Sailing to The Pearl Islands
About 30 nautical miles south of Panama City, the Gulf of Panama is dotted by over 200 small and big mostly uninhabited islands and islets of exceptional beauty, named Islas de las Perlas (The Pearl Islands). It is our favorite destination on the Pacific Ocean side of Panama and a place no cruiser sailing through these parts of the world should miss.
The Pearl Islands emerged from the ocean over 60 million years ago. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, they were home of the Cuevas and Cocle indigenous cultures. In 1513, their “discoverer” Vasco Nunez de Balboa named the islands Pearl Islands, after the Indians greeted him with baskets full of large pearls. This friendly gesture from the part of the local population was met with violence and only two years after the arrival of the Spaniards the locals were brutally and completely wiped out. After killing everyone, the conquistadores realized that there is no one left to harvest the pearls which were so abundant in the waters of the archipelago. So they imported slaves from Africa to do the dirty job; slaves whose descendants make the majority of the inhabited island’s permanent population today.
After one unsuccessful attempt to sail to Las Perlas from our anchorage at La Playita (the wind died and we spent four hours drifting with the current, covering just one mile in the wrong direction, and decided to turn back …) we start again one slightly windier September morning. It’s rainy season in Panama which also means not much wind until November.
The wind dies down again just as we are crossing the big ship anchorage outside the Canal Zone and we find ourselves drifting with strong current and almost no wind among containerships, some waiting at anchor, others maneuvering, and we almost get run over by a giant metal boat (or rather, we run over the giant boat), because Ivo will not turn on the engines even in a situation like this, and with the spinnaker up our options for turning are limited…
Very slowly, we are out of the danger zone so crowded with cargo ships and so polluted with plastic garbage floating on the surface of the sea, it’s appalling.
The next couple of hours- still no wind and our progress is ridiculous 1 to 1.5 kts…
In the afternoon, the wind finally picks up and we sail fast now, with 6 knots. Yet, we have lost precious time for the first 5 hours, and we cannot make it before sunset.
The charts of The Pearl Islands are notoriously inaccurate and the entire archipelago is a rough area to navigate, especially at night, with lots of reefs and dangerous rocks in the shallows near the islands. Luckily, we have the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus (fourth edition). It is an essential cruising guide for Panama, San Blas, Bocas del Torro and Las Perlas, which a good cruising friend gave us awhile back in exchange for a few of our old AGM batteries. This book has been our most treasured crew member since we left Cartagena (Colombia) direction Panama a few months ago, a crew member we could count on; who never failed us. Thank you Tina, and thank you Eric!
We arrive at night with one final squall pushing behind us, navigating in pitch black, paying little attention to the charts and much more attention to The Book, avoiding shallow areas and reefs, until we see the lights of hotels and houses on Contadora.
There are free mooring balls just off the beach and Ivo orders us to catch one, on sail. We are super close to shore, it’s shallow, it’s dark, there is strong current and we are trying to catch a small mooring ball, without engine! Here is how it’s done: you sail in the direction of the mooring ball but not towards it, so that when you are close enough, the ball remains exactly where the wind is coming from. A few meters away from the ball you turn towards it (and towards the wind) and quickly furl the head sail. The main sail is up, but the wind is against you and the boat slows down super quickly and stops just next to the mooring ball. You catch it and drop the main. You have to consider the current as well when you estimate when and where to turn. If you turn too soon, or if the distance between the boat and the mooring ball after you turn is too big, the boat stops before you reach the ball and starts drifting backwards. In this case, you have to position the boat sideways to wind, spread the headsail again and repeat the operation. Always be aware of the surroundings and other boats in the area, shore, rocks, wind and current. In high winds, at night, and in a crowded unfamiliar anchorage, it is much more difficult to do this operation. In our case, the current is super strong, it is pitch black, we have never been here before, and there are a few small fishing boats on moorings all over the place. Yet, after much yelling and running around- Ivo on the wheel and furling the head sail, Maya with the spot light, and me with the long hook trying to grab the damn thing- we manage to catch one mooring ball without turning the engines on, only after the third attempt… A great exercise.
The next morning, we wake up in front of a small beach with the hilly island of Contadora rising behind it. A few small hotels and private luxurious mansions are perched on the hill, surrounded by trees and flowers. The island is a little more than one square kilometer in territory with a couple of hundred permanent residents and many hotels and vacation homes. With its small airport and small boat port, Contadora is the most accessible and most popular of all Perl Islands among foreign tourists and weekenders from the capital, attracting visitors with its pristine beaches, and gorgeous resorts built without disturbing the nature.
After the construction of so many hotels and houses, roads and public spaces in the 1960s and 1970s, the flora here has been successfully preserved with lush tropical vegetation looming over buildings, and roads making sudden illogical turns around large centennial tees. The busy tourist season has not started yet, and there is almost no one. The hotels are deserted, many- abandoned and in ruins. It feels so calm and quiet as if time has stopped. It is also the only island from the archipelago that has streets long enough to run, so Ivo can still train for his marathon.
It is a great relief being here alone, in the calm clean transparent waters teaming with fish, after so many weeks in the polluted rocky and sometimes noisy anchorage at La Playita near the Panama Canal’s entrance. It’s time to relax, snorkel and fish, and once again fully enjoy our cruising way of life. This is exactly what we signed up for. And it gets better.
(To be continued…)
Read about our favorite cruising destination on the Caribbean side of Panama: Paradise at The End of The Sea
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