The next morning, we were off on the ferry for the Pearl Islands. They are an archipelago of 200 islands, but only 7 are inhabited. Contadora is the most touristic, the one where we were headed. After a two hour ride, seeing dolphins riding the bow waves of our ferry, we got to this little treasure of an island that surprisingly not many people know about.
As soon as we got there, we went to look for the couple Josh and Heidi, who are full time employees of the tour operator we were going to work for. The owner was off in Hawaii for a whale convention, so we would be trained by Josh and Heidi. We found them and they were about to leave on a tour right when we got there, so we dropped our bags and went with Heidi. This would be good training for what we would be doing. So, the 7 tourists, Antoine, Heidi, and I (Josh stayed behind) flagged down a fisherman with his little Panga to hire him to be our driver, and loaded the panga with our gear (snacks and beverages for the tourists, and snorkel gear, binoculars ect) and set off on the 4 hour tour.
Heidi started the tour by explaining that the Pearl Islands were discovered in 1513 by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a Spanish navigator, who named them the Pearl Islands because of the vast amount of pearls that were found around the islands. The Pearl Islands were known for two things: pearls and pirates. She went into some of the history of the islands, how the Spanish got greedy after seeing all the pearls, and sent the indigenous Indian chiefs to the dogs so they could take over the islands. In fact, one of the biggest pearls ever found in the world was found in the Pearl islands, it is called “The Peregrina.” It was owned at different times by Napoleon, Philip II, and others before Richard Burton bought it for 37,000 dollars for his wife Elizabeth Taylor. The Islands also have other famous people who have connections there; John Wayne used to frequent one in particular, which is now known as John Wayne’s Island. Contadora, the island we were staying in, was the location where the Shah of Iran was in exile during the revolution of 1979. You can still see his house!
Contadora means “the book keeper” because it is where the Spaniards would stop to count all their pearls before heading back to Spain.
There were also many Pirates around these islands, and we got to see one of their maps from the 16th century! They were a danger to the Spanish sailors because they would often intercept their ships after leaving Contadora, and therefore collect all the pearls. The locals of these islands are the descendants of the African slaves that the Spanish imported to harvest the pearls and work for them.
Heidi then explained about fishing in Panama. Panama, in one of the indigenous languages, translates into “Plethora of fish” and it IS true to its name. If you are going to fish in Panama, you WILL catch something. As we were riding along in the panga boat, we saw several flying fish leaping out of the water. [Fun fact: they can fly as far as 40 feet along the surface of the water!] The water is so clear, even out in the deep you can see the fish down below the boat. But the fish are all protected- at least in the islands. If you catch a blue marlin, you are required to do a catch and release. Only the fish like the Snappers and Dorados you can keep. Also, there is no commercial fishing, so, no using nets! The fisherman we see out in the pangas do it all by harpooning or rods.
Our first stop was the Island of Pacheca, which we actually didn’t stop it, just drove along the coast of it. It was amazing- it is where all the birds werehanging out. There were TONS of birds- pelicans by the hundreds, which are HUGE by the way. They would swoop down right next to our moving boat, and glide right above the water to catch fish. It was amazing. There were also blue footed boobies, and brown footed boobies, and magnificent frigates. The frigates are amazing to see because the males, during mating season, swell out their red throats so that from the boat it looks like you are looking at beautiful red flowers blooming on top of the bushes until you put the binoculars on! We cruised around the island, taking tons of pictures of the birds, and learning about the “pirate birds” which you can see from afar, swarming in huge clouds above the island. They don’t have the necessary oils in their skin to go on water, so they hover in the sky waiting to steal fish that the other birds caught. It takes them a year to learn how fly the way they do, as if they are not moving..you barely see their wings move, they just soar.
After leaving Pacheca, we headed out into the open water to try to see some dolphins. The islands had warned us that recently they haven’t been seen near the coast as much as they had just a month ago. But we wanted to try anyway. We did end up seeing three traveling together, but they were far, and heading the other direction. The dolphins around here are bottlenose dolphins, which are characteristically very friendly and playful. Heidi told us that when they aren’t eating, sometimes they come up to the boat and ride the bow waves.
