A 20-minute flight from Panama City, Contadora is the most developed island of the Pearl Islands Archipelago, 30 miles off the Pacific Coast in the Gulf of Panama.
The island’s modern history began with the extermination of the original Indian inhabitants by Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s, including Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Gaspar de Morales, who is said to have given 20 local chiefs to his dogs to tear to pieces.
Then, the island was rediscovered in the late 1960s when mechanical issues forced Panamanian politician Gabriel Lewis Galindo to anchor his Casimir fishing yacht on Contadora. Its natural beauty seduced him into buying 270-acres of island, and he built his family mansion, where Omar Torrijos and Jimmy Carter subsequently negotiated the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Contadora had become a symbol of tropical luxury, attracting movie stars, politicians, tourists and one exiled Shah of Iran. Wealthy Panamanians retreated to their ocean-front villas for weekend escapes and the Hotel Contadora bustled with tourist activity on Playa Larga. Built in the French Colonial style, the 354-room hotel was the soul of the island with a casino, restaurants, swimming pools and a convention center among its attractions.
Today, the hotel is a stripped shell, ransacked above a beautiful stretch of beach. It officially closed its doors in early 2009 after a period of shoddy management by Colombian owner Carlos Arango who died in a plane crash leaving over $10 million in debt.
Despite the post-apocalyptic paradise feel of the deserted beach during a four-day national holiday, it is easy to imagine a heyday resort that welcomed Elizabeth Taylor, Sofia Loren, Julio Iglesias, members of the Kennedy family, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and neighboring heads of state.
Now, a few golf-carts drive by, an Italian tourist lounges in his briefs until the tide overtakes him, and a handful of people dip in and out of clear ocean. Down the long stretch of beach, the Russian-made “Las 7 Perlas” tourist ferry sits beached on fine white sand – with its rusted decks, dilapidated rows of seats and perhaps great potential for a beach bar or restaurant.
Barcenas is owner of the advertising firm BB & M, President of the MB Enterprise airline company, a board member of the Panama Canal Authority and has served as Vice President of Metrobank, Director of Grupo Q and Govimar, among other things.