I‘ve met Panamanians who talk about Contadora Island as if it were a relative they lost, like a favourite uncle from childhood they adored. I spoke to a Dutch ex-pat sailor who is convinced there is a curse over Panama’s Pearl islands. “There’s always something mysterious that happens to big resorts on these islands. They never last. Take that huge abandoned resort on Contadora. It’s like something out of a movie.” The next day, I was boarding a boat to the island.
There are 200 or more islands and islets that make up the Pearl Islands, many tiny, uninhabited and impossibly rustic lying just 30 miles from the richest capital in central America. The islands were first occupied by indigenous people who were wiped out within two years of the islands’ discovery by the Spanish in 1513. A ruthless politician, Gaspar de Morales, captured and killed 20 local chieftains and gave them to his dogs to tear to pieces. To harvest the pearls found there, the Spaniards then imported slave labour in the 16th century from Africa,whose descendants now live on the islands.
In the years that followed, the Pearl Islands were frequently used by pirates but were relatively undisturbed until the 1960s and 1970s when a sprawling tourist resort was built on Contadora.
When the Shah of Iran fled the revolution in 1979, he retreated to the Panamanian island which was fast becoming a playground for the rich and famous. Sophia Loren came in the eighties, Christian Dior was a frequent visitor as well as the the Kennedy family, Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne.
The island’s biggest beach, Playa Larga (to the right of the photo ↑), is where the Hotel Contadora Resort was built in the 1960s. And this is what this prime piece of sandy real estate looks like today…
You don’t need directions to find the abandoned resort; sitting right there on the beach, it’s not fenced off and too vast to even try to hide from visitors wandering around the island. In fact, it is so vast, it’s a good thing we rented one of the island’s battered old golf carts when we arrived on shore, just to explore the resort itself.
The hotel once boasted over 300 rooms and I lost count of how many different buildings lined the perfectly empty white beach. It was owned by “associates” of a Colombian drug lord, but after one of the owners died in a plane crash in 2009, (leaving the place in serious debt), the biggest resort on the island became a crumbling mess.
While most of the hotel has been heavily looted and rooms have been left bare to the bone, the lobby (or restaurant) still had its Tiki style walls left in tact. Twisting vines now crawl over the fake stonework as if we really were visiting some kind of ancient temple.
Despite its 1970s high society pull during the island’s trendy heyday, in its final days, regular tourists had stopped coming, and it was reported to have been mainly treated as a drug cover. I found this New York Times review of the resort written in 2002…
Hotel Contadora’s glory days are long over, and that is putting it kindly. The main restaurant, where waiters used to stand four deep to serve an elegant clientele, is now open for institutional-type buffet service. There were other deficiencies –– periodic lack of hot water, sudden flooding, missing toilet seats and most remarkably, over the New Year’s holiday, no telephones … The point is that the Hotel Contadora is unapologetically bad, although it must be said parenthetically, it is also cheap: at $150 a night per couple, everything included, which, besides meals and carefully controlled access to beach towels, means ”unlimited national drink” (as it turned out, this was alcohol in gallon jugs and wine in wax cartons, served up in white plastic glasses). The champagne ran out years ago.
Some vintage postcards I found of the resort showed me what the pool and bar area used to look like, although the swimming pools have since been filled in with earth and debris.
Some very dear Panamanian friends have fond memories of their childhood on Contadora and give the impression that they were almost happy to see the big tourist resort go bust. “I remember when I was a little girl, my brother caught a shark once and he took it to the resort very early in the morning and threw it into the swimming pool! We were terrible, but it was our island, we could do anything.”
Despite a regular daily ferry and air service to Contadora, the Tourism Authority of Panama (ATP) seems to confirm that there are no initiatives to promote the destination. Allegedly there’s also refusal from any party to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the resort. Meanwhile, for the tourists who do decide to visit, this surreal abandoned resort is one of the first things they stumble upon. Of course in my case, it’s the very reason I came.
And then there’s the cherry on the cake. The washed up old ferry boat that the Columbian owners used to shuttle their guests to and from the resort…
An urban explorer’s jungle gym.
Last to discover on the empty beach before heading off for lunch were these unfinished luxury villas…
I don’t know what the story is behind these vast modern homes, but they’re certainly more recent than the hotel and probably quite salvageable.
With a little gardening, you’d have the best view on the island.
Bellies rumbling after a surreal morning exploring, we decided a picnic on our own private beach was in order. Stocked up at Contadora’s only supermarket, our golf cart chugged around the other side of the island where we settled with this terribly average patch of sand with barely enough room for two people…
If this was Europe, there would be people crawling all over this island.
Do I believe Contadora is cursed? All I know is that I felt pretty blessed to be there.