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Gulf of Panama - Contadora Island
Islas Las Perlas, Panama
The Pearl Islands are over 200 islands sprinkled throughout the Gulf of Panama. Of these, only a few are inhabited and only a few have the amenities of Contadora. It boasts 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 transplanted travelers 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 bigger, taller, grander development 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 $50us (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 boasts a dozen public beaches encircling the island. Diving and snorkeling are excellent but the high tides of the Gulf affect both visibility and accessability. 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 is 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 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 boast 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 during our week we stumbled into a number of them, the largest in the 12' range. While we had that expectation, stumbling unexpectedly into a large shark is not all that comfortable. The best place to see them is off the point between Playas Sueca and Larga. Some days there was a lot of activity and several small white tips would constantly circle around us. Other days were quiet, but there are several hollow bommies close to shore that are popular resting holes. 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.
Contadora is not for everyone, however it really is another buggy, rustic, simplistic, underdeveloped, uncultured place (the grandeur of the golf-course aside). So, of course, it would be better if you went somewhere else.
©2004 Itchyfeet Online Travel