The rivers in Kuna Yala (San Blas) are rich with gold
which can be easily extracted. But it is against the law to pan or mine for
gold, even for Kunas.
Yet the greed for money drives the world. In the
1600s the Spanish were having a fantastic run of luck, extracting unimaginable
amounts of gold from Central and South America.
Of course the British wanted some of this too. Whilst the Spanish built some
remarkably robust defences it seems that the British determination was
stronger. Henry Morgan was a particularly bad villain, although Sir Francis Drake also led several attacks on the Spanish and is
buried in these parts.
Portobello lies two-thirds of the way along the 40
mile stretch of coastline from San Blas island to the entrance to the Panama Canal. Having spent a couple of weeks in the
land of the Kunas, it was quite strange to come back to an area where many of
the inhabitants are of Jamaican descent and culture. Portobello has two
sides to it. It is a sleepy little town with a laid-back population. A
lot of the buildings are run down and suffering from neglect and the mildew rot
of the tropics; rubbish lies in the gutters. We have heard that dinghies and
outboards have been stolen: the local teenagers want $1 to ‘look
after’ your dinghy when you leave it in town.
Yet there is a whole lot more to this place. One, it
seems to be the place to come if
you want to learn congo
dancing. Apparently people come from far and wide to have lessons at the
brightly painted school. Then there are the religious and historical
highlights. On 21st October each year thousands of people celebrate
the Black Christ of Portobello and the miracles that have been attributed to
this statue. Some make the pilgrimage on their knees, coming as far away as
Costa Rico. The large harbour was ‘discovered’ by Christopher
Colombus in 1502 and it later became one of the most important sites for
transferring gold and silver. The impressive Customs House, built in 1638, was
used as a merchandise warehouse and a fiscal office. It is claimed that
for more than one century a third of the world’s gold passed through this
building. And then there are the fortifications. One is now just a
grassy stub, stripped of its hewn coral stones by those constructing the dams
of the Panama Canal. The other two still
have strong walls, look-out towers and an arsenal of rusting canons. They make
for an interesting stroll and provide a good view of the town.
Gold was a factor in the drive to build the Panama Canal. It was first proposed in 1534, but
then the Spanish had to cross the isthmus on cobblestone mule trails. The
Californian gold rush was instrumental in the construction of a railroad in the
1850s, but it was not until 1879 that the first attempt to build a canal was
Before the canal was built, gold and merchandise was
taken along the Chagres River, which has now been dammed to create the Gatun Lake
– the highest point of the canal. We spent a couple of nights
anchored in the river, exploring some of the jungle (we took a compass) and
taking the dinghy to see the dam. As there are crocodiles in the river,
it was a delight to full advantage of the hot tub to cool off.
One anchorage was just below Fort San Lorenzo.
Apparently this was the setting for the filming of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. John was a bit ‘out of
forts’, so I followed the rough track through the jungle on my own.
Fortunately, I didn’t come across the animal whose angry bellow carried
across the water: it was certainly a testosterone-fuelled roar. However,
I did seem to upset two smaller monkies who has the audacity to not only
screech and bare their teeth, but they also tried throwing bits of branch at
Bizarrely, in another area of jungle we had a very
different spectacle. The steep-sided hills come right down to the waterline
and we came across a tiny marina with a small bar. So there we were,
surrounded by the sounds of the jungle, sipping cool beer, and able to watch
the Royal Wedding on CNN news.
Now we are in
Shelter Bay Marina, which is at the entrance to the Panama
Canal. Huge ships are at anchor both within and outside the
breakwater, waiting to transit. A cruise ship calls in to Colon, which is making a
concerted effort to shake off its terrible reputation of crime and
squalor. Amongst all these ships, along with the tugs, pilot boats,
yachts and power boats….one small canoe is being paddled across the bay,
the three men seemingly oblivious to the commercial importance and scale of
this place. One wonders who has got it right.