Just another day on the Caribbean

Isla Grande es uno de los destinos más disfrutados de Panamá, y puede incluso apreciarse en un viaje de ida y vuelta en un solo día.

This post is also available in: Spanish

By Jacob Ehrler

Around and about Portobelo

Isla Grande is one of Panama’s most enjoyable destination, and it can be appreciated even on a day trip visit.

Isla Grande is one of Panama’s most enjoyable destination, and it can be appreciated even on a day trip visit.

Only in Panama can one visit the Caribbean and the Pacific in the same day with such ease. Via the new Don Alberto Motta highway between Panama City and Colon, cars and buses cross the isthmus in about an hour for under $5 in toll booth fees.

The country’s attractive capital, located on the eastern side of the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, has so much to offer that the ‘other side’ – the Caribbean – is often overlooked. But it not should be ignored by those who wish to experience something completely different. Panama’s `Caribbean side´, particularly around the historical town of Portobelo, caters for many different tastes.

Next weekend, throngs of travelers will make the 90-minute trip to Portobelo along the ‘La Costa Arriba’ (or the ‘Upper Coast’) in the Colón province for the first annual Congo Festival. Use the following guide to truly enjoy the experience.

Take a right at the Sabanitas Rey

The ‘Costa Arriba’ of Colón has many an old Spanish cannon for tourists to see.

The ‘Costa Arriba’ of Colón has many an old Spanish cannon for tourists to see.

The El Rey supermarket is the first important landmark. Take a right here before getting all the way into Colón proper to head out toward the coast. The first glimpse of the Caribbean sea is but a few minutes away and you may notice signs of a more relaxed way of life, like locals traveling on horseback and tiny commercial establishments located in the fronts of colourful homes along the way.

Bala Beach

In the town of Maria Chiquita, a big sign indicates the first major condominium development on the Caribbean, Bala Beach Resort. Follow the sign down to the beach for a look at this spectacular mixed use condo and hotel development.

Adventure for all

PanamaOutdoorAdventures.com has its headquarters just a few minutes later. The entrance to this adventure outfit, which offers a zip line and river tubing on its activity menu, is indicated with a sign that points down a dirt road to the right, or southern side of the winding road.

Food and fun in the sun at the beach

The first opportunity to take a dip at a beautiful Caribbean beach can be taken at the well-indicated Playa La Angosta. Cars pay $3 to park and enjoy the facilities which include Caribbean gastronomy (from fresh lobsters at a sit-down restaurant to a small serving of fried fish and yucca on a plastic plate for $3). The picturesque beach, as its name implies, is not wide. La Angosta is a popular beach among the local population.

A Caribbean woman dancing and singing during a celebration in Portobelo

A Caribbean woman dancing and singing during a celebration in Portobelo

 A scenic drive

After La Angosta, the drive becomes even more scenic. It winds along the coastline with spectacular vistas that can tempt the driver to take his eyes off the road. At bridge crossings, passengers can observe fishermen dipping their lines from the banks of rivers and children playing on rope swings.

Dining among ancient cannons

Before reaching Portobelo, on the left hand side is a famous Costa Arriba restaurant called Los Cañones (the cannons). Two dining areas, one in a structure perched above the sea and the other down near the waters edge, afford a view of the rocky coastline and the cannons from the era when Spaniards tried to protect their gold from pirates.

Whether ordering a whole fried snapper or a corvina fillet, accompany it with the ‘arroz con coco’ (coconut rice) that’s the specialty in this area. Warning though, those who order ‘almejas’ (clams) might be surprised upon being served ‘mejillones’ (mussels) instead. The misuse of term is a Costa Arriba idiosyncrasy.

Oceanside dining at Los Cañones Restaurant.

Oceanside dining at Los Cañones Restaurant.

A scenic drive

After La Angosta, the drive becomes even more scenic. It winds along the coastline with spectacular vistas that can tempt the driver to take his eyes off the road. At bridge crossings, passengers can observe fishermen dipping their lines from the banks of rivers and children playing on rope swings.

Dining among ancient cannons

Before reaching Portobelo, on the left hand side is a famous Costa Arriba restaurant called Los Cañones (the cannons). Two dining areas, one in a structure perched above the sea and the other down near the waters edge, afford a view of the rocky coastline and the cannons from the era when Spaniards tried to protect their gold from pirates.

Whether ordering a whole fried snapper or a corvina fillet, accompany it with the ‘arroz con coco’ (coconut rice) that’s the specialty in this area. Warning though, those who order ‘almejas’ (clams) might be surprised upon being served ‘mejillones’ (mussels) instead. The misuse of term is a Costa Arriba idiosyncrasy.

A map of the ‘Costa Arriba’ (Upper Coast) area of Colón.

A map of the ‘Costa Arriba’ (Upper Coast) area of Colón.

Colombian empanadas

At the entrance to the town of Portobelo, a sign indicating ‘Empanadas Colombianas’ at Restaurante La Torre might come as an unexpected surprise. But try one with a crisp and crunchy fried corn exterior and a potato and beef stuffing, these morsels are meant to be dressed with the house special chimichurri sauce. This is the only non-view dining option around, and those who try to decipher the roadside marketing scheme for the restaurant will discover that the owners have turned this lack of a view into a marketing tool: ‘If there’s no view, the food has to be good!’

Portobelo proper

The old Customs house in Portobelo.

The old Customs house in Portobelo.

Entering the town of Portobelo takes the traveller through the original Spanish fort that faces the calm Bay of Portobelo and the peninsula that is the beginning of the Portobelo National Park. Sailboats at anchor and boats crossing the bay allow one to imagine what this fort must have looked like hundreds of years ago when the town was the headquarters for exporting treasure back to Spain and gloried in its importance as the principle trading post on Panama’s Caribbean side.

The old Customs house

In the middle of town, on the left hand side, it is hard to miss the old Customs House. This architectural gem was the processing hub for trade. Take a walk throughout the conserved structure.

More cannons and beaches to enjoy

A quick boat ride (rates negotiable with water taxis nearby) can take you close to another section of the Spanish fortress defense that is hard to see from the shore.

Or ask the boat to continue around the point and drop your party off at Playa Blanca (not to be confused with the resort on Panama’s Pacific side) for a few hours on this beautiful secluded beach. Backed by a national park, the boats arrange a time to pick up those they drop off. Snorkeling options are plentiful here.

Beyond Portobelo

Continuing along the road, the vistas turn from ocean to countryside through the coastal lowlands. But the half-hour drive is well worth it. This is the way to the world-famous Bananas Resort on Isla Grande. Bananas is the crown jewel of the island’s tourism offer but there are lodgings for every budget.

To get there, take a $2.50 water taxi from the town of La Guaira across to the island. Those who wish to just stay for the day can opt to do so at Hotel Isla Grande, which charges $3 per person for the use of their beach. Parking in La Guaira is safe.

Keep exploring, look for signs

There is much more to explore in the area and there are signs (literally) all around indicating that development in this beautiful area will continue.

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