Contadora Island Ferry from Panama City, Panama
Contadora Island is a tropical island located in the Pearl Islands archipelago in the Gulf of Panama (on the Pacific Ocean side). There are over 200 islands and inlets in this archipelago and Contadora is the most popular with tourists. If you’re planning to take the Contadora Island Ferry from Panama City, there’s a few things you should know.
Fun fact – the popular reality television series Survivor was filmed in the Pearl Islands.
In this post, we share our experience taking the Sea Las Perlas ferry from Panama City to Contadora Island (and back again).
While we made it to Isla Contadora just fine, there are a few things we wish we knew before our departure. We will breakdown each of these items below so you can learn from our experience.
- There are two Contadora Island ferry companies that have similar names – Sea Las Perlas and Ferry Las Perlas. This can be confusing for first time visitors.
- These two ferry companies depart from different locations in Panama City. This is important to know. More on that later.
- There is no dock or marina on Contadora Island, which means passengers must be taxied in a small boat from the ferry to the beach. (**Note – we’ve been told a new dock has been built since we published this post. Apparently it’s located near the Mar y Oro hotel)
- The small boats that transport guests do not have enough (or any) life jackets. These boats are often overloaded with passengers and luggage.
Now, before we get started, it’s important to note that things may have changed since our trip to Panama in February 2020. A pandemic happened, after all. So, while this is our personal experience taking the Contadora Island ferry, your experience might be different.
Related – Photos from our trip to Contadora Island
There are TWO Contadora Island ferry companies
When we researched how to get to Contadora Island from Panama City, we found a few websites that sold tickets for the Contadora Island ferry. We read that it’s best to book your ferry directly with the tour operator, rather than using a ferry ticketing service like Direct Ferries.
At the time, we assumed there was only one ferry to Contadora. When we arrived in Panama, we learned that there are actually two ferry companies that offer transportation from Panama City to Contadora Island – Sea Las Perlas and Ferry Las Perlas.
Now, to someone who is familiar with these ferry companies and the process, this may seem insignificant. But, for first time visitors like us, it can be confusing.
We used the Sea Las Perlas online booking system to purchase the ferry tickets.
We booked 4 x round trip tickets – 2 adults and 2 child. At the time of booking, we paid $98 USD per adult and $78 USD per child, for total of $352 USD.
We made our ferry ticket reservations a few weeks before arriving in Panama. There’s only one ferry departure per day, so we did not want to risk a sold out ferry. That would have impacted our hotel reservation at Hotel Mar y Oro.
Two ferry companies = Two ferry terminals
When we researched the Contadora Island ferry terminal location, we were pointed to a dock beside the JW Marriott Panama City.
See the map above. Notice the blue dotted line that reads ‘Ferry Las Perlas Panama City – Saboga – Contadora’.
We assumed this was the only ferry terminal. This was an incorrect assumption that gave us a big surprise the afternoon before our departure day.
Sea Las Perlas ferry terminal is in a completely different location from the Ferry Las Perlas ferry terminal.
In fact, they are located on opposite sides of Panama City. See map below.
The Sea Las Perlas ferry departs from Flamenco Marina on Flamenco Island, which is a popular Panama City tourist attraction and gateway to the Panama Canal. The Ferry Las Perlas ferry departs from a private dock in front of the Old Trump Tower in Panama City.
The distance between these two ferry terminals is approximately 15 kilometres. With no traffic, it takes about 30 minutes to get from one terminal to the other.
The ferry begins boarding at 6:45 AM. If you end up at the wrong ferry terminal, you’re going to miss your boat. There’s only one ferry service per day, so this could seriously mess up your travel plans.
See the Contadora Island ferry schedule here.
We almost made the mistake of going to the wrong ferry terminal
The afternoon before our trip to Isla Contadora we decided to walk over to the ferry terminal. Because the ferry departs at 7:30 AM, we wanted to test how long it would take for us to walk from our hotel to the ferry.
We purposely booked a night at the Marriott Residence Inn because it was located close to the ferry terminal (it’s a great hotel, by the way. Awesome rooftop pool. We recommend it).
When we finally found the Ferry Las Perlas check in counter (it’s not easy to find), we were informed that our ferry actually departs from the Flamenco Marina ferry terminal. Good thing we checked! We got up extra early the next morning and took an Uber from our hotel to the ferry. Disaster averted.
Don’t make the same mistake! Confirm your ferry departure location.
Above is the Contadora Island ferry. This is the Flamenco Marina Dock and Sea Las Perlas ferry terminal in Panama City.
The ferry departs daily at 7:30 AM. Boarding begins at 6:45 AM. Plan for an early morning.
Contadora Island ferry seats
The above photo shows the seating layout inside Sea Las Perlas ferry to Isla Contadora. I believe we selected seats at the time of booking. However, the seating arrangements appear to be flexible. The crew did not seem to care where passengers sit.
The boat was not full on our trip from Panama City to Contadora.
The seats on this ferry are comfortable. We had window seats.
Luggage is piled at the front of the boat. There is no bag tagging system. Crew will assist with large and heavy luggage.
Luggage is brought to the back of the boat upon arrival at Contadora Island. You must notify the crew which piece of luggage is yours. It’s feels a little a chaotic, but it works. At least, until it doesn’t.
View of the Panama City skyline from the Contadora Island ferry.
Some passengers choose to sit outside at the back of the ferry. There’s not a lot of seating here and it gets quite windy. This is also where the bathrooms are located.
There is no dock or marina at Contadora Island
This is the part of the adventure where things got uncomfortable. Given that Contadora Island is the most developed of the Pearl Islands, and it’s a popular tourist destination, we assumed the boat would arrive at a dock when we reached the island.
