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Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo

Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo

Magnificent examples of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture, these Panamanian forts on the Caribbean coast form part of the defence system built by the Spanish Crown to protect transatlantic trade.

Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Fortifications de la côte caraïbe du Panama : Portobelo, San Lorenzo

Magnifiques exemples de l'architecture militaire des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, ces forts de la côte caraïbe du Panamá faisaient partie du système défensif mis en place par la Couronne d'Espagne pour protéger le grand commerce transatlantique.

Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

تحصينات الساحل الكاريبي في باناما: بورتوبيلو سان لورينزو

كانت تحصينات الساحل الكاريبي في باناما التي تشكل الامثلة الدقيقة عن الهندسة العسكرية في القرنَيْن السابع عشر والثامن عشر، جزءًا من النظام الدفاعي الذي وضعته العائلة المالكة الاسبانية لحماية التجارة المهمة وراء الاطلسي.

source: UNESCO/CPE
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0



source: UNESCO/CPE
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Укрепления на карибском побережье Панамы: Портобело и Сан-Лоренцо

Панамские форты, расположенные на карибском побережье страны представляют собой великолепные примеры военной архитектуры XVII-XVIII вв. Форты являются звеньями единой оборонительной системы, созданной испанцами для защиты трансатлантической торговли.

source: UNESCO/CPE
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Fortificaciones de la costa caribeña de Panamá: Portobelo y San Lorenzo

Estos fuertes panameños son magníficos prototipos de la arquitectura militar de los siglos XVII y XVIII y para brindar protección al comercio transatlántico. Espléndidos ejemplos de la arquitectura militar de los siglos XVII y XVIII, estos fuertes de la costa caribeña de Panamá formaban parte del sistema defensivo creado por la Corona de España para proteger el comercio transatlántico.  

source: UNESCO/CPE
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0


source: NFUAJ

Vestingwerken aan de Caribische kant van Panama: Portobelo - San Lorenzo

Dit gebied bestaat uit Panamese forten aan de Caribische kust. Het zijn prachtige voorbeelden van de 17e en 18e-eeuwse militaire architectuur. De forten, kastelen, barakken en artillerie-eenheden van Portobelo werden gebouw door de Spaans Kroon om de trans-Atlantische handel te beschermen. Ze vormden een verdedigingslinie rond de baai en beschermden de haven. De verdedigingswerken van San Lorenzo bewaakten de monding van Chagres. De vestingwerken kennen meerdere bouwperioden. De architectuur van de eerste bouwperiode (1596-1599) is kenmerkend voor de Spaanse militaire architectuur van Antonelli. De bouwstijl die daarna volgde, wordt gekenmerkt door een neoclassicistische stijl, afkomstig van Salas en Hernandez (1753-1760).

Source: unesco.nl

Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo (Panama) © UNESCO
Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis 

The Fortifications on the Caribbean side of Panamá: Portobelo and San Lorenzo are located along the coast of the Province of Colón. There are diverse fortification sites around the Bay of Portobelo, denominated San Fernando fortifications: Lower Battery, Upper Battery and Hilltop Stronghold; San Jerónimo Battery Fort; Santiago fortifications: Castle of Santiago de la Gloria, Battery and Hilltop Stronghold; the old Santiago Fortress; ruins of Fort Farnese; the La Trinchera site; the Buenaventura Battery; and the San Cristóbal site. Forty-three kilometers away, at the mouth the Chagres River stands the San Lorenzo Castle (originally “San Lorenzo el Real del Chagre”) with its Upper Battery as a separate structure. 

The component parts of the property represent characteristic examples of military architecture developed by the Spanish Empire in its New World territories largely between the 17th and the 18th centuries.  The first plans for fortifying the entrance to the Bay of Portobelo and the mouth of the Chagres River were prepared in 1586 by Bautista Antonelli. Following his recommendations, the first fortifications in Portobelo were begun in the 1590’s. As a whole, these structures comprised a defensive line to protect Portobelo’s harbour and the mouth of the Chagres River, which were the Caribbean terminals of the transcontinental route across the Isthmus of Panama. The defensive system includes fortifications in different styles, some of them skilfully integrated into the natural landscape as part of its military defensive design. They were also adapted to the changing needs of defensive technologies in the course of three centuries in order to protect the capital resources sent from colonial America to Spain after crossing the Isthmus of Panama. In the earliest constructions, a military style with mediaeval features prevailed, while in the eighteenth century the structures were rebuilt in the neo-classical style, which can be observed at the forts of Santiago, San Jeronimo and San Fernando, and also at San Lorenzo.  

