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Discover Panama’s Contadora Island
Discover Panama’s Contadora Island. Contadora Island, one of the most active and developed touristic islands in the “Las Perlas” archipelago, is located about 75 kilometers from Panama City, which makes it very accessible by boat or plane. The island has a variety of hotels and vacation rentals, while the dining experience is varied. Its remote, quiet beaches provide an escape from the daily grind, and its exclusive ambience makes you feel as if you are on your own private island.
Contadora (it translates as “teller” or “counting house”) gets its name because it was used by the Spanish “conquistadores” to count the treasure tally on its way from Peru via Portobelo to the coffers of the King of Spain.
During the 80s, the island became a getaway for the rich, powerful and famous, who relaxed in its atmosphere of privacy and exclusivity. It was here where the Shah of Persia (now Iran), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was exiled for a short period of time in 1980.
Nowadays, Contadora remains one of the most exclusive destinations in Panama. Its white sand beaches and crystal clear waters invite visitors to plunge and sunbathe, while the whale watching season and the diversity of birds and marine life invite nature lovers to go snorkeling or diving around the island.
How to get there?
Contadora can be reached in two ways; By sea, there are two ferry services that make the trip every day, one of the options is “Sea Las Perlas”, which travels daily from Panama at 7:30 a.m. and returns from Contadora at 3:30 p.m. at a cost of $90 per person for the round trip, departing from the Balboa Yacht Club on the Amador Causeway. Visit www.FerryPearlIslands.com for more information. Another service is “Ferry Las Perlas” which makes the trip tour from Thursday to Sunday at 7:20 a.m. from the dock at the hotel Trump Ocean Club at a cost of $95 per person for the round trip. For more information and to buy tickets visit www.FerryLasPerlas.com. Both services offer packages including stays and day passes for beaches, plus some tours on the island. Both services accept pets.
If you want a shorter trip, Contadora can also be reached by air. Air Panama offers two daily flights from the Marcos A. Gelabert airport in Albrook, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, they will cost between $80 and $140, depending on the season. You can check air fares and book your tickets at www.AirPanama.com. This is the only regional airline that flies to Contadora, however there are a number of charter companies in the city which can be hired. Contadora has an airport with an excellent landing strip that crosses the width of the island. The flight over the archipelago is a unique experience.
Where to stay?
It is very likely that once you are in Contadora, you will not want to leave. Fortunately the island has a variety of boutique hotels and bed and breakfast establishments in addition to several houses available for rent.
One of the most affordable options is the “Super Centro Las Perlas de Contadora”. This cozy bed & breakfast-type hotel has a promotion of $39.50 per person for accommodation in a room with one or two beds with air-conditioning and includes breakfast, executive lunch and dinner a la carte. It has a convenience store and a souvenir shop on-site. It is located just steps from the airport, the disembarking area for boats and several beaches. You can make reservations by contacting TiendaContadora@gmail.com
Another highly recommended option is the “Hotel Mar y Oro”, the only hotel with direct access to “Playa Cacique”, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. Its rooms have been recently remodeled under a new administration. This is a charming hotel with 14 rooms, offering stunning sea views from some of the rooms. The beach bar, located directly on the sand, is a great place to watch the sun go down. For more information and room rates visit www.MarYOro.com
“Perla Real Inn” is a spacious property with eight well-equipped rooms, all with air conditioning and room service. Among the amenities the property features a Jacuzzi and lounge area, safes in all rooms, free internet throughout the property and tour services which can be hired from the hotel and other tour operators. For more information about rates and availability visit www.PerlaReal.com
Gerald’s B & B Hotel, a charming bed and breakfast, is available just 200 meters from the center of Contadora. Their eight rooms are distributed in a picturesque two-story building with a small pool and ocean views. The hotel’s restaurant offers excellent food and is a popular gathering spot. A room here costs between $85 for a single room to $130 for triple occupancy. For more information visit www.Island-Contadora.com
“Casa del Sol Rentals” offer a variety of accommodation options, from a cozy and quaint three-room B&B, to private studios, villas, lofts, apartments and vacation rentals with several rooms. Its properties are located in different places on the island, all easily accessible, allowing you to enjoy different corners of Contadora, regardless of the property you choose. To check availability and know more about the properties of “Casa del Sol” visit www.Panama-Isla-Contadora.com
What to do?
Among the activities to be enjoyed in Contadora, the most popular are its beaches and turquoise waters which allow the visitor to appreciate the local marine life.
“Coral Dreams” is a diving and marine activities center, located just steps from the pier where ferries arrive, and across the street from the Contadora airport. The owner, Guillermo Schuttke, is an experienced diver who will take you on a custom-made diving and snorkeling tour to different parts of the archipelago, “Coral Dreams” also offers a tour for watching humpback whales during the months of July to September and January to March. The archipelago of Las Perlas is one of the few places that is visited twice a year by the whales, which choose these warm, calm, shallow waters to give birth and prepare their offspring for life in the open sea. For more information on tours, times and prices visit www.Coral-Dreams.com
Panama is a bird-watchers’ Paradise and Contadora is no exception. Most migratory marine species use the island as a stopping place before continuing their journey further south. A good pair of binoculars will be very useful here.
You can also rent a golf cart or “caddy”, which along with bicycles are the most- usual form of transport on this small island. Local businesses such as the “Contadora Welcome Center”, “Casa del Sol”, “Perla Real” and other hotels in the area offer rentals of these vehicles, great for exploring the island and visiting its hidden beaches.
If what you want is to just enjoy the beach life, “Contadora Welcome Center” can provide you with delicious snacks and soft drinks just steps from the beach. They also offer guided tours around the island and visits to other islands of the archipelago. Currently they have a promotion that includes five hours of two-seat golf cart rental plus beach lunch for $50, or you can choose a vehicle for four people for $80. For more information on tours and promotions visit www.ContadoraPanama.com
Where to eat?
If you did not opt for any of the food-included packages for your island visit then you have the opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights that Contadora offers.
One of the most popular restaurants in the area is “Pimienta y Sal” located in the center of Contadora, next to the local police station. It is pleasant open-air restaurant with a varied menu of seafood, cocktails, ceviches and sandwiches. Among the highlights is the fresh fish filet prepared with garlic and the tingling ceviches made from sea bass and shrimp, a perfect opening for lunch or to accompany a cold beer.
In addition, hotels like Gerald’s B & B and the Hotel Mar y Oro, offer varied and sophisticated menus in their on-site restaurants, expanding the dining experience to a more upscale level. The “Supercentro Las Perlas de Contadora” and the “Contadora Welcome Center”, also have lunch options a bit more accessible in price.
Contadora is well-worth a visit, because it has different facets. It is a quiet and relaxing place, but at the same time has enough interesting activities to keep you entertained. From bird and whale watching to sport fishing, whatever you want to do there is no better place to do it.
Photos and article: Gabriel Guandique