Expat Life On Panama’s Pearl Islands

Dreamy Pearl Island Escape

The currency of Panama is called the Balboa. It’s worth exactly a dollar, making Panama’s a dollar economy. The country uses U.S. bills, but mints its own coins, which show a picture of a guy in a tin hat: Vasco Nuñez Balboa.

Balboa played a big part in the history of Panama, especially in the history of an archipelago of islands that lie just offshore Panama City. He discovered and named these Pearl Islands, claiming the dollops of land and their riches in the name of King Ferdinand of Spain. In a letter to his king, Balboa wrote, “There are many islands in this sea. They tell me that there are pearls in abundance, of great size, and that the natives possess baskets filled with them.”

For two centuries, Las Perlas played a pivotal role in Spain’s “dash for cash” in the New World. The islands became the Pacific hub for gold and silver to be shipped back to Spain. The loot was assayed and counted on one of these Pearl Islands in particular, the island that became known as Contadora (the counting-house).

When the days of the buccaneers and pirates came to an end, Contadora and the other Pearl Islands were largely forgotten. Then, centuries later, in the 1960s, Panamanian bigwig Gabriel Lewis Galindo happened to run out of fuel on a fishing trip in these waters. He came ashore on Contadora and fell in love. Galindo hatched a plan to create an exclusive retreat for his family and friends on this idyllic island to rival any Caribbean hideaway, and set about to build a home and resort on Contadora’s 100 or so acres.

In the years since, Contadora has played host to illustrious visitors, including John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Julio Iglesias, and Joe DiMaggio, and provided a temporary home for the exiled Shah of Iran. More recently, several series of the reality TV show “Survivor” were filmed here, and the BBC’s “Real Swiss Family Robinson” used the island as its inspiration and base.

Contadora is a quintessential island paradise. Its white sand-fringed shores are the stuff of every dreamy beach postcard you’ve ever seen. Off these shores, the conditions are perfect for breeding humpback whales, several species of dolphin, rays, whale shark and thousands of smaller marine creatures on down the food chain. As a result, these waters are a fisherman’s dream, packed with snapper, rockfish, roosterfish, giant sea bass, grouper, marlin, swordfish, and sailfish.

Contadora makes for a great escape-the-rat-race vacation destination and a jet-set getaway where the costs can be very down to earth. Would it make a good retirement choice? You’d have to be a certain kind of person to live happily on this little island full time, but I’d say that the beach-, sea-, and fish-lover could find Contadora an ideal part-time retirement home.

What about the practicalities of living on an island? They can be a challenge, but expats and retirees already living on Contadora report that the day-to-day challenges are more easily managed all the time. Gone are the days when running out of milk meant a two-day round trip to the mainland, and the island now has its own health clinic…

Jocelyn Carnegie

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