The Fascinating Story of Contadora Island, Panama

By:  Larke Newell

Panama is surrounded by countless stunning islands which add to her allure.  But none are as steeped in history or have the curious mystique of Contadora Island, located fifty miles off the coast.

The eleventh largest island contained in the archipelago of the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama, it is the only one that can be reached by airplane.  Thus, there is regular daily service by both plane and ferry.

Boasting of thirteen stunning white sand beaches, turquoise to teal waters, and verdant rain forests, it assaults the senses and pleases the eye.  The nearly perfect climate mirrors that of the rest of Panama with its two seasons, a dry and a rainy, high humidity, with the average temperature of 80F-90F.

Circumnavigating the island (usually done by golf cart or scooter) takes about twenty-five minutes, providing a cornucopia of sights.  From luxurious and expensive beach homes nestled in immaculately landscaped grounds to crumbling and decaying building relics slowly being choked out by jungle vines, the island is a mysterious anomaly.

The original inhabitants were indigenous people who were cruelly desecrated by the Spanish conquistadores in 1513.  These self-serving trespassers arrived on Contadora in order to harvest the local pearls.  For this endeavor they imported slave labor from Africa throughout the sixteenth century.  The descendants of these unfortunates continue to reside in the area.

For many years the island remained a quiet secluded home for the two hundred or so local Panamanians as well as a select few millionaires seeking a serene, sparsely populated retreat.

In the 1960’s a sprawling, elegant resort was constructed and became a prestigious haven for the rich.  Consisting of over three hundred rooms and an elegant dining room where sumptuous meals and elaborate drinks were served, it is said the champagne flowed like a fountain.  Numerous out buildings were built to accommodate the richest of the rich and their diverse pleasures including a casino.

It became world famous in 1979 when the Shah of Iran chose it as his haven of exile.  During this time he purchased multiple elaborate homes in the area but, due to tax evasion issues, they are now rented out to tourists.

Suddenly the island and the resort became exclusive, expensive, and patronized by the rich and famous. Hollywood stars such as Sophia Loren, Christian Dior, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and the Kennedys bought private getaways or resided in the now famous resort.

As the story goes (and this has not been formally confirmed), this prestigious resort was owned by Colombian drug lords as a money laundering oasis.  However, in 2009 one of the owners perished in a plane crash, leaving the place in serious debt.  Sadly, no one claimed this once proud establishment and it changed from a splendid playground to a crumbling mess.  It is now abandoned and sinking into ruin.  Only the rotting leaves are left to cavort through this once elegant domain.

Also abandoned, beached on the nearby shore, and in complete decay rests the once proud, now pitiful ferry boat which the Colombian owners used to shuttle their guests to and from the mainland and the resort.

In close proximity to that sad, skeletal old madam, sits a cluster of unfinished luxury villas.  Abandoned before completion, they were constructed more recently than the hotel so, being in a lesser state of disrepair, are very likely salvageable for someone enterprising and daring enough to tackle the project.

As time went on the island once again shone in the spotlight after the reality show Survivor was filmed there.  Suddenly it was no longer reserved for the wealthy and prominent.  Tourism has awakened and the eyes of speculating investors are turning towards this lovely destination.

Several more modest hotels and villas have been built, restaurants serving international cuisine are available, and local jewellery and souvenir shops have sprung up.  Boating, scuba diving, snorkelling, day tours, a sailing club, and whale and dolphin watching provide recreation.

Real estate runs the gamut and is no longer concentrated on high end luxury abodes.  A corner lot for commercial development or a home is selling for $120,000.  On offer for $650,000 is a six bedroom, six bath beach front vacation rental duplex.  Or on the higher end, a gorgeous ocean front mansion complete with its own private pier can be purchased for $2,950.00.

Yes, the Hotel Contadora’s glory days have disappeared as if only a mirage. To quote a 2002 newspaper article, “The champagne ran out years ago.”  But this beautiful island has not fallen to its knees in abject defeat.  To the contrary, it is an awakening princess crying out to be noticed and appreciated.

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