Our Own Private Island In Paradise, Pearl Islands Panama: Hacienda del Mar
I always dreamed of spending time on my own private island. Swimming in crystal, clear, blue waters with tall coconut trees lining the beaches watching colorful birds flying above. The type of islands you see in magazines or on TV. The private islands we dream of but are completely out of reach unless you have endless means to get there. Never would I have believed that as a family of five, we could one day find our own relatively, private island and not break the bank doing it.
Las Perlas (The Pearl Islands) are located in the Pacific Ocean, 20 minutes by plane off the coast of Panama City are a perfect low-key get away. And they are those perfect tropical islands; so much so, that one season of Survivor was filmed on them. Embarking on an exhaustive search for the perfect Panamanian beach, we first became interested in Las Perlas both for their beauty and their easy proximity to Panama City. With more reading, we stumbled upon a description of the lesser known Isla San Jose in the Pearl Island.
Isla San Jose, Pearl Islands Panama
This 44 square kilometer almost deserted island located in the Pearl Islands, was once used by the US during WWII. It is now home to 35 people, 11 of whom work at the one hotel on the island, Hacienda del Mar Resort. There is an abundance of wildlife and over 50 beaches. The island is home to one hotel, Hacienda del Mar.
Hacienda del Mar
We arrived by small prop plane to San Jose Pearl Island at 9:30 in the morning. Upon arrival on the single air strip deep in the island jungle, we were whisked into a van for a 20-minute car ride through a twisty gravel and dirt road that wound through the dense foliage. Arriving at the Hacienda del Mar resort, the jungle gave way to beautiful, manicured, grassy lawn areas, with mango trees filled with an abundance of hanging, fruit, and coconut palms spread throughout the property.
We hopped out of the van, our bags, were taken to our rooms, and we were greeted with a cold, fresh, fruit drink and by the resort’s manager, Yordanka. She walked us to the main building. We all then stopped dead in our tracks, blown away by the view. A perfect horseshoe beach, with turquoise water, dotted with rock formations jutting out of the water, trees on top, and birds hovering above. As our daughter said, “It looks like Pandora from Avatar, it’s so impossibly, perfect.” And it was perfect.
Yordanaka showed us around the Hacienda del Mar resort and told us a bit about Isla San Jose. The island paradise was for us as guest, on our time. Breakfast could be taken outdoors on a balcony or indoors (it was also included). Anytime we wanted to eat, all we had to do was ask; there were no set hours for lunch and dinner. The kayaks on the beach were for our use, any time we wanted. She walked us to our room, gave us a tour, handed us a key and left us to be.
On this 44 square kilometer island: One hotel. Seventeen villas. That’s it. This was our moment to experience the luxury of a private island.
VIP Suite, Hacienda del Mar, Panama Pearl Islands
We booked a VIP Suite prior to leaving. It was green season (low season) and we found the prices an incredible value. With the two room villa, the kids could have their own private space. I had a chance to tour the Toucan Suite Cabanas. They are also great for families, as they have two double beds and a full en suite bathroom.
We didn’t worry prior to booking if our room would have a beach view or garden view–all the rooms have beach views! More than that, they all have amazing views with decks with seating. The decks are a perfect place to unwind and relax in the early morning, late afternoon, or just about anytime. I found myself just staring out into the ocean watching the tide come in and out or reading my book.
The VIP suite cabana had a seating area with a couch that was turned into a bed, two chairs, a small dining table, and an armoire. The hotel had brought in an extra bed since we were a family of 5. A door leads to a deck and overlooking the beach and the turquoise water below. A separate room had a king sized bed, a wall of windows, another armoire, a closet, desk area, and an en-suite bathroom. The accommodations were spacious and clean.
At night we were rocked to sleep by the sound of the surf, chirping lizards, and late night birds. It was the perfect white noise for a restful night of sleep.
The Perfect Beach
After our tour of the Hacienda del Mar, Panama we threw on our bathing suits and ran straight down to the beach. The hotel provides each room with bug spray and I strongly encourage you carry it along as there can be sand flies on the beach. Once we applied the bug spray, we weren’t bothered by them. Make sure to bring sunscreen. You are on the Pearl Islands of Panama; being in the tropics, the sun is hot.
