Isla Grande is the closest of the Caribbean islands to the mainland. It’s mainly a place for locals who want a quick dose of natural Caribbean beauty and tranquility and don’t mind that the hotels and restaurants are generally mediocre and the place a noisy party scene at times.
Those planning to go to Bocas del Toro or the San Blas Islands can easily give Isla Grande a miss; those archipelagos have much more to offer. It’s quite a humid place; be prepared for some serious afternoon napping.
Isla Grande is not really all that grand—it’s about five kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide and has around 1,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in the small town that runs along a single waterfront path facing the mainland. It consists mainly of a handful of simple hotels, some run-down houses, and a few tiny stores and open-air restaurants. The island is only a few hundred meters from the mainland.
Though Isla Grande has a couple of small beaches, this is not the place for vast expanses of sand. What the island mostly offers is the chance to laze about and enjoy some beautiful views of the forested mainland, clear blue ocean, and palm-covered nearby islands.
The beauty of this place has in the past been marred by the trash inhabitants and visitors tossed into the crystal waters. Little wonder the coral nearby is in sad shape. Recently, however, clean-up campaigns have greatly improved the look of the area. Less-disturbed spots are a short boat ride away.
Isla Grande tends to be dead during the week, especially in the rainy season. At these times, there are few dining options, and some of the hotels may be closed. Those who visit during a dry-season weekend, however, will likely find plenty of people having a rowdy good time and blasting music late into the night. Bear that in mind when considering a hotel in town.
There is not much to do on Isla Grande at night other than booze it up, and there aren’t even many places to do that. Patron saint festivals are held on June 24 and July 16 and involve celebrations on both land and sea.
Getting to Isla Grande
Access to Isla Grande is from the down-at-the-heels village of La Guaira, 120 kilometers from Panama City. La Guaira is 20 kilometers from Portobelo; just drive through town and continue along the same road. The trip from Panama City takes about two hours.
The road is often riddled with potholes. At the entrance to La Guaira look for a sign that reads Isla Grande. Take the left turn indicated. Park by the dock for free, or in the partially fenced-in area on the left, behind Doña Eme’s kiosk, for US$2 a day. The fee probably buys nothing but a specious sense of security, but I always go for it anyway. Obviously, don’t leave anything valuable in the car. When you come back, one or more teenagers may hit you up for change for “watching” the car. It’s up to you whether to give one of them anything, but they can be unpleasant if you don’t.
Those coming by bus from Panama City should take a Colón-bound bus and make sure it stops in Sabanitas. Get off at the El Rey supermarket in Sabanitas, which is right on the highway, and switch to a bus bound for La Guaira. The whole ride should cost less than US$5.
Any of the boatmen hanging around the dock at La Guaira will take you to the island (don’t expect life jackets). The ride takes about five minutes. The fee is US$1 per person to be dropped off in what passes for downtown Isla Grande. Expect to pay double at night, which you should avoid since few boats in these waters have lights. Boatmen may ask for more if they think you’re a clueless gringo. Settle on a price ahead of time, and clarify whether the rate is per person or per group.
Nearly every place on Isla Grande is easily accessible by foot. Those who want to visit Sister Moon or Bananas and don’t feel like hoofing it can hire a boatman down by the town waterfront for a couple of dollars. Your hotel can probably arrange for a boat back to the mainland at the end of your trip, but if not it should be easy to find one along the waterfront.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition