rich local culture, lovely nearby islands, secluded beaches, and national park. Whether you are […]
Portobelo is a quaint little town on Panama’s Caribbean coast that used to be one of the greatest Spanish colonial ports in Central America. If you’re wondering about what to do in Portobelo, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its fascinating history, rich local culture, lovely nearby islands, secluded beaches, and national park.
Whether you are looking for cultural, adventurous, or purely relaxing activities, this picturesque, tranquil seaport town makes for one of the best day trips from Panama City. Read on to learn more about how to get there and what to do in Portobelo.
From Panama City to Portobelo, take the Panama-Colón Expressway toll road (Route 9) towards Colón, turn off and take the Carretera Transistmica (Route 3) to Sabanitas, and turn right to continue on the main road until you reach Portobelo. Bring your GPS, as the road can be quite tricky by car, whether it’s passing through crowded villages or having no phone data signal to direct you to Portobelo.
The average drive time from Panama City is between 1.5 to 2 hours. From Colón, it’s just a 40 minute ride. Be aware that there are few parking spots in Portobelo.
A Combination of Train, Taxi, and Bus
First, you’ll need to make your way to the Colón or Sabanitas area. You can get there by train or bus.
By train, take the luxurious Historical Panama Canal Railway from the Corozal Passenger Terminal in Panama City. The train from Panama City to Colon leaves at 7:15 am and costs $25. For more information about the train, check out our other blog post.
Once you are in Colon, take a taxi ($5) to the Colon Bus Terminal to take a bus to Portobelo. Although the train station and the bus station are within walking distance of each other, we don’t recommend walking around alone in Colon due to safety issues.
You could take a taxi from Colon to Portobelo, but it will cost about $40. Make sure to agree on the price before getting into the taxi.
The other option from Panama City is to take a $3.60 “Panama-Colon” bus from the Albrook Terminal to Colon, getting off at Sabanitas to take the $1.60 “Colon-Portobelo” bus.
If you want to go to Isla Grande, take the bus line “Colón-La Guaira” from Colon and take a boat from La Guaira. You can take the same bus to go to Isla Mamey, but get off at Puerto Lindo and then take a bus to the island.
Buses run approximately every hour between 6:00 am and 21:00 pm.
Explore Historical Sites
Built by the Spanish and strategically located to protect the wealth of their transatlantic trade, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Fort San Jerónimo is a tremendous example of 17th century military fortifications. It is one of the biggest forts built along the bay and includes 16 cannons aiming at the mouth of the cove, some remaining in the same spots where Spanish abandoned them when leaving Portobelo.
For a striking view of the bay, climb up to the Peru Lookout Point (Mirador Perú) and get another glimpse of Portobelo’s momentous past by visiting the small but charming Customs House (Real Aduana). Although poorly restored and maintained, the history of these sites is palpable and makes them worth a visit.
We recommend booking a tour with a local guide who can ignite your imagination with ancient stories and fascinating historical facts. You’ll hear about the pirate attacks led by the infamous Henry Morgan and how Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea close to the town’s shores.
Dive into Culture
Today, Portobelo is a modest colonial town with strong Afro-Caribbean heritage, which you can experience through two main attractions.
First, visit the Casa Congo Art Gallery, a pleasant museum which displays the arts and handicrafts of Afro-Caribbean artists as well as an account of the diverse craftsmen of Portobelo and their cultures. Or, go on a quick tour of the San Felipe Church, built in 1814 in honor of Portobelo’s patron saint, Black Christ, who the town celebrates in a big festival on October 21st.
Try out Local Restaurants
Portobelo has a number of delicious restaurants. To recharge and relax during your Portobelo day trip, try one of the following options for lunch:
Hike in Portobelo National Park
Portobelo is surrounded by a national park spreading across 134 square miles (348 km) full of coastal forests, mangrove swamps, and Caribbean beaches.
Go for a hike along the ridge behind Portobelo to enjoy birdwatching or spot other species such as the elusive owl monkey or the odd Jesus Christ Lizard. Walk along the Guanche River to reach Los Monos Waterfall, enjoying the lush green rainforests and massive trees that make this region of Panama so beautiful.
Around 20% of the park is a marine reserve, boasting pristine coral reefs and a myriad of wildlife. Dive into the sea to discover the underwater splendor of Central America and experience one of the most colorful sights in the region.
Enjoy Water Sports
Discover the vivid submarine world of Panama, as Portobelo has numerous activities to offer such as snorkeling and scuba diving. Or, experience the sea from the surface while sea kayaking or fishing.
Relax on a Beach
There are three beaches near Portobelo: Playa Blanca, Playa Frances, & Playa Huerta. Set in a tranquil cove just about a 20-minute boat ride from Portobelo ($45 US) is Playa Blanca, a secluded beach of white sand and lush vegetation, with two of the most untouched reefs in the region, each nearby the beach.
Accessible by land or boat, Playa Frances is a magnificent hidden beach where you can linger for the whole day and revel in the tropical sun. Bring your own food and beverages as you won’t be able to buy any there.
Playa Huerta is close to town and is a bit more rocky than the other two beaches, but still offers incredible snorkeling. All three beaches charge about $10-15 dollars as entrance fees.
Go on an Island Getaway
Not far away from Portobelo are the heavenly palm-lined beaches and turquoise waters of Isla Mamey and Isla Grande, havens for beach lovers. The secluded Isla Mamey is the ideal destination to relax, have a picnic, or enjoy some scuba diving in the warm tropical sea.
Isla Grande, on the other hand, is bigger and more developed. You can find great restaurants with Panamanian delicacies or go for a walk to the oldest lighthouse in Latin America. La Punta Beach is a great spot for surfing as well as enjoying the Caribbean setting.
From beach lovers to history buffs, Portobelo has something to offer every traveler. In terms of day trips from Panama City, Portobelo should be at the top of your list!