By: Ana Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez
Saturday March 14th is Drums and Palenque Day in Portobelo, a community located in Panama’s Colón province. For the ninth consecutive year, the Festival of Diablos and Congos is scheduled to take place in this town, rich in colonial history, located on the northern coast of this Central American country. The event has become what festival organizers, the Portobelo Foundation and the Realce Histórico Group, call “the ultimate expression of Panama’s Afro-Colonial culture.”
In colonial days, the gold taken from South America was shipped off to Europe from the port of Portobelo. The city was also famous for its fairs, which lasted up to forty days, and its importance to the slave trade. The riches that abounded were such that, from the beginning, the city was fortified and besieged by pirates.
The Diablos and Congos Festival features performances of the ancient “congo game” created by enslaved and escaped Africans, who would sing, dance, and play instruments to express their rebellion against the Spanish slave owners, or “devils.” The game features different characters (King Juan de Dios, Queen María Merced, and El Pajarito, among others), in addition to the congos, or “commoners,” who tease, annoy, and stand up to the Diablo Mayor; it symbolizes the struggle between good against evil: the slaves are the good guys and the Europeans are evil.
Months in advance, groups of devils and congos from Cativá, Palenque, Colón Centro, María Chiquita, Santa Rita, Garrote, Portobelo and Ganga Pip join other communities to prepare the march and create their costumes, which in the case of the devils include a special mask requiring an enormous amount of labor. According to mask-maker Ruben Medina, the amount of time depends on the design, but a single mask can take up to three weeks.
The Festival is the perfect opportunity to learn not only about Panama’s rich Congo culture, but also to take a peek (I say a “peek” because on the day of the festival the town is incredibly packed with people) at the fortifications of Portobelo and San Lorenzo –both excellent examples of Spanish military architecture from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the fortifications of Portobelo and San Lorenzo were recognized as World Heritage Sites in 1980, and in 2012 were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list because of their precarious condition due to lack of maintenance.
You can combine your visit to Portobelo for the Diablos and Congos Festival with other activities that will make your trip a more complete experience. Portobelo National Park includes one of Panama’ best preserved Caribbean “fringe reefs” as well as beautiful beaches and amazing inland forest ecosystems.
You can also rent boats along the dock adjacent to Fort Santiago de la Gloria for excursions to nearby communities such as Playa Blanca, Puerto Francés, and La Huerta. The mangroves at the mouth of the More River are particularly beautiful.
Monuments in Portobelo include the recently renovated Customs House, the Colonial Church, the Museo del Cristo Negro (inside the old San Juan Dios hospital), and the port’s defense fortifications.
By car, leave Panama City on the Transístmica highway and travel to the Rey supermarket in Sabanitas. You can also take the Corredor Norte to the Don Alberto Motta Cardoze highway and then exit at Sabanitas, where you’ll look for the same supermarket. From there, take the road on the right, which will lead you through the towns of Puerto Pilón, María Chiquita, Playa La Angosta, Guanche, Buenaventura and, finally, Portobelo. The first route takes about two hours and the second about an hour and a half.
To travel by bus, go to the Terminal Nacional de Buses in Albrook (Panama City) and take a bus to Colón. When you reach the terminal in Colón, look for a bus traveling to Portobelo or any coastal town along the province’s Upper Coast.
Or, you can take the train to Colón. Panama Canal Railway offers daily service (Monday to Friday) between Panama and Colón. Purchase tickets at the Corozal train station. The train leaves from Panama at 7:15 am and returns from Colón at 5:15 pm. The journey takes an hour. More information at www.panarail.com
Where to stay
Because Portobelo is relatively close to Panama City, you can stay in the capital and make a day trip to the village. However, there are also options for those wishing to stay in Colón.
Casa Congo: Restaurant, gallery, and lodging
Calle Genea: Behind the Customs House
Scubaportobelo: In the village of Buenaventura near Portobelo
El Otro Lado (private retreat): Take a boat from Portobelo to the opposite side of Portobelo Bay
Casa del Rayo Verde (hostel)
Rancho Juancho: Eight miles outside Portobelo in the village of Guanche