First time we sailed past the island, the tide was high and only a small mound of sand was above the water. From a distance it looked a bit like one of those New Yorker cartons: a desert island with a palm tree and a scraggly ship wrecked sailor; only this island was missing the palm tree and sailor. It was spring; the highest and lowest tides of the year happen during this season, 15-18 foot differences are possible. A few days later at very low tide a large island was uncovered, like a bed sheet thrown back, uncovering a body unseen before and an open invitation for us to go treasure hunting for sea shells.
We went with Clayton and Fiona of the motor vessel Argo, in their dinghy. The island has a name: Isla Santa Catalina, part of Las Perlas archipelago in Panama, just 40 miles from the large and modern metropolis of Panama City, but emotionally, aesthetically and environmentally feeling much further away.
There are a few resorts, some fancy houses even a marina under construction but for the most part islands are sparsely populated or uninhabited, except one. Isla Contradora has stores, large villas, cell service and even has an airport . But for the most part the islands are sparsely inhabited, a few fishermen a few farmers and the occasional village.
Originally named for the large pearls found here, the Perlas are a group of 90 named and another 100 unnamed islands. Rich in history, many of these island’s pearls found their way to the pockets of Spanish royalty during the 16th century. We found few oysters, but no pearls. The islands have been through a lot: the home of many wealthy people; including the shah of Iran and one was a chemical weapons proving ground for the United State for a while.
A few of the islands are privately owned. One season of the TV show survivor was filmed on Mogo Mogo.
With dozens of anchorages and small coves the Perlas are ready made for exploration by boat. Some of the anchorages are lined by mangrove , others by brush or trees. Some of the anchorages are a bit rolly others are very quiet. We ended up anchored at or near: Isla San Jose, lsla Del Rey, Isla Canas, Isla Bayoneta, Isla Contradora, Isla Mogo Mogo, Isla Chapera, Isla Experito Santo, Isla Malan, and Isla Vivienda.
My favorite anchorage was surrounded by three islands: Isla Bayoneta, Isla Malan and Isla Vivienda. We were anchored with three other sailboats, all from France. Since the tidal exchanges are huge, one boat owner found a sandy bottom near shore. Ran ropes from his boat to a tree on shore. When the tide went out, his boat was left completely out of the water so he could do maintenance on the boat bottom. That boat, we later learned was an exact duplicate of Bernard Moitessier’s boat, Joshua.
One of our more odd experiences was near Isla Canas.
We were anchored between Isla Canas and Isla Del Rey, a pleasant breeze was blowing from the north and it felt good in the heat and humidity. A panga with two men motored past us to the nearby shore. I didn’t see where they came from and didn’t pay much attention; fisherman motor past us often. But a moment after they landed the island’s nearby hill burst into flame. There were lots of fire sounds, loud crackling sounds , other noises and lots of smoke They waved to us as they departed the island. I didn’t wave back. A few minutes later another hillside just north of us, maybe ½ mile away was soon engulfed in flame.
We watched into the night, the hills glowing with long fronts and ridges of flame. No structures were nearby and the trees seemed not to burn, only the brush. A spectacle for sure but the smoke was not pleasant.
Another day passed and we took the dinghy to a village a few miles away from the anchorage for supplies. We asked three people about the fires and got three different answers including one that they were criminals. But the answer we settled on was that this is an annual land clearing process, begun just before the wet season so when the rains come the land can be planted with crops.
We’d usually stay at one anchorage for two to four days but if a place felt nice it could be longer.
We found Cowry shells during a dinghy exploration to the beaches on the west side unpopulated Isla Bayoneta. We found very few of these shells on any other Perlas beach but on the west side of Bayoneta we found many. Up to the mid 18th century the cowry was used as money in West Africa and other parts of the world. Too bad the practiced isn’t in place today.
In general, the islands are a spectacular destination, no hiking because of the dense brush but clear water, and very comfortable.