Isla Grande, just 1.5 - 2 hours from Panama City, currently serves as weekend destination for urban Panamanians and tourists alike. While its beaches are not as spectacular as those found in Bocas del Toro or Guna Yala (San Blas), the verdant green mountains, crystal clear water and Caribbean style atmosphere are inviting and still relatively undiscovered. The island's couple of hundred inhabitants make a living from fishing and growing coconuts, in addition to servicing the hundreds of visitors that have come to enjoy the island's natural beauty. There are no roads on the island, in fact, most of the island is inaccessible. Rather, the town itself is spread along the island's beach front, which on foot can be covered in just a few minutes. A well defined path stretches from the public beach on the far left to the far right side. Numerous small eateries, bars, markets and street vendors line the town's walkway. For those seeking accommodations, there are many fairly basic but comfortable cabins that reside just off the main path.
It's possible to hire boats for snorkeling, diving and sightseeing trips to nearby islands. Overall, Isla Grande is a peaceful place to spend a couple of days swimming, snorkeling, swinging in a hammock, eating seafood and enjoying the tropical climate.
Buses to La Guaria depart Colon regularly, but only those that read La Guaria reach Isla Grande. If you're traveling by bus from Panama City, there's no need to travel all the way into Colon. Get off in Sabanilla, where the REY supermarket is, and then catch a local bus heading to La Guaria. Once in La Guaria, you'll need to take a water taxi to Isla Grande, which is just a few minutes away.
The ruins in Portobelo, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981, are dispersed over quite a large area, complete with cannons and stone walls, some in surprisingly good shape.
The first set, straddling the main road just as you enter into town, overlooks the Bay of Portobelo and is a terrific place to start. A large row of cannons line the left wall, and to the right a large open courtyard. Just off the right side of the road, nearly in front of the ruins, is a path that leads to the top of an adjacent hill, where wonderful views of the ruins and nearby town can be appreciated.
Further up the road, off to the left and just behind the customs house, is another section of ruins. Extending out into the Bay of Portobelo, there's a long row of cannons to your left that run the full length of the ruins, and to the right an open courtyard.
Just across the bay, and divided into three distinct parts, you'll find additional ruins worth visiting. There is stone trail that leads from the lowest fort, which resides along the water's edge, to the middle one, which is rather close and can be see from the lower section. It's an easy, short walk along a stone trail. To visit the third and highest fort, you'll have to hike along a wide, steep trail. The upper fort has no views of the lower sections, but has stunning views of Portobelo and surrounding areas. In order to visit these particular ruins you'll need to take a water taxi, which can be hired at the dock that resides just after the first set of ruins you encounter as you are entering into the town of Portobelo.
From Colon, buses to Portobelo depart throughout the day. As well, you can take any bus that reads "La Guaria", which passes by Portobelo en route to Isla Grande. If you are traveling by bus from Panama City, get off in Sabanilla, which is about 15 minutes before reaching Colon. The same buses that depart Colon for Portobelo and La Guaria pass by here. From Sabanilla, the trip takes about 40-60 minutes.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981, the San Lorenzo ruins are perched high on a cliff overlooking the Chagres River, offering spectacular views of the entire coastline. While smaller in size than the ruins at Portobelo, San Lorenzo is different in that it has numerous caverns on the lower level which you can explore.
The San Lorenzo ruins are located inside a National Park, which contains numerous walking trails. If you wish to view the Chagres River, turn left at the intersection just before reaching the ruins and follow this road downhill to the water's edge. There are no public restrooms or stores inside the national park, so bring everything you need, i.e. water.
There is no public transportation to the San Lorenzo ruins, the public buses that depart Colon only go as far as Gatun Locks. Taxis charge $60.00 - $70.00 for a round-trip visit to San Lorenzo from Colon, which should include ample time to view the ruins. If you are on a budget or prefer to walk, you can take a taxi to the entrance of Fort Sherman and walk from there - approximately 6 miles (9.5 km). There are numerous signs along the road pointing to San Lorenzo, so if you decide to walk you should have no problem finding your way.