A Pearl of an Island!
When our son Nik joined us for some days in Panama, we wanted to go someplace where he could dive or fish, a place with “action” for a guy in his 20s. Contadora fit the bill. In a country roughly the size of South Carolina with 767 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and 477 miles along the Caribbean side, there is much to choose from, but this island, about 1 mile across and just 30 miles from Panama City in the Gulf of Panama, is an island retreat that you won’t want to miss when you visit Panama.
Contadora is one of the islands in the Pearl Islands Archipelago, which consists of over 200 islands! These islands were known for the pearl divers and the abundance of pearls found and traded in the early days. The Spaniards discovered and conquered these islands in the 16th century and were none too kind to the native inhabitants. The islands were largely abandoned from the mid-16th century until the 1960s, when they were re-discovered not for their pearls, but for their incredible natural beauty. By chance, the yacht of a Panamanian politician broke down and was anchored on the beach there. So captured by the beauty of the island, Galindo (the politician) bought 270 acres there to build his family mansion. This was later to be the site of the signing of the Canal Treaty by Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos. Another interesting note is that when the Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran fled that country, he made his home on Contadora.
The island enjoyed immense popularity in its heyday, attracting the wealthy and famous from around the world, including movie stars Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne and the Kennedy Family. No longer in its heyday, the island actually has a quieter feel that appealed to us, in spite of the presence of a gigantic abandoned hotel (over 300 rooms) and yacht on the beach in front of it. You can actually avoid that beach altogether, if you like, since Contadora boasts 13 beaches, all incredibly beautiful!
Getting around Contadora
Because nobody can drive to Contadora and the ferries cannot accommodate them either, never mind fuel tankers to supply gas stations, there are not a lot of cars or trucks on the island. The preferred means of transportation is via golf cart. This fits perfectly with the slower pace here and is wonderfully quiet! Most B&Bs and hotels, as well as tourist offices, have golf carts for rent.
Getting back to our story, since Nik needed to go back to the US soon, so we were working under time constraints and we decided to take the short flight to Contadora and spend a night there in a B&B. Contadora has an airstrip that can handle planes up to 20 seaters.
We learned of a B&B owner who also owns a small plane and lives close to us. It sounded almost too good to be true, as a lot of people say… and a couple of days before the planned departure, the aircraft was grounded for mechanical problems. So instead of the 3 of us Backes flying with the neighbor for about 30 minutes to Contadora, we ended up picking up the neighbor in the morning at 5:30 to drive in to Panama City to the Balboa Yacht Club! So, besides the 3 of us in our tiny Toyota Yaris, we had our host and 2 huge coolers with supplies for his B&B!. Now, if you know our son Nik, you know that he fits in our big Dodge Ram pickup truck much better than in even a regular car. To say we were crowded would be a serious understatement!!
Once we arrived at the Balboa Yacht Club, we boarded what was billed as a “high-speed ferry” with about 40 other tourists and homeowners from the island schlepping huge boxes and coolers of their own for their daily life on this island.
At 7:30 sharp, our boat, the “Sea Las Perlas,” left the boat dock at the mouth of the Panama Canal. The boat maneuvered very slowly through the daily Canal traffic and around at least 30 huge vessels parked in the Gulf of Panama, waiting their turn to enter the Canal. Note: Ships planning to go through the Canal must make a payment at least 48 hours before going into the Canal. It was pretty interesting trying to figure out the nationality of all these ships–and a huge number of vessels are registered in Panama. Panama is the world leader in ship registry and a Tax Heaven!
The Ferry Ride
The minute our ferry (a Catamaran with 2 heavy engines) left the heavy traffic area, the captain did his best to show us what high speed is! He started running both engines at full-out which resulted in a fire coming out of one of the engines. Instead of calling the fire department, one of the crew members, dressed in shorts & T-shirt, ran along a narrow edge down the side of the boat with a bottle of water to pour on the engine, which was still running! When they ran out of bottled water, they finally turned off the still-smoldering engine and we continued our trip, limping along with just 50% power. Normally, the ferry ride is slightly over an hour. I was hoping that would be all, not because I had an appointment, but because my system welcomes seasickness after a certain period of time. The sea was relatively calm, but it took us almost 3 hours to get to Contadora.
There we anchored in the shallow waters while men with a “panga,” a small tender boat, picked up passengers & gear to take them to shore. No matter how hard you try, you will always end up with wet feet! But the water is so clear that you can see not only the ocean floor, but all the animals that welcome the ferries, including stingrays!!
