Nestled in an idyllic cove on the remote coast between Portobelo and Guna Yala, Coral Lodge's bungalows and restaurant are perched over the sea and surrounded by amazing scenery—emerald waters, mangroves, and a golden beach backed by jungle. Seven spacious bungalows stand on cement posts atop coral platforms, with waves washing beneath them, a ladder from each balcony touches the sea. The bungalows have high, thatched roofs, cane furniture, and appropriately tropical decor. A walkway connects them to a small beach, pool, and open-air restaurant. Rather than luxury, Coral Lodge offers access to pristine coastal nature with creature comforts and good food, and the opportunity to visit Guna Yala on a day tour. They also have snorkeling, kayaking, and rain forest tours. Transportation to and from the lodge is extra.
Santa Isabela, 25 km (16 mi) west of Porvenir. Kuna Yala by sea, Santa Isabela, Panama
507-836–5434; 888-499–2497-in U.S.
Jan 20, 2010
I stayed at the Coral Lodge in February/March of 2007, so my review may be a little out-of-date. Summary: We stayed at the Coral Lodge for 3 nights, and were, on the whole, satisfied. I think the hotel has real potential, but still has a long way to go in several areas. Our main issue began the afternoon prior to arrival, when we received two frantic messages on our hotel voice mail asking us to call due to a problem with our reservation. Of course,
no one answered the phone in the Panama City office that we were asked to call, so after speculating for some time over what the problem could be (Was the Lodge closed? Did they not have our reservation? Was our flight to the San Blas oversold or cancelled?), we were forced to call the Lodge directly on our own dime. I believe that Rob, one of the managers answered the telephone, but he had no idea why Ursula was contacting us. To his credit, he said he would find out, and that someone would try to call us back within the hour. (We only realized after arrival how lucky we were that someone was in the main Lodge at the time that we called.) We did receive a call back from Ursula in Panama City, who told us that Bungalow/Villa #6, which we were promised for the PAST TEN MONTHS, would not be available to us during our stay. When we asked what Bungalow number we were assigned, she said she would find out and call us back. We were assigned #5, the second-best one, and she offered some other amends for our troubles. Everyone at the lodge tried to blame the bungalow mixup on one of their previous employees, Lisabeth, but I have copies of every letter and e-mail that I sent to the Coral Lodge over the past ten month, and in EACH and EVERY letter, it stated the villa number that I was promised. I even have several e-mail directly from the OWNER stating “Not to worry, you are set for number 6”. When we asked him directly, he too blamed the previous employee for the mixup. Obviously, that was essentially lying to my face. I would have been happier had he or anyone else there accepted responsibility. When I returned home, there was an e-mail from Laurie and Rob, the managers, stating the problem, and telling me that another couple was promised that same bungalow before me. Again, another lie, since after speaking to that couple, they had booked their room months after I did. To their credit, they had to move halfway during their stay, because the bungalow problem had affected them in the same way earlier in the week. Enough about that--my point is--don’t request a specific bungalow and think that you’ll get it, even if you receive written confirmation from the Lodge, the managers, or the owner. Had this been my honeymoon or some other extra-special vacation, I would have been seriously dissapointed. In actuality, the bungalows are all the same, just differ in their distance from shore (and they are all pretty far from shore). Rooms: The bungalows were attractive. I think each had a king-size bed, which was the more common two twin beds pushed together. There was a dresser and hanging closet area for clothes storage. There were two chairs and a small coffee table for sitting. The bathtub is part of the bedroom area, though I don’t know how on earth one could fill it and actually use it. It looks nice and romantic, but with the water pressure and water temperature being what they were, it would have taken hours to fill and days to heat. The toilet was in its own enclosed closet, and the sink was just off that but more a part of the whole bungalow. Sheets/Towels/Toiletries: Upon arrival, Laurie told us that we should let them know if we wanted our sheets laundered, otherwise they would not be changed. Knowing that we were staying in an eco-hotel, we had planned prior to arrival that we would just use the same sheets for our three night stay. We had also