Las Perlas Archipelago

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Conquerors, pirates and politics in a tropical paradise

With two ferry services now operating to the islands and continued investment in development, the islands are set for a tourism renaissance

By Marijula Pujol Lloyd

The Pearl Islands (Islas de las Perlas), located in Panama Bay, on the Pacific Ocean, are famous around the world for their incredible beauty, but they hide an even more interesting past surrounded by myth and mystery.

P1030958_optThis archipelago has 39 islands and 100 islets and is about 20 minutes by plane from Panama City and 90 minutes by boat. The total surface of all its land combined is 1,165 square kilometers.

The islands were home to Indians who (with their leader Terarequí) were wiped out within two years of the islands’ discovery by the Spanish. Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa named the islands Pearl Islands in 1513 due to the many pearls which were found there. The celebrated Peregrine Pearl (La Peregrina) that belonged to Phillip II and the actress Elizabeth Taylor until her death in 2011 was discovered near the islands.

Dites, another local chief, presented Morales with baskets of pearls, but this simply made the Spaniards want more and hastened the anhialation of the native population. The Spaniards then needed workers to harvest pearls and imported slave labor in the 16th century from Africa whose descendants now live on the islands, particularly Isla del Rey, which has the biggest population.

The Islands were frequently used by pirates in the years that followed and were relatively undisturbed until the 1960s and 1970s when the building of the resort on Contadora took place, to which the Shah of Iran retreated in 1979. The Contadora Group, in charge of promoting the peace in Central America during the 80s was created there.

P1030923_optContadora Island situated at the north of the archipelago is well known for its tourist and hotel industry. Originally, the island was used by the Spaniards to make the inventories of vessels bound for Spain, hence its name Contadora, derived from the Spanish verb “to count.”

Other islands that are part of the archipelago are Bayoneta, Pacheca, Mogo, Saboga, Pedro González, San Miguel, Mogo, Gibraleón, Casayeta, Casaya, La Mina, Galera, Viveros, Cañas and San Telmo.

Made famous as the site for three seasons of the United States reality television show Survivor, the archipelago is a combination of beautiful islands with pristine virgin forest and sandy white beaches. Currently there are luxury housing developments on Isla Viveros, Saboga and Isla del Rey.

Las Perlas Islands are ideal for deep sea fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling and whale watching due to their beautiful coral reef, clear waters and the opportunity to discover sunken galleons or the living jewels of the sea. Unveil the mysteries of these islands.

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