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Panama City Escapades

Contadora Island

September 5, 2013

I’ve been to the San Blas Islands several times on the Atlantic side of Panama; it’s become one of the staple places that I bring friends and family that visit. To me, it’s my ideal location of paradise: crystal clear water, hundreds of undeveloped islands, and very few people around. But my mom was visiting a third time to Panama and I had already taken her to San Blas. I always strive to have new experiences in Panama so it was time to plan a new adventure.

Map of where Contadora is located

Map of where Contadora is located

I subscribe to the daily emails of Oferta Simple, a discount website similar to Groupon in Panama, and one of the offers caught my eye: a two night stay at The Point Hotel on Isla Contadora for $140. Contadora Island is located on the Pacific side of Panama in the Archipelago of the Pearl Islands. There are over 100 islands here and most of them are uninhabited. There was also a few seasons of Survivor filmed in the Pearl Islands a few years ago. I was not aware that there were so many islands here until I found that on Wikipedia. It almost sounds like the Pacific’s version of San Blas. Definitely something that I needed to see. I quickly purchased the Oferta Simple and made reservations for the weekend my mom was visiting. Luckily that weekend was available and they responded saying that the ferry would be 25% off since we were staying at The Point. They even let me choose which ferry service to use. I chose to use a new company called Ferry Las Perlas because they leave from Trump Ocean Club, which is much closer than using the other ferry that leaves from The Causeway. With the discount our tickets ended up being around $70 each, compared to the normal rate of $95.

My mom and I waiting at Trump Ocean Club for Ferry Las Perlas

My mom and I waiting at Trump Ocean Club for Ferry Las Perlas

So the day came for our trip to Contadora. We arrived early at 7 am to Trump Ocean Club to check in. The ferry leaves at 8 am so next time I go I will get there at 7:30 am because there was no reason to be there so early. We did get some great coffee at Juan Valdez while we waited. They normally open at 8 am but the guy was so nice and served us coffee before they opened. Once we were aboard the ferry the ride to Contadora is very pleasant. It’s about 2 hours and there’s air conditioning, you have the option to order food and drinks, and the seats were pretty comfortable. Much more comfortable than the three hour cramped car ride to San Blas. But the highlight of the ferry ride was seeing a whale! The ferry slowed down all of a sudden and we saw the fin of a whale emerge from the water and then later it smacked it’s tail out of the water. We lingered there for a few minutes to see if there was anymore whale activity but nothing happened so the ferry continued on it’s original path. The ferry first stops at Saboga Island so be sure not to accidentally get off at the first stop if your final destination is Contadora.

Getting off of the ferry onto Contadora

Getting off of the ferry onto Contadora

The ferry pulled all the way up to the shore and they have a ramp that allows you to walk from the boat to the sand.  I noticed with the other ferries later on that they require you to hop into a little boat and then go to the island so I was happy with the ferry we chose. We hopped into the sand and waited for our luggage to be brought down.  The sand in Contadora is the perfect white sand that you see in post cards and the water was so clear and turquoise!  I had heard that the water was clear but I wasn’t expecting it to be this nice since most beaches on the Pacific side of Panama have dark water.  It was also one of those rare perfect weather days that we don’t see much of during the rainy season in Panama.  Definitely a good first impression of Contadora. My mom and I checked into The Point and it was nice for a remote island hotel.  It was obviously a little old and a few things needed repaired like our bathroom door, but nothing major to worry about. As long as the room is clean I’m happy.

Doing a little snorkeling

Doing a little snorkeling

Our hotel was located right by the one of the many beaches on Contadora called Playa Galeon so we headed down and grabbed the last two beach chairs and did some relaxing.  According to the map I was given there are 7 main beaches on Contadora and it even says there is a nude beach (called Playa Suega for any nudists that may be wondering) which may be the only designated one in Panama. The water was the perfect temperature (I refuse to go in cold water) and the sand was so soft and had almost no rocks in it.  It reminded me a lot of the pristine beaches in San Blas.  I had just purchased a new

It was fun to watch planes almost hit us every time they landed on the nearby landing strip.

It was fun to watch planes almost hit us every time they landed on the nearby landing strip.

LifeProof Casefor my iPhone so I started taking some great pictures in the water without fear of my phone being ruined. My only complaint of this beach was that there were a lot of small boats in the water that kind of got in the way of swimming. The hotel mentioned that they were having a BBQ on the beach for lunch so we thought that sounded like a good idea. It ended up being too expensive for the taste and type of food that was offered ($19 for salad, entree, and ice cream).  I would not recommend for others to eat here because there are some amazing places you can eat for the same cost.

Playa Larga

Playa Larga

After lunch we decided to explore a nearby beach called Playa Larga. On the way there, there were some really nice houses that were completely abandoned and vandalized, so not really sure what the story behind that is.  Also to the right of us was the abandoned Hotel Contadora.

Abandoned house near Playa Larga

Abandoned house near Playa Larga

There was also an abandoned ferry on the beach. Playa Larga was nice, much bigger with less people and boats, but the sand was really rocky and since we were now sand snobs and knew we could do better, we only stayed for a few minutes. We decided to take a short cut through the abandoned hotel to get to another beach that I read was really good.  Apparently Hotel Contadora was a happening place in the 70s, presidents and celebrities used to vacation there until in was shut down in the 90s.  Now the ruins are creepy and would be the perfect spot for a horror movie.  There was not a person in sight and we really weren’t sure if we were supposed to be walking through there.

