Portoblo is a sleepy port town in the Caribbean, but underneath it’s surface, a rich history. Pirates, a mysterious black Christ and it’s devoted pilgrims, and a rebel slave revolt driven which developed into a thriving sub culture called Congo are all part of the story about to unfold.
On 5 December 1502, Columbus and his crew found themselves in a storm unlike any they had ever experienced. In his journal Columbus writes:
“For nine days I was as one lost, without hope of life. Eyes never beheld the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foam. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter; hence we were forced to keep out in this bloody ocean, seething like a pot on a hot fire. Never did the sky look more terrible; for one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that we all thought that the ship would be blasted. All this time the water never ceased to fall from the sky; I do not say it rained, for it was like another deluge. The men were so worn out that they longed for death to end their dreadful suffering..”
For 3 days and nights, the storm beat upon the tattered flotilla, with sails in rags, planks rotting, being eaten away by worms who were fighting for their own survival. Many of the crew members were sick and dying, but worse off, were their spirits. Everyone feared for the worst. On the morning of the 4th day of the storm, the wind and rain eased and dawn revealed a faint outline of land. They had found a sanctuary in the beautiful bay, surrounded by hills covered with plush vegetation. That morning, Columbus then wrote these words “Belo Porto” in his log book, followed by the words “...the fairest thing you ever saw”.
17 years later, in 1519, Panama City was founded. One year after that, the small bay port called Nobmbre de Dios, about 20 Km from Portobelo was established. A cobblestone road across the jungle isthmus to Panama was built and for the next two centuries, the “Camino Real” was used to mule trains laden with gold and silver from Peru to Panama City, then across the jungle road ending up on board the boats headed to Spain. But there was a problem, the port of Nombre de Dios was too shallow and easily exposed and the perfect target for pirates!
“Life’s pretty good, and why wouldn’t it be? I’m a pirate, after all.”
~ Johnny Depp
After a great number of attacks on the port, the last straw was In 1595 when English pirate Sir Francis Drake and attacked and leveled Nombre de Dios. The Spanish was convinced the main port should be moved to safer location, easier to protect, and was moved to Portobelo.
Incidentally, Pirate Drake perished in the attack and his body was cast into the sea in a lead coffin near the entrance to Portobelo bay, where it rests to this date.
For the next 3 hundred years Portobelo experienced a turbulent history and was, sacked by English buccaneers: William Parker in 1601, Sir Henry Morgan in 1688, and finally the notorious Edward Vernon in 1739. A history of wars, pirates, pillaging, and trade associated in the name of the Spanish flag.
Attacks on Portobelo continued unabated until the city was destroyed in by Edward Vernon’s final attack in 1739.
Later, much of the outermost fortress built to protect the port town was dismantled to build the Panama Canal and many of the larger stones were used in the construction of the Gatún Locks. There are, however, still considerable parts of the original village and fortresses left and today.
Portobelo is protected as a national park and as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Nobody knows exactly how or when the Black Christ arrived in Portobelo, but some put the date at around 1658.
Many stories surround the Black Christ statue’s arrival in this unlikely place. All agree that it was carved in Spain, arrived on a ship and was washed ashore at Portobelo. The rest is shrouded in the mists of time and myth.
One story holds that the ship carrying the heavy statue in a wooden crate met a terrible storm that drove it back into the harbor. The ship attempted to leave 5 times, but every time a sudden and unexpected storm endangered the ship and everyone aboard. On the final attempt, the crew jettisoned the crated Black Christ to lessen the weight and save their lives. Fishermen, amazed by the lack of respect shown by the sailors, carried the Black Christ to their church and gave it a place of honor.
Another myth is that the figure Jesus of Nazareth was destined for the island of Taboga, off the Panamanian coast, but the Spanish shipper incorrectly labeled the shipment. Many attempts were made to send the statue to Taboga, but all attempts to remove it from Portobelo failed. The people of Portobelo, who suspected the figure had magical powers, said it wished to remain with them.
Stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.
Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals. Many wear ornate purple robes that are discarded at midnight on the steps of the church in which the statue is now housed, Iglesia San Felipe. The robes announce that the wearer is responding to a divine command, doing penance for wrongdoing, or simply making an expression of faith.
The Spanish under the reign of Charles the fifth, began to import black slaves from different parts of western and eastern Africa, referred to as “bozales” or the muzzled ones. African slaves were responsible for the duties of daily life in Portobelo and built such places as Fort San Geronimo and the Customs House. Many of the badly treated slaves fled and took refuge in the jungle and fought successfully against the Spanish and later forced them to negotiate a peace treaty authorizing the former slaves to live in separate communities. Many of the traditions of the 5 century old African Congo traditions have mixed in create a unique Panamanian culture.