We headed toward Boya Reina, which is an island that only appears during low tide during the day- normally it is covered by the sea. This makes it interesting because every time you go there is a whole new collection of shells that you really would never find on any beach. There is coral everywhere, and stones that have perfectly round holes naturally drilled in them from the water. There are shells of every color—red, yellow, and most importantly turquoise. Panama has a special type of stone here that is turquoise, and it is not found in many places in the world, but it is EVERYWHERE here. So, we got out there and some of the tourists took a dip in the transparent/ turquoise water, or took advantage of the perfect spot for a great panoramic camera shot.
After spending some time there, we headed to Mogo Mogo and Chapera, two islands that were used for a few seasons of “Survivor”. They are perfect because of their long, flat sandy beaches and vast amount of iguanas. We passed by Mogo Mogo and stopped in Chapera. Right off the beach there is a huge coral reef so everyone got their snorkel gear on and plopped backwards off the boat and into the blue. Unfortunately Antoine and I did not have time before the tour to get our bathing suits on, so we had to watch from the side. This is nothing to complain about since we could still see all the fish from the boat- that is how clear it was!! So, everyone snorkeled for about 30/40 minutes and then headed back to the beach for drinks and snacks. After everyone was done on the beach we headed back to Contadora. We wouldn’t believe we just did that for free—it was amazing. This was going to be our job- selling these tours and then taking people on them. Not too shabby.
When we got back from the tour we had to work out our accommodations, so Heidi went to talk to a local about living in their house and they agreed for 375/month. This was really expensive for us, but it was really good considering the other option: 500/month to live in a hotel room. At least at the house we had a kitchen, which we shared with two other local guys who lived there, who were both about our age. We thought we would defiantly save money with a kitchen– until we saw the prices of the food on the island. The supermarket was more like a corner store where you go to buy cigs and beer, but we werent worried about it. In the back they had a few vegetables, and some chicken in the fridge. We figured this was doable until we saw the prices. For a small bag of chips, like the little personal bags was 4.00! A can of tuna was 4.50, and a jug of water was 5.00. (remember how hot it is here) Also, the water on the island is not drinkable because it comes from a “lake” on the island. We drove by it…it’s muck colored..so yeah, we weren’t going to take any risks, shots or no shots. The locals don’t even drink it. So, all of their food and water comes over on a barge twice a week, so they have to pay that fee, which is why they charge a lot. So we stuck with rice and beans for dinner, eggs for the morning, and ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Very simple, but still delicious!
After the first day, even though this island was amazingly beautiful, and we loved the tours, we realized there was no way we could afford to stay there.
That night, the other guy who owned the tour operator we were originally going to work at answered us, asking if we were still interested in working for him. With him, we would have free accommodation and meals, which was starting to sound pretty good about now. So we skyped with him that night and he told us we could come in a week. So, we decided we would stay on the island for a week.
The next day, Thursday, we were at the office at 8 am, and down at the beach at 9;30 am to greet the ferry coming in to drop off the tourists. Two ferries come every morning, and then come back to get people every day at 3 pm. Some people just come for the day, others who can afford the hotels or b&bs here, can stay for a night or two. There are also tons of people who own the huge houses on the island who stay for the whole dry season. Unfortunately, Contadora also has some big resorts and hotels that sit abandoned, because they owners are so darn rich, they don’t even care about them. The owners aren’t there the majority of the time, so they just sit empty on the island. One of them was owned by a Columbian drug lord, it is huge- takes up the entire beach front, but he died in a plane crash and his family isn’t doing anything with it but won’t sell. The tourism on the island would probably grow if the people with money put more into their properties! Also, they would probably do well getting an ATM on the island,..that’s right..cash only on the island! Except for two restaurants i think! The island has tons of potential though, I’m sure it will be booming in about ten years!
