top of page

Rhythms and Culture of Portobelo, Panama

While Panama tourism typically includes the Panama Canal, there are nearby towns that make great day trips when you have more time to go further afield. Portobelo on the northern coast on the Atlantic side of Panama is a charming town with an incredible congo culture filled with rhythms, unique flavors, and an enthralling history. It's the closest Caribbean destination to the capital and is surrounded by lush foliage and crystal blue waters. There's so much to discover and enjoy in Panama! 

Excerpt below from 11/21/2019 article by Susan Hanson can found here. 


Ethnic pluralism and a proud history inform creative traditions in the Crossroads of the World. "Panama’s diverse art scene is a direct reflection of the country’s multicultural environment,” says Ramón Zafrani. An architect and contemporary artist from Panama City who has helped curate major exhibitions in Panama and Central America, Zafrani joins me on a walk through the town of Portobelo, located around 60 miles north of Panama City. The informal tour is offered by El Otro Lado, a playfully decorated boutique hotel that sits across the town’s eponymous bay (its name means “the other side” in Spanish) within the jungled Portobelo National Park.El Otro Lado seems to naturally attract an international arts crowd; during my stay, I share cocktails and conversation with a German musician and DJ, a Russian model, a Canadian painter, and a Venezuelan who works at a music club in Casco Antiguo (Panama City’s Old Quarter). I also meet a Spanish photojournalist and close friend of famed Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta, whose extended family has owned El Otro for generations. The hotel takes this even further, playing an integral role in bringing attention to – and helping sustain – Portobelo’s vibrant, Afro-Caribbean arts heritage.


Sandra Eleta first visited Portobelo with her family as a child, playing among the ruins of the seventeenth-century battlement walls that guard its natural harbor. The now sleepy fishing village on Panama’s Caribbean coast had been one of colonial Spain’s most important settlements, where Peruvian gold was loaded onto ships headed back to the motherland. (It was also a popular target for such infamous privateers as Welsh captain Henry Morgan, who held the town captive for weeks until it paid a hefty ransom.) In 1980, the fortifications of Portobelo-San Lorenzo earned UNESCO World Heritage status as some of the finest examples of Spanish military architecture in the New World.

Yet it was Portobelo’s people that most fascinated the young Eleta. After finishing art school, she returned with her Hasselblad camera and began forging deep bonds within the community. Her striking portraits of local Congos, the proud descendants of self-freed slaves, have been showcased at the Guggenheim and other esteemed institutions around the world. Many now adorn the walls of El Otro Lado.


The town’s other claim to fame is its Black Christ, a rare Christian icon that comes with an even more unusual origin story. Though no one knows for sure how the Cristo Negro arrived in Portobelo, a common legend tells of the statue’s seventeenth-century journey from Spain on its way to another city, when the ship carrying it was forced by foul weather to dock; the storms returned each time the crew attempted to leave, until it finally tossed the figure overboard. Later moved to its coveted alcove in San Felipe Church, the icon’s miraculous inception adds to the locals’ devotion to it, expressed most definitively during the Festival del Cristo Negro on October 21. Every year, followers from around Colón Province make the pilgrimage to Portobelo on foot, some crawling for the final mile.Numerous depictions of the Black Christ hang at El Otro Lado, every spare inch of which is covered in canvases, papier-mâché masks, whimsically painted walking sticks, and brightly patterned molas (handmade textiles).


Guests are invited to visit the on-site wood workshop, where master artisan Señor Mono and others craft the exquisite carvings and furnishings found around the property. The hotel can easily arrange private lessons with local artists through the Casa de la Cultura Congo, which it helped establish, along with the town’s small art gallery. At the latter, I lock eyes with a portrait of a Congo, brilliantly adorned with a feathered headdress and a toucan on either shoulder, that will soon hang on my wall back home.

Given its proximity to Panama City, Portobelo makes an ideal day trip for travelers cruising the Panama Canal. To fully experience the destination, though, I’d decided to add a few nights at El Otro Lado after my own canal voyage, which disembarked in the Caribbean port of Colón. There I find a private car and driver waiting, along with a local guide, thanks to Virtuoso on-site connections. Though the drive from Colón to Portobelo is even shorter than from the capital, Ancon arranged a more adventurous route that provides the opportunity to connect with another fascinating community.


