Located off the southern Pacific coast of Panama is the Archipiélago de las Perlas, or the Pearl Islands. The Pearl Islands were named for the pearls found in its waters and consists of 90 named islands and over 130 unnamed islets. The islands are surrounded by white-sand beaches and turquoise blue waters, making it the picture-perfect vacation spot. Mogo Mogo Island (Isla Mogo Mogo) was the location of three seasons of Survivor! Dozens of other countries also film similar type shows in the islands.
Contadora Island (Isla Contadora) is the most visited as it is the most accessible and developed. With a population of around 360 people, it stays relatively quiet, has several quaint lodging options and 12 spectacular beaches.
Getting there: There are two ways to get to Contadora Island: by ferry or by plane. Sea Las Perlas is the ferry service to the Pearl Islands. Roundtrip tickets are $90/adult and $70/child (ride length: 1 hour 40 minutes). Air Panama offers daily flights to Contadora Island. Roundtrip tickets are about $134/person (flight length: 20 minutes).
We booked tickets with Air Panama from Albrook Airport (not Tocumen International Airport) to Contadora Island. I was concerned about seasickness on the almost two hour ferry ride and we preferred the morning departure flight time on our return day. I had read online that Air Panama is notorious for running late and sometimes even making extra stops. I think I figured people were exaggerating, and it would be fine. They have an excellent safety record so how bad can it be, right?
The flight did arrive. Two hours late. It was a puddle jumper. We were the first on so we sat in the row of three seats directly behind the pilots. I recommend these seats if you suffer from motion sickness and/or claustrophobia. Behind us were four more rows of seats all filled with people. I realized then why our luggage had strict weight limits and why we had to report our individual weights.
The flight was amazing! I had taken medication to prevent motion sickness and had no problems. The views were surreal. Although our flight was suppose to be nonstop, we did make a detour and landed on a rustic runway on San José Island. I was more shocked than scared. The grass runway was surprisingly smooth, and we could see men on the end of the runway working on paving it by hand. This was all very exciting and interesting. A few people exited the plane on San José to stay at the one resort on the island. Next we jetted off to Contadora where we landed safely and smoothly. We may have arrived over two hours later than planned and made an extra stop on the way, but the experience was worth it.
Where to eat: Contadora Island has about a half dozen restaurants and two small supermarkets. All of which are significantly over priced. The prices in the restaurants are $15-$25 per meal and beer costs the same as bottled water: $3. (You can’t drink the tap water.) Not all of the restaurants take credit cards so bring plenty of cash and don’t plan to eat on the cheap or you will be severely disappointed.
We can personally recommend Rincon Hot Stone and Restaurant Gerald’s. We also enjoyed the bar food at the beach bar on Playa Galeón. We had a very reasonably priced lunch at a restaurant located on the patio of a local house. No one spoke English but the menu was very small so we figured out what was offered using my handy Spanish language map and our own limited Spanish vocabulary. We had supper at Restaurante Clarita where there are no menus and no one speaks English. We asked for “pescado” and were each served an entire fish. It was surprisingly delicious! We each got a fried corvina fish, rice and a small lettuce salad. We were surrounded by locals and thought we had found a diamond in the rough. Unfortunately, we didn’t ask the prices before we ordered so when the waiter told us that we owed $46, we were incredulous. We knew we had been charged gringo prices and learned our lesson to always ask prices up front.
Where to stay: We stayed at a cozy, charming place called Hibiscus House Bed & Breakfast on Contadora Island. We booked the Triple Room which had a queen bed and a single bed for $140/night. Our room had a private bathroom, french doors that opened onto the front terrace, a mini fridge, free wifi and perfectly chilly air conditioning. Breakfast was included in our stay and was homemade every morning. We had eggs, toast and fresh fruit our first morning and banana pancakes, bacon and fresh fruit our second morning. I’m still dreaming about those pancakes. They also provided towels we could bring to the beach, offered on-site massages for an added fee (which we did not have time for) and rented golf carts for half the price of the Welcome Center near the airport. They also offer to pick you up from the airport or the ferry drop-off.
