From Colombia I sailed to Panama, arriving in late December at a place called Linton Bay. I spent Christmas and New Year there with the other cruisers, stayed for a couple of weeks, then moved on to Portobelo (which the locals spell with one L).
The Spanish plundered a staggering amount of gold from South America and the natural harbour at Portobelo is where they took it to be loaded onto galleons and shipped back to Spain. An obvious target, it was attacked by both Morgan (after whom the rum is named) and Drake (who seems to have laid waste to just about everywhere I’ve been). They were made Sir Henry and Sir Frances by the Queen of England but to the people here they were ruthless pirates.
Today, Portobelo is more peaceful. Money is being spent on renovating some of the old buildings, presumably so that the village can claim its place on the tourist trail. But for the time being it feels faded and forgotten. History is being written elsewhere now, and Portobelo gazes out over untroubled waters, snoozing in the tropical heat.
I wanted petrol for my outboard, enquired at the bar if anyone knew where I could get some and was directed to a house just off the main street. There I found a man sat on the porch in a sweat-stained vest. Does he have petrol? He grunted something unintelligible to his young son who went into the living room, came back with a fizzy drink bottle filled with petrol and poured it into my fuel can. “Dos, por favour.” The boy fetched another pop bottle, the contents of which were added to the first in my can. “Diez”. The man took my ten dollar bill in his gnarled hand and smiled. His skin looked like old wood, but his eyes sparkled.
I wanted propane, too. I had a name and vague directions, and ambled down the appropriate street. The doors and windows of the houses were all open wide but the blinding afternoon sun outside meant that little could be seen in the deep shadows within.
At intervals I asked for the gas man by name. Everyone knew who he was. In the village everyone knows who everyone is. The people were a bit gruff but friendly enough. They took the time to listen to my faltering Spanish and pointed me along my way. Eventually I found the man’s house at the water’s edge, a rambling affair with a battered launch tied to a tumble-down dock and bits of boat lying everywhere. A capacious woman sat on the ground washing clothes in a large bowl while kids darted in and out, watched over by an ancient and toothless but bright-eyed and beaming grandmother. A man appeared. Yes, he could fill my gas tank, he said. Leave it here and come back later.
In the early evening I strolled back. The afternoon’s fierce glare and roasting temperatures had gone. The ground and buildings radiated back the heat from the day but it was a softer, friendlier warmth. The children were out playing in the street while the adults stood around chatting in the orange glow of the setting sun. At the gas man’s house I found my tank had been filled and we agreed a modest fee. As I turned to leave Big Mama waved from among her piles of neatly folded washing, and Grandma patted me on the shoulder and grinned her gummy grin. I strolled back to the dock and my waiting dinghy, and puttered slowly back to Moonrise as the anchor lights started to come on in the gathering gloom.
In time the tourists will come to Portobelo, but I rather like it how it is now.