Beaches -- The principal activity on Isla Contadora is spending sun-drenched days lounging on the beach, reading a book, and cooling off with a dip in the turquoise sea. There are no strong riptides and powerful waves here so swimming is safe, even for kids. Surfers, however, should look elsewhere. There are 13 beaches on the island, all perfectly lovely and virtually empty every day except for weekends and holidays. Panama's sole nude beach, Playa Suecas (Swedish Beach), is located on Isla Contadora and can be reached by taking the dirt road at the end of Playa Larga (Long Beach), the strip of beach that fronts the Hotel Contadora Resort. This beach, like its neighbor, Playa Galeón, is convenient for its proximity to restaurants and shops. Both beaches are also recommended for snorkeling, and outfitters rent snorkel equipment, jet skis, and other marine toys. There are also a couple of beachfront bars. Playa Ejecutiva is a pretty beach on a tiny cove on the north side of the island, and Playa Cacique (often referred to as "Playa Hawaii") is another good option for solitude and beautiful tropical surroundings. During the high season, you'll find the fewest people on Playa Suecas.
Beyond the beaches at Isla Contadora, the region is replete with uninhabited islands with isolated and heavenly beaches -- those seeking to really get away from other people will find this a tantalizing option. There's a substantial economic gap between native islanders and wealthier ex-pats on Contadora, so socially-conscience tourists looking for less formal snorkeling or fishing options can support the local economy by hiring one of the local boatmen who hang around Playa Larga, Playa Cacique, or Playa Galeon. Alex Mendieta (tel. 6504-3544) knows all the area islands and charges $25 to $30 (£13-£15) an hour depending on the price of gas. Lankin, another well-known local boatman (tel. 6586-8387) also offers island, fishing, and snorkeling tours for about the same price.
You can visit other islands either by hiring a local boatman or taking part in a half-day or full-day excursion. Isla Chapera has a couple of empty beaches that are surrounded with a rich variety and abundance of marine life that provides some of the best snorkeling in the area, and it's located straight across from Playa Cacique, about a 10-minute boat ride away. A local boatman can take you here in a wooden cayuco for about $25 to $30 (£13-£15) per hour (if he waits for you), or about $50 (£25) if you want drop-off and pickup; the cost depends on the fluctuating price of gas. Bring a picnic lunch and beverages because there are no stores or restaurants here. Local boatmen can be found at the beach at Punta Galeón.
Diving -- Coral Dreams (tel. 6536-1776; www.coral-dreams.com), at the airport runway, is Isla Contadora's only full-fledged scuba operation, run by a friendly young Argentine couple. Dives take place around the island and never exceed 18m (60 ft.), with visibilities of 4.5 to 9.1m (15-30 ft.) of mostly sponges, some brain and fan coral, and an abundance of marine life. Two-tank dives cost $85 (£48) for certified divers. Coral Dreams also offers course instruction, including their intensive Discover Scuba course ($175/£88), which lasts 1 1/2 days and is for beginners who are short on time or who just want a taste of the diving experience; there's also a 4- to 5-day course for full scuba certification ($350/£175). Coral Dreams recently purchased a more luxurious 22-passenger pleasure boat for rental; the cost is $800 (£400) per day and includes food and equipment. They also offer half-day snorkeling excursions around the area for $35 (£18) per person, and snorkel-equipment rental for $10 (£5) per day.
Fishing -- The Pearl Islands are legendary for deep-sea fishing. Panama Yacht Tours offers fishing trips to the Pearl Islands, or there is a local outfit called Las Perlas Fishing & Snorkeling, run by friendly Italian couple Teresa and Marco. For serious fishermen, they have an 11m (33-ft.) Bowl-Bimini Top fishing boat with a twin 200-horsepower engine and capacity for up to 14 anglers; all necessary gear (rods and spears) to reel in monster fish such as marlin, tuna, amberjack, and barracuda is included. Expect to pay from $120 (£60) per hour (minimum 2 hr.). Their 7.9m (26-ft.) boat with a 200 horsepower engine is good for 3 to 10 anglers, and costs $65 (£33) per hour (minimum 2 hr.; reservations required). To get to the good stuff, you'll need at least a half-day outing that can get you farther south and into deep waters. Off-shore deep sea excursions must be booked by the day ($1,000/£500) but include all equipment and aren't a bad deal if you have a large enough group. If you just want to get out and cast a line for an hour or so, negotiate with local boatmen at Punta Galeón beach; they often have a few beat-up poles lying around and charge lower rates. Tip: If you've caught fish but don't have a kitchen, most restaurants will prepare your fish for you and your friends at a negotiated price.
Snorkeling -- Isla Contadora offers outstanding snorkeling opportunities, with five coral fields encircling the island, which attract a wealth of marine life, including schools of tropical fish, white-tipped reef sharks, manta rays, and turtles. At Playa Larga, the Hotel Contadora rents snorkel gear for about $5 (£2.50); from here you can reach one of the best snorkeling spots on the island at Punta Verde, located at the southeastern end of Playa Larga. Other prime spots include Playa Ejecutiva and Punta Galeón.
If you're serious about snorkeling, I recommend you take part in an organized excursion offered by Las Perlas Fishing & Snorkeling (tel. 6689-4916 or 6605-5057; email@example.com), that visits neighboring islands aboard their 11m (33-ft.) fiberglass boat. Charter-boat rentals that include snorkeling gear cost $50 to $60 (£25-£30) per hour (maximum eight people). Scheduled excursions from 9:45am to 1pm cost $35 (£18) for adults, $15 (£7.50) for kids under 12 (minimum 2 persons, maximum 18; price includes gear). The snorkeling excursion visits the idyllic islands of Chapera, Mogo Mogo, and Boyarena, the latter of which is a white-sand atoll with superb snorkeling opportunities. The outfit also offers a 2-hour marine bird-watching tour (2-4pm; $30 (£15) adults, $12 (£6) kids 6-12, free for kids 5 and under) to the islands of Bartolomé, Pacheca, and Pachequilla, with snorkeling included. Coral Dreams rents quality snorkel gear for $10 (£5) a day, and they offer similar snorkeling and bird-watching trips around the area for $35 (£18) per person.
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.