In search of the best beaches in Panama

This post is also available in: Spanish

By Ilene Little

in Contadora

Today was one of the best days I’ve spent on a beach, and it was on Contadora Island. I understand why so many business people and tourists make a weekend holiday out of a day trip or overnight stay on Contadora. It is, indeed, an escape from the city; an island adventure.

The clear waters of Contadora Island.

The clear waters of Contadora Island.

To get to Contadora’s white beaches takes 20 minutes by air or 90 minutes of nice boating to get to a really white beach. There is no ferry landing, and the experience of disembarking from a ferry via a ramp directly onto the gentle lapping shoreline, or being ferried ashore by Panga is your first clue that you have left the hustle and bustle of city life behind.

The “Las Perlas” which now runs to the islands from Trump Tower has been plying the route for two years. Before that, the only way to get to Contadora was by private boat or airplane.

The other ferry “Sea Las Perlas” will operate again from Saturday, December 21. It departs from the Balboa Yacht Club on the Amador Causeway.

Both ferries arrive in Contadora from the city daily around 10am, and leave the island at 3pm to arrive back in Panama City between 5pm and 5:30pm

Make it a day-trip or stay at least overnight, which is what I recommend. After 12 hours visiting Contadora, I was looking for a way to stay. I saw how other people have started businesses there and pondered ‘how can I make this change to my own lifestyle’. That’s how much I like Contadora.

How Contadora Differs

Contadora is a small island, and distinctive in many ways from the neighboring Pearl Islands.

“In the Pearl Islands, there are a lot of different kinds of sand. You’ll see beaches with a lot of rock coral or black sand beaches, but here you have pure white sand beaches,” said Piero Pertolani, island resident and business owner.

“Contadora is the only island where there are no native people, said Pertolani,“ by contrast there are three to four generations of indigenous people living on the other Pearl Islands, for example, Saboga Island.”

Contadora was named by the Spanish “the counting island”, explained Pertolani, because of the pearls the Spanish harvested from the island chain.

Pertolani runs a Bed and Breakfast on Contadora Island, manages 26 villas, and is one of the partners in The Landing and in The Welcome Center. Characteristic of the ex-pat entrepreneur, he and his Panamanian wife have a restaurant in their house, Café Tortuga.

Dining Choices

There are several choices for dining on the island, especially for fresh seafood. Relaxed from a day of boating and swimming, we frequented the Point Hotel cabana restaurant and bar where we enjoyed fresh fish and locally caught lobster. We found the wait staff and management to be very personable and accommodating.

Exploring by Land and by Water

At The Point Hotel, where the ferries land, you can rent a bicycle, scooter, a golf cart or personal watercraft like kayaks and sign up for a variety of water activity guided tours including scuba and snorkel trips. From the beach, you can hail a Panga to take you anywhere in the archipelago.

Barefoot in Contadora

The Petroglyph-style etchings of local animals, stone faces, and sea creatures carved out of the rock face of the ocean floor can be observed from hotel rooms or decks overhanging the shoreline at The Point.

In Contadora, you’ll find plenty of beaches where you can walk barefoot into and past the surf without encountering sharp rocks. The island is interesting for sightseeing; very picturesque and safe to explore.


The water is so clear that I saw the shadow of a bird flying overhead reflected on the sandy bottom 12 feet below the surface. Now, that’s clear water.

Snorkeling the beach shorelines at medium tide reveals delightful small coves that otherwise are hidden at high tide.

Access from the road to some beaches is restricted by private hotels. However, beaches are free to the public, so, I suggest renting a kayak, a Panga or a charter boat to make the most of your time snorkeling off multiple beaches and points of land.

We swam with Parrot Fish, Southern Stingrays, Pufferfish, Triggerfish, Porcupinefish, blue Damselfish and reef Coronetfish. Off the point of land closest to Playa Caracol, I estimate we were swimming through schools of 200 fish.

It doesn’t seem possible to take in all this island has to offer in one day, there are just too many nice places to stay, to eat, and activities to be enjoyed.

If you want more of the island to yourself, schedule a weekday trip. The island is a favorite weekend destination for international and multi-national corporate personnel.

If it’s whale watching you’re after, starting in July through October it’s possible to observe whales several times a day five to 10 meters from the balcony of your hotel room.

I want to thank Andres Niederhauser, the operator of The Point Hotel, for his generous hospitality.


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One Comment;

  1. manfred said:

    Do remember my 20min.flight to Contadora Island some years back.When nearing the landing strip-I was sure the little 8 seater Canadian -twin otter- bushplane would not fit on that runway-but it did and all most stopped in front of the hotels bar. A good way to calm your nerves right there+then.Beautiful place

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