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Isla Contadora

Isla Contadora is one of Panama's most underrated vacation destinations; it's a relatively tiny island with a dozen white-sand beaches including Panama's only nude beach, Playa Suecas. The island harbors a reputation as the exclusive playground for the Panamanian elite and international figures such as Christian Dior, Julio Iglesias, and the deposed Shah of Iran, all of whom constructed palatial mansions here during the past 50 years. Isla Contadora once offered only a couple of funky hotels, but now several attractive and affordable B&Bs have opened their doors, providing comfortable lodging and services to more demanding travelers. Still, those seeking five-star luxury will want to head straight to Hacienda del Mar.

Isla Contadora is so-named because of its historical role as the "counting house," a colonial-era distribution center that recorded and classified pearls before they were shipped to Spain. African slaves were brought to Isla Contadora to harvest pearls, and their descendants still work here, although most cannot afford to live on Isla Contadora and instead live on neighboring Isla Saboga, a 10-minute ferry ride away.

The island's center of activity is at the end of the airport runway on the northeastern side of the island; here you'll find public telephones, a few restaurants and bars, grocery stores, and a basic medical clinic (tel. 250-4209). Walk around to the back of the clinic if no one answers the door. There is an Internet café next to the dive center across from the airstrip; there's also Internet service inside Restaurant Sagitario. The island doesn't have a post office, and although credit cards are accepted at hotels, there are no ATMs -- so you'll want to bring enough cash to cover expenses. No need to pack your snazziest outfits, as the look here is beach casual.

Getting There & Departing -- By Plane -- Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com) has two daily flights (Mon-Sat) to Isla Contadora leaving Panama City at 9:15am and 5pm; return flights leave at 9:45am and 5:30pm. There is an extra flight on Saturday leaving Panama City at 1pm; the return flight leaves at 1:30pm. On Sundays, Aeroperlas offers four flights from Panama City to Isla Contadora, at 7:40am, 8:45am, 4:10pm, and 5:20pm. Return flights from Isla Contadora are at 9:20am, 4:45pm, 5pm, and 5:55pm. Air Panama (tel. 316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com) offers flights Monday through Saturday departing at 10am, and daily at 4:30pm. Their return flights are Monday through Saturday at 10am, and daily at 5pm. Aeroperlas charges $95 (£48) and Air Panama charges $96 (£48). Both fares are roundtrip and include taxes. When boarding your flight back to Panama City, you'll need to stop by the Aeroperla or Air Panama offices by the airstrip to confirm your flight and check in.

Getting Around -- Isla Contadora is a compact island, and though most roads are paved there are few vehicles -- and no taxis -- on the island. People get around by walking, by bicycle, or, more popularly, by ATV or golf cart. Motorized transportation is ridiculously expensive, at $70 to $75 (£35-£38) a day. A cheaper transportation option is to rent a mountain bike from Casa del Sol (tel. 250-4212) for $15 (£7.50) a day. Ask your hotel about a multiple-day discount for a golf cart, or if they provide drop-off and pickup service around town. Most visitors get a kick out of coasting the island on a cart, searching out the perfect beach or ogling the stately vacation homes that line the streets. If your hotel doesn't have a vehicle for rent, Bill Carney (tel. 6513-9064; bill@perlareal.com) at the Perla Real Inn has a fleet of golf carts he rents out for $70 (£35) for 24 hours. Casa del Sol rents out Kawasaki Mule carts (which can go down dirt roads golf carts can't) for $75 (£38) per day as well as Suzuki ATVs for $50 (£25) a day. Nearby Contadora Island Inn has six golf carts they rent for $70 a day.

Isla San Jose

This private island is quite large at 44 sq. km (17 sq. miles). It is almost totally covered with forest, save for a luxury lodge, an airstrip, and more than 97km (60 miles) of roads built by the U.S military when it held training operations and weapons testing from World War II and onward here. Today the owner of the island is the Panamanian George Novey, who is also the owner of Air Panama. The Hacienda del Mar arranges flights on Air Panama for visitors.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.