Counting the Hours on Contadora
By Troy White
“Contadora?” asked my old school chums at Tocumen, Panama City’s international airport. I explained that Contadora was a haven of Central American opulence, a playground for the Panamanian posh. It served as refuge for the Shah after his forced exodus from Iran in 1979. It also doubled as the site for Noriega’s Contadora peace talks that called for an end to US interaction in Central America, further provoking the inevitable yuletide American invasion of Panama. Nonetheless, it was definitely not “our” kind of joint, or was it? We would soon experience the unique peacefulness of Contadora’s isolation and pristine beaches.
After further inquiries by my colleagues, I bent a little from my usual role of travel dictator and at least made a phone call to Copa, Panama’s domestic airline. I was surprised to find out the round-trip tickets were rather cheap – around $30. Upon arrival to the airport and viewing our transportation, we quickly understood why. Try to envision “Sanford and Son”, only not in East L.A., but Panama. Without the crappy old truck, but the barely air worthy equivalent, and apparently sponsored by Bacardi, there were highly flammable fumes coming from the cockpit and lack of professionalism, with the stains on the pilot’s uniform. This was ever soothing to our acrophobic comrade Hoyt, whom in an effort to stimulate his pre-travel anticipation, we would e-mail pics of aviation disasters.
All in all, it was the most rewarding 30 minute flight I have experienced. The precarious sensation of being on a roller-coaster in an extreme need of maintenance, coupled with the phenomenal aerial views, set the tone for the remainder of the excursion. Approaching the island, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mr. Roarke, Tattoo, and fine Corinthian leather. Albeit a small plane, the runway appeared hazardously short. No problem, if US naval pilots can land overrated state of the art “jets” on aircraft carriers, our heartburn suffering crew can land our fine vessel on Contadora no “Internacional.” Safe and sound, we ventured out to set up camp.
Upon inquiring about prices at the seemingly only establishment on the island, we quickly realized the upscale resort was a bit out of our league. A bit depressed about the potential of spending numerous days on the beach we put plan B into action: aimlessly wandering around the tiny island with all our gear until something happened. Hoyt, product of an American father and a German mother, would soon cease to be the worrisome acrophobe, but a linguistic guardian angel. Little did we know, but Contadora has quite a number of German and Swiss ex-patriots. We stumbled across Heidi’s retired father, who happened to know a fellow who used to own a restaurant. Not quite sure what this meant, we waited until Gerald showed up to whisk us away to the “Gallo Negro.” Indeed, he did used to own a restaurant, and judging by the rodent feces and geckos, it had been closed for quite a while. In the rear were in fact two beds, a shower, a toilet, more reptiles, and less feces. Four stars, no, but a tenth of the price of plan A.
With the issue of shelter out of the way, we tended to the other fundamental necessity: libations. Needless to say, Contadora is not a mecca for nightlife, but it does have a bar, specifically Captain Morgan’s Beach bar and Dive Shop. It does seem an odd combination, drinks then scuba? And, yes, the beach bar dive shop combination was the brain child of two brothers, Peter and Kiley. Having found an advertisement in a newspaper offering a piece of paradise the two “poliz” officers uprooted and relocated to Contadora. The younger speedo-clad Peter, with his Hans and Franz physic, is in charge of the dive shop. The less pumped, with a more Scorpions roady aesthetic, headed the beach bar. As we enjoyed a few rounds of Panama, the national beer, the two brothers shared their stories and insight of Contadora. Shortly after Peter pointed out a humpback and her calf passing by, we made arrangements to do a little snorkeling in some of the numerous reefs off the Contadora coasts.
Apparently, the coral reef formations in the Panamanian Pacific lack the luster of the Caribbean side, but more than make up for this in the variety of large species of fish. Like most amazing places in Panama, we were the only people to be found, enabling us our own personal aquatic catwalk of white-tip reef sharks, jacks, and the most impressive spotted rays. Like huge red bats, they glided effortlessly in slow motion past us. Having exposed our pasty backs to the unforgiving Contadora sun, we felt it was time to give Peter the word to lift anchor.
One is quickly reminded just how small Contadora is when one starts weighing the dining out options. To keep things in the family, we decided to check out Gerald’s new eating establishment, appropriately named Restaurant Gerald’s. A few drinks, a menu, and we were ready to order. Upon ordering Gerald told us we’d have to wait and see. We weren’t sure quite what this meant, until a fellow arrived with a string of five fish. Needless to say we couldn’t have asked for a better meal, the freshest of fish, and Gerald did them justice with a most tasty peppercorn cream sauce.
Another deserted beach
Playa de las Suecas, Swedish girls’ beach, its name alone was reason enough to trek to the opposite side of our little piece of paradise. Not only was Playa de las Suecas beautiful, it also happened to be the only nude beach in Central America. I for one had never been privileged enough to partake in the nude beach experience. When we arrived we were not suprised in the least. Once again, like so many places in Panama, we were the only souls to be found. How could I let the opportunity pass? Besides, regardless of the circumstances, how could I live with myself telling people that I was one of those people? On a nude beach, fully clothed, some kind of self-conscious pervert? I dropped trow and regressed to my extreme youth, to the days when my mom would look the other way long enough to hang the damp bath towel and for me to be out the front door running like Forrest Gump to the farthest reaches of the neighborhood. Not only was I naked and proud in the Panamanian Pacific, but I must have burned off a six-pack. Someday, maybe a little slower, a little saggier, I’ll make another mad-dash on Playa de las Suecas.