In Panama, the visible celebration is during the Carnival, where the Congo’s establish their mini kingdoms. In parody of the Spanish Court, the Queen and her husband reign their Palengue (palace) wearing handsome crowns. Although invisible to outsiders, the laws and social hierarchies with each Congo are quite real for the members who accept the authority of the Queen and Kind during the Carnival and in some communities, all year long.
During the festivities, the Congos speak a dialect which can be understood by other Congo communities, but no t by other Panamanians. The sense of the worlds is often inverted: hello means good bye, above means below and yes means no. Another tradition is wearing their clothes inside out, and gesture and attitudes reflect the rebellious spirit, mocking the clergy and the former Spanish masters, while emphasizing the difficult conditions under which the slaves once lived.
“The person who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.”
Next, Lainie interviews Paul, a friend from couch surfing who stayed with the duo for a week in Guatemala. This is where Paul first shared his adventure, building a boat to float down the Usmacinta River. Although the intention was to experience the Yaxchilan ruins located on the Usmacinta River, you will hear in the interview, he found much more.
The Mayan City of Yaxchilan is hidden in the jungle and away from the normal tourist track. The site of ruins, remains impressive and virtually untouched by tourists, with palaces and temples bordering a large plaza with a terrace overlooking the Usumacinta River. The site is partially restored, thought by many to be the most beautiful Mayan City in Mexico with its towering temples and plazas. The architectural remains extend across the higher terraces and the hills to the south of the river, overlooking both the river itself and the lowlands beyond. Yaxchilan is known for the many preserved sculptures and stellas at the site, such as the carved monoliths spanning the temple doorways.
Read Paul’s Trip Diary
For those of you that read German, Paul has given us permission to reprint some of his trip’s diary. Below is an intro to his travelogue adventure.
To read the trip’s entries, click here.
Ich war 28 Tage in Frontera Corozal, dem Dorf, in dem ich mein Boot gebaut hab. Am Anfang haett ich nicht dran geglaubt, aber ich hab es echt geschafft mir ein Boot zu bauen. Ich habe die ganze Zeit bei einer superarmen Familie gelebt. Bei Juan und Marta und den Soehnen Misael, Jonathan, Juan David und Moises.
Der Plan war zu Beginn zu den Ruinen von Yaxchilan zu fahren, aber schnell hatte ich mich entschlossen, bis zum Golf von Mexiko zu fahren. Das ging aber nicht, weil es hinter dem Dorf Desempeño einen riesigen Strudel gibt, den man nur mit sehr starkem Motor passieren kann. Da mein Boot nur die Kraft des Flusses nuzt, um Vorwaerts zu kommen, waere die Gefahr von dem Strudel unter Wasser gezogen zu werden zu gross. Ausserdem gibt es vor Tenosique einen Wasserfall, der das Ankommen wohl unmoeglich machen wuerde. Also war der Plan, bis nach Desempeño zu fahren, dort ein Auto zu suchen, um das Boot nach Tenosique zu bringen, von wo aus der Usumacinta keine Probleme mehr machen sollte. Mit mir kam ein Mann aus Nicaragua, sein Name war Moises. Er versuchte, wie viele ohne Papiere in die USA zu kommen. Allerdings gibt es auf der Strasse die von Frontera Corozal nach Palenque fuert, viele Kontrollen von Polizei und Armee. Deswegen war er schon ueber 2 Monate in Frontera und da es dort auch keine Bank gibt, ist ihm auch das Geld ausgegangen. Also hab ich ihn mitgenommen. Nach Tenosique wollte er, denn da gibt es einen Gueterzugbahnhof. Er wollte es wie beim ersten Mal machen und von Zug auf Zug springen. Beim lezten Mal hat er so einen Monat durch Mexiko gebraucht.
Es war ein richtiges Abenteuer!
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(Like how did Miro get stuck in his chair…) If you have comments or have a question you’d like to have answered in an upcoming podcast, please use send us an email using this contact form. We promise, we answer all of the questions we relieve and we love hearing from you.
To those of you who have supported us so far on this journey, the donations we’ve received and the wonderful words of encouragement. Thank you all for your comments and feedback, and please keep them coming. Thank you Hanna for giving us a wonderful professional boost with the intro & outro, engineered by Hanna Jakobson, music “Multilayered Timbres” by Dr. Pimp courtesy of CC (creative commons) license.
Lainie and her son Miro are living a location independent lifestyle, slow traveling around the globe and living in the present moment. Lainie writes about staying inspired, participating as a global citizen, volunteering, unschooling & natural learning. Lainie and Miro are both following their interests on the road, as the planet has been transformed into their classroom. Often you will hear Lainie say “we are blessed to be accidental world schoolers” and has become and an advocate for “life learning” at any age. Lainie & Miro have taken this philosophy to heart and are producing a series of family & teen oriented retreats in called Project World School.
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