Published on July 14th, 2015 | by Mark Chesnut
Contadora Island: Panama’s Pacific Vacation Paradise (PHOTOS)
The waters surrounding Panama are graced with many beautiful islands — including tiny Caribbean islands in the region called Guna Yala (also known as Kuna Yala or San Blas), as well as Bocas del Toro, near the Costa Rica border. On Panama‘s Pacific coast, there is Taboga, a pretty little island that makes for an easy day trip from Panama City. But the most beautiful island I’ve found (so far) on the Pacific side is Contadora.
During my most recent trip to Panama, where I researched some of the best Central America vacation experiences to include in the upcoming Fodor’s In Focus Panama guide, I hopped on an Air Panama flight from Panama City to arrive on Isla Contadora. During my two-day visit, I found lots of beautiful sites to photograph, and a perfect combination of activities and relaxation.
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WHY GO: This small island, part of the Pearl island archipelago, has beautiful, uncrowded beaches, a laid-back feel and offers easy access to water-based fun including snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and whale watching. It’s a nice, sunny vacation break from fast-paced Panama City, and works best as an overnight trip (plan at least a couple nights there if you want time to really enjoy it).
HOW TO GET THERE: There are two options for getting to Isla Contadora (unless you have your own boat or plane, in which case you have more options): The ferry takes about 90 minutes each way, and leaves from the Amador Causeway in Panama City. The faster route is by plane: Air Panama offers flights to Isla Contadora from Panama City’s Albrook airport (and sometimes offers fares that are comparable to the ferry prices; I was able to fly for $98 roundtrip, whereas the ferry was only $3 or $4 cheaper). The flight, which takes about 20 minutes (if nonstop; otherwise about 15 minutes longer) offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and the nearby islands. Read my review of the Air Panama flight to Isla Contadora here.
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THINGS TO DO ON ISLA CONTADORA, PANAMA: Contadora Island offers the opportunity to stay active or just relax and enjoy your Panama vacation (the Contadora Welcome Center, located a few steps from the air strip and the ferry arrival area, can provide more details). A few options:
• Rent a bicycle or golf cart and ride around the island (or simply stroll; though the high mid-day temperatures make it more pleasant in the morning and late afternoon).
• Spend the day on the beach. Isla Contadora has several beautiful stretches of sand that beckon, including Playa Galeón, located closest to the air strip and the arrival point for the ferry from Panama City, and Playa Larga, the island’s largest beach, which is a beautiful setting (in spite of the abandoned hotel and ferry; see below). Playa Sueca is likely the only official nude beach in Panama (when I was there, there wasn’t a soul around, so it was like having a private beach — weekdays are the best time to visit if you prefer fewer people on Contadora).
• Head out onto the water. You can snorkel, swim, cruise and sail in the scenic waters just off the island’s coast.
• Explore deserted sites. The ruins of the Hotel Contadora, once owned by associates of a Colombian drug lord — as well as the ferry he used to shuttle guests to and from the mainland — sit in slow decay, and make for dramatic photo backdrops.
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ISLA CONTADORA HOTELS: Everything is gloriously relaxed and small-scale on Isla Contadora. I stayed at The Point, which offers nice views and a convenient location near the air strip and the arrival point of the ferry, but was disappointed to find that the swimming pool was out of commission for both days of my visit, the water in the shower smelled and the towels were stained. Therefore I’d recommend you check out some of the island’s other small hotels: Contadora Island Inn, Perla Real Inn and Hibiscus House Bed & Breakfast are among the recommended hotels on Contadora Island.
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