On the regional scale, these military compounds belonged to a larger defensive system, including Veracruz (Mexico), Cartagena (Colombia), and Havana (Cuba), to protect the route of commercial trade between the Americas and Spain. Portobelo, where the famous fairs were held, was one of the principal Caribbean ports and played a leading role controlling the imperial trade in the Americas.    

The site is a key element to the understanding of the adaptation of European building models and their impact on the New World transformation during the modern era. This property demonstrates the strategic organization of the territory and represents an important concept of defence and technology development mainly between the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The town of San Felipe de Portobelo was founded in March 20th, 1597, as a Caribbean Terminal of the trail through the Isthmus of Panama, to replace Nombre de Dios as a port of transit and trans-shipment. The need to ease the overland path along the Isthmus during the rainy season called for an alternative route. The Chagres River-Cruces path, a mixed fluvial and land trail, was the counterpart of Camino Real from Panama City to Portobelo, built as a response to this need. 

Criterion (i): The Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo are a masterpiece of human creative genius. Portobelo is a remarkable example of an open fortified town, destroyed and built several times. San Lorenzo underwent the same process of renovations along the colonial era. 

Criterion (iv): The Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo, a group of late 16th, 17th and 18th century fortifications, are among the most characteristic adaptations of Spanish military architecture to tropical climate and landscape features, and represent the structural and technological development of military structures in the Caribbean. 


The key elements that convey the Outstanding Universal Value of the property are located within the original boundaries. These features still illustrate the evolution of military architecture developed by the Spanish colonial empire to protect the commerce route which connected South America with Spain across the Isthmus of Panama.  The major components of the fortified system are still visible at Portobelo, where most colonial fortresses continue to be a resemblance of the original; the same applies to the bay, where the forts are emplaced. Likewise, at San Lorenzo the fort and the Chagres river mouth have been maintained. 

However, the integrity of the property has been compromised to different degrees by environmental factors, by uncontrolled urban sprawl and development and by the lack of maintenance and management. A number of measures, including conservation works, enforcement of regulations and the operation of a site management unit, will need to be implemented in a sustained manner to prevent the further erosion of the conditions of integrity, particularly at the component parts located in Portobelo. 


In terms of form, design, material and setting the components of the property have remained mostly unchanged through time, expressing the essence of the fortified system and the evolution of European models of military architecture from the late 16th to the 18th century in the Americas.  The military structures have largely retained the overall original form, although most architectural finishes, decorative elements and some wall sections have been lost as a result of decay.  The vulnerability to decay factors will need to be addressed through sustained conservation actions, carried out in accordance with scientific conservation principles and standards. 

Protection and management requirements

The Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo are protected by general Panamanian legislation on heritage (Law 14/1982, updated by Law 58/2003) and by specific legal instruments for each site. Underwater historic vestiges are protected nationwide by Law 32/2003. 

Existing legislation underscores the protection of Portobelo (Law 91/1976 and Executive Decree 43/1999). Municipal Ordinance 32/2005 addresses long-standing land ownership issues in Portobelo’s historic core and surrounding National Park. On December 27, 2011, the National Heritage Directorate established new guidelines for architectural projects in monuments and historic sites in the erntire country, which also apply to the Fortifications on the Caribbean side of Panama (Resolution 172-11/DNPH). In the case of San Lorenzo, protection is granted by Law 61/1908, Law 68/1941, and the general heritage legislation mentioned above. However, due to its recent incorporation to the Panamanian administration after 83 years under United States government management, protection policies need to be strengthened. 

The Protection and Development Plan for the Interoceanic Region approved by Law 21/1997 also includes conservation norms for San Lorenzo. In April, 2005, the National Environment Authority (ANAM) published a Management Plan for Chagres National Park which includes conservation measures for San Lorenzo.  

Both fortified compounds are under the administration of the National Institute of Culture (Instituto Nacional de Cultura - INAC) through the National Heritage Directorate and since 2007 also by the Patronato Portobelo San Lorenzo, a mixed public-private organization currently responsible for management, conservation, and community outreach and fundraising. Its primary goals are protecting the architectural remains and making this heritage accessible to national and international communities.   

Among the requirements identified for the proper protection of the property is the creation of a Master Plan to guide all short- and long-term actions and strategies at both sites. Protection mechanisms at San Lorenzo need to be updated in the form of a specific site law (including detailed protective measurements and the enlargement of boundaries and a buffer zone creation); the San Lorenzo component has recently been segregated from Chagres National Park and is in the process of being transferred to INAC’s custody. At Portobelo, designation and effective protection and management of buffer zones for each fortified structure, is mandatory to guarantee its protection from the pressures of urban growth.