I don’t believe this is an unusual expectation. We’ve travelled on many ferries and commercial boats in our lifetime, and almost all of them arrive at a dock or marina.
This is not the case on Contadora Island (although, there is a dock on neighboring Saboga Island).
We were surprised when the boat dropped anchor about 100 meters from land. Crew members shouted in Spanish as passengers gathered their luggage and move towards the back of the boat. We were confused. Why are we stopping here?
One by one, passengers climbed into a small, weathered boat. The ship’s crew passed down the heavy luggage and piled it at the front of the boat. The boat rocked back and forth as each passenger found a sliver of seating. Every inch of space is filled with people, bags and supplies.
There are no life jackets on this boat. At least, no life jackets were provided or visible. We did not enjoy this. Our youngest boy cannot swim. Our older boy is not a strong swimmer, either.
We thought, “if this boat capsizes we’re all in big trouble”.
Fortunately, we brought our kids’ life jacket (like this one) that our youngest uses when swimming. This gave us some comfort.
Black smoke spewed from the old motor as it puttered towards land. It only took five minutes to reach the beach, but it felt much longer.
Clearly this is normal routine for the Contadora ferry. Other passengers appeared unfazed by this transfer. Had we been mentally prepared for this, and there was proper life jackets for our boys, I don’t think we would have felt the anxiety that we did that morning.
Our return trip was much better, largely because we reset our expectations.
Luggage is piled at the front of the boat. Nothing protecting them from splashing water or an unexpected wave. I wonder what this process is like during bad weather?
A second boat transports guest from the ferry to the beach.
Arriving on the beach at Contadora Island
It’s best that you wear sandals or flip flops because you’re feet will get wet when you disembark the small boat on the beach. The water is shallow but the waves can splash up to your knees.
Keep this experience in mind if you or your travel companion has mobility issues. It might be better for people with physical limitations to take the airplane to Contadora instead.
The Sea Las Perlas ferry drops passengers on Playa Larga, which is home to the abandoned Hotel Contadora Resort. Rugged golf carts drive on the beach to collect guests and transport them to their hotel accommodations. We stayed at Hotel Mar y Oro and would recommend it.
Travel tip – inform your Contadora hotel what ferry you will be taking. The hotel will send someone to pick you up. Golf carts are the main form of transportation on Contadora.
Above is the abandoned shipwreck on Contadora Island at low tide. At high tide, the back of the old ferry is submerged underwater.
Contadora Island hotels will send a golf cart to pick you up from the beach, which is very convenient. We enjoy this mode of transportation. Our boys think it’s super cool to drive on the beach in a golf cart.
See more photos of Hotel Mar y Oro Contadora Island here.
There are multiple beaches for Contadora ferry arrivals
Although the Sea Las Perlas ferry arrives at Playa Larga, the other ferry may arrive at the Ferry Terminal Contadora – highlighted in the above map, north of the airstrip. This is why it’s important to inform your hotel what ferry you will be on. Be specific to avoid confusion.
We stayed at the Hotel Mar y Oro, which is highlighted at the bottom of the map. We’re told that sometimes the Contadora ferry arrives and departs from Cacique Beach, said to be the best beach on Contadora.
The beach location might change due to seasonal weather conditions.
Sea Las Perlas Ferry Check-in on Contadora Island
The above and below photos is where you catch the Sea Las Perlas Ferry back to Panama City. This is the only surviving building on the old Hotel Contadora property. It’s now a small cafe and ferry waiting area.
Departure time is 3:00 PM daily. Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes early because passengers must be taxied from the beach to the anchored ferry.
We enjoyed a cold beer while waiting for the ferry departure back to Panama City. There is a nice stretch beach here, so plan to arrive at least an hour early to enjoy your final moments on the island.
Contadora ferry back to Panama City, Panama
In the above photo you’ll see two ferries. We traveled on the white catamaran (to the right) from Panama City to Contadora Island. On the return trip back to the mainland, we took the white and blue ferry, on the left. This ferry also stops at Saboga Island to pick up passengers.
Ferry travel time from Contadora to Panama City is about 90 minutes.
Above is a map that shows the distance between Panama City and Contadora Island.
Some people get sea sickness on this ferry
We were fine on the trip from Panama City to Isla Contadora, but it was a different story on the return trip. We were on a different boat, as you can see in these photos. The seats are not as comfortable as the other boat. We had to ask some guests to kindly swap seats so we could sit together as a family.
The boat ride back to the mainland was rough. The weather was fine, but the water was quite choppy. As the boat pushed through the swells, it rocked back and forth. We gave our boys some gravel and they tried to sleep.
It’s only a 90 minute trip, so it’s not too bad. We didn’t get sick, but we were happy when we stepped back on land.
You can purchase snacks and drinks on this ferry. Prices are reasonable. I think we paid around $10 for 4 drinks and a couple snacks.
If you have any questions about taking the Contadora ferry from Panama City, or vice versa, leave us a comment and we’ll reply as soon as we can. If you’ve taken the Contadora Island ferry and you had a different experience, please share your travel tips in the comments below.
Read more posts from our trip to Panama:
- The Abandoned Hotel Contadora Resort in Panama
- How to get to San Blas Islands from Panama City
- Photos of Contadora Island, Panama
- Is flying Copa Airlines Business Class worth it?
- 50 Photos of Casco Veijo, Panama City’s Old Town
- Our experience at the Panama Canal in Panama City
Have you taken the Contadora Island ferry? What did we miss?
Please share your Contadora ferry experience in the comments below. Our readers thank you.