Only 35 nautical miles from Panama City the archipelago of the Las Perlas lies in the Pacific. Despite their proximity to the metropolis the 15 islands and countless islets are a relatively untouched wilderness. Only Contadora has regular air and ferry connections and some tourism. Most of the other islands are uninhabited and entice visitors with powder-sugar beaches, protected anchorages, jungle vegetation and millions of seabirds.
While most yachts on the way to the Pacific transit the Panama Canal in March, we decided for an earlier date, to leave enough time for exploring the Pacific coast of Panama. The dry season starts in December and steady northerly trade winds make reaching the Perlas – and the hops between the islands – pleasant sailing. January and February are also good times to visit the Perlas. However, in March the fleet of yachts bound for the Galapagos crowd into the anchorages and, during the rainy season, from May to November, the weather becomes unstable with lots of thunderstorms, strong winds from different directions and humid calms in between.
We reached the Perlas from the northwest and anchored on the protected southern side of Contadora, off the airfield. Contadora used to be a US Army base and a lot of the infrastructure dates from that time. In the meantime it has been developed for tourism, ritzy villas, hotels and apartments dot the shore. There are several mini-markets, a gas station and some restaurants, everything within walking distance on paved roads where visitors can stroll unconcerned even at night as there’s very little crime. There are few cars around, but lots of golf buggies that can also be rented.
The tourist office boasts lots of activities: cycling, jet ski rental, kayak tours, snorkeling, diving, bird watching and whale watching. But even without joining a tour there are plenty of opportunities to watch wildlife. For instance, in December, each morning and evening, young stingrays made a spectacular show in the anchorage, jumping high into the air, doing back-flips and fluttering frantically with their little wings before splashing back into the water.
On the western side of the archipelago well protected anchorages can be found in the channel between Chapera and Mogo Mogo and between Bayoneta, Casaya and Viveros. The little islands are rather low, covered with lush vegetation and surrounded by white, golden and black beaches, just perfect for a beach BBQ. Rugged volcanic rocks that pierce the waves like sharp black teeth make for a perfect postcard motif, but also remind the sailor to navigate carefully.
When planning routes in the Perlas it’s wise to keep an eye on the tide tables, as the tidal range reaches more than five meters (17 feet) during spring tides. In anchorages off beaches the bottom is usually a mixture of sand and mud with excellent holding.
After cruising the Caribbean, tidal waters were a new but interesting experience for us. The fact that the landscape changes every few hours was fascinating: reefs turn into islands, beaches appear and rock bridges emerge between islands. We stayed for a week on our favorite islets: Isletas des Platanal. We hiked around the islets at low tide watching herons and egrets hunting for trapped sea creatures in the tidal pools. Often the seas around Pitufa seemed to boil, when large predators drove shoals of tiny fish to the surface with pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds and seagulls all getting their share of the fish buffet. We were lucky a few times catching mackerel, mahi mahi and tuna with our trolling lure.
We skipped the islands of Pedro Gonzales (only anchorages open to the north) and San Jose (a private island with apparently good anchorages in the southeast) and concentrated on exploring the main island of the archipelago instead. Isla del Rey is 15 miles long and by far the largest of the Perlas. While the swell breaks violently on the rough western coast, the east coast offers nice anchorages. The cruising guides mention the possibility of provisioning in the village of Esmeralda in the south of the island and the chance to take the dinghy up a river in the nearby anchorage at Rio Cacique. We found the village La Ensenada much friendlier though. The local mini-market is as mini as it gets, but as soon as we started asking around for veggies the villagers brought us produce from their own gardens and we could buy fish on the beach. The nearby anchorage at Isla Caña in between black rock needles is the most spectacular in the Perlas. Five miles further north the anchorage between Espiritu Santo and Rey is calm enough to carry out work up the mast.
Circumnavigating Espiritu Santo by dinghy reveals beaches with white sand and picturesque rocky islets. Opposite the anchorage a river flows into the sea. We motored upriver by dinghy at high tide and then paddled on the outgoing current silently back through the rainforest. A magical experience: birds chirp and squeak unseen in the trees, then suddenly flutter into sight, wading birds sit on low-hanging branches and crabs shuffle over the roots of the mangroves.
Cruisers on the way to destinations in the Pacific should allow sufficient time for this fascinating archipelago.
Essential reading: Eric Bauhaus: The Panama Cruising Guide 4th Edition (detailed descriptions and charts).