The beach was a perfect horseshoe. And it was deserted and it was ours alone. Some chairs were set up with an umbrella for shade. The kids threw on their snorkel gear and ran down to the calm, turquoise, clear waters to look for fish, which they found in abundance. I waded in the water, watching brightly-colored macaws, pelicans, and frigate birds fly above. It was my first time seeing macaws in the wild. I was in for a surprise at Hacienda del Mar, as there are an abundance of macaws there.
We spent the majority of the late morning early afternoon exploring the beach, looking for fish and just relaxing on our own private beach. There were kayaks for us to use and we took them to other smaller beaches nearby. I spent hours just sitting in the warm water, watching the birds and looking for fish.
We discovered another beach, called Playa Escondida (Hidden Beach), a twenty-minute walk from the hotel. There we found even better snorkeling than the beach right next to the resort. Another idyllic horseshoe-shaped beach, it has calm waters and is filled with coves filled with tropical fish. We did take an afternoon here so the kids could explore and snorkel. It is best to ask for directions before heading over, as the trail is not marked. We did encounter a wild boar and a calf along the walk. It is a relatively easy walk, but make sure to bring plenty of water as it is hot and there is nothing there–except another perfect horse-shoe shaped, deserted beach with crystal-clear, turquoise water…
Hacienda del Mar Activities
Las Perlas are known for their snorkeling and fishing, so we did take advantage of these activities the hotel offers. Hacienda del Mar, Panama runs all their additional activities themselves. They are an additional cost, but still considered less than most areas. Keep in mind that all supplies for the island must be flown in from the mainland. Gas, food, goods, all come from Panama mainland, so costs are a bit more to offset this bringing everything to the island.
We signed up for three of the activities starting with a Tour of Exotic Places by Boat. The activity was supposed to take us around the island to different beaches where we could snorkel and explore the fauna, flora, and look for birds and animals. We did an abbreviated version of this tour. The island is stunning when seen from offshore. We found yet another deserted beach, where the kids snorkeled. The amount of fish was awesome, and the kids were happy with what they saw.
The Half-Day Fishing Tour was by far the best thing we did on the island. We had the same guide who guided us on our Tour of Exotic Places by Boat. We let the lines troll as he drove the boat around the waters. Once the fish were on, it was our responsibility to get them to the boat, hence the fishing tour. What we didn’t realize in advance is that we would be catching 35-45 pound Mahi Mahi and Wahoo. Our first fish was a Mahi Mahi and it took a good 20 minutes to reel it in. Once we did, we were thrilled and overwhelmed with excitement.
The 4-hour fishing trip resulted in catching 2 Mahi Mahi, 2 Wahoo, a mackerel, and a small fish. All the fish were taken to the restaurant. Giovanni, the hotel’s chef, is a wizard. He cooked us one great meal after another. Bringing him our day’s catch, he worked magic. He made Wahoo sashimi, followed by Mahi Mahi ceviche. He then cooked Mahi fillets a la planca (grilled), and served them accompanied a garlic sauce and an aioli. He deep fried the small fish whole. All this was served with fried yucca and patacones, which are deep fried plantains. It’s amazing how good fresh fish can taste, especially when you’ve spent the day catching them.
We did sign up for The Night Safari tour, which lasted 2 hours. We drove around the island in a van. Shining flood lights out the windows, we found some of the island’s hidden inhabitants. We saw some of the wild boars, an armadillo, we were lucky enough to see the white brocket deer (the only place it lives is on San Jose Pearl Island). We saw some birds as well. I would have preferred to get out of the car to see if we could’ve found some other tiny creatures, but the kids were happy. That is, until a massive bug flew in the car and I nearly flew out of the car screaming. Perhaps I was better off staying in the car.
Dining at Hacienda del Mar
Our breakfast was included with our stay. The hotel will provide a buffet breakfast for guests if the resort has 8 or more guests. We had one day that it was only us (another family arrived later that day), but for a short moment we were the only guests on the island. Along with the buffet, the kitchen will make you eggs any way to order. They also make fresh squeezed juices, which our kids ordered at all times during our stay. Breakfast is basic, but the fruit is fresh and delicious.