The abandoned Hotel Contadora

The abandoned Hotel Contadora

We saw a black garbage back with some weight in it hanging from a tree so we made the decision to turn around so we don’t end up chopped up in a garbage bag.  That was enough adventure for our first day so we went back to the beach by our hotel and spent the rest of the time there. For dinner, Contadora had some redeeming to do from lunch.  Instead of trying a random place to eat I decided to ask the experts from Google for a good place to eat.  My search returned a restaurant called Gerald’sthat was near our hotel that had great reviews.

Right before devouring my amazing food at Gerald's

Right before devouring my amazing food at Gerald’s

We were seated quickly at 6 pm and the restaurant filled up very fast.  If we hadn’t gotten there so early we would have needed a reservation like most of the people did.  I ordered a chicken breast with pineapple and curry sauce and my mom ordered the short rib.  Our plates arrived fairly quickly and the food was AMAZING. The presentation was perfect and the food was the best I have had in a long time.  We ordered the Oreo cheesecake for desert and my mom said it’s the best she has ever had. I’ve lived in Panama City for over 2 years and the food has become a little disappointing.  The food is either expensive with a good portion but nothing special about it or expensive and a small portion that tastes better (this is not the case with all restaurants but a few that I’ve tried lately).

Oreo Cheesecake!

Oreo Cheesecake!

The food at Gerald’s restaurant was so good and unique tasting that I am going to be craving it for a while. Most entrees were $12 to $18 and for the portion of food and awesome taste, the price is square on.  It’s interesting that I had to leave Panama City and go to a small island in the middle of the ocean to find the best restaurant in Panama.  Contadora has redeemed itself. On our second day it was a little cloudy and rained in the morning.  I would recommend for people going during the rainy season to stay two nights in case one day it rains.  Luckily the rain didn’t last long but the clouds lingered for the rest of the day.

Playa Cacique

Playa Cacique

My mom and I headed to a new beach to see called Playa Cacique.  It was about a 15 minute walk from The Point and it’s located by the Villa Romantica hotel.  When we arrived, I thought that this was the nicest beach in Contadora.  It was pretty large compared to the one by our hotel and met my sand snob standards.  The only thing missing was some sun.  Next time I go to Contadora I want to stay at a hotel near here. For dinner we tried another restaurant that had raving reviews online called Casa Tortuga.  I read this was a chef from Italy and his Panamanian wife that have converted part of their house into a restaurant.  Reservations need to be made either directly at the restaurant or at the welcome center located near The Point Hotel and next to Coral Tours.  The guy at the welcome center even offered to drive and pick us up from the restaurant which was perfect since it was a long walk in the dark.  We gave him a little tip for doing this for us.

Casa Tortuga is located where the blue dot is.  Luckily we were driven there because no one knew exactly where it was on a map when I asked them.

Casa Tortuga is located where the blue dot is. Luckily we were driven there because no one knew exactly where it was on a map when I asked them.

Walking into Casa Tortuga you feel very welcome as Chef Piero and his wife welcome you to their home.  They have a set menu of different pizzas and a menu that rotates everyday that consists of an appetizer, entree and desert for around $30.  We wanted to be spontaneous and have the surprise menu.  Unfortunately for me, all of today’s dishes consisted of seafood. I’m not a big seafood person because I don’t like anything that tastes fishy but I do have a few seafood items that I’ll eat.  He presented to us the uncooked fish that he would be cooking for tonight and promised it would not taste fishy because it was so fresh.

Seafood Carpaccio

Seafood Carpaccio

He first brought out a ceviche that I really liked and some kind of fish carpaccio, which was the first time I’ve seen carpaccio in that form. Both were good and for someone that’s not too into seafood I ate everything.  Then the fish entree arrived and to our surprise it was a cooked version of the whole fish he presented earlier, head, skin and all.  This was really stretching my seafood limits and the look on my moms face was priceless.  She really likes seafood but has never eaten it in this form.  But when in Panama and not wanting to insult the chef, she went first and took the spoon and scooped out some meat from the fish carcass.  I followed the same method and gave it a try.  It was actually pretty good and very fresh like he said.  We ate most of it and this was followed by some sorbet ice cream for desert. I want to return to Casa Tortuga next time I go to Contadora to give it a second chance.  I’m intrigued by the how much this chef loves to cook and all of the reviews I read. If I was a seafood lover I know I would have really enjoyed the food and If I go on a different night where meat is the main dish I’m sure it will be amazing.  It was definitely an experience my mom and I will remember.

Perfect weather on our last day in Contadora

Perfect weather on our last day in Contadora

Our last day in Contadora was perfect.  Our ferry didn’t leave until 3:30 so we had a lot of time to take advantage of the final day.  We hung out at Playa Galeon, the one closest to our hotel, after having a really good buffet breakfast.  Clear blue skies and a bright sun really highlighted just how transparent the water could be.  I took a lot of photos and videos to try and capture my last moments there.  But my photos fail to capture the feeling of sun rays beaming down and warming the water to a comfortable temperature and floating there in total relaxation.   It was the disconnect that I needed and I’m really happy that I was able to discover this new place with my mom.

My final meal at Gerald's

My final meal at Gerald’s

For our last lunch we had another amazing meal at Gerald’s.  I had the Chicken Napolitana and my mom had their spaghetti with homemade pasta. Presentation and taste were both done to perfection.  My mom said that if she ever wins the lottery she is buying a house next to Gerald’s and eating there everyday.

Beautiful sunset heading back into Panama City

Beautiful sunset heading back into Panama City

We checked into our ferry and enjoyed a bottle of water until it was ready to leave at 3:30.  The ride back was good, much less crowded than the way there.  We even saw a glimpse of a whale on our way back. After about an hour I could start to see the city skyline come into view.  Land ahoy!  Panama City greeted us with a nice sunset beginning to go down behind the city.  Back to reality…

by Joey Bonura. Find out more about Joey Bonura here.