planned to use the same towels in trying to help the ecosystem. Also at check-in (which isn’t done in any formal way at any desk or anything, you are just shown to your room), Laurie said that if any towels were left lying on the flloor, that would be a sign they we would like them changed for new ones. When we returned from dinner our first night there, our toilet had leaked, and we used most of the hand towels to soak up the mess. Since it was late at night, and there was no way to communicate with anyone short of trekking back down the boardwalk, we cleaned it up ourselves and used a bottle to catch the dripping. Unfortunately, those wet, sopping towels were NEVER replaced during our remaining stay. As someone who stayed at Thanksgiving reviewed, had I know that, I would have let the water flood the floor and saved my towels for myself. But to be fair, we never requested the new towels, we just hoped that someone would notice. Since you couldn’t call down to anyone to ask for new ones, we would have needed to remember what we wanted and then ask down at the main Lodge when we encountered someone (which wasn’t always a sure thing). As the guest of a $420 per night hotel, I would have HOPED that I could have at least received replacement towels for those clearly unusable ones. We also received two beach towels to use during our stay. (Upon leaving on our boat departure, we heard Laurie call out to Rob to remember to purchase laundry detergent in Santa Isabel, which made us wonder if perhaps they didn’t have the supplies that they needed to do the laundry and thus replace the towels.) As with all hotel rooms, there wasn’t enough light. Not a big deal, though. The air conditioning worked fine, and there were many windows for cross-ventilation if you wanted the breeze to blow through (the breezes are very strong and are very welcomed). There are three lounge chairs on the deck, as well as a hanging swing chair (only villa #1 was missing that) anda stepladder that can be lowered down to the water (although it does rest on the coral, which didn’t seem very ecologically friendly to us). The toiletries were made by ProTerra: peach soap for your face and coconut for your body, with two tubes of conditioning shampoo (which I normally don’t like but did here) and a shower cap. No body lotion or other amenities. There are no bathrobes or slippers, and there is no hairdryer (although Laurie did lend hers to me for my stay). Obviously no television or radio, and no actual clock (although the air conditioning control had some sort of a clock on it). The overhead fan works pretty well, and our room was always cool and comfortably temperature-wise. We brought along a portable DVD player with movies and music and were glad that we did--it really came in handy and would have been a godsend had we had poor weather where we were confined to our bungalow. There did seem to be a TV and VCR in the Lodge, but I think it was for staff use (although they might have let you watch along). Water: We encountered some water pressure problems on arrival, which made me fearful that they would continue for the entire trip, which, that goodness, they didn’t. Just an anomaly where there water tank emptied and hadn’t been refilled. While the water pressure in the bungalows (e.g. sink and shower) was not like being in a five star hotel, I’ve actually had worse pressure and temperature IN some five star hotels. I would say it was as expected. Note that due to the low lighting in the bungalows, it is rather dark taking a shower after sunset. There is an odd window in the shower that leads to the sink area, where there is light, but it’s still rather dark in the enclosed space. The could have used some shelving/racking in the shower to hold shampoo, razors, etc. As it was, I had to set those items on the floor, which was less convenient. Each bungalow seems to have its own heating on-demand system, and while the water was never superhot (in our room at least, we heard others were scalding), it was certainly comfortable for showering. While the water pressure in the rooms was fine, the water pressure in the bathroom at the main Lodge (near the pool) was awful. The toilets often did not flush at all, and it was IMPOSSIBLE to wash ones hands in the bathroom sinks with the mere trickle of water that was there. I tried them at various times of the day, and it was always the same--PITIFUL! It made me glad that I had my hepatitis A and B boosters before arriving, since they had to wash the food, etc using that same pitiful dribble of water. There were NO signs anywhere telling you NOT to drink the water. We heard that they had their own water treatment/purification plant nearby, but I don’t know that for a fact. Also please note that due to the sensitive plumbing, you canNOT