Pirates of the Caribbean Coast – Puerto Lindo & Portobelo, Panama

A snazzy new road means you can now travel from Panama City to the Caribbean Coast in two hours. This easy access has brought renewed talk of improving tourism infrastructure in this lightly visited area of the country but, as we found out when we visited Puerto Lindo and Portobelo, that’s largely still just talk.

Never stay in a hostel with no woman on staff

Puerto Lindo means “beautiful port” in Spanish, but it wasn’t. The slim, grey beach in Puerto Lindo was littered with trash and the pier was ratty and occupied by locals who failed to return our greetings. School seemed to be permanently out. Sitting around was the preferred day job.

Puerto Lindo Panama

Puerto Lindo. Not.

There are two places to stay in Puerto Lindo and the least bleak of the two, creatively named Hostel Puerto Lindo, turned out to be a filthy, neglected place ostensibly managed by a lazybones named William who kept asking us for money. The sheets, pillows, floors, shower and hammocks were tacky with a mysterious greasy film. The foam mattresses were too frightening to contemplate. The communal kitchen was a Petri dish. At least the fan worked, but US$7 per person it was a rip off. Hell, at US$2 per person it was a rip off.

That’s when it dawned on us that everyone “working” at Hostel Puerto Lindo was male and we vowed never to say in a hostel with no woman on staff again. Ever.

Making Diablos y Congos masks - Puerto Lindo, Panama

Impressively creepy devil masks like these are made by craftsmen in Puerto Lindo to be worn during the annual Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival held on Panama’s Caribbean Coast.

The next morning we tentatively poked our heads into a few nearby homes where men were creating impressively ghoulish masks which are worn during the dramatic, wild, hedonistic Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival which is held on the Caribbean coast after Carnival. Then we fled to nearby Portobelo, nine miles (15 km) away, hoping that it better resembled its name which also means “beautiful port”. We didn’t even bother seeking out the “sloth lady” of Puerto Lindo that we’d been told about. Yep. Not even sloths would keep us in Puerto Lindo.

Making Diablos y Congos masks - Puerto Lindo, Panama

A mask maker in Puerto Lindo shows off his art in progress.

Modern pirates of Portobelo

Compared to Puerto Lindo, Portobelo is a metropolis albeit a garbage strewn, ramshackle one with occasional shootings in the street like the one that occurred shortly after we arrived in which someone named “Oaky” was gunned down for allegedly stealing drugs from a cartel in Colon.

Portobello Harbor & Fort Santiago - Portobello, Panama

Portobelo harbor and the remains of the Spanish-built Santiago Fort.

The most famous place in Portobelo, by far, is Captain Jack’s hostel, bar and restaurant owned by a US expat who now simply goes by the moniker “Captain Jack”. He appears to be loved and reviled in equal measure, as all pirates should be. We did not stay there (Captain Jack doesn’t offer private rooms) but we did have a decent US$7 hamburger with the best fries we’d had in years (hand cut with the skin still on).

The open air bar/dining area also had WiFi and that, coupled with the good food, cold beer and generously poured rum drinks, conspire to create an irresistible magnet for every foreigner in Portobelo and, it turns out, there are many.

Fortress Jeronimo - Portobello, Panama

The Spanish built the San Jerónimo Fort in Portobelo, Panama to protect the harbor from pirates who were after the plundered gold the Spaniards hoarded in town before sending it back to Spain.

Among the “yachtie” community–an international group of people who live part or all of the year on their boats (which are very, very rarely yachts)–Portobelo is a popular, well-known port for repairs and re-provisioning. Yachties are not traditional travelers. They’re not expats. They’re a breed all their own – boisterous, boozy, a little bit snarky. Some of them have the distinct air of being on the lam.

Some boat owners offer sailing trips through the San Blas Islands and the talk in town often revolves around departure dates, prices and which boats have sunk lately as backpackers try to book the best passage.

Pirates Cove - Portobello, Panama

Pirates Cove and its gregarious owner Tommy.

With Captain Jack’s out of the running for accommodation, we headed to a place down the road called Pirates Cove behind the police station just off the main road. It’s run by a gregarious Panamanian named Tommy, fresh back from years in the US, who was doing his best to improve the run down rooms which had saggy mattresses, weird drop ceilings, dirty showers and ill-fitting polyester sheet with cigarette burns in them when we were there.

You can’t beat the waterfront location, however, and we are hopeful that Tommy has made some basic improvements by now. The outdoor bar at Pirates Cove is another yachtie magnet and good place to meet captains and get information about San Blas sailing trips.

Yacht Bar, Pirates Cove - Portobello, Panama

The easy-going waterfront bar at Pirates Cove is a great place for a cold one and for getting information from boat owners about San Blas Island sailing trips.

In between the cheerful open air restaurant and the blocks of rooms at Pirates Cove you’ll see a strange area of shallow cement troughs mostly filled with sea water. Look closely and you’ll see that the water is covering (and, therefore, protecting) rows of cannonballs, tiny cannons and even wood beams.

