Here and there around the world, you come across places whose plain appearance disguises an exciting and mysterious history. One of those places is Portobelo, today just a crumbling fortress on the east coast of Panama but once witness to legendary figures, enormous wealth, pirate raids — and, some say, a religious miracle.
Portobello is about an hour and a half from Panama City, and as you drive in, you’re greeted by the mossy ruins of an old fort, a few old buildings, and a modest church. But appearances aren’t everything. Christopher Columbus set foot here, the pirate Henry Morgan came to call, and Sir Francis Drake is buried somewhere out in the bay. And inside the plain-looking church is one of the religious icons of the new world — the Black Christ of Portobelo.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 1502, Christopher Columbus sailed into Portobelo Bay and decided it was a good place to put a Spanish settlement. Puerto Bello, he called it, the beautiful port — later shortened to Portobelo. It took the Spanish 100 years to agree with him, but around 1600 they built the first of four fortresses here, including the La Fortaleza de Santiago, seen at top.
Portobelo soon became one of the most important trade centres of the new world. Gold plundered by Pizarro in Peru came streaming in, to be piled up in the customs house below. And each year merchant ships and galleons arrived from Spain, filled with goods to be bartered in a grand trade fair that filled the town with business and revelry for one to two months.
But wherever there was Spanish gold, there were English pirates, and they soon began to attack. Henry Morgan unleashed a furious assault in 1668 that “killed or wounded a majority of the inhabitants”, and Admiral Edward Vernon of the British navy captured the town in 1739 and blew up the fortress.
However, the Spanish rebuilt, and the remains of the main fortress, San Geronimo, can still be seen in the town, with guns still at the ready as if the English were on their way.
As for Francis Drake, he never got in on the action. The English adventurer died on his ship near Portobelo in 1596 after failing to capture Panama City and was buried at sea in the mouth of the bay, where an island is still named for him.
But any good pirate story has to have a little mystery, which brings us to the Black Christ of Portobelo — the Nazarene, as the locals call it. And like most good mysteries, there are several versions of the story. You can believe whichever one you like.
According to one version, the statue of Christ — with a black complexion and delicate, European-like features, carrying the cross — was being shipped to Cartagena, Colombia by way of Portobelo. But when the ship tried to leave port, it was driven back time and again by a fierce storm that only subsided when the sailors threw the box containing the statue overboard. Somehow, the heavy statue found its way to shore and was taken to the church of San Felipe.
A second version says the statue was found after a storm destroyed the ship carrying it, and landed in the town during a cholera epidemic. Miraculously, the plague immediately ended, and all gave thanks for the miracle of the Nazarene.
But historical truth is never necessary for a religious holiday (see my story of the Chapel of the Holy Blood), and the Panamanians decided to commemorate the miracle of the Black Christ with a yearly pilgrimage that has now taken place for 300 years.
Each year, on Oct. 21, up to 60,000 devotees make their way from all parts of Panama, some walking 200 kilometres from the interior. Some cross mountains on foot, some wear special purple robes, and some crawl the last mile on their hands and knees.
The crowd includes worshippers from North American and Europe, as well. And there’s a contingent of muggers, burglars and drug dealers, seeking forgiveness for their crimes since the Black Christ is considered the patron saint of criminals.
When they get to Portobelo, the pilgrims line up to pay homage to the statue, which is displayed in the middle of the church wearing a new red robe donated by a devotee. Then the Back Christ is carried around town by 80 men in a four-hour procession, amid a celebration that’s more carnival than solemn ceremony.
The festival of the Black Christ is open to everyone, but those in the know say to get there early if you want to get near the Nazarene — or even the town. If you come at any other time, there is a small museum showing some of the robes the Black Christ has worn, some donated by famous people.
And whenever you come, Portobelo is a spot worth stopping for a few minutes — but much better if you know the story.
Note: My day tour of Portobelo was sponsored by Decameron Explorer tours.