Lunch can be eaten in the restaurant, pool or bar area. The bar area has a TV, air conditioning, board games and a pool table. We preferred to eat on the deck of the restaurant. The views were breathtaking and there is a cool breeze blowing through.
There are two menus, a bar menu with some appetizers like chicken wings, chips and salsa, chicken fingers (although these are a large portion and could be considered a meal), shrimp, and calamari. It also has sandwiches, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, tuna sandwich, hot dog and grilled cheese. All served with either French fries, salad, friend yuca, patacones (fried plantains), rice, or mashed potatoes. Great options for lunch. You do have the option to order of the main menu which is much more extensive, but has more options. We mostly ordered sandwiches and added ceviche as it was so fresh.
Dinner follows the same rules as lunch; you can eat in any location. We chose the restaurant deck as it allowed us to listen to the surf, feel the breeze and listen the lizards and birds. The menu is much more extensive offering salads, pastas, and fish served many different ways. The waiters can tell you what the catch of the day is, as it’s truly the day’s catch.
We ate fish in garlic sauce, curry sauce, coconut sauce, and sautéed. They also offered, red meat, chicken, and shrimp. One night, discussing the day’s fresh catch, Giovanni told us about some beautiful spiny lobsters he obtained. Before we knew it, our youngest ordered it. Out came four huge lobster tails, which he devoured. They were fresh and cooked perfectly. We winced in anticipation of the bill. That double portion of fresh Pacific lobster came out at a highly reasonable cost $26.00. This was the higher end of the entrée meals at the restaurant.
They also have a well stocked bar, but we mostly stuck to fresh fruit drinks and an occasional soda for the kids. At dinner, we grown-ups relaxed with the local beers, Panama and Atlas.
The food was great and I strongly recommend sticking with the fish, as it is local and fresh. The wait staff were attentive and wonderfully kind. We enjoyed speaking with them about their experience on the island. They all work 26 days at a time and go back to the mainland for a 4-day rest with family. They work hard, but are kind and gracious. Be aware that most of the staff do not speak much English, so practice up on your Spanish before you go. After all, you are in Panama.
Unless you take your own fishing boat, the only way as a tourist to get to San Jose Pearl Island is by air. Once you make a reservation with the hotel, they will book your Pearl Island Panama flight with Air Panama leaving out of Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport. The hotel will follow-up with an email giving you your reservation number.
Allbrook airport is not far from the Panama Canal and flights leave in the morning. Keep this in mind when dealing with Panama traffic. The airport is small and security takes about 5 minutes. Upon arriving just go to the desk and they will ask for your name and confirm your reservation. If you are anything like us and arrive 2 hours ahead because you are used to long lines and strict security, you will be in for a long wait with not much to do.
Most likely you will be on a 6-10 seat prop plane. The flight itself only takes 20 minutes and the views are spectacular. You will also return to Allbrook airport, which makes for an easy getaway from the city to other parts of Panama, like an easy 2- hour drive north to El Valle.
Private Island Paradise
We definitely found our private island paradise located in the Pearl Islands of Panama. Hacienda del Mar resort was everything we wanted when we said we wanted to get away from the crowds and spend time together as a family. The staff was wonderful and kind, the rooms were spacious and clean, and the views were enough to keep me lost in thought for hours. It was unreal to have perfect beaches to ourselves and enjoy quiet evenings by a pool. Watching macaws and parrots fly above us while we observed colorful fish below us was something out of a fairy tale if not the magazine picture that makes you say, “I wish I could afford a place like that.”
Our kids can’t believe they experienced a private island getaway. This was our picture-perfect, FOMO place. Our next visit to Panama will definitely include a visit back to San Jose Pearl Island and we will stay with Hacienda del Mar.
LIKE IT? PIN IT?
“Disclaimer: Thank you to Hacienda del Mar for hosting a night of our stay. They provided us with a night of accommodations during our trip to Hacienda del Mar, Pearl Islands Panama. All opinions are 100% mine”