Escape to Isla Grande
Located 20km (30mins) east of Portobelo, Isla Grande is a small island off Panama’s Caribbean coast. Approximately 1.5km in length, the island can be accessed by boat from the small fishing village of La Guaira. The boat trip is a speedy 1km ride. There are no roads on the island, just one path that runs along the southern perimeter of the island.
The best beach for families on the island is La Punta in front of Hotel Isla Grande. An idyllic sandy bay with clear shallow waters that are great for snorkelling in. During busy periods, they section off the bay with a rope to create a safe swimming zone (boats are obliged to navigate around it). To access the beach, the hotel charges a day fee of $4 per person (children under 7 years are free). This also gives you access to their outdoor showers and plastic tables and chairs.
Flanked by palm trees, the bay itself is picture-perfect paradise. However, due to its easy access from Panama City (a two-hour drive and a short boat trip), Isla Grande gets very busy at weekends, and even more so during national holidays. During these periods, city folk often arrive in large groups, very much in the holiday spirit. That is, lots of drinking and loud reggaeton music. In contrast, the beach is almost empty during the week days.
For an extra fee, you can get a boat to take you to a beach on the northern side of the island. I read reports that the snorkelling is good on this side near the Banana Village Resort (the resort is now permanently closed). Alternatively you can hire a boat to take you to one of the nearby uninhabited islands such as Isla Mamey. I can’t personally vouch for these beaches as we stayed put in La Punta – but if you’ve been I’d love to hear what you thought about them. Please leave a comment below!
Where to Eat on Isla Grande
Isla Grande is not famous for its restaurants (putting it mildly). On our visit Hotel Isla Grande offered a no-frills seafood grill. Served with fries and thrown into polystyrene containers, it was simple but finger-licking good! If visiting over a busy weekend, be prepared to for a wait though. Packing some snacks for the kids, or even bringing your own picnic lunch is a good idea.
As we left Isla Grande at the end of the day, we asked our boat driver to make a quick stop at El Nido del Postre, a small restaurant a couple of hundred metres up from La Punta. Here they sell very good homemade paletas de frutas (fruit ice lollies) – perfect for the boat trip back to the mainland!
Where to Stay on Isla Grande
There is a reason people visit Isla Grande as a day trip. Much like the restaurants, the accommodation options aren’t particularly great either. As we didn’t stay the night I am unable to offer any personal recommendations, but here are a couple of options: Macondo Hostel and Hotel Sister Moon.
Alternatively, you might want to consider nearby Portobelo as a base.
Isla Grande is located 1km off the Caribbean coast from the small fishing village of La Guaira. From Panama City, La Guaira can be reached in approximately 2 hours (120km). Cars can be left in a guarded car park for $6 / day. A boat ride from La Guaira to Isla Grande costs approx $6 per person (lifejackets are provided).
What to Bring
- Cash: Remember there are no ATMS in La Guarida or on Isla Grande. Bring enough cash for the car park, entrance fees to the beach, lunch, ice-lollies etc!
- Snorkelling kit
- Like anywhere in Panama, the sun is extremely strong. Rash vests are advisable. And plenty of suncream of course.
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