The only negatives we found were that there was no where in the bathroom to set our toiletries. There is no counter space, no hooks and no shelving. Also, we wished there was a faucet outside on the terrace for rinsing off our feet. We often had sandy feet and didn’t want to bring the sand in our room.
Tip: Get the phone number to Hibiscus House Bed & Breakfast (or wherever you are staying) before you get there so you can call them to pick you up when you arrive. Since our flight was so late, our ride was no longer waiting.
Transportation: The island is quite small at 1.5 miles long and .7 miles wide. Transportation around the island consists of golf carts and ATVs (such as Kawasaki Mules). You can rent golf carts at the Welcome Center for $90/day. Along with Hibiscus House Bed & Breakfast, I have read that other lodgings on the island also offer golf carts for rent at a cheaper rate than the Welcome Center. Realistically you can walk the entire island but it would take at least an hour or so and would be very hot. Most lodgings are not within a comfortable walking distance from the airport or Welcome Center (where the ferry drops-off), with the exception of The Point. It’s located at the end of the runway on Playa Galeón.
What to do: Of the 12 beaches to explore, the five best are Playa Larga, Playa de las Suecas, Playa Cacique, Playa Ejecutiva and Playa Galeón. Playa de las Suecas (Swedish Women’s Beach) is a nude beach and can be tricky to find. You likely won’t encounter any nudists. The beach was empty when we stopped by. Twice.
We were I was curious. Playa Galeón is our favorite beach. It’s located at the end of the runway, has lounge chairs for free, a fair amount of activity and a beach bar offering cold drinks and a variety of food. When the surf is small, Playa Galeón has the best snorkeling. My son even saw a stingray. You can rent snorkel gear at Coral Dreams, next door to the Welcome Center.
Speaking of Coral Dreams, this dive shop offers world class snorkeling tours and scuba diving. For $53.50 per person, we did the three hour Islands and Snorkeling Tour which was the highlight of our trip. We loved everything about the tour, from our excellent guide Jeremy to stopping at a sandbank surrounded by turquoise water to snorkeling in a reef filled with fish to stepping foot on the famous Mogo Mogo Island. Make sure to wear a rash guard to protect against sunburn and to help insulate you in the ocean that sometimes can feel chilly. Most importantly, lather on sunscreen, especially well on your forehead, and don’t forget your hands.
Pros: This is an excellent choice if you are seeking lazy days on the beach and minimal tourists. The Pearl Islands are an idyllic spot for peace and tranquility. There is no real night life, although this could be a pro or a con depending on who you are. There are numerous lodging options and several restaurants. The seafood is fresh and delicious. The beaches are exquisite and the water is clear and warm. The flora and fauna are plentiful on the islands. The waters are filled with marine life, and there are healthy coral reefs nearby. The diving and snorkeling is some of the best in Panama. The whale-watching from July-October is fantastic for spotting humpback whales and dolphin pods.
Cons: The two markets on the island are expensive and have very limited selections. Do not plan to save money by preparing your own meals or buying beer from the market. The restaurants have delicious seafood, but you will have to pay for it. There are no ATMs or banks on the island so come with loads of cash. There are many large beautiful mansions on the island, but there are just as many abandoned developments. It appears many projects went broke, leaving dilapidated buildings untouched for years. Contadora Island was Panama’s first real resort island back in the 1980s, and many facilities have not been updated since. There is no real nightlife if that is what you are seeking.
Don’t forget: Bring lots of cash! There are no ATMs or banks on the island. Some restaurants take credit card but not all. Do the Islands and Snorkeling Tour with Coral Dreams. Book your tour in advance on their website. Wear sunscreen everyday. Bring your own snacks if you have the space in your luggage. The ferry may allow you to bring a cooler, but you would need to check to be sure.