These items, we were told, are believed to be bits and pieces from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships (more on him later) which sank near Portobelo in the early 1500s. The 1500s, people! Others believe the remains could be from the wreckage of a pirate ship operated by Sir Francis Drake.

Ruins of Colombus ship - Portobello, Panama

This concrete trough full of sea water on the property of Pirates Cove holds what could be cannonballs from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships.

This apparently important booty is just sitting there soaking until restoration and preservation experts can verify the remains and figure out what to do with them.

Oh, and be aware that the wind in Portobelo can be epic, especially in January and February.

Historic pirates of Portobelo

Christopher Columbus founded “Puerto Bello” in 1502. The tiny town was re-named San Felipe de Portobelo by Spanish colonizers in 1586 when they took the town and its strategic port. The Spanish built the San Felipe Fort, San Diego Fort, San Jerónimo Fort and the Santiago Fort to defend the port, and the plundered gold stored in the local Customs House.

Portobelo was a primary ports for shipping stolen gold from the “New World” back to Spain and it suffered a long line of attacks from pirates, including Henry Morgan who trashed Portobelo in 1671.

Fort Jeronimo - Portobello, Panama

San Jerónimo Fort in Portobelo, Panama had 18 cannons but even that wasn’t enough to stop pirates from taking the town and the stolen gold the Spaniards amassed there.

San Fernando Fort, San Jerónimo Fort and Santiago Fort still stand and can be visited. San Fernando is across the bay and you can hire a boat for a few dollars to take you across to it. On the western end of Portobelo you’ll see Santiago Fort (free) wedged between the road and the bay. It’s worth a wander around. San Jerónimo Fort (also free) is essentially in the middle of Portobelo.

Santiago Fort Portobello, Panama

Santiago Fort in Portobelo, Panama.

In 1980 the forts in Portobelo were included in a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “magnificent examples of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture.” In 2012 the forts were placed on UNESCO’s List of Heritage in Danger because of “lack of maintenance and uncontrollable urban developments.”

Portobello and the Custom's House from Fort Jeronimo

The hulking Customs House in Portobleo and the fortified wall along the harbor.

Even today, the Customs House in Portobelo, where the Spaniard’s beloved gold was stored, stacked, counted before being shipped to Spain, is by far the largest and most imposing structure in Portobelo. It’s huge rooms now often house changing exhibits of local art and history.

Custom's House Portobelo Panama

Spanish colonizers stored and counted their stolen gold in the Customs House in Portobelo, Panama before shipping it off to Spain – if the pirates didn’t get it first.

Its also worth visiting the nearby San Félipe Church to check out the four foot (1.5 meter) tall statue of the Portobelo’s famous black Christ. Various legends surround the statue but a common element to the story is that a large box mysteriously appeared in Portobelo and when locals opened it the black Christ was inside. Every October 21 the town hosts a festival which draws pilgrims from all over to help carry the statue around town, then drink and dance until dawn.

 San Félipe Church Portobelo's famous black Christ Panama

Portobelo’s San Félipe Church is home to his black Christ, subject of much legend, a few miracles and an annual festival.


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More Jungle In the Jungle – Mamoní Valley Preserve, Panama

Nearly 13 years ago Nathan Gray, founder of the ground-breaking Earth Train  peer-to-peer student activism movement in the US, was looking for a new home base for his seemingly boundless philanthropic efforts. A friend recommended Panama as a place with lots of land just waiting for Earth Train to protect it and lots of young people in need of empowerment. So Nathan got on a plane, then he got on a bus, then he got on a truck taxi and soon he found himself in Mamoní Valley. That’s when a Panamanian woman sitting next to him mentioned that her family was selling a chunk of property nearby. Nathan toured the property later that day and soon he was the owner of 198 acres (80 hectares). The Mamoní Valley Preserve was born – part nature reserve, part environmental education center, part eco adventure travel destination.

Mamoni Darien Panama

Earth Train’s Mamoní Valley Preserve works to turn cleared farm and ranch land back into this: lush jungle and vibrant waterways.

From ranch land to reforestation

Like so much of the land in the area, the property had been cleared for cattle pasture so Nathan, a growing Panamanian Earth Train team and a crew of volunteers began reforesting the 198 acres (80 hectares) with indigenous plants and trees. Soon the streams cleared up and wild animals returned.

Bamboo was planted and it quickly began providing building materials for a true environmental retreat and education center where Nathan’s dreams of educating and empowering young people to lead other young people into a better environmental future could be realized.

Mamoní Valley Preserve , Panama

Reforested land around Centro Mamoní is criss-crossed with trails like this one.

Now Centro Mamoní has four two-level, mostly open-air wood and bamboo sleeping structures with room to pitch tents on the upper floor and bathrooms with showers and composting toilets on the ground floor. There’s also a large kitchen and a dining/meeting area with satellite internet all powered by a hydroelectric generator on the grounds.

