Pearl Islands: Panama's Undiscovered Paradise
There is a number of reasons that this archipelago of 250 small islands are the pearl of Panama. Not only are the islands famous for their perfect white sandy beaches, marine life and untouched ecosystems, they were also where Spanish Conquistadors found large numbers of pearls when they arrived to the islands in 1503.
The exotic islands located in the Gulf of Panama are a paradise, with untouched white sandy beaches, old ruins of towns and resorts, and unique wildlife. These pristine islands have been the holiday destination of choice for many rich and famous people, as well as for a number of reality TV shows, including Survivor.
A Small History of the Pearl Islands
The islands were first occupied by Indians, but as soon as the islands were discovered by the Spanish, they wiped out any tribes they came across, including their leaders. The drive to remove Indian populations was only increased when the Spanish discovered the abundance of pearls on the islands, and refused to accept offerings from the native populations.
By the 16th century the Spanish realised they needed labor work to help harvest the pearls, and decided to import slaves from Africa, the descendants of whom still live on the islands, in particular on Isla Del Rey.
Much of the 20th century saw a number of important people discover the beauty of the Pearl Islands as a vacation destination, and as a result many of the islands feature expensive luxury accommodations that are out of reach for the average traveler. However, now you can take an affordable ferry from Panama to the islands. The Islands currently have more options for tourists, with a few more bars, restaurants and hotels, making them a great destination for any traveler.
The Pearl Islands
The Pearl Islands are made up of 90 named islands, and most of the islands are uninhabited. Three of the main islands, Contadora, Saboga, and Isla Del Rey are populated. Only just a boat ride away from Panama City, the islands are a great option to spend a weekend away from the hustle and bustle of the city. While there are many luxury resorts and high-end restaurants on some of the islands, you can also find rustic and deserted bliss on plenty of others.
Contadora was originally used by the Spanish as a customs island, the place where they would count and record the riches they had pillaged from the other islands before heading back to Spain. This is where the island gets its name, as Contadora means “bookkeeper” or “counter”. Today, Contadora is the most populated island and is a top vacation destination for wealthy Panamanians. The Shah of Iran famously chose this island as his exile destination back in 1979. The island also has an airport, or can be accessed via ferry from Panama.
Saboga is a lot more deserted than Contadora, and has very few facilities except some restaurants, a beach club and a small hotel in its very small village. The island used to be much like Contadora, and had an expensive high-end resort, but in 2011 the owner died in a plane crash and the ruins of the resort still remain on a deserted beach, next to a shipwreck. This island is great for exploring traditional island culture by foot, or scuba diving and snorkelling in untouched reefs.
Isla Del Rey is the largest island by land mass, but is one of the least inhabited islands with under 2,000 residents. The name means “Island of the King,” which most likely refers to Christ as the king, and not a royal king. The town of San Miguel is the largest town on the island, and it has a busy local restaurant and old town, being the oldest and most traditional town on the islands. Full of pristine beaches and unexplored jungle, Isla Del Rey is for travelers looking for a unique adventure.
Tourism on the Islands
An unsung beach holiday destination, the Pearl Islands had been largely unexplored by the average traveler until the success of CBS' TV show Survivor sparked an interest in visiting the deserted beach paradise, which was actually filmed on the beaches of Isla Del Rey.
The islands are a great place for whale and dolphin-watching and a number of the islands offer boat trips to see them up close and personal. Scuba diving and snorkeling on the islands is some of the most impressive in Panama – swim with giant schools of fish and take part in a drift dive, when you float with the current (with the correct equipment and guides). One of the best spots for diving and drift diving is close to the islands of Pacheca and Pachequilla.
You can also take part in land-based activities on the islands, such as quad-biking, golf carting, or hiking through the jungle. You will spot some incredibly unique and rare wildlife on land, too, such as wild pigs, reptiles and birds.
The Discovery Panama Catamaran cruise offers an itinerary with visits to the Pearl Islands. Contact Rainforest Cruises for more information about travelling to Pearl Islands or booking a trip to Panama.