The first, largest, and most famous of the little towns is Nombre de Dios (pop. 1,053), about 25 kilometers east of Portobelo. It was the original Caribbean terminus for the Camino Real, the overland route used by the conquistadors to transport plunder from the destruction of the Inca empire.
The first European to lay eyes on the area was Rodrigo de Bastidas during his voyage of discovery of the isthmus of Panama in 1501. Columbus rode out a terrible storm here in 1502. Legend has it that Nombre de Dios (name of God) got its name when the unlucky Spanish explorer Diego de Nicuesa ordered his beleaguered and starving crew to take refuge in the harbor, shouting, “Let us stop here, in the name of God!”
Nombre de Dios was a poor, shallow harbor and proved nearly impossible to defend. Sir Francis Drake attacked it in 1572, though a wound forced him to retreat. He returned in 1595 and sacked it. The Spanish abandoned Nombre de Dios and moved the Caribbean end of the Camino Real to the far better and more defensible harbor of Portobelo in 1597. Nombre de Dios quickly faded away.
Today it is a poor, out-of-the-way, oceanside settlement of squat cinderblock buildings connected by dirt roads, as are the other towns along this road. There’s nothing to recall its rich past except a modern-era sign that reminds you this humble place is one of the oldest surviving towns in the Americas. The left fork leads to the old part of town, inhabited mainly by anglers. The right fork leads to the “new” side, which is where most of the settlers from Los Santos province live. There’s an artificial water channel that runs right through the middle of town; the builders of the Panama Canal scooped up sand from Nombre de Dios to build Gatún Locks after the Kunas turned them away from beaches in the San Blas Islands.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition