El Panama Hotel | Banana’s Resort on Isla Grande

We spent the weekend out on Isla Grande at the Banana’s Resort. Here’s a quick trip report. (Note: It seems like the link we had for Banana’s in Panama Guide already is broken. I’ll find their new webpage and fix the broken link later…)

For starters, we made our reservation on Saturday morning by calling the office in Panama City. After they had confirmed they had an open room at $119 per night, I informed them I was retired an entitled to the pensionado discount. They dropped the price to $83 per night, and that was honored when we got out to the island. So, good news there.

If you’ve never been out to Isla Grande it’s worth the trip. To get there, drive towards Colon and turn right in Sabanitas (after passing a McDonald’s on your left) the turn is to the right at the intersection where the Rey’s supermarket is. After this turns there are signs the whole way so you can’t hardly get lost. Follow signs to Portobelo, and then you go past Portobelo to get to La Guaira and the parking area for Isla Grande.

I was suprised to see the new secured parking facility for the Banana’s resort (see photo below.) It’s manned 24/7, and there’s a clean restroom there. The attendant has a list of current reservations, and he will make a cell phone call to have a launch sent over to pick you up. There are guys there to help you haul your bags down to the beach.

The boat ride out to the island takes about 20 minutes or so, and will cost you $3.00 per person. The hotel does not cover this cost. “Polaco” (the guy driving our boat) walked with us down to the check-in desk and waited around until the clerk explained that the boat ride out was not included. I guess they’ve had some misunderstandings before from guests. In any case, I paid the guy and he left.

This was the second time that I’ve been to Banana’s resort. I went out there about two years ago when my parents visited Panama, and in reality the place has not changed much. I was actually kind of surprised that I was able to get a room on short (no) notice for a Saturday night in the middle of the summer. Two years ago we had to go during the week because the weekends were booked. This time, the hotel was not even halfway full.

I asked around as to why, and got basically the same answer from everyone — it’s due to a combination of bad weather (lately) on the Atlantic side and additional competetive pressure from the other big resorts such as Decameron, Barcelo, and Gamboa. Fewer people are willing to drive the pothole-filled road and take a boat trip out to Isla Grande to actually pay more than what it costs to stay at a big resort that’s a lot easier to get to than Isla Grande.

Our total bill for a one night stay, including discount, was $173.00. Toss in an additional $6.00 for the boat ride out and our lunch in Portobelo the next day and Banana’s turns out to be an expensive way to see Isla Grande. The restaurant at the hotel is expensive. We had a “normal” meal with a couple of drinks and the tab was $50. Breakfast the next morning was another $15. After having done the “all included” thing at Decameron, it felt like we were getting nickeled and dimed to death. But, in the end, it works out to about the same cost per person, per night (about $90) as a stay at either Decameron or Barcelo.

With that having been said, the place is still visually beautiful. There are three rooms in each of the little bungalos that are tucked into the side of the hill, two downstairs (left and right) and one upstairs. There are two queen beds in each room, air conditioning, TV, hot water, towels and soap. There are only ten channels on the television, but if you’re there to watch TV you’ve got issues. I’m just telling you what’s out there. There are no phones in the rooms, and Bellsouth does not cover the area for cell phones, so if you’re planning to go, make sure you give people the number of the desk in case you want them to be able to reach you. The rooms are large and spacious, have a patio with a hammock, and are actually very nice.

So, we got settled in and headed for the beach. We only had about an hour or so left of sun and wanted to get in some salt water time. Be sure to bring some “surf shoes” because the the “beach” ends where the water starts, and if you want to go out into the water you’ll be walking on rocks and reefs. It’s good snorkeling territory when the tide’s in, with lots of bright tropical fish to look at. But, if you don’t have the right kind of footgear you’ll take two steps out, then head right back to your beach chair.

We went down to the restaurant for dinner at about 7:00 PM. The food was good, but overall pricey for what you get. There were only two serious negatives about this trip, the first being the loud sucking sound coming from my wallet every time we ate or drank anything. The second was the live entertainment…

They had a “Congo Show” which consisted of locals from Portobelo who sang and danced in the local fashion for about an hour. The music and dancing in the local style is derived from the African heritage, in a combination of styles that incorporate traditional rythms and beats from the Congo and Bantu people of Central Africa. Drums and hand rattles are the major instrumentation for this music which is dedicated to spirit beings known as Nkisis. The songs and chants, often in a hybrid combination of Spanish and Bantu words, play a central role in rituals. For the most part, the words to the music tell a story about something that happened in the central singer’s life, and there’s a chorus that’s repeated several times during the show. It is colorful, lively, and fun to watch and hear. That was the upside.

The downside was that the performance was mismanaged by the hotel staff. The guy at the reception desk told us twice to “remember the Congo show at 7:30…” Other than that, they just showed up and started playing, singing, and dancing. I’ve seen these kinds of performances before, know a little about the history, culture, and background, and can speak Spanish. So, I was able to follow along with the lyrics and know what was going on.

Almost everyone else at the hotel was either from the US or Europe, spoke no Spanish, and knew nothing about the music style, history, or culture. Basically, it was lost on them. If you remove the meaning of the lyrics, the basic beat does not vary much or at all from song to song, and it gets monotonous. No one explained to the guests what they were seeing, described the costumes or the music style, or let anyone at all know what was going on. After about three or four songs, some had taken some pictures but many of the guests were just basically ignoring the dancers comepletely.

I asked around the next day and several other guests all told me the same thing — the hotel staff should do a better job of incorporating the show into the evening, and providing a little background to fill it out. Anyway, that’s my beef on that point…

We pulled some chairs up by the ocean and watched the surf, drank wine (more sucking sounds from the wallet area) and then headed to bed. It actually rained a lot off and on during the night. The staff said that business was off recently as well because of heavy surf and lots of rain on that side recently. But, the rain made for great sleeping background noise, and we slept in…

Almost missing breakfast. Which, again, was not bad at $6.50 per pera son, but it’s a one-price and choose from six options kind of thing, so you have to spend the $6.50 on breakfast or go hungry. Like, you can’t just get coffee and toast. Can you tell the continuous sucking sounds from my wallet were getting on my nerves?

Anyway, enough of that. We packed up and headed for shore. We wanted to do the Portobelo thing (which is another article). Overall, Isla Grande and Banana’s is a nice place, but they’re in a tightening market at the end of a pothole filled road, and there’s a boatride in a fiberglass cayuco through choppy waters in between them and their customers. There’s no way this place should be half filled at this time of year. It should have been packed. I guess the newer resorts are siphoning off some customers, and bad weather took away others, but it seems to me that the hotel management is going to have to change some fundamentals in order to compete. That’s just my observation. In the end, it’s still a nice place, and worth a visit.

SOURCE: Don Winner @ Panama-guide.com

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Source: VIP Panama