We greeted the people getting off the ferry, and informed them about the tours we offer here on the island, and didn’t get any takers that day. So Heidi thought we should know about our kayaking tour, in case we would have to take someone out by ourselves. So Heidi, Antoine and I set out for a kayak tour, to see which were the best islands to kayak to, and try to find a few more good snorkeling spots. We ended up going all around Contadora and we hopped out at some points to check out the fish and turtles. We made it kayaking around the island in about 3 hours, including our snorkeling stops. Finally, we decided that Charlie’s Island looked doable. Charlie’s island is an island about an hour kayaking from Contadora island, but this is actually out in the open sea. It was not easy with the current, but we made it! Charlie’s island is awesome, but we realized it was going to be a bit too hard for the tourists. On Charlie’s island, you get out on the tiny beach and there are some stone steps that just go up….upon reaching the top you see the 8 cabins there. They were constructed for Survivor, it was supposed to be the island where they would get exiled to, but after building the houses they realized it was going to be too expensive, so now they sit abandoned. We went up to check them out..they are still very much in good shape, although they’ve been abandoned for about 10 years, and each one of them has an a million dollar view out the window. Unfortunately the guy who owns them isn’t doing anything with them!
After hanging out there a bit, we got back in the kayaks for the hour ride back to Contadora. Arms were getting pretty tired at this point and since Antoine and I were in a double kayak, we kept in sync by me singing every Irish song in the book, and Antoine trying to keep up with the lyrics haha.. Oh yes, Heidi got to know us real well that day!
The sun goes down at 6 pm here, and that is when the island shuts down. There is absolutely no one, or nothing going on after 6 pm. All the island employees live on the island next to us, Seboga, so there is literally no one on Contadora. Unless you are staying in one of the big hotels, you don’t really see anyone. No local hangout, no bar, and most of the restaurants close pretty early too.
The next day, Friday, we sat in the office all day and got a few people who were interested in touring in the upcoming days, but nothing for that day. Friday was the first day of carnival, which brought loads of people in. However, they were all Panamanians from the city who were looking to get away from the craziness of the festivities of carnival and with no desire to go on tours. Since we didn’t sell anything that day, at about 4 pm we decided to go find a beach on the other side of the island to snorkel at- well we found it..so, so beautiful! This was also my first experience with “Malaguas”, yes, they are tiny jellyfish, that are transparent. You literally cannot see them. So there we are, swimming along, and getting stung by phantom jellyfish! They sting you and you don’t even know in what direction to swim to get away from them because you can’t see where they are! I gave up after about 20 minutes, and Antoine was right behind me. I get out and my legs are covered in tiny red blotches that stung like hell! Thank goodness the stinging went away after about 15 minutes, and now, it’s just itchy.
The next day we got another tour, and we actually got to snorkel! It was amazing- and no Malaguas! It was like swimming in an aquariam. I saw tons and tons of dish—some very big, some very small. But all of them had awesome colors, bright blue, neon pink and green parrot fish, a saw puffer fish, and box fish! All of them were incredible and I was swimming right next to them! I didn’t no want to leave after the half hour, but we had to go.
Same thing that night, not much to do, although we did see a big dinner being set up on the beach and got really curious. Turns out Bear Grylls and his production crew were here, and had been here filming for the past few months. Bear Grylls, is that crazy English guy from the show Man vs. Wild, and yes, I saw him J Over the next few days we saw them all over the island. That was pretty cool, closest I’ve ever been to a TV personality.
The next day we had a group of 5 people who were going on a tour and Heidi put me in charge, so I gave my first tour and it was awesome! Not only did we get paid for doing it, but our people actually tipped us! It was pretty awesome, and going around from island to island was definitely not getting old!
The next few days went the same..we had a few more tours, or we were just selling them and advertising them on the beach when the ferries came in, and finally a week was up. So our last night there we decided to have a little barbeque (Antoine’s idea). So we asked the two guys who lived with us, and one other local who would give us a lifts on his mule on our walk to and from work. There are no cars on the island..one gets around by walking, golf carts or mules (not the animals.) Everyone brought something to cook and some beers, and we had a great last night on the island! The next day it was hard to leave – we couldn’t believe we were actually turning down this island, but there was simply not enough work for us there, and a bit too pricey. So we took one last swim on our favorite beach, Playa Larga, and got our backpacks back on to check in to the ferry.
On our ferry back to Panama city, about half way there (it was a 2 hour ride) the ferry stopped and we all looked over the side of the boat…there was a pod of dolphins, I would say about 50 or 60 dolphins swimming along, jumping up out of the water, literally into the air so that their entire bodies were about 4 or 5 feet above the water. It was incredible! After they were on their way, about 10 minutes later, we came upon another pod who was doing the same thing. It was awesome- so cool to see wild dolphins in their natural habitat!