Portobelo starred in a very important moment in the history of the sea. For more than 150 years it was the center of the round-trip route between Spain and Peru, and it occupied a strategic place for the military, commercial and political interest between the XVI and XVIII centuries.
Christopher Columbus, on November 2, 1502, during his last voyage, arrived at Portobelo Bay. Thus, this place would become the heart of the Indies race, a communications center for the powerful monopolistic trade of the Spanish crown with America.
The town of Nombre de Dios, to the east of Portobelo, was previously the Atlantic port and its colonization displaced the indigenous settlements that were in the zone. Later, for reasons of safety and health, among others, the anchorage moved to Portobelo. This small city was founded by Francisco Valverde and Mercado, on March 20, 1597.
The biggest fair in the world
Once a year the fairs were held, between the arrival and departure of the Spanish galleons. The ships brought to Spain, among other products, gold, silver, tobacco, chocolate and leather and, from there, they brought to America wine, oil, iron and wood articles, furniture …
These products went on a long and laborious journey; They came and went from Lima to Panama, from there to Portobelo, to continue their trip to Spain. The route between Portobelo and Panama was done by land, following the Camino Real or sailing along the Chagres River, to continue along the Camino de Cruces.
A commodity with so much wealth grabbed the interest of other world powers and piracy did not wait. As a counterpart, the Spanish Crown built a fierce defense system surrounding the bay of fortifications.
Anecdote: One witness told in a single day "up to 200 mules loaded with silver bars that were unloaded in the market square and left there like piles of stones in the streets, without fear or suspicion that they could be lost.”
History of Pirates and Castles
Drake, Parker, Morgan, Vernon, Kinghills, among other pirates, attacked and destroyed many of Portobelo's buildings and fortresses. Francis Drake left his life in the same bay, probably in a place next to an islet that was baptized with his name, and the legend tells that his remains were thrown to the sea in a very heavy coffin so that they were always submerged.
The first defense system was commissioned to the prestigious military engineer Bautista Antonelli. It was always a simple set, or a city without walls, with loose fortifications entrusted to the defense provided by the roaring natural conditions.
In the mid-eighteenth century Admiral Vernon's attacks exposed the Spanish defensive system in the Caribbean. From this fact, the fortifications, among them those of Portobelo, were extended and reformed following more modern defense criteria. The new plan was entrusted to the engineer Manuel Hernández. From these projects are born the fortifications whose ruins can be contemplated today.