Ten minutes across some pretty rough waters from the Panamanian village of La Guaira, we found ourselves kindly deposited on the Caribbean island of Isla Grande. The boat pilot didn’t want to take on the larger waves near the reef to the northwest and so we had to walk the ten minutes along the rim of the island to the Sister Moon Eco Lodge.
I was not complaining. The ocean was rough and the wind was pretty stiff. This land-lubber was thankful for the wisdom of the boat pilot. We parked our car right near the pier in La Guaira at Doña Eme´s fenced lot ($5.00/day) and simply hailed a boat. The trip over ran us just $5.00.
(Nelson is the guy to call: 507.6023.8857)
The Sister Moon hotel Isla Grande is tucked away among towering palms and hibiscus on that northeast shore and on a steeply sloping hill. It is one of the more remote places on the island. Made up of eleven small, shining white cabins, each with its own bathroom and hammock-decked balcony. There are also two dorm-style accommodations, one for men and one for women. Finally, there is a bar, restaurant and swimming pool.
Thankfully set away from the main village and the other tourists, the place is blessed with a stunning view of the sea and the wild Caribbean coast of Panama. The wind keeps the bugs off and the constant crashing of the sea is ridiculously relaxing.
Then there is the very kind and helpful staff (any place with good people like this gets a thumbs up from me) ready to jump up and solve any problem – which is a good thing – especially when you want a shower….or to flush the toilet.
This is your classic “rustic” type of place. While it is very clean and the landscaping well maintained, there is no hot water, no air conditioning (thank God!), no TV (thank God!), just a small lock for your door and a seemingly endless number of steps to climb from cabin to cabin. There is Internet access but it is spotty and unreliable. The rooms are very simple: mosquito netting on the windows, a clean, comfortable bed, a clothes closet, sink, shower and toilet. Simple. But really, you don’t need more. I don’t.
I love this type of place.
The only thing that bothered me was the lack of water.
From 11pm – 7am the hotel wisely turns the water off to all the accommodations to avoid any accidents than may run the limited reservoir dry. In our case, the water never came back on without a lot of work from the staff. I had no need of a hot shower in that tropical environment but after being in the sea or hiking in the forest I did want to at least rinse off in the evening. But our shower just never really worked despite the efforts of the staff.
The Sister Moon is simple, simple, simple.
(Be sure to thoroughly review their very comprehensive website)
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Now. It is important to be clear up front that at the present time, EVERYTHING in Panama is overpriced. The country is in somewhat of an economic boom brought on by massive infrastructure projects and a real estate bubble caused by an influx of Americans and Europeans. As a result, anyone doing business with anyone other than the extreme poor thinks their product is way more valuable than it really is. It is a seemingly unavoidable imbalance during boom times and, unfortunately, results in a worse overall economy than a better one. I don’t think it is anyone’s fault, it just … IS.
The point is that I’m not really sure the Sister Moon Eco Lodge should be priced like an American hotel that has hot running water, internet, free breakfast and so on. At $69/night for one of the cabins ($99/night on holidays. See full list of rates here) I just felt like…given the rustic nature of the place does it really warrant the price?
(Full-disclosure, the Sister Moon kindly set us up with a complimentary two-person cabin for three nights in exchange for a review.)
I guess this also goes to the “eco-lodge” part of it. You’re willing to pay a bit more for a place that has an “ecological” bent to it. Say, recycling the gray-water or using solar panels or something along those lines but I simply couldn’t see what made the Sister Moon an “eco-lodge” beyond the simplicity – and in my mind that is a valid claim to “eco”. It is a simple, low-energy use place.
I like that – but you don’t raise your price for what you lack.
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Isla Grande itself is a rich, jungled rock inside Portobelo National Park. The little island hosts a rich and diverse flora and fauna populated, for the most part, by fishing communities made up of the decendents of escaped slaves. Isla Grande is an excellent place to snorkel, fish, swim, surf and kayak (location and directions). The magnificent lighthouse that crowns the island has some incredible views – especially at sunrise – and is a must see. There are numerous accomodation options on the island if you’re looking for hotel Isla Grande.
The food is where the Sister Moon excels.
The coffee was outstanding and for breakfast ($9.00) you can have shredded beef or island sausages, eggs, corn tortillas or yummy hojaldre. For dinner ($11.00) I stuck with the delicate baked sea bass, lightly sweetened coconut rice, fresh green salad and side of patacones (fried plantains).
Yes you can get a meal in the village for half the price but the food at the Sister Moon really is excellent (see their menu and prices here.)
Watch out though. They will nail you with the sides.
For example, if you want an extra piece of toast with breakfast they charge $2.50?! You’ve got to be kidding guys. An extra piece of toast for breakfast should come free. Seriously. If you insist on charging for it though, charge the actual price…like $0.02…hell, tack on some huge profit margin and go with $0.50. But $2.50?
There is nothing more irritating to the consumer than getting nickel and dime-d to death…. dollar-ed to death in this case!
And that gets to the most irritating thing about the Sister Moon Eco Lodge - the cooler and alcohol policy. We showed up with a small cooler containing one bottle of wine, 12 beers, a water bottle, some yogurt and a jar of peanuts. We brought it because our intention was to hike out to some remote areas of the island to enjoy the days…places where we could not buy anything.
The total cost of all the contents of the cooler was about $15.
On arrival the manger (a very nice young guy named Mike) informed us that they charged $50 for large coolers and $40 for small coolers to be brought to the hotel. He also informed us that they had beer for sale at the lodge for $3/can and that there were no cold beers, only warm. The wine they had was a mediocre $5-6/bottle-type but they wanted $23 for it! They also sold bottles of water at an equally exorbitant amount.
Remember, one could take a 10-minute walk into the village on the island and buy cold beer for $0.50/can and giant cold bottles of water for $1.00. So this policy just seemed outlandish.
I do understand the idea behind it. You want people spending money at your place. But how can you expect that when you have nothing but hot, flat, over-priced beer and crappy wine?
Well, I flat out refused to pay despite the fact that our room was complimentary. I would have gladly forked over the $15 (even though our intention was to consume elsewhere anyway) – but $40? No way.
What these guys should do is raise the price of their meals by a dollar (it would still be worth it – it is really one of the strong points of the place even if pricey), dump the cooler and un-corking policy, charge reasonable amounts for the beer (i.e $1.00) and other alcoholic drinks and make sure the beer is cold!
I would aim to keep people spending money on location (and staying for dinner) by actually charging reasonable prices for the alcohol. When a multitude of cheaper options are literally just down the shore you need to be a little smarter in how you keep the spending localized in your establishment.
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It seemed to me that the Sister Moon was just out of balance price-wise. Frankly, I love this kind of place. But for a wonderfully rustic little set of cottages to charge what it does for food, drinks and accommodation just doesn’t make sense. Is it an “eco” lodge? Yes. No. Kind of.
Regardless, I’d happily return to the Sister Moon.
Laying in the hammock, listening to the waves crash on the reef, watching the birds and butterflies flit by…..
Ya. That would be quite ok.