Centro Mamoní, Darien Panama

One of the two-level, open air bamboo and wood sleeping structures at Centro Mamoní.

Hiking at Mamoní

We visited Centro Mamoní with Nathan and hiked a loop trail that took us up and down through the lush jungle and across creeks. We dove into swimming holes and stopped at lofty viewpoints where we could see the Caribbean Coast and the famed Kuna Yala, homeland of the Kuna (sometimes called Guna) people.

Dart Frog, darien jungle, Panama

We saw this dart frog (named for the shape of its head) while hiking on trails around Centro Mamoní in Panama.

Along the way we saw a dart frog (not a poison dart frog – this one is named for the shape of its head, red spider monkeys, helicopter dragonflies, tiny black frogs, a centipede that smelled like almonds because it protects itself by secreting cyanide (cyanide smells like almonds) and a rare caecilan which is an amphibian that looks like a worm or snake. It amazed us all, even Nathan. Cougars and harpy eagles have also been spotted at Mamoní since reforestation started taking hold.

 caecilan Darien Panama - giant worm

This rarely spotted caecilan, an amphibian which looks like a worm or really weird snake, was spotted on a trail in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama.

You can also go kayaking within the Mamoní Valley Preserve and even hike from ocean to ocean through the preserve since it exists in the narrowest part of the Panamanian Peninsula.

Modern Mamoní

Mamoní now protects more than 12,000 acres (48,567 hectares) including most of the vital Mamoní watershed, six of its tributaries and more than 50 miles (80 km) of streams.

The legendary Dr. Jane Goodall has visited Mamoní and the center has hosted her Roots & Shoots environmental program for 70 students.

bumpy tree Darien jungle Panama

This tree with an odd bumpy trunk is just one of the native species that have been brought back in the Mamoní Valley Preserve thanks to reforestation efforts by Earth Train.

Mushrooms darien Jungle Panama

With few visitors and air-tight environmental protection all kinds of species flourish in Panama’s Mamoní Valley Preserve.

Mamoní abuts he Chagres National Park and an area inhabited by the Kuna (also called Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group, and Earth Train works closely with the Kuna Congress (the indigenous group’s autonomous government) to promote environmental protection.

Junglewood, a program run by Grammy award-winning producer Rob Griffin, brings musicians to an outdoor amphitheater on the Mamoní property for outdoor concerts that are truly in tune with nature.


Wild beauty in the Mamoní Valley Preseve in Panama.

Earth Train recently opened a campus, designed by a protégé of architect Frank Gehry, near Panama City in order to offer even more environmental education to even more people.

Pre arrange your visit to Mamoní Valley Preserve and Centro Mamoní, just two hours from Panama City, by contacting Earth Train by email at info AT earthtrain DOT org. The cost of your visit will help fund the purchase and protection of more land and the creation of more environmental education programs.


Bursts of color in the green, green, green Mamoní Valley Preserve.

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Photo Essay: Death of the Diablos Rojos – Panama City, Panama

Unlike in the US, where the dominant bus line has the word “grey” right in the name, buses in much of Latin America are pandimonious converted Bluebird school buses covered in bright artwork, stickers, flashing lights and anything else the driver/owners can think of to one-up the competition in the unspoken bus beauty pageant that goes on in the street. In Panama, the local festive buses are called diablos rojos (red devils) not because of their looks but because of their reputation as overcrowded death traps. You can still see these moving pieces of art across the country but in March of 2013 all 1,200 diablos rojos in Panama City were decommissioned, deemed too gaudy, polluting and dangerous for the city’s shiny new profile as Miami South.

Diablos Rojos bus Panama

Owners of diablos rojos in the capital were given US$25,000 per city bus. Diablos rojos drivers who did not have too many tickets or deaths on their hands were also given the chance to train to drive Panama City’s new Metro Buses which are the same drab make and model as buses that ply Mexico City and other metropolises.

After years of “service” the diablos rojos were unceremoniously rounded up in a large dirt lot at a giant field which was part of the old US Howard Air Force Base, and taken apart piece by piece. Hundreds of wheels were loaded into containers which we’re told were headed to China. Mountains of scrap metal were created. Engines were lined up on the ground. And we were there to witness the death of the infamous diablos rojos.

Colorful Red devil buses Panama City Diablos Rojos junkyard demolition Panama City Diablos Rojos bus demolition Panama City Diablos Rojos junkyard Panama  City Junked Diablos Rojos buses Panama City Diablos Rojos tires Panama Diablos Rojos bus detail Diablos Rojos motors Panama  City Diablos Rojos junkyard demolition Panama Diablos Rojos Panama City   Diablos Rojos junkyard Panama  Pacifico Diablos Rojos buses Panama Decomissioned Red devil buses Panama City Diablos Rojos Panama export metal china Diablos Rojos bus Panama City Diablos Rojos bus junkyard Westin Hotel Panama Diablos Rojos detail Panama

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