LAS PERLAS ARCHIPELAGO: Photographing the Wild Islands of Panama


This archipelago was a beautiful surprise on our way to the Galapagos onboard the Coco de Mer. Many sailors starting in Panama City stop there shortly before the long voyage, but few spend more than a couple of days.


In 2016 Panama’s Tourism Authority and the Environment Ministry put in place a 10-year plan to turn the country into the regional leader as a nature destination, and Las Perlas is one of the top spots considered for the development of sustainable tourism. The islands are locally renown for humpback whale watching June through October, snorkeling, scuba diving, as well as pretty white sand beaches with crystal-clear waters. There are around 250 islands with just a few of them being inhabited. Isla Contadora, in the northern part of the archipelago, is just a 20-minute plane ride from Panama City and is therefore the main tourist spot, with nice white-sand beaches, hotels, restaurants and shops.

The archipelago was the set of several Survivor shows from around the world, as well as other adventure television series, all meant to test the skills of humans living in the harsh environment of deserted Pacific islands. The name Las Perlas, or "the pearls", was given to the islands by the Spanish when they encountered large stocks of this prized resource in the turquoise waters of the archipelago. Currently, the main environmental threat comes from plastic and garbage pollution brought in by the tides, littering the beaches of every island we visited.

We spent two days around the uninhabited Isla Chapera and made our way through patches of rainforest filled with an impressive amount of thorny plants and trees. The most remarkable of its residents were a species of iguana lizards that didn't seem to be bothered by our presence. On the other islands there are a few more fishing villages and lots of wilderness.

Though the waters around Contadora island receive their share of yachts from the mainland, the islands four hours further south by boat are magical.  They look like a naturalist’s dream and feel worlds away from human touch. Once on land though the plastic reminds you that escaping humanity is not easy nowadays. Despite this problem, we’d still put them on a list of “off the beaten path” beautiful island destinations. On Isla del Rey, the largest island in the archipelago and with a small human population living on it, we hiked up the pristine Cacique tidal river. We were surrounded by mangroves, herons, egrets and schools of fish. If you’re sailing south to the Galapagos or to other destinations, or are looking for a weekend escape by boat from Panama City, Las Perlas deserves its spot on the list of choices. Below is a selection of photos in which we tried to capture the beauty and remoteness of the islands.


A mild example of the thorny trees on Isla Chapera


A Yellow-headed caracara on Isla del Rey

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A Tropical kingbird — Isla Chapera


Forest canopy on Isla Chapera