The Pearl Islands (Spanish: Archipiélago de las Perlas or Islas de las Perlas) are a group of 200 or more islands and islets (many tiny and uninhabited) lying about 30 miles (48 km) off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Gulf of Panama.
The most notable island is Contadora Island (or Isla Contadora in Spanish), known for its resorts. Contadora was said to be used by the Spanish conquistadors as a stop for taking inventory of booty prior to returning to Spain, hence the name (contador means counter or bookkeeper in Spanish). Contadora is a resort island, with many homes owned by wealthy Panamanians. There is a large hotel and other cabins available. Most of the resort workers live on nearby Isla Saboga.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran briefly took exile on Isla Contadora. Domestic airlines Air Panama and Aero Perlas run frequent flights between Panama City and Contadora, Isla San José and Isla del Rey.
The largest island, at 234 square kilometres (90 sq mi), is Isla del Rey ("Island of the King"), its name probably referring to Christ the King rather than to a secular king. Isla del Rey has several towns, most notably San Miguel. It is easily larger than the other Pearl Islands combined, and is the second largest island in Panama, after Coiba.
Other islands are Bolano Island, Buena Vista Island, Cana Island (Panama), Casaya Island, Chapera Island, Chitre Island, Cocos Island (Panama), Espiritu Santo Island (Panama), Galera Island, Gallo Island, Gilbraleon Island, Lampon Island, Marin Island, Mina Island, Mogo Mogo o Pajaro, Pacheca Island, Pachequille Island, Pedro Gonzalez Island, Puerco Island, San Jose Island, Senora Island, Vivenda Island, Vivienda Island and Viveros Island.
The island of Galera has a facade of very tall coconut palm trees and a white sandy beach. Strong currents, combined with shallows and jagged reefs surrounding the island, make navigation near the island perilous.
Three million years ago the Isthmus of Panama was created. Until then North and South America were divided by sea. It was the biggest and reportedly the most significant geological event in 60 million years. Prior to that date as the Earth's plates had begun to join the Pearl Islands were created and they emerged from the sea. On Contadora Island and other islands in the group pre-Columbian artifacts have been found. The biggest island is Isla del Rey where more than fifteen pre-Columbian recognised archeological sites of the “Cuevas” and “Cocle” cultures have been identified. However none of the original population remain.
The islands were first occupied by Indians who were (with their leader Terarequí) wiped out within two years of the islands' discovery by the Spanish. Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa named the islands Pearl Islands on his discovery of them in 1513 due to the many pearls which were found there. Another Spaniard, Gaspar de Morales, exterminated 20 local Indian chiefs not long after and gave them to his dogs to tear to pieces. Dites, another local chief, presented Morales with baskets of pearls, but this simply made the Spaniards want more and hastened the destruction of the native population. The Spaniards then needed workers to harvest pearls and imported slave labour in the 16th century from Africa whose descendants now live on the islands, particularly del Rey.
The Islands were frequently used by pirates in the years that followed and were relatively undisturbed until the 1960s and 1970s when the building of the resort on Contadora took place to which the Shah of Iran retreated in 1979.
The Chamber for Sustainable Tourism Law Pearlas aims to preserve the islands' delicate ecological balance.