This weekend I jumped OFF the “off the beaten path” scene and jumped ON the touristy boat to Isla Grande.

A view of the clear Caribbean waters and the main part of "town" on Isla Grande.

A view of the clear Caribbean waters and the main part of “town” on Isla Grande.

Arriving in La Guaira before it was completely dark,  we took a water taxi across to Isla Grande

Arriving in La Guaira before it was completely dark, we took a water taxi across to Isla Grande

WOAH! It was big for 2 reasons.

  1. We rented a car in Panama, and although we had quite the adventure trying to get OUT of the city and find the correct roads in to the port for Isla Grade, we did it. We turned around at least 5 times, asked people for directions, but we did it. I am used to the crazy driving of Los Angeles, but Panama isn’t so keen on posting road signs or street signs. So, it was a lot different than simply punching in your destination in to Google maps. We printed directions, but those proved meaningless once we realized finding street signs just wasn’t going to happen.
  2. Isla Grande is beautiful. Yes its touristy, yes the food is mediocre at best, but you don’t even care because the whole place is just beautiful. It’s like one of those (beer, usually) commercials that I used to longingly watch and drool over from my Midwestern couch in the middle of January. There is basically one main path that runs the length of one coast of the island and travels from the Sister Moon hotel (where we stayed) to Hotel Isla Grande, on the other point of the island. The Caribbean water is a clear, turquoise blue, and with the heat and humidity it is practically is screaming at you to get in.
A view of Hotel Sister Moon from a far.

A view of Hotel Sister Moon from a far.

I highly recommend paying slightly more than hostel prices for Hotel Sister Moon. We arrived late on Friday night to a deserted island (it is the off season) and the entire hotel was dark. Like, pitch black, we weren’t even sure if the hotel was still open. Hell, it felt like most of the island was dark. After calling the office line that I had on the reservation confirmation, we got a hold of an employee in Panama City and miraculously two guys showed up within minutes to confirm our reservation and give us keys.

Ray enjoying the morning view from our balcony hammocks at Hotel Sister Moon.

Ray enjoying the morning view from our balcony hammocks at Hotel Sister Moon.

We had a very simple room but it had a balcony with 2 hammocks overlooking the ocean – RIGHT over the ocean. I should also mention that the beds each had mosquito nets and immediately my friend Ray was elated that one of her life goals would be accomplished that weekend (she had always wanted to sleep in a place with a mosquito net, who knew?). We fell asleep to the sound of the loud waves crashing into the rocky beach below our balcony and did a big happy dance that this was real life.

Saturday we woke up and did another happy dance (there were a lot of these over the weekend) because the sun was shining, the surfers were out, and we had hammocks to relax in on our private balcony. Oh, and there was Internet, even better.

Ray (left) and I relax in the water on Isla Grande. Life is good.

Ray (left) and I relax in the water on Isla Grande. Life is good.

We spend the day lounging, swimming, and lazily walking the length of the island. It was HOT and humid which only added to our desire to move as little as possible unless we were in the water. After speaking to the hotel staff, we booked a “boat tour” for $20 a person and took an enjoyable spin around the island. It wasn’t so much a tour, but we got to see the other side (where Banana’s resort is located– it’s the only real resort style hotel on the island) and enjoy the breeze on the water.  While the island is touristy, I was surprised to see very few gringos. There were Panamanians, Colombians and Venezuelans, but we only ran into one other group of gringos on our last day.

We also found out that there is another white sand beach accessible by boat, so we booked a “boat tour” for this excursion the following day. We got savvy and booked the boat ride with our driver directly – saving ourselves a few bucks this way.

Walking the island at night, we came across locals playing bongo drums and enjoying a dance party.

Walking the island at night, we came across locals playing bongo drums and enjoying a dance party.

For dinner, we enjoyed fresh fish at our hotel. Sister Moon has the ONLY good food on the island. Take this advice early and avoid the other restaurants in the center of town. After dinner, we enjoyed beers with the hotel staff and walked the length of the island again taking it in at night. Again, it was the low season so bars were not bustling with people, but we could tell from the half filled bars and empty beach front vacation homes that this place fills up during the summer season (November-January according to our hotel staff). My favorite part of the walk and of the night was running into the local drum circle and dance off. We were the only gringos around, and us two very fair skinned gringos loudly stood out, but we couldn’t help but stop and watch with smiling faces as the group of toddlers, teenagers, adults, and the grandparents of the island all circled around the music and danced to the beats.

 

The view through the palm trees from our balcony at Hotel Sister Moon.

The view through the palm trees from our balcony at Hotel Sister Moon.

Sunday was a repeat lazy day with a mid-morning boat ride to the nearby beach on Isla Mamey. Just more bliss and gratitude for being here in Panama and in the warm Caribbean waters.

Getting home was easier than getting to Isla Grande as it was easy to spot the “Panama City” signs. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the car rental return. What should have taken 15 minutes was about 45 minutes circling around unmarked one-way streets looking for our drop off. Thank goodness my co-pilot has more patience than I, and was able to talk me down when I was about to give up. It’s at times like these when I realize I’m more like my anxious traveler father than I realize!

What a weekend – while we had mixed reviews of Isla Grande as a vacation spot, we had a wonderful time relaxing on the beach and enjoying the beautiful views. I have yet to make it to Bocas del Toro (still Caribbean side, but closer to the Costa Rican border), but Isla Grande sets the bar high!


Click the pic below to book your own adventure to Isla Grande!

Hospidaje Isla Grande