The Las Perlas Archipelago, or the Pearl Islands, is found off Panama’s Pacific coast, just south of Panama city.
Only 20 minutes by airplane, this isolated cluster is becoming one of Panama’s foremost attractions.
nd quiet elegance of island life, and the attractions of outdoor adventure. Indeed, being so accessible yet completely isolate Visitors revel in the turquoise waters filled with abundant tropical fish, the charisma and, the Pearl Islands chosen three times as the site of television series ‘Survivor’.
Composed of more than 200 islands and islets, the majority of them in pristine condition, the Las Perlas Archipelago has been nominated one of Panama’s special tourism zones, and is currently under development as a model of sustainable tourism, under the joint supervision of the United Nations Development Program and the government of Panama.
The archipelago sit in shallow Pacific waters, where the continental shelf extends for miles, protected from strong storms and currents by the Panama Bay. Its brilliant waters are reminiscent of the tropical Caribbean, turquoise and crystal-clear, teeming with coral beds and a rich diversity of marine life. Snorkeling, diving and other waters sports are popular.
The Pearl Islands were named for the wealth of oysters found by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the famous Spanish explorer, at the start of the 16th century. The pearls there collected were much prized by European royalty and aristocracy, and formed part of the early wealth brought to Spain from the early explorers. Here was found the world-famous, 31-carat pearl ‘La Peregrina’ in the early 1500; worn by the queens of Spain, it is now owned by Elizabeth Taylor.among the islands, and the area is home to many game fish, including blue and black marlin, wahoo, sailfish and more.
Dolphins, whales, and nesting turtles also frequent the warm Pacific waters throughout the archipelago, while chattering parrots and toucans flit overhead.
Contadora Island is the most well-known of the Pearl Islands, and a popular resort and vacation getaway for residents and tourists to Central America.
For decades its elegant retreats have attracted jet-setters from around the world. A regional airport brings in travelers from the Panama City airport, just a 15 minute flight away. Few cars travel the winding roads of the small island, most opting for golf carts and bicycles in the year-round pleasant climate. Magnificent homes and boutique hotels overlook the many small bays along ringing the island, lined with brilliant white sands. A handful of restaurants, both lavish and traditional, offer fresh ocean fare and open-air dining.
Isla del Rey is the largest island on the archipelago at 330 square kilometers, and is the main focus for tourist development in the Pearl Islands. It has a large landing strip to receive flights, and other major tourism infrastructure such as marinas and larger hotels are planned for. Isla del Rey features a lush, hilly terrain wound with rivers and waterfalls, and most importantly, several freshwater sources. Its coastal waters are the most plentiful of the islands for finding gamefish, and more than 200 IFA (International Game and Fishing Association) records have been hauled onto Pearl Island shores. The second largest island, Isla San José, is also one of the most remote, some 90 kilometers from the mainland. It sits near an area called ‘the Explosives’, where the continental shelf drops abruptly, making for some of the world’s best deep-sea fishing.
Viveros Island, just a stone’s throw from Isla del Rey, is the site of a ongoing development project that will transform the virgin island into a high-end luxury retreat. Its natural V shape gives the island a deep, sheltered bay, with long expanses of beachfront along 20 miles of coastline, and gentle inland slopes.. Its rich volcanic soil, luxurious vegetation and ample freshwater resources have made it the location of choice for the ambitious project. Set to be completed in 2012, Isla Viveros will boast three hotels, two marinas, a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, and some 550 residences. an airstrip is already in place to receive international and domestic flights. In order to preserve the island’s natural beauty, only 15% of the territory will be developed, with the remaining 85% reserved for green zones.
Sustainable Tourism Master Plan
Because of the archipelago’s proximity to the mainland and the capital city, as well as its largely pristine state and wealth of natural attractions, the Panamanian government, in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program (UNEP), set out to convert the area into a prominent tourist destination, with an emphasis on sustainable environmental and social development. In December 2006, a law was passed to declare Las Perlas as a ‘special management zone’, with strict regulations to ensure the development of the archipelago is carried out with a minimum of impact to its wildlife, ecosystems, and to the islands’ inhabitants.
An outline for the development of the archipelago was released in 2003 by GATO AG, a German firm specializing in tourism development and investment. The master plan calls up to 3,000 new hotel rooms and 1,000 residential units to be built by 2010, the vast majority through private investment. These will house an estimated 380,000 visitors to Las Perlas, once the project is complete. While there is an existing landing strip on Contadora Island, additional landing strips are planned for the archipelago, able to accommodate further air traffic.
In total, the GATO report estimates total investment will reach as much as $670 million, generating returns of up to $340 million each year, and creating approximately 11,500 direct jobs. Much of the total project is to be turned over to the private sector through concessions, with the remainder under development by the government. Construction has already begun on several islands, which will house resorts, boutique hotels, eco-lodges, marinas, and other tourist amenities.
“Through its outstanding location and its unique
combination of products, the Las Perlas Archipelago
has the potential to attract a healthy mix of national,
regional and international clientele. Seen as a
complementary product to the rich cultural, historical
and ecological attractions of the mainland, the project
is set to be the starting point for a successful tourism
story “Made in Panama”,” states the report.
Progress Towards Environmental Sustainability: A data sheet by the United Nations Development Program, with a feature on the Pearl Islands.
Tourism Masterplan Las Perlas Archipelago, Panama: A brief of the masterplan elaborated by GATO AG, a German tourism development consulting firm.
Talking With an Old Hand About Investing in Panama: An article regarding Panama’s islands, particularly the Pearl Islands, featured on EscapeArtist.com
Survivor Pearl Islands: The website to one of the three Survivor series shot on the Pearl Islands.