The Pearl Islands, Panama
The beautiful Pearl Islands
The Pearl Islands (Las Perlas Archipelago) consist of around 380 islands and islets located throughout the Gulf of Panama, about 30-40 miles southeast of Panama City. Only a few of these islands are inhabited, and many don't offer any amenities to tourists. The largest and most well known of these islands are Contadora, Isla del Rey, Isla San Jose, San Miguel and Pedro González. The closest is Isla Taboga.
The island of San Jose supports 630 species of plants. On the islands of San Miguel, Saboga and Pacheca, 16 species of mammals have been identified, and five species of cetaceans. In addition, 90 species of birds have been identified in the archipelago, including the migratory ones.
Oysters and their pearls are still found in these beautiful waters. Over the centuries, the Pearl Islands sheltered famous pirates that looted the wealthy Spanish settlements and fleet found in this area. Pearls harvested here have adorned kings and queens of Europe, and they include the 400 year old, 31-carat famous "La Peregrina" pearl once given to the Queen of Spain but now owned by Elizabeth Taylor.
Three season of the U.S. hit reality show Survivor have been filmed in the Pearl Islands.
Of the few inhabited island only a few have the amenities of Contadora and this is the favourite relaxing weekend spot for the wealthy Panamanians working in the city. It has several hotels and restaurants, a few shops, a primary school, a police station, and an airport.
The island is about 750 acres, is crossed by several roads, and can be walked around in an hour. The 300 local residents include a number of people who were passing through and got stuck – and it is easy to see how that could happen. The Pearl Islands are incredibly welcoming. Developments and tourists are few and the islands are idyllically diverse and incredibly lush. Looking around there is a sense that the jungle will reclaim the buildings before the buildings could possibly claim the jungle. Orchids and vines grow as easily on rooftops as on trees. And with some luck, the move for highrise development a la Miami will be limited to the mainland.
Yachts heading to the South Pacific often stop at Contadora Island as it's just 50km south of the Panama Canal. The easiest way to get there, however, is to take a $50 us (return) flight from Panama City. The flight from the mainland will allow you to get a glimpse of the ships converging on the canal as well as some aerial views of many of the Pearl Islands.
Contadora is a practical hub to explore from, or simply, to explore itself. There are a few choices in lodging on the island. Hotels include the larger Hotel Contadora and the newly renovated and expanded Punta Galeon. Both are a few steps from the airport - literally.
Villa Charlito is another option with its 7 rooms, as is checking at the Duty Free shop window for flyers advertising private rooms that might be available.
Contadora has a dozen public beaches around the island. Diving and snorkeling are excellent but the high tides of the Gulf affect both visibility and accessibility. Daily tides up to 17 feet make a significant difference in a snorkeler's height above the reefs. The best snorkeling is consequently at low tide.
At Playa Larga, Hotel Contadora's beach, there are lots to be seen. The reef starts just beyond the rock that is visible in the center of the strand a few hundred meters out. Swimming from Playa Sueca (the nude beach) around the point to Playa Larga takes you through the best area to spot sharks and turtles, and there is a little secluded beach along the way. Other good beaches for snorkeling include Playas Cacique, Galeon and Canoa.
Contadora's reefs have a nice array of stony corals, and in that regard the reefs most closely resemble the related corals of distant South Pacific islands. The diversity is less, likely due to the effects of the cooler currents mid-winter, but the fish are prolific compared to similar sized reefs in the Caribbean. There are lots of sharks and the best place to see them is off the point between Playas Sueca and Larga. It is worth mentioning that while reports suggest that the Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake (Pelamis platurus) is rarely encountered, we saw two during the week. They are venomous and reach about a meter in length; but, their beautiful bright yellow stripes would seem hard to miss.
Taboga Island, also known as the Island of Flowers, is a beautiful island with an intriguing history, a quaint village of about 400 residents and several hotels and beaches as well as an abundance of nature trails.
The Island of Taboga has several beaches to choose from, and most of the beaches offer stunning views towards the Panama City skyline. There are daily ferries to and from Taboga which is roughly 12 miles from the mainland. The boat trip to the island is just under one hour and very enjoyable.
The history of Taboga is very interesting and dates back to the times of the Spanish Explorers, and for a short time in the late 1800´s served as home to the French Post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.
There are several homes on the island of Taboga that have won various architectural awards.
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