Portobelo’s forts, castles, batteries and barracks were rebuilt by the Spanish for a third time in the late 18th century. Photo: Diane Herr
In 1980, a group of 17th- and 18th-century military fortifications on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the historic sites of Portobelo and San Lorenzo, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List as “outstanding examples of Spanish colonial military architecture.” Today, they are one of the country’s only two cultural properties (along with Panama Viejo, inscribed in 1993) with the prestigious status.
That distinction could be in jeopardy, however, with this week’s decision by the World Heritage Committee to place the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger. A UNESCO press release cited “environmental factors, lack of maintenance and uncontrollable urban developments” as reasons for the decision.
For more than a decade, the Committee has been asking for increased preservation measures at the site. During Wednesday’s session, it urged Panama to undertake a risk assessment for structures in the site and to reinforce walls, batteries and platforms of the forts. The Committee, which raised concerns about the absence of funding for site protection, also requested the development of a comprehensive conservation plan and an end to urban encroachment on the property.
Originally founded in 1597 by the Spanish explorer Francisco Velarde y Mercado, Portobelo was attacked and destroyed in 1668 by the privateer Captain Henry Morgan, then conquered again by Admiral Edward Vernon in 1739. It was recovered by the Spanish and rebuilt in 1761 for a third time, resulting in the forts, castles, barracks and batteries seen today.
The World Heritage Committee, currently meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, until July 6, is also expected to make a ruling on whether to add Panama Viejo to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The old city has become threatened in recent years by insufficient management and urban development.
Click here to explore the Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo on Global Heritage Network (GHN)