Panama’s cultural heritage encompasses seven indigenous populations, including the Emberá tribe. While many Emberás have been displaced from their ancestral home in the Darién jungle, they still adhere to their traditional lifestyle in a handful of thatched villages scattered about the Panamá and Colón provinces. My journey to one of these begins with a motorized longboat ride along the leafy Chagres River. A small contingent of villagers greet our boat, the children shyly peeking from behind their mothers’ paruma skirts until they spy the crayons and Spanish coloring books that I brought for them. Soon they’re giggling and making monkey sounds while hiding in the foliage as the village’s medicine man leads us on a forest walk, pointing out various plants and their healing qualities. “Everything here has a use; nothing goes to waste,” he says through my guide. “In nature, there is a reason and purpose for everything.”


Such ancient wisdom is often lost when indigene youths discover iPhones and other Western diversions. Yet I meet a number of young Emberás who, after attending university, have returned to the village with the specific purpose of preserving their ancestral way of life amid a host of infringements, including deforestation and climate change.


As my guide and I make our way to El Otro Lado, our driver slows to a stop when two such garbed men emerge and block the road. I might have been alarmed had my guide not explained the carnival ritual; instead, I happily chip in a few coins to appease the benign bandits. Later, on my walk with Zafrani in Portobelo, I watch a handful of children joyously evade the papier-mâché stick wielded by a young devil.


Eleta has photographed many of these modern-day cimarrones, and I pause to view one such image before making my way to what’s possibly my favorite spot on the entire property: a rope hammock on the Casa Grande’s second-floor balcony. As I swing there contentedly, the evening sun bursts through the rain-forest canopy, and riotous monkeys suddenly pierce the surrounding silence as they settle in before nightfall. Eventually, their howls are replaced by another sound coming from the town – African drums, marking the end of Lent. The drumming, accompanied by claps and whistles, echoes across the still bay and centuries past when a subjugated people never lost their will to celebrate life.


Our Portobelo Picks


Avanti Destinations

An insider peek at Portobelo’s Royal Customs House (where the Spanish counted their gold), a snorkel tour in Portobelo Bay, and a ride on the historic Panama Canal Railway highlight a 13-day journey from Avanti Destinations. The totally customizable tour also explores Bogotá and Cartagena, Colombia.


Ancon Expeditions of Panama

A private introduction to the Emberá culture is one of many Panamanian experiences that are possible when your travel advisor works with Ancon Expeditions of Panama. Each tour is completely personalized, be it an hours-long cruise shore excursion to Portobelo or a week spent hopping around the Pearl Islands aboard a luxury catamaran. Contact your advisor for details.


UnCruise Adventures

Visit the UNESCO-designated fort at San Lorenzo and ride a motorized canoe to an Emberá village deep in the Darién jungle when the 66-passenger Safari Voyager cruises. UnCruise Adventures puts the emphasis on discovery as travelers kayak through mangroves, hike Costa Rica’s Osa Conservation Area, and snorkel in Panama’s Coiba National Park.



Nine Muses Travel offers a premium experience with flights, guides, drivers, rental vehicles, and the best accommodations to maximize your time, with expert advice on how to get the most out of any destination. We INCLUDE amenities for you at the world's finest hotels, the BEST OF THE BEST!

  • Complimentary room upgrades at check-in, subject to availability

  • Complimentary daily breakfast

  • Early check-in / late check-out, subject to availability

  • Complimentary Wi-Fi

  • And more!

Nine Muses Travel works with exceptional suppliers who add unparalleled value:

  • Expert guides: artists, historians, naturalists, unique locals with insider tips & insights

  • Flexibility with your touring - See and do as much, or as little, as you prefer!

  • Custom-designed routings

  • Exclusive experiences

  • 24/7 real-time support

  • Comprehensive travel protection plans

Nine Muses Travel designs journeys to inspire artists, arts lovers and the culturally curious.

Danielle Dybiec

Founder & President


bottom of page