Because our host was traveling with us, we had no problem finding the place we would be staying for the night. It was a wonderful place close to the center of the island, with golf carts lined up on the road in front. Most of the B&Bs on the island are 4 – 6 rooms, but there are a couple of larger hotels as well. We liked the ambiance of the quiet little “boutique” B&B, backed up to a jungle-like area. You could sit on the patio out back and just listen to nature!
Contadora and Saboga, the neighboring island, are sometimes called the Martha’s Vineyard of Panama. Some of the wealthiest families of Panama maintain big estates on these islands. Both islands have a very good paved road system and basically all parts are easily accessible with a golf cart. There is only one gas station on Contadora for the supply vehicles and for some of the large estates which must have automobiles in their multiple garages. Wonder how they got there?
Since the purpose of our trip to Contadora was to give Nik an opportunity to enjoy some world-class fishing, we took a ride with out golf cart to one of the beaches where there were some “pangas” lined up. We talked with a man who is a native of the island who probably spends more time on his panga than on the land. He agreed to take Nik fishing in the afternoon. When I saw the size of the boat, I knew that this was not my cup of tea, since we were planning to have a nice lunch beforehand and I didn’t want to end up losing that lunch!
After lunch, Nik and Norma climbed into a panga to go fishing, in search of Tuna. They were out on some pretty choppy water (so glad I didn’t go!) for about 3 hours. Nik caught a beautiful yellowfin tuna weighing about 4 – 5 pounds. Since Nik was concerned about possibly capsizing in that small boat, he chose not to take along phone or camera and so we didn’t get a photo of this beautiful fish. The boat operator filleted the fish once they were on short & put the fillets into a bag. We took that fish and visited a German restaurant on the island, asking the chef and owner to prepare it for us. They seared the dark red meat to a medium/medium-rare and we enjoyed it with a bottle of cold white wine (can’t recall the name of it) from Germany, from the Bavarian area of Franken which is home to the restaurant owner. The fish was definitely much better than the wine, otherwise I could remember the name of it!
While Norma and Nik enjoyed the tossing of the waves in the tiny Panga, I climbed onto the golf cart to check out the island.
The Pearl Islands, as I mentioned, got their name in the early 1500s when an abundance of pearls were found here. No pearls can be found any more, however, the waters around the islands are home to humpback whales, dolphins and lots of marine life. More recently the Pearls are better known for having been the location of several shows of the CBS TV series “Survivor.” It is just amazing what kind of history this tiny place has and how well preserved the island living is. This is definitely a peaceful place–1 police office only–to relax and take a break fro some of the hectic schedules people have!
The next day, after spending a good time on the beaches–all the beaches on Contadora are accessible to the public–we got our backpacks ready to transfer by panga to the replacement ferry boat. Both engines running well, it took us only 1 1/2 hours to get back to Panama City.
Contadora is a place we want to visit again! Even if you are not into fishing, lounge on a beautiful beach any day or take a whale watching tour between July and October.
We made the sweetest purchase of our lifetime! This is a quiet statement if you know the sweets Norma is producing every year around Christmas time!
We bought a Mango Farm in Panama!
Mango is one of the sweetest fruits in the world. After walking the farm, talking to the sellers, talking to the farmers and tasting the fruit, we decided to consider becoming Mango Farmers! We had long discussions together to make sure that we don’t make a decision just based on emotions. We dissected all the material we were able to collect about Mango and about Mango farming. We worked the financials through and decided that this can become a substantial part of our retirement income in the future.
If you have a question of general interest, please send it to us at email@example.com and we will answer it in one of our future editions.
Frank, when you told us about your personal investment in a Mango plantation, you called this “impact investing.” I have participated in a lot of different investments, but none of them were called “impact investments.” What does this mean? Roger S, CO
Great question, Roger! Impact Investing is not something you read about every day in the media. Actually, it is a direction in investments that just recently started, basically in the past 10 – 15 years. It is an investment approach of companies and communities whose projects promise not only a profit for the investor, but also a benefit for the environment and for the communities. This kind of investment got its start with microloans to people in third world countries. These microloans became a great success for the borrowers/native entrepreneurs, members of the communities who received jobs and for the investors who put up the money. You can call it a “triple-win” situation, as long as Wall Street stays out of it! There are many opportunities for impact investments around the world. In times like the past 10 years, impact investments became more profitable than the traditional markets, as long as you stay on the private side of this business!