09:33.341N 79:39.658W Portobelo and Panama's only ATM!

Hamble Warrior
Jamie Hickman
Thu 23 Mar 2023 23:23


24th January

It took just over three hours to sail to Portobelo from Linton Bay and we arrived mid-afternoon and dropped our anchor near S/V Mowzer and our friends Angus & Zoe. 

We stayed 5 nights initially in Portobelo and during this time our main mission was to extract as much cash as possible from the only cash point for a 30 mile radius which happened to be located at the police station a 40min round trip on foot from Portobello. Over the course of the next 5 days we made at least 6 trips to milk this cashpoint using our only available debit card (after failing to receive our mail in Cartagena our newly issued bank cards were now "at large" and we had one expired card and one due to expire in a matter of days) and our credit card. This included a return trip one day when we only managed one transaction before the machine shut down and we thought it had dried up but we returned later that day and managed to extract another wedge. As the days passed the denominations we received got smaller and smaller until; towards the end of the week we recieved $
500 entirely in $5 bills! The reason we were desperately extracting cash wasn't entirely due to the imminent lack of debit cards; it was largely because the transit fee for the panama canal including the refundable "buffer" all needed to be paid in cash before we could secure a transit date. This amount totals $3,060 ($2,000 fees + $1,060 buffer) which was quite a sum to rustle up in cash when you are down to a single debit card with a $250 daily limit! (Thank goodness we discovered we could use the credit card too!!!) Our cash point hikes kept us fit for the week and only once did we hitch a lift; just one-way from a friendly American who picked us up on the main road and explained to us that the cash point had been located by the police station after being ripped out of the wall in town several times. No wonder there was always a police officer watching it!

Portobelo is a beautiful historic town with some very interesting old buildings and a stunning fort that overlooks the harbour. The town's impressive church "Iglesia de San Felipe" with its dome-topped bell tower hosts the incredibly famous "Black Jesus", "Cristo Negro" or "El Nazareno" statue which draws worshippers from far and wide and some are said to make the pilgrimage to the statue on their hands and knees.

The town has a backdrop of green tropical forestation and jungle and the birds of prey circle overhead constantly as they have done throughout our stops in this part of the world. In the town itself we saw vultures resting on rooftops and particularly on the church bell tower which made for quite a striking image; these huge hunched birds of prey against the blue and white paintwork of this sacred place.

There was a beautiful; short hike up to a lookout on the edge of the town which afforded stunning views across the bay to the mangroves on the other side, down on the town and beyond the ancient fortifications right the way out to sea where legend has it Sir Francis Drake; gentleman privateer and favorite of the court of Queen Elizabeth perished. It was a lovely spot from which to appreciate the beauty of this old town.

We landed our dinghy at a small dock marked accordingly outside the "Casa Vela" Restaurant run by the Italian owner "Francesco". We asked him if it was ok to leave the dinghy there to walk out of town and he was very enthusiastic in telling us we were welcome to leave it as much as we liked; to use the dock whenever we liked; to take a bus to Colon or Panama, nothing was too much trouble. He even told us not to lock it up; it was safe there, nobody would steal it from him. We enjoyed this facility for the next few days and when it came to Friday night we gave Francesco our Friday night custom as a thank you for letting us use the dock. Unfortunately our cruising budget doesn't run to $7 cocktails or $12 pizzas but we sat and had several rounds of beers and made sure we left a good tip with his lovely bar staff. The local band that had been playing early in the evening were later joined by a boat of cruisers who had arrived with a dinghy full of instruments to "Jam" with the band and as the cymbals gave way to a Squeezebox and eventually from somewhere materialised a Tuba; all played equally terribly, we decided it was time to head home. We paid our bill and said our goodbyes to Francesco.

The following night we decided to take some rum ashore and find a spot in the busy square to drink with the locals. We planned to make it to Francesco's for one drink at the end of the evening but we didn't really fancy drinking with cruisers and visiting tourists again all night and we'd rather experience the local vibe in the town.

We bought mixers from the supermarket and had just sat down in the square when it started to rain so we relocated to the little bench seat outside the supermarket where the locals sat and that's where we stayed all night. We bought several more mixers from the shop and then when our rum ration ran out we bought a new bottle of rum too. For dinner Jamie had meat skewers from the street vendor across the way and bought me some Siu Mai dim sums. We sat eating and drinking and watching the town come to life as people got on and off the chicken buses and music started up; there were people dancing across the street and the atmosphere was wonderful.


In the end it was nearly midnight when we staggered our way back to the dinghy dock to find that a gate we hadn't even noticed previously was now locked barring our entrance to the dock. It had not occurred to us that the bar would be closed; we were still very much working on the Cartagena drinking model and foolishly expected the bar to still be open. We climbed over the gate and started to untie our dinghy only to find a very drunk; half-dressed and extremely angry Francesco slumped at one of the tables who began ranting at us about leaving our dinghy (he told us this was ok; for as long as we liked), how it could have been stolen (he told us repeatedly not to lock it up) and if we wanted to leave it we should pay a fee (he'd told us there was no charge)… there was also some rambling about his gate and some other incomprehensible nonsense. I tried for a few minutes to explain we hadn't intended to take advantage and to calm him down but as it was obvious he was extremely drunk and was not going to calm down so we untied and rowed off leaving him slumped at his table. Our theory was that he'd had a very quiet night and been stewing on his lack of custom while looking at our little dinghy sitting at the dock waiting for us to come back. It was a shame. We got back to the boat and started to unload our pieces in the usual order; Magpie first then any bags and finally the oars and rowlocks. Jamie handed me one of the oars and then looked up at me in confusion and asked if I had the other. No, I replied, you've only handed me one... uh oh. Somehow we had managed to lose the other oar overboard whilst unloading the dinghy; something we have never done before. There was a fast current running in the anchorage and it was very dark so we couldn't see where it had gone. As quickly as I could I found the torch and ran to the anchor locker on the bow to retrieve the spare set of oars; I climbed back in the dinghy and as Jamie rowed I shone the torch around looking for the oar and mindful of the big open sea over Jamie's shoulder and the likelihood that we'd never find it. Luckily after about 5 or 10 mins (depending which of us you ask) we rowed right into it and I pulled it back onboard! I've No idea what the odds were of finding it like that but we were clearly very lucky!