Coinshooting in Porto Bello by Sewall "Stu" Menzel

Have you ever wondered what it would be like in TH-er's heaven? See for yourself, go to Porto Bello in Panama and shoot away! Whether you're an expert coin shooter, a dowsing rod magician, a SCUBA diver with a gold thumb, or merely one of us easy-going metal detectorists who like to get out in the sunshine and combine exercise with health living...go to Porto Bello.

 
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Coinshooting in Porto Bello by Sewall "Stu" Menzel - article from Treasure Quest Magazine

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like in TH-er's heaven? See for yourself, go to Porto Bello in Panama and shoot away! Whether you're an expert coin shooter, a dowsing rod magician, a SCUBA diver with a gold thumb, or merely one of us easy-going metal detectorists who like to get out in the sunshine and combine exercise with health living...go to Porto Bello. You'll never regret the day you made that decision.

Porto Bello is located on the north coast of Panama and is a veritable well-spring of Spanish colonial coins, artifacts, and collectibles. It's easy to get to, along a coastal scenic route that carries you through small towns and rain forests. Once you arrive in Porto Bello you'll find it to be one of the most beautiful treasure hunting sites on the Spanish Main. There's no doubt it's a unique place, with the heyday of old Spanish colonial fortresses that still line both sides of the harbor.

San Felipe ("Iron Castle" 1600), Fortaleza de Santiago (1600), Santiago de la Gloria (1604), San Geronimo (1667-1753), San Fernando (1753), and the redoubts of San Cristobal (1683), Buevaventura (1731), Casa Fuerte (1753), Santiago (1753), and La Trichera site (1780) indicate that the Spanish felt strongly about defending this port. And for good reason. Over one billion pesos of silver and gold passed through here on the way back to Old Spain.

A few of the fortresses remain standing for tourists to scramble about and take photos. The rest are piles of hidden rubble, overgrown with Panamanian roots and bushes. But the history of this place will never be hidden; it's too dramatic.

During Spanish colonial times, Portobelo (often spelled Porto Belo, Porto Velo, Puerto Bello, or Porto Bello in various Spanish documents) was considered to be one of the finest harbors in all of the Spanish West Indies. During one of his exploratory voyages in 1502, Christopher Columbus was so impressed with the natural beauty of the bay and its surrounding hills with their lush tropical vegetation and palm ferns that he named the site "Puerto Bello" (beautiful port). It would be almost 100 years before it would gain real prominence.

At first Nombre de Dios, several miles to the east, would be the port used by Spanish galleons as they gathered the Peruvian gold and silver to take back to Spain. but in 1595 an English attack on the port, as well as the silting in of the bay, caused the Spanish to move to Porto Bello. By 1597, the new port was well established and became the focal point of the Spanish sea-going trade and commerce in the New World for the next two centuries. It became necessary to fortify the town, and the hills surrounding the port seemingly made this a very defensible place.

The terminus for the Royal Road, the Camino Real, that ran from one coast of Panama to the other, was now shifted from Nombre de Dios to Porto Bello. It is also along this road that hoards of silver coins have been recovered over the years, and there are hoards yet to be discovered. Go for it, TH-ers!

The climate is hot and humid there, and sickness is fairly common even to the local inhabitants of today. When the Spanish galleons dropped anchor at Porto Bello, the feria (the great commercial trading fair) began and merchants plied their trades, with jugglers, prostitutes, and magicians roaming the streets. Unfortunately, it gained a reputation as a pesthole. Many died there, and it is reasonable to assume that some of those who never made it out of Porto Bello probably buried their wealth in and around what are today's ruins.

It is also known that when corsairs or buccaneers, including the English, sailed into port with guns already, the local inhabitants, merchants, and landowners, hid their worldly treasures in gardens, nooks and crannies, and even down their cisterns to keep it from being taken. Have you ever tried to retrieve something from the bottom of a cistern filled with sand and mud? A metal detector works, but in the early Spanish days they could only grope around by hand.

During the days of the feria as many as 4,000 people would find some reason to attend and, as a result, the local population went from rags to riches for a brief period of time. Shelter, food, fresh water, even a clean hot bath could be had for an extraordinary high price. Sailors, merchants, mule drivers and the like all had to be accommodated, and all had money to spend. Banks? Not in Porto Bello! The nearest thing to a bank was a hole dug in the back yard or the corner of an adobe house, where a loose brick could be pulled out and cleverly replaced.

The many soldiers that were stationed in the fortresses also had time and money on their hands. Gambling saw money change hands on a daily basis, and again-rather than putting it in a bank-a loose brick, or a hole a few paces from the trees that stood just outside the corners of the forts, served as the "bank." It is these various hiding places that are turning up today. The youngsters of Porto Bello are selling them to the tourists who frequent the plaza.

So Porto Bello is a TH-er's dream come true. And even if you never find a single coin, you've experienced the ambiance of a part of history that served as the funnel of Peruvian gold and silver, the pesos that changed the course of Spanish history. Let's hope a few fell off the wagon along the way for you.

Sewall "Stu" Menzel

This article and more valuable information is available in Treasure Quest Magazine, July - Aug.1998: Click Here

 

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