Cruising Las Perlas
The Las Perlas is a group of 200 or more islands and islets (many are no more than uninhabited, tiny rocks sticking out of the sea) lying about 30 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Gulf of Panama. The locals call these islands, Islas de las Perlas, a name that dates back from Spanish colonial times when the Conquistadors discovered the islands in 1513. They gave the Islands their name because of the vast amounts of pearls found on them. Originally though these islands were occupied by Indians who were rapidly wiped out within two years of the islands' discovery by the Spanish. When the local population had been wiped out, the Spaniards then needed workers to harvest pearls and they imported slave labour during the 16th century from Africa, whose descendants now live on the islands, particularly Isla del Rey.
The Islands were also 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. Today these islands are most famous for their spectacular white sand deserted beaches, scuba diving, rich marine life and whale watching. Recently there have been some Panamanian laws put in place to preserve the life on these islands and protect this beautiful place for future generations.
The Las Perlas islands were by far some of my favorite cruising. Rachel and I would come out to these islands several times over the months before making our Pacific crossing, both with other cruisers, as well our family and friends that flew down to visit. After exploring several of the islands we ended up spending the vast majority of our time at two, Isla Contadora and Isla Chapera.
Contadora is a unique little island and if you anchor in front of Playa Suecas you might even forget that it is inhabited (until the weekend when the jet skis ruin it). This beautiful anchorage has it all, protection from the predominant winds, clear water, good fishing, a white sand beach and even a nude beach for the more adventurous. Contadora was said to be used by the Spanish conquistadors as a stop for taking inventory of booty prior to returning to Spain, hence the name (contador means counter or bookkeeper in Spanish). Contadora is a resort island, with many homes owned by wealthy Panamanians.
Here we spent our days swimming around the reef and lounging in the sand, exploring the abandoned hotel or just having a lazy hammock day. Nights we’d spend with friends on other boats or talking around beach bonfires. Several times we would sail out of this anchorage just to enjoy a day on the water and go fishing, where we were often be rewarded with Sierra mackerel, but occasionally we’d get really lucky and catch a mahi mahi.
The abandoned Hotel Contadora and the ferry that use to service it, lie just on the other side of the anchorage, about a five minute walk. This once luxury resort was used as a get away for celebrities, politicians and drug lords alike. Eventually, this hotel was bought by one of these big cartel boys and used for money laundering. Later his death would also mark the decline and demise of the hotel.
Today you can walk through the decaying halls and rooms and imagine what it mush have been like in its glory days. Unfortunately it looks like for this hotel, as well as many of the other developments in the Perlas, their time has long come and gone. Much of this decline is attributed to the US no longer managing the Panama Canal or assisting in other facets of governing.
Though this is bad news for real estate holders, it is good news for us cruisers looking for a quite little place with just enough amenities to let the hook settle in for a week or two.
Isla Chapera and Mogo Mogo are only an hour or two sail away, just enough time to get in some good fishing! In fact, you can almost see the anchorage from Contradora. This beautiful and undeveloped little slice of heaven is awesome. The clean, calm waters and white sand beach made this easily my favorite place to drop the anchor in the archipelago. It is one of those places that just exudes a peaceful, relaxed vibe. Truly a great spot for a tranquillo week of shell collecting, snorkeling and reading in hammocks.
Though these are our two favorites, they are also some of the more popular with the weekend warrior boats from Panama City. Not to worry, there are tons of great anchorages scattered throughout these islands each with their own unique feel. With Panama City just a day sail or motor away, as well as Marina Vista Mar just two easy hops to the west, these islands are an easy cruising ground to escape the busy mainland.
One of our other favorite stops was Isla Espiritu Santo. The anchorage is well protected and you can approach easily from the north or from the south. Across the channel on the shore of Isla Del Rey you can find the remnants of an old whaling station that set up after the Spanish had wiped out many of the Indian settlements.
From here we would be heading into the truly remote Darien Province of Panama, but not before we had a little excitement with Mr. Perkins.