The Pearl Islands: Exploring Contadora
The Pearl Islands archipelago is made up of over 200 islands and islets. Discovered in 1513 by Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa the islands were named for the abundance of pearls that were found in their waters. The most notable island in the archipelago is Contadora, lying about 30 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Gulf of Panama. Contadora is the 11th largest island in the Pearl Islands, and a hub for tourist activity. Contadora, translating to “the one that counts, was given its name for the pearls that were counted on its shores. While those who visit the archipelago today will no longer find these lucrative oysters, there are treasures of a different kind that can be found in and around the islands. From humpback whales, to pods of dolphins, colorful marine and island life continues to thrive in the clear blue waters and sandy shores of Contadora.
History: From Yesterday to Today
The Isthmus of Panama was created over three million years ago when the Earth’s tectonic plates began to join North and South America. Prior to this geological event, islands off the Pacific coast began emerging from the sea. These landmasses would come to be known as the Peal Islands. Pre-Columbian artifacts found on Contadora Island and Isla del Rey, including carvings in rocks, remind one of a local population that once thrived here and the sailors that passed this way. While, none of the original population remains, and the origin of artifacts cannot be confirmed. The mystery and romance of by-gone days linger in the wooded areas, peeling painted houses, famous mansions and the salty sea atmosphere.
When the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500’s they exterminated the local population within two years of their arrival. In need of laborers, the Spaniards imported African slaves in the 16th century. The decedents of those slaves still live on the islands, particularly Isla del Rey and Saboga.
We spoke with a man named Quaco who works on Contadora and is of African descent. He told us that his family had always lived in the Pearl Islands, first on Isla del Rey and then Saboga. From a young boy Quaco had been commuting to Contadora for work. Today at the ripe age 65, he takes a Panga to Contadora daily to help unload the boats that bring in tourists daily. Quaco told us that his job is to help with bags and to keep the beach clean. For his service he is granted $300 a month plus any tips he makes.
Getting to Contadora
By Plane – AirPanama flies from Panama City to Contadora for $83.79 one-way. While these flights are advertised as direct flights, occasionally they will stop on Isla San Jose to pick up tourist visiting the exclusive resort on this privately owned island. The nice thing about flying to Contadora is that the trip is short, totaling approximately 15 minutes, without stops. To book a flight with AirPanama call (507) 316-9000 or visit www.airpanama.com
By Boat – The Sea Las Perlas ferry leaves daily from the Balboa Yacht club on the Amador causeway daily at 7:30 a.m. arriving in Contadora approximately 1hr and 45 minutes after departure. Sea Las Perlas has two ferrys with a brand new ferry on its way. The new boat expects to shorten the trip by 45 minutes. A one way ticket on the ferry is around $45 for adults and $35 for children. Reservations with Sea Las Perlas can be made online at: www.sealasperlas.com/en/booking. During high season there are additional boats and companies running ferry service. One thing to be aware of when taking the ferry, there is no landing dock. When the ferry arrives in Contadora, passengers and luggage are carried to the shore on small boats. Expect to get your feet wet.
Where to Stay
Over the last couple years the options for accommodations on the island have grown. Today you will find a variety of B&Bs and a couple of hotels on the island. In Contadora there is a unique blend of old and new. These are some of our favorite places to stay are:
Hibiscus House - This sweet bed and breakfast is located in the heart of Contadora Island on a quiet street, hosting several other B&Bs. It is a short walk from a secluded white sand beach surrounded by rock formations and coral reefs. Hibiscus house is ideal for single travelers or the whole family. The house has five rooms, all with AC, and private en-suite washrooms and hot water. The house has a full kitchen with plates, cutlery, pots and pans, microwave, fridge, kettle, coffee maker and stove. Rooms range from $90 for a single bed to $110 for a king size bed. A healthy breakfast is included. An amazing Italian restaurant called Casa Tortuga is within walking distance from the B&B.
The Point – Located on Playa Galeon, The hotel is one of the most conveniently located place to stay on the island as the ferry drop point and the landing strip are steps away. All rooms at the hotel offer AC and hot water. Rooms start at $120 a night. The most striking feature of The Point is that every room has an ocean view, over looking the clear blue waters surrounding the island. Even if you are not staying here, the walking decks around the hotel are the place to be to catch a beautiful sunset. The hotel offers amenities such as a pool, internet and restaurant.
What to Do
When exploring the island, on-foot or by golf cart, a good place to start is the Welcome Center, located across from the airstrip and offers information about the Pearl Islands. Right next door to the Welcome Center is the local dive and snorkel shop, Coral Dreams. Run by Guillermo and his wife Roxana, Coral Dreams offers a variety of dive and snorkel tours. If you wish to explore the ocean in search of these giants it is best to enlist the help of a knowledgeable naturalist. Whale Watching Panama’s office is located at The Point Reception offers tours on catamarans, sailboats and glass bottom boats.
Regardless of who you are out on the water with, during July and October, you will likely see humpback whales! Seeing whales in their natural environment is an incredible experience.
Visitors on Contadora can also enjoy, snorkeling, bird watching and close encounters with animals such as deer and the native rodent the agouti. This small island bustling island continues to draw tourists to it’s tranquil beaches and crystal clear waters. Today there are several ways to get there, and more choices to stay and eat. The islands even have their own Newspaper, The Pearl Island Times.