flush any toilet paper. Everything must go into a nearby wastecan, which is emptied twice per day (while you are at breakfast and again while you are at dinner). It’s not the first time I have had to do that, but reminders are usually posted everywhere since it’s so AGAINST the norm where most people live. Food: The food was great. Myra the chef is just 21 years old, brought to Panama by the owner from Peru. Breakfast consisteted of a fruit plate starter drizzled with honey (e.g., mango, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, canteloupe combination), followed by your choice of hot entree (e.g., French toast, banana or pineapple pancakes, any type of eggs, scrambled eggs mixed with cheese and/or ham and/or veggies, toast with butter and preserves, bacon, sausage). Breakfast was the most filling meal of the day. Lunch and dinner were pre-set menus, and there were no choices. As expected, fish was featured prominently. We had some excellent white fish dishes, always covered with some type of sauce or cheese (I’m not a huge fish eater, so I loved that they had sauces, but if you are a purist, it might affect your review). One evening we had linguine with crab sauce. Carbohydrates were prominent as well, and potatoes and white coconut rice were often accompaniments. There were very little vegetables served, and almost no salads. The portions were on the small side, and I never left the table feeling full or bloated, which was a good thing but unexpected after the enormous portions that we receive in the states. It almost made me think of spa cuisine: fresh and healthy-looking, but nothing in overabundance. I don’t know how a healthy-sized man wouldn’t be hungry, though. I’m certain that they would have provided more food if asked, but no one made any comment to that effect and we would have felt badly doing so. But I’m sure they don’t want their guests to go hungry, so if you need more, speak up. An easy solution and a way to add filling bulk would have been to offer bread or rolls with lunch or dinner, but we did not receive any (but there was the toast at breakfast, which you had to specifically request). Lunch and dinner were three course affairs. As I said, Myra has some real talent, and we appreciated her innovativeness in using unique ingredients and thoughtful presentation. (No, they weren’t New York five star meals, but I didn’t expect them to be. Relatively speaking, they were 4.5 star meals, when compared with the meals that I ate in Panama City before/after the Coral Lodge (Barandas Restaurant at the Bristol Hotel and Ten Bistro at the Hotel DeVille being only slightly better, and still not NY-style five star (but if you want that, why even leave the states?) Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 9:30, lunch from 1:30 to 2:30, and dinner is at 8:00. You can eat breakfast and lunch anytime during those hours, and there are separate tables for each room (or you can join together if you like). Everyone seemed to gather at the Lodge just prior to 8:00, and then there was an announcement made that the food was ready and everyone could be seated (again at separate tables unless you wanted to join a larger group). We (as well as some other guests) would have liked to see the menu for each meal written on a small chalkboard so we would really know what we were eating. It was a guessing-game at times, albeit not a totally unpleasant one, I would have like to know more about the food/ingredients. There are NO menus, and everyone eats the same food for every meal (there are NO choices between entrees except for breakfast). Drinks: The guests are reliant on the staff to serve them any type of beverage. There was a large bottle of water in our room on arrival, but that was the extent of beverages being freely available. It would have been impossible to run up the $500 bar bill that we had envisioned because there was no one to serve you the drinks. Ladies, if you are imagining sipping pina coladas by the poolside, I’m not even sure that they have a blender. To be fair, whenever we asked for a drink, we were given one, but it was necessary to first find a staff member to help you. I would have liked to be able to access bottled water and/or something else non-alcoholic (since that was included with the room rate) freely whenever I wanted. There was almost a feeling of guilt when requesting more drinks. I know that I drink more water than the average person due to some medical issues, but I didn’t like feeling trapped by having to find someone when I was thirsty. There were clear signs on both kitchen doors that those areas were off limits to guest. There was a selection of wines for purchase (maybe 10 different bottle, varying in price from $16 to $26 to $36 dollars per bottle or $5 per glass). I NEVER saw