portobelo san lorenzo ruins panama country of panama portobelo ruins travel tourism colon san lorenzo ruins portobelo
The Caribbean province of Colon has seen some colorful history. First came the Spanish, harried by scavenging pirates. Then in the 19th century came the gold rush 49ers from the east coast of the United States, willing to face the rigors of walking through Panama's humid jungles to seek riches in California. A historic railroad the first ever to cross a continent was built to speed them on their way. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, came the great days of the construction of the Panama Canal.

The good news for the visitor is that not only are there fascinating reminders of these different ages to visit, but the setting is spectacular: turquoise waters, palm-fringed bays, tropical flowers and forested hills. And as well as seeing the sights, you can scuba dive or snorkel, or spend a day or two relaxing on the island of Isla Grande.

panama country of panama portobelo ruins travel tourismThere are two Spanish forts to visit: one at Portobelo and the other, Fort San Lorenzo, within the former United States army base of Fort Sherman. The easiest to get to is Portobelo, just 35 minutes drive east of the main Colon-Panama road, and a little over two hours from Panama City. The Spanish sent gold and silver from their South American colonies to Portobelo to await ships back to Europe. But attackers such as Sr. Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and Edward Vernon broke through their defenses too many times, and the Spanish were choosing other, safer routes by the end of the 17th century. Portobelo has been nothing but a small fishing village with some interesting ruins ever since.

Scattered around Portobelo there are several different sets of ruins, some in surprisingly good condition, complete with cannons pointing out to see, stone walls, etc. The first set is visible from the main road, on the left side, as you enter this beautiful bay that cuts deep inland. As well, on the right side up on the hill, there are other small ruins. A second set of ruins is in the middle of the village itself. The customs house has recently been restored and contains exhibitions on the area's history. Across from the first set of ruins, on the other side of the bay, is another set of ruins. There are actually three different forts straddling the hillside, with the two upper sections offering terrific views of the bay and town of Portobelo. There is stone trail that leads from the lowest fort, which resides along the water's edge, to the middle one, which is rather close and can be see from the lower section. It's an easy, short walk. To visit the third and highest fort, you'll have to hike along a wide, steep trail. The upper fort has no views of the lower sections, but has stunning views of Portobelo and surrounding areas. Visiting this last set of ruins across the bay is well worth the trip. There is a water taxi service, which departs from just after the roadside ruins. They charge $2.00 per person for 3+ passengers, or $5.00 per person. They offer guides, or you can visit the ruins at your leisure. They will pick you up when you are ready to return. It's important to note that the grass inside and around the ruins can be very, very soft and wet.

While in Portoblo stop off at one of the open-air restaurants on the main road to try good value Caribbean-style seafood conch, crab, octopus, lobster or fried fish, served with coconut rice or patacones (deep-fried green plantains). There are also several dive centers nearby where you can hire equipment.

Getting to Portobelo
Take the Panama - Colon bus ($2.00) and get off at the REY supermarket, which is about 15 minutes before reaching the city of Colon; this is a large intersection along the main road. From that corner you'll have to take a local bus to Portobelo, which costs $1.00 and takes about 1 hour. The buses run approximately every 30 minutes.

The ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, perched high on a cliff overlooking the mouth of the Chagres River, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981. These ruins are quite different from those at Portobelo, and well worth a visit. There are numerous interior caverns to explore, as well as spectacular coastal views.

Getting to Fort San Lorenzo
There is no public transportation to the Fort, or anywhere near there as a matter of fact. Taxis charge anywhere from $20.00 and up for transportation to the ruins from the town of Colon. The trip can take upwards of one hour, depending on road conditions. The road to the entrance of Fort Sherman is in terrific condition, however, just after the entrance the road becomes a dirt/gravel road that is poorly maintained. From the entrance to Fort Sherman it could take approximately 25 minutes by taxi. If you want to have the taxi wait for you while you explore the ruins you should agree on a price prior to departing. If not, you will have to coordinate your transportation from the ruins back to Colon. There is no telephone service near to the ruins from where you can place a call.

If you are on a budget or like to walk, you can take a taxi for $10.00-$15.00 only to the entrance of Fort Sherman, and walk the rest of the way to the ruins. That walk takes approximately 1.5 hours each way. There are signs pointing to the ruins along the way.

Beyond Portobelo, the rough road winds through cattle fields and hills to Isla Grande, a weekend destination for urban Panamanians and tourists. The beaches are serviceable rather than spectacular, like those elsewhere in Colon province, but there are plenty of palm trees, sparkling blue clear waters, coral reefs for snorkeling and a relaxed Caribbean atmosphere. The island's couple of hundred inhabitants make a living from fishing and growing coconuts. This is an extremely peaceful place to spend a couple of days swimming, snorkeling, swinging in a hammock, eating seafood, drinking coconut milk and enjoying the tropical colors the flowers, the trees, the water, the hills, the houses, the humming birds, the butterflies, the crabs that scuttle along the paths...

There are no roads on the island, and to get there you'll need to leave your car on the mainland at the village of La Guaira and take a five-minute boat ride. It's possible to hire boatmen for snorkeling or sightseeing trips to other islands nearby. There are many fairly basic but comfortable cabanas (cabins) to stay in, some of which also have restaurants.

The other main sights in Colon province are the Gatun Locks, the best place to see the Panama Canal in action. The town of Colon itself has some beautiful buildings and a few relics of the canal construction years, but it is also run down, with high poverty and crime rates. Few tourists stop here and wandering around is not advisable, but the curious can always drive to the Hotel Washington where there's a reasonably-priced café with views of the ships out at sea, waiting to transit the canal. The hotel is long past its heyday, but still has touches of its former glory.

With the departure of the U.S. Army, developers are looking at Colon province with new eyes. Spanish hotel chain Sol Meliá has built a five-star hotel at the former School of the Americas, overlooking Gatun Lake. Cruise ships are being encouraged to stop at Colon 2000 and Panama Ports, two cruise ports that are attracting all major cruise lines. The historic Panama-Colon railroad has been rebuilt, and is now offering daily service between Colon and Panama City; many cruise ships offer this trip as a tour.

Written By Emma Griffiths