Pirates & Pieces of Eight

Panama is full of fascinating nooks and crannies, the most striking of which might well be historic Portobelo. This deep cut in Panama’s Caribbean shoreline was first charted by Columbus in 1502. At the heyday of Spain’s New World conquests, Portobelo acted as a collection point for huge quantifies of gold and silver – the treasure chest of the Americas, so to speak. To this day, imposing fortresses bristling with canons greet incoming sailors. For us, what was originally just a stepping stone between the idyllic San Blas islands and gritty Colon, gateway to the Panama Canal, quickly became a highlight in its own right. We spent days exploring UNESCO-recognized forts and climbing the creaky stairs of the historic Customs House, where our imaginations turned the cruising fleet into galleons and passing tourists into the pirates who hunted them. Two of Portobelo’s more prominent “visitors” include Henry Morgan, who sacked the town in 1671, and Sir Francis Drake, who is said to have been buried at sea off Portobelo in 1596. Our own little pirate had a great time exploring the balustrades himself, and we spent a memorable Christmas and New Year’s Eve in this fascinating town that still plays prominently in our cruising memories.

Recommended reading:

John Masefield’s 1912 book, On the Spanish Main, chronicles the exploits of buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, who preyed upon the Spanish treasure pipeline in the Americas. This book was hot reading among canal workers in the post-Roosevelt years – and nowadays, the ebook edition is free thanks Project Gutenberg. Look for it on Amazon or other online bookstores. On the Spanish Main chronicles the exploits of buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, who preyed upon the Spanish treasure pipeline in the Americas.

David McCullough’s epic The Path Between the Seas, is a history of the Panama Canal. We zipped through the 700 pages of this incredible book while cruising both coasts of Panama and eventually, on our passage to the Galapagos Islands, where we traded our copy at a sailor’s book swap. A story for another day!

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Cruising World magazine.