anyone drink a mixed drink or fruity drink the entire time I was there. It was either wine or beer. Many people seemed to order the natural coconuts to drink, which required someone to hack off the end of the coconut so that a straw could be inserted for sipping. I tried one, but wouldn’t have ordered a second. Very odd tasting, in my opinion, but others clearly loved them. Staff: Myra the chef was great. Sophia the waitress was excellent. She was the one person on staff who we felt truly made an effort to interact and please/serve us. Her English was very good, having been a Spanish/English teacher previously, although she was clearly very young. Laurie and Rob, the managers, seemed to spend as much time “playing” as managing: often swimming in the pool, etc., which was a little too familiar for my tastes. Activites: Defnitely do the “booze cruise”, but please ask them to rename it! They are doing themselves an injustice by calling it that. I’ve been on many a booze cruise, and this isn’t one. Its more of a leisurely ride on the water accompanied by a cooler full of drinks. Not the raucous, rowdy booze cruises I’ve been on in the past. Fortunately, we looked past the name, because it was a great way to spend two hours prior to sunset. The cost was $20 per person for the boat and the drinks. We had planned to take one of the kayak tours (either the guided one or the glass-bottom one) but that was not to be. When we mentioned it to one of the managers, she seemed uninterested in taking us out, although she certainly recommended us going out on our own. We just weren’t comfortable doing that, and we didn’t ask again. I have NO idea where the glass-bottom kayak was! The moral is be sure to ask for what you want and be assertive. Boat Transfer (Outgoing): The transfer FROM the Coral Lodge to Miramar is incredibly WET and BUMPY. BE SURE to put on the RAINCOAT that they provide, and use the life jacket as a backrest. One of my vertebrae is really swollen from bumping against the boat. We took the open boat on departure, while we used the enclosed boat on arrival as well as for the booze cruise. I could tell that I would be in pain during the ride out, but I couldn’t let go of the rainjacket covering me for an instant, or I would have been soaked. Some of the men didn’t use the jackets, and they absolutely had to change clothes upon arrival because they were COMPLETELY SOAKED. We would have dressed differently had we known, but when we asked Rob, the manager, if the ride out was more or less rocky (and we also meant wet, I think) that on the way in, and he said that OUT was BETTER. NOTSO!! The boat ride to Miramar is about 40 minutes, then it’s another 30 minutes by road to Portobello (they used big SUVs that were quite comfortable) where you can walk around the forts and the church. We visited right after Carnival, so one of the forts was still decked out with black and red banners, which looked quite pretty. We then went to Las Anclas at the Cocoplum Dive Resort for lunch, which was an enjoyable meal (and very plentiful). There was a set menu of plantain chip appetizer, fish, octopus, rice, plantain chips, and carrots for the main meal, followed by ice cream. One drink was included, either alcoholic on non. The restaurant seemed pretty clean, and I had no hesitation about eating there. Then another 40 minutes to Colon, where you either branched off and took the road south to Panama City, or you could catch the Trans-Isthmus Canal Railway back to Panama City. The train took an hour, probably as long as the drive, except that it didn’t leave Colon until 5:15, so we had about 40 minutes to look around there before boarding. We enjoyed the train and were glad that we had another view of the Canal. The Coral Lodge also coordinated a transfer from the train station in PC to our hotel, which we weren’t expecting. That was a nice surprise, and now the charges for the train excursion seem to make more sense (we valued the transfer at $20, and our lunch at Las Anclas, which was also included with the train “fee”, was probably worth $20; the train itself was $22 for a one-way ticket). Boat Transfer (Incoming): The tour of the Kuna village and the island of Wailydup was very enjoyable. We were met at El Porvenir airport (we flew Aeroperlas, and Porvenir was our first stop) and transfered by a type of dugout canoe to one of the Kuna Islands for breakfast. Be sure to use the restroom--you have to see it to believe it. We then went to the island of Nalunega, where were walked around the village and saw a Kuna museum and school. (We had seem the Embrera Puru indians earlier in our trip, and that culture was much more majestic and classy that they Kuna. We compared it to the Amish versus the Mennonites, where the Amish--in this case the Embrera--live