This bay was already known as a safe haven since Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502. The beauty of the place, its natural resources and natural protection were the reasons why it was given the name Porto Bello (Beautiful Port).
However, it was not until the end of the 16th century that it became a permanent settlement to replace Nombre de Dios, since the latter was located on an unhealthy swamp, which forced its abandonment. The original name was San Felipe de Portobelo, in honor of Philip II.
It was one of the most important ports of departure for the Spanish treasure fleet. The silver from New Granada and the gold from Peru (quinto real or the king’s fifth), were transported by road using the Camino Real from Panama to this port and then shipped to Spain. This place was used as an interchange point between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, which is why it was eventually turned into a large market, where fairs that could last for months were held.
This wealth was the reason why it was fortified since its foundation, after replacing Nombre de Dios. Pirates, buccaneers and corsairs plundered or attempted to do so by blockading the port on multiple occasions until 1739, when the port was captured by English admiral Edward Vernon, which revealed the weakness of the Spanish trade system and of its system of fleets and routes.