Portobelo – The “Beautiful Port” Has Seen Better Days
As the culmination of our International Field Studies trip to Panama this spring, 15 Tulane Master of Preservation Studies (MPS) students had the opportunity to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Portobelo, a strategic fortress stunningly situated on the Caribbean coastline of the Spanish colonial empire. Traveling with MPS Director and WMF Senior Advisor John Stubbs as our guide, it was the first opportunity for many of us to experience a UNESCO World Heritage site firsthand. It was also an opportunity to observe the challenges of preserving and presenting such sites.
The Portobelo fortification system clearly represents how important the successful defense of Spain’s transportation route through Panama was to the empire. Its design entailed engineering feats that were groundbreaking for their time. At the height of Portobelo’s strength the fortified harbor must have struck a conscionable wave of doubt and fear into the hearts of any would-be assailants.
Though the magnificent beauty of the site remains fully intact, our visit soon revealed the site was suffering from an amalgam of stress factors which are accelerating its decay. Portobelo exists within a national park, however the protection afforded the site by World Heritage designation and Panamanian national heritage protection appears to be limited at this time.
The current state of the ruins is alarming due to a lack of maintenance and encroaching urban pressures which do not compliment Portobelo’s distinction as a World Heritage site. Though international efforts were made within the last two decades to conserve and present the site, those responsible for Portobelo should become more invested in its protection and display. That the site’s survival and future success is dependent on such involvement is clear—as clear as the view across its namesake “Beautiful Port” over the past four centuries.