As you may know, we’re notorious lastminute travelers. A good flight deal at the right time is all we need to take action. Our trip to Panama City was no exception. When going over the sightseeing options, I was surprised by lack of beaches near Panama City. Since a bounty beach was part of the Panama trip we envisioned, that was something I’d need to look into. Luckily, the hotel we stayed at, the InterContinental Miramar Panama, had an exceptional concierge who recommended Contadora Island, one of the Pearl Islands in Panama, as the ultimate beach getaway for a day.
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Where are the Pearls Islands in Panama?
The 100+ Pearl Islands (Islas de las Perlas or Archipiélago de las Perlas in Spanish) uninhabited islets are located in the North Pacific Ocean. This may not be where you expect to find bounty beaches since the paradisiacal Bocas del Toro beaches and the famous San Blás islands are located on the Caribbean side. And it’s a fact that the water on the Pacific side never gets the same azure blue shade as the Caribbean ocean. But since we didn’t have hours to spend on transfers to San Blas and wanted to avoid the recent Zika outbreak on that side of the country, we opted for the Pacific side.
The Pearl Islands are located a little further off-shore, about 30 mi (48 km) from Panama, and therefore offer the clearest waters around. Contadora Island is the archipelago’s most popular island.
Fun fact: Contadora in english means ‘one who counts’ since this island used to be the place where oyster pearls from surrounding waters were counted and sold to the Spaniards.
How to get to Contadora Island from Panama City?
Even thought the island is pretty small, only about 0,5 mi² (1,4 km²), it has its own Contadora Island airport. A private flight from Panama City Airport only takes about 15-30 minutes and it’s actually pretty affordable. This Isla Contadora by private plane day trip includes hotel transfers.
By charter boat
You’ll find just a handful of boat tours that include a visit to Contadora Island. This full-day fishing and island-hopping excursion to the Pearl Islands is private and captain Miguel lets you decide on the itinerary. It’s the most carefree way to explore Contadora Island and some of the other islands nearby.
Ferry Sea Las Perlas takes you from the Flamenco Marina Dock in Panama City to Contadora Island in about 1,5 hours. This is the option we went with. We also purchased a day-pass so that beach chairs, parasols and lunch in a hotel were provided as well. This package cost us (in 2016) $115 ($90 for the ferry and $25 for the day pass) per adult and $70 per kid over 4 (ferry only). In spite of not having booked the day-pass for the kids, they actually did receive a chair and lunch.
The ferry left at 7.30 am but we had to be at the ticket desk at 6.45 am, plenty of time to do a tour of security checks – there’s no escaping in Panama! Fortunately the hotel offered breakfast from 6 am onwards so we could leave in a good mood arount 6.30 am. The passage took 1,5 hours so we were happy to enjoy the comfort of the modern ferry. It was busy but that was to be expected during the carnival holiday period, when all Panamenians are off work. Some foreign passengers were heavily packed, looking forward to spending several days on the island.
We quickly saw the first islands appearing on the horizon. The views were priceless! Because the ferry can’t moor on Contadora Island, we had to transfer to a fishing boat that dropped us off a few meters from the beach so that we had to pass to the water to reach the shore.
A golfcart and driver were waiting for us and in no time we found ourselves on the west side of the island. The arrival in the hotel was somewhat chaotic but after about 15 minutes we had claimed our spot on a gorgeous beach.
The downside of such an organized arrangement is that you can’t decide for yourself when the fun is over. Because the Isla Contadora ferry would leave at 3.30 pm, we said goodbye to this beautiful stretch of beach about an hour before. Way too early if you ask us! If only we could have lingered a bit longer!
The waves had become somewhat fiercer making the short transfer with the fishing boat onto the ferry quite adventurous to say the least. Once we had secured out spot on the Contadora – Panama ferry it became clear how intensely the girls had been enjoying their time in the surf: both feel asleep before the ferry even took off.
There’s also this ferry, which leaves from the PH TOC (former Trump Tower) and offers transfers to Contadora Island, Saboga Island and Viveros Island.
We took the trip individually but now there’s this tour (from July to October) which offers you the hassle-free organized version, hotel transfers included:
Things to do on Contadora Island
Beach bumming on a Contadora beach
There are plenty of beaches to choose from on Contadora Island. The one we picked was Playa Cacique on the island’s south side. Playa Cacique offered a very generous stretch of powdery sand in the morning that got smaller by the hour.
And as the beach became narrower, it became more peaceful. The water is calm and shallow, just perfect for families with young children. It’s very clear too, just look at how it passed the I-can-see-my-toes-test – and I’m 5’10” (1.78 m) tall.
What we didn’t expect, was to find all these yachts and small boats to anchor here, nor the quads that came to deliver them. Then again, it couldn’t spoil the fun. We enjoyed lunch at the hotel restaurant which appeared to be included in the package we had booked.
Catamaran or sailing trip
The location of the Pearl Islands, in the Golf of Panama, protects them from the rough Pacific and makes them a safe place for humpback whales, dolphins and other marine life.
Taking a sailing or catamaran trip around Isla Contadora Panama is an adventure not to be missed. Humpback whales come to the waters around Las Perlas to breed. The best time of year to spot them is from June to October, although you might find some whales during the other months as well (with the exception of April and May). The freckled pan tropical spotted dolphin will probably tag along, swimming alongside the boat just out of curiosity. Three other dolphin species call these waters their home but they’re a bit more shy.
There are big schools of fish to be found in reefs and the sandbank near Contadora Island. Several small-group snorkel trips take you on an exploration of this amazing underwater life.
Where to stay on Contadora Island Panama?
Well, that’s tricky. This island is perfect for a day trip but the lack of upscale accommodation makes it less attractive to spend more time on the island. Don’t expect any luxury resorts here, Contadora Island hotels are pretty basic and rustic. We’d prefer staying in one of these bright and fresh vacation rentals instead: