For such a small place, there’s quite a range of places to stay on Isla Grande , though no great bargains. Only the lucky or the easy-to-please will think they’re getting their money’s worth, at any budget. In the hoteliers’ defense, it’s not cheap to offer big-city amenities in such a remote area. And the cheaper places tend to cater not to foreign couples on a budget but rather to Panamanian weekend partiers who shoehorn as many people as possible into a room.
Most of the hotels are clustered close together along the main strip overlooking the water. Sister Moon is farther along still, on an isolated bluff accessible by a rocky path. Bananas Village Resort is clear on the other side of the island, secluded from everything.
Food on the Caribbean side of the isthmus contains ingredients rarely found elsewhere in Panama . Finding a restaurant on Isla Grande that’s both open and serves these dishes can be a challenge, though. Be on the lookout for seafood in coconut sauce and moderately hot red-pepper “congo” sauce.
At meal times, count yourself lucky just to find a place that’s open, especially during a rainy-season weekday. The hotels are the best bet for food. Several of the ones along the main drag have simple, open-air restaurants right on the water’s edge. What they may lack in quality they somewhat make up for in rustic island ambience.
Cabañas La Cholita (tel. 448-2962, Panama City tel. 232-4561, US$49.50 s/d), offers 12 rustic rooms in a cheerful garden setting. There’s no hot water, but there is air-conditioning and a simple restaurant. This place is often packed on the weekend.
Hotel Sister Moon (tel. 226-9861, cell 6681-6740, www.hotelsistermoon.com , starts at US$35 s, US$70 d including breakfast) sits by itself on the hills of a palm-covered point overlooking a picture-postcard bay, rolling surf, and the emerald green mainland. The main accommodations consist of a series of thatched-roof cabins on stilts, dotted along the hillside. Each has a double bed.
The cabins are rustic but pleasant and tastefully designed. It’s like staying in a fancy tree house, and the breeze here is a welcome respite from the island’s humidity. There are also eight cabins with bunk beds for backpacker-types. A small, rocky beach with a good surf break is close by. A sun deck juts out right over the surf break, and next to it is a little restaurant and a pub with a billiard table and dartboard. There’s also a small, murky swimming pool that’s more scenic than inviting.
The one odd thing about this place is that it seems to live a perpetual twilight existence. In my many trips to Isla Grande , I’ve never been there when the place was in full swing. That can be great for those seeking seclusion, but those who make reservations far in advance should confirm before arrival that everything’s up and running.
Bananas Village Resort (Panama City reservations tel. 236-8489, cell 6661-6750, resort tel. 448-2252 or 448-2959, www.bananasresort.com , package rates start at US$140 s/d, including breakfast) is the fanciest place on Isla Grande. It’s on the north side of the island, tucked away in a lovely, isolated spot facing the ocean. It’s accessible only by boat or forest trails. A variety of different, confusing packages are available.
The place, which opened in 1998, is nicely designed, cheerful, and small. The rooms are in eight A-frame cottages on stilts. Each cottage has three units: two large rooms below and one very large room above. They’re the same price, but the upstairs ones are nicer. All have balconies, hammocks, and air conditioners. There’s a swimming pool, and guests have free access to sea kayaks, snorkeling equipment, beach chairs, and so on. Boat excursions to the surrounding area are extra.
Though the resort is attractive, the service has been bad each of the several times I’ve stayed here over the years, and the place is not well-maintained. Guests can’t count on hot water, for example.
The open-air restaurant is the most expensive on the island, with entrées that reach the double figures. I’ve had okay meals here, though the food tends to be deep-fried with heavy sauces.