Isla Contadora

The island of Contadora, a mere 20 minutes from Panama City by plane, has some of the country's loveliest beaches. Half a dozen swaths of beige sand backed by exuberant foliage line Contadora's coves, and they lie within walking distance of affordable accommodations. It is a small island, covering less than a square mile, but it can serve as a base for day trips to nearby isles with deserted beaches and snorkeling sites, as well as deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, and whale watching.

The Pearl Archipelago's indigenous inhabitants undoubtedly had another name for Isla Contadora, but its current name, which translates as "counting isle," was given to it nearly five centuries ago, when it held the offices of the Spanish crown's pearl-diving enterprise. The island was deserted for years after the pearl harvest diminished. Contadora gained its current status as a vacation destination in the 1970s, when wealthy Panamanians began to buy coastal property here. The government built the massive Hotel Contadora—now in ruins—and the island developed a vibrant weekend party scene. The island's most famous temporary resident was the deposed Shah of Iran, on the heels of the Tehran embassy takeover in 1979, who recovered from heart surgery here. Contadora's star has since faded, and it isn't the haunt of the glitterati it once was, but it can be a fun, mid-range place for a vacation.

The island's tiny town center is just to the west of the airstrip, next to which sits its largest hotel. Nearly everything to the west is residential. A series of narrow roads winds through the forests that cover most of the island to the stately vacation homes scattered along its coastline, and an inland neighborhood that has some smaller houses. In the center of the island are a soccer field, a pond, and a small church; to the north lies Playa Ejecutiva, and to the south, Playa Cacique, two of the island's nicest beaches. Contadora is small enough to walk everywhere, but given the heat you may want to rent a golf cart or scooter.

Isla Contadora's main attraction is its selection of beaches, but there is decent snorkeling around its many rocky points, and better snorkeling at several nearby islands. Though the water is warm most of the year, high winds from December to April cool it down and decrease visibility.

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