the pure lifestyle that they always have, while the Mennonites--in this case the Kuna--take advantage of some modern conveniences). The island of Waily dup where were snorkeled was one of the prettiest islands I have been too, and the lobster lunch was such a treat in such a remote location. It reminded us of a Corona commercial. But be warned, on the hotel website, it mentions a private island, so we had the impression that no one else but Lodge guests would be there. Imagine our surprise when a full motor boatload of cruise passengers pulled up and disembarked. They didn’t get in our way at all, we just didn’t expect there to be so many people on our own private island. Still, it was one of the most pleasant parts of our trip to the San Blas. The island had bathrooms and a small restaurant/snack bar, which would have been nice to know beforehand. I thought it was a totally remote without any modern conveniences, and I was glad that it wasn’t. Flight (Incoming): We used Aeroperlas. The flight had three of 20 seats empty, so it wasn’t oversold. A typical “puddle-jumper” plane; nothing unexpected or surprising. It was a bit dark, since we landed at 6:30 am, so there wasn’t any opportunity for picture taking on the flight. We arrived at the airport an hour early, which was necessary. The check-in agents opened at 5:00, but anyone there prior to that simply lined up their bags, then sat down to wait. Very neat and orderly. All luggage was hand-inspected in front of us. It moved much more quickly than anticipated. The Albrook airport has two small cafes and one small store selling sundry items. Bugs/Sun: Be sure to bring along enough sunscreen and bug spray. The sun is really unforgiving, and you don’t really realize it because of the strong breeze. The no-see-ums are as bad as everyone says (although they seemed to like my husband a lot more than they liked me) and you don’t want to be bitten any more than possible. You might also want some water shoes if you are planning to swim from your bungalow, since you’ll have to step on the coral in order to reach your ladder. Library/Games: There is a small lending library in the main Lodge. We left a book and took one with us. They might have 20 to 30 books in all on all subjects. They also have a few games, including Rummycube and Scrabble (both Spanish and English versions). Gift Shop: There is no formal gift shop, although Laurie mentioned that they had sunscreen and toothhpaste and the like for sale if needed. They did have some polo shirts with their logo for sale, and I heard that either Myra or Sophia had some paitings and/or molas for sale. Tips: On the hotel website, they recommend tipping $20 per day for each day of your stay, and they give you an evelope at the end for that purpose. You could indicate on the envelope if you wanted specific amounts to go to specific people; otherwise, they were evenly split among the 11 employees. Darkness: While it is dark at night, it is not as dark as some places we have been that also have no ambient light. You are provided a flashlight to walk to/from dinner, but we never needed it. We did visit close to a full moon, though, so it may have been brighter than at other times. Internet: There was internet available at the cost of $10 per half-hour. We did not use it, but someone always seemed to be on the computer. Walkie-Talkie/Communication: We were offered a walkie-talkie when shown to our room, but we were made to feel that we shouldn’t have accepted, because, as the manager stated, “Okay, then I guess we’ll try to keep ours on in case you need something.” I had NO illusions that I wouldn’t have EVER had any response had I tried to raise someone in hopes of communication. NO one was going to be manning the other end of that thing. Helicopter: If you have an extra $1100 to spend, you can arrange for a helicopter transfer from Panama City (that’s EACH WAY). My Suggestions for the Coral Lodge: Even though they didn’t ask (and usually there’s SOME type of questionnaire to fill out asking for helpful advice), here’s what I think: Menu/chalk board for meals (even if there is no choice, it’s nice to know what to expect) Bread served at meals Bottled water (in a cooler or something, available for our own taking) Towel replacement (when they are on the floor--especially if they are sopping wet--please replace them) Minibar with drinks and snacks (although it would be a lot of work keeping this stocked, it would be a real money-maker, I think) Post signs reminding people NOT to flush toilet paper Fix the water pressure in the sinks in the main Lodge (dining room) Thanks for reading. I know this is long, but I wanted to be complete in the hopes of telling it like it is so that others could benefit from the type of information I was looking for.