For some U.S. audiences, the name “Pearl Islands” conjures one image: that of CBS reality show Survivor, which was shot here in 2003. Although development is still minimal in this archipelago sprinkled throughout the gulf of Panama, it’s also a place where comfortable hotels and tourist services have grown up amid the jungle vines, and where you can have a slightly less tribal experience than what the contestants of Season 7 had to deal with. The “resort island” of Contadora has the most amenities of the 200-plus Pearl Islands, though it’s by no means luxurious or sophisticated. Anyone seeking a truly cushy getaway would do well to seek out another Central American destination. The advent of the resort business has not diminished the local spirit of Isla Contadora, and it’s still the Pearl Islands’ top destination for an authentic Panamanian experience.
Contadora’s principal attractions are its beaches, a dozen public stretches of sand where sunbathers laze and snorkelers strap on gear to explore the offshore reefs. High tide and low tide can vary by up to 5m (16 ft.) of water depth off Contadora, so the snorkeling is decidedly better during low tide. Close to the beaches of Playa Larga and Playa Sueca (the only nude beach in Panama), you can often spot sea turtles and sharks—some startlingly large, up to 4m (13 ft.) long. A number of species wiggling in the reef here are venomous, so before you set out, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with anything that could be harmful.
Besides its sand and sea, Contadora has a palm-treed golf course where you can play under the steamy Panamanian sun. Beyond that, don’t expect too much culture here: Contadora has no ruins or historical sites, and bugs are omnipresent. But its people are warm and welcoming, and it’s a great place to unplug from civilization for a few days or a week. As you wander around the island, which can be traversed on foot in about an hour, you’ll pass the ritzy vacation homes of wealthy Panamanians who come here to escape their daily rigors. And, of course, if you’re inclined to relive a slice of Survivor: Pearl Islands, you can always grow out your hair and invent an “immunity challenge” for your traveling companions. Contadora has plenty of rustic landscapes that look the part.
On the flight into Contadora from Panama City (which is how most foreign visitors arrive), be sure to get a window seat: The flight takes you right over the Panama Canal, where you can get a fascinating aerial view of ships negotiating the passage and the elegant mechanics of the canal locks. You’ll also get a sweeping panorama of the hundreds of other, as yet uninhabited, Islas de las Perlas.