Isla Grande – which translates to “Big Island” – is, ironically, a tiny and charming island off Panama’s Caribbean coast. The island welcomes you with it’s warm and crystal clear waters, as well as hundreds of seductive palm trees, lush vegetation, and unique animal species. Isla Grande is uncommercialized. Do not expect boutiques, big stores, or fancy restaurants. Parts of the town are dirty and unkempt. Zero WiFi. There are only two hotels in the island, although some home owners do rent theirs on sites like AirBnB.
From Panama City, it’s a smooth two hour drive in the newly built highway to La Guaira, located in the Colón province. Before arriving at La Guaira you will see the colonial fortifications of Portobelo, including the famous canyons; this historic city was an important port for the Spaniards between the 16th and 18th century. It was named “beautiful port” by Christopher Columbus, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. For our mother and daughter getaway, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant in Portobelo called El Castillo (The Castle), and had delicious seafood right on top of the ocean.
It costs less than $4.00 dollars per person to be transferred by boat from La Guaira to Isla Grande. If you’ve driven to La Guaira, there’s a safe garage area for you to leave your car there if you are spending the night at Isla Grande; the fee is also considerably cheap.
One of my mom’s good friends has a house in Isla Grande, which she is unfortunately selling but did let us stay there on our last visit. My mother explained to me that her friend, Melissa, is selling the house because in 2015 she only went there like three times. It’s a shame because having a house in Isla Grande is a rare and matchless thing… yet I get that getting there can be a bit of hassle for some people. Also, there’s nothing in Isla Grande – you’ve got to take all your food, beverages, ice and supplies from the mainland.
Despite this, the island remains popular among Panamanians who seek to escape the crazy city during the weekends, and tourists who are cool with that laid-back, almost backpacker feel . Visitors are immersed into a relaxed vibe the minute they hop off the water taxi. The island’s AfroCaribbean influence is noticeable in the delicious seafood and late night music characterized by the saxophone, bongo drums, and maracas. Staff at restaurants and hotels are friendly and English speakers for the most part.
Do stop by and admire the local street vendors various crafts: jewelry, artwork, and ceramics can always be found at moderate prices. I personally always try to take a souvenir of all the places I visit: bracelets, magnets, and keychains are just to name a few.
Scuba diving and snorkeling are common activities due to the beautiful and colorful reefs. Surfing is big here. My favorite spot to relax and enjoy the views is the Sister Moon Hotel, where I frequent at dawn for a cup of coffee (and the breakfast isn’t half bad either!)