64km (40 miles) S of Panama City, in the Pacific Ocean
Historically famous for its pearls and more recently as the island Shangri-La for television's Survivor series in 2003 and 2006, the Archipiélago de las Perlas (Pearl Islands) is nevertheless an unsung beach destination that has taken a back seat to places such as Bocas del Toro. Perhaps residents have done a bad job promoting the Pearl Islands as a getaway destination -- or perhaps keeping the masses at bay has always been the goal. Whatever the reason, the archipelago deserves a look. It's surprisingly close to Panama City, just 20 minutes by small plane. The rich aquatic life here offers great snorkeling on sunny days -- sometimes manta rays and schools of tropical fish can be seen by just popping on a mask and walking out from the beach. The cerulean sea laps at picture-postcard white- and golden-sand beaches backed by a forest canopy. And the big-game sport fishing around the islands is revered by fishers around the world -- you're pretty much guaranteed to catch something. Need I say more?
The archipelago is composed of more than 200 islands and islets, the majority of which are unnamed and uninhabited. The most developed of the islands is Isla Contadora, with a full range of amenities including hotels and B&Bs, restaurants, tour companies, and daily flights. Isla San José is privately owned and home to one luxury resort, the Hacienda del Mar, but that's it. There are plans for a hotel on Isla del Rey, the largest island in the archipelago and the site of a forthcoming residential development. Beyond these islands there is nowhere else to stay in the archipelago, though small islands and islets can be visited as part of a day trip.
Tip: Here in the Pearl Islands, the weather is drier than in the rest of Panama, meaning that low season (May-Dec) can be quite enjoyable and cooler, with showers lasting an hour or so rather than the all-day downpours other parts of the country experience. Lodging rates drop during this time, and there are so few people on Isla Contadora it almost feels deserted.