Portobelo has long been a popular spot for scuba divers and yachties. There are also appealing spots for beach lounging. It’s possible to hike in the forests of Parque Nacional Portobelo, but this should be attempted only with an experienced guide.
In 1996, John Collins, the creator of the original Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, visited the Portobelo area on a yacht and decided it would be a perfect place for a triathlon. The first Portobelo Triathlon (www.triathlon.org.pa) was held in 1997, and it has become an annual event. It is held the second Sunday of March and increasingly attracts world-class athletes.
The event includes an 1,800-meter swim from La Guaira to Isla Grande and back, a 35-kilometer bike ride to Portobelo, and a 10-kilometer off-road run in the Portobelo area.
Diving and Snorkeling
There are 16 dive spots around the Portobelo area, with attractions that vary from coral reefs and 40-meter-deep walls to a small airplane and a cargo ship. The best diving in the area is off the rocky Farallones Islands a fair boat ride away. There’s a chance of seeing nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays, and schools of barracudas there.
But any honest dive operator will be the first to admit the diving around Portobelo is for the most part just average: Expect no more than 10 meters of visibility on a typical day. And visibility is quite volatile: up to 30 meters on a great day, and down to 3 when it rains (several rivers empty into the ocean here; the diving is better in the dry season).
Portobelo does, however, have two major things going for it: The diving is inexpensive and it is easily accessible.
Portobelo dive operations have been struggling to survive out here since the closing of the American bases at the end of 1999; military personnel and their families constituted much of their business. Most of the operations have disappeared, and the new ones come and go faster than I can keep track of.
As always when you dive, bring evidence of certification and ask to see the dive master’s credentials.
The one that seems to hang on no matter what is Scubaportobelo (tel. 448-2147 in Portobelo or 261-4064 and 261-3841 at the main office in Panama City, www.scubapanama.com). It’s five kilometers west of Portobelo. The spot is pleasant, with a wooden mirador built on rocks over the ocean. This is the Portobelo division of Scubapanama, Panama’s largest dive operation.
Divers pay for everything separately here. Complete equipment rental is US$20, including one full tank. The second tank costs US$6, and additional tanks US$4.50. Boat transport is about US$7–15, depending on the destination.
Playa Blanca is a pretty little beach, by far the nicest in the area, situated on a remote cove at the tip of a forested peninsula 20 minutes by boat from Portobelo. There are no roads leading to it and it is accessible only by sea, which gives it the feel of an island. Day-trippers can hire a water taxi to the beach from the ruins of Castillo Santiago de la Gloria in Portobelo for about US$25 per couple.
Selvaventuras (tel. 442-1042, cell 6680-5309) is a shoestring operation started in 2001 by four eager guys from Colón. They no longer have an office, but they still offer excursions. These include jungle hikes to waterfalls, overnight camping in the forest, horseback riding, fishing trips, and boat transport to nearby beaches.
Prices vary depending on the destination and length of trip. For instance, a tour of the closest forts (which you can really do yourself) costs US$2 per person; a half-day hike is around US$20 per person. The guides speak a little English.
There’s now a zipline ride, west of Portobelo in an area called Río Piedras. It’s operated by a group called Panama Outdoor Adventures (cell 6030-9515, http://panamaoutdooradventures.com), west of Portobelo. This zipline consists of nine cables strung between platforms that are up to 30 meters above the forest floor. The tour lasts about 2.5 hours, including a forest walk.
On the way to Portobelo, the group posted signs shortly after the turnoff to María Chiquita and before Río Piedra. Panama Outdoor Adventures offers other adventures, such as river tubing for US$25 and nature walks for US$10.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition