Island Life in Panamá

The islands off the coast of Panamá—white-sand beaches, hammocks rocking between palm trees, clear emerald waves lapping the shore—are the stuff of vacation fantasies but, in truth, are dangerously close to your reality. Head offshore and take off your shoes. You’ve discovered the undiscovered.

Contadora Island, Saboga, Panama
Snorkel, fish, relax and recover while you’re in Panama on Contador Island, in the Pearl Islands Archipelago. These beautiful boats are ready for hire (in hugely affordable fashion) once you’ve left Panama City and landed on this enchanting island. With Air Panama there appear to be two or three short (45 minutes) flights a day that will get you there from Panama City. Be sure to pack your swimsuit, a good book and some sunscreen. This is a very small island and you can explore land on foot or by a rental scooter to see it all. In Spanish, Contador means ‘the one that counts’, and it’s easy to make your day on the island count with a local rental boat. Your captain (that will inevitably also be fishing while you’re moving) are a reliable way to go and find nearby remote snorkel locations. Be sure to agree on the price before you head out for your big day on the water.
Isla de Coiba, Panama
The miniscule, idyllic island of Granita de Oro (meaning “little grain of gold”) is one of 38 small, wild islands that comprise Panama’s Isla Coiba National Park, in the Gulf of Chiriqui. The cyan-blue waters here swarm with a jaw-dropping array of sea creatures—not just coral reefs swarming with tropical fish, but moray eels, manta rays, sharks, and sea turtles. While snorkeling and diving are the most obvious pursuits here, many travelers enjoy just kayaking, sunning, and picnicking on the powdery beach. Traveling with an intimate group can heighten the experience of exploring Central America. The ship used for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Costa Rica & Panama trips accommodates just 62 passengers.
A visit to the incredible 365-island archipelago (also called the San Blas Islands) within the communal lands of the Guna Yala indigenous nation provides some extraordinary seaside experiences. The islands making up the outer archipelago are unspoiled and feature gorgeous white-sand beaches, turquoise seas, and a one-of-a-kind encounter with Guna culture. Visitors lodge in natural-material huts (cane walls and interwoven palm-frond roofs) or—if you’re in the mood—sleep under the stars in palm-strung hammocks. Local women sport colorful dress made in the style known as mola, a traditional Gula artisanal weaving technique. A highway was built several years back that lets you travel from Panama City to Puerto de Cartí in as few as two hours.
In reality, the 1,620-hectare (4,000-acre) Barro Colorado Island is a hilltop. Or, at least it was until the creation of Gatún Lake turned it into the largest island in the Canal Zone, one where the Smithsonian Institute operates a research center and gives morning tours. Ships sail tightly past the island, offering the chance to glimpse toucans, iguanas and bats that live among the 1,300 plant species and 381 bird species of this vital tropical woodland.

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