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Pearl Islands beckon beach bums, snorkelers, 'Survivor' fans

  • Story Highlights
  • "Survivor" and similar shows have been filmed on Panama's Pearl Islands
  • The island of Contadora is a 20-minute flight from Panama City
  • Beaches and marine exploration are the main sources of entertainment
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By Kim Segal
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(CNN) -- "Shh ... shh get back," the man with the walkie-talkie said. "We're filming."

Cast members of "Desafio," a Colombian reality show, participate in filming on the island of Mogo Mogo.

Contadora, one of Panama's Pearl Islands, draws visitors with beautiful beaches and excellent snorkeling.

We had stumbled onto the set of a "Survivor"-like television show. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First let me tell you how we stumbled onto the Pearl Islands in Panama, and then I'll tell you how we came upon the Orange Tribe on the island of Mogo Mogo.

Every year, my husband and I take my niece on a summer vacation. This year, we decided to go to Panama. Besides the canal, Panama has a lot to offer: There are mountains, beaches, colonial cities and rain forests. After we found a $158 round trip flight from Miami, Florida, the decision was made. My only fear was the weather; it was rainy season in Central America.

After weeks of research, I was torn. We had enough time to visit one set of islands, and there were two island chains that I was having a hard time choosing between. The San Blas Islands are off the northeast coast of Panama in the Caribbean. They're also known as Kuna Yala and are home to the Kuna Indians. It would be a chance to see the Kunas up close, living as they have for centuries in grass huts along the water's edge.

The other option was the Pearl Islands. The Archipiélago de las Perlas, less well-known than the San Blas, is off the southern Pacific coast of Panama. After an agonizing week of self-debate, I decided that our summer vacation would include a trip to the Pearl Islands. The flight was only 20 minutes from Panama City, but more importantly, I was told it didn't rain as much on the Pacific side.

The sales pitch to my niece: "We are going to where the 2003 edition of 'Survivor' and 'Survivor: All-Stars' were filmed." I was referring to the popular American reality TV show, and I didn't realize that dozens of other countries had their own versions. I admit my destination choice was not as educational as a few days with the Kuna Indians, but I thought it would be better than being rained in with a bored teenager.

If you go ...

  • Aeroperlas has two flights a day from Panama City's domestic airport. Roundtrip tickets cost us about $120 each to Contadora Island.

  • We stayed at the Perla Real Inn in a room for three people, including breakfast, for approximately $100 a night. The rooms are basic but clean and comfortable.

  • I recommend renting a golf cart to get around the island. You can walk, but the carts are faster and fun. Golf cart rentals are half-price, $35 a day, for guests of the Perla Real Inn.

  • Mogo Mogo is uninhabited, so bring your own water and food if you plan to visit.
  • After a short flight from Panama City in a puddle jumper, we were on the island of Contadora, one of hundreds that make up the Pearl Islands and one of three that can be reached by commercial flight. It's a tiny island with a handful of places to stay and even fewer places to get a meal. Golf carts, the primary mode of transportation, can be rented upon arrival.

    All of Contadora's entertainment is provided by the sea. It's a beach bum's paradise. If you are a beach bum and a reality TV fan, you can sit on the sand and watch props being built for the contestants' challenges. It's probably the best set shop in the world, or at least the one with the nicest view.

    But the Pearl Islands offer more than just an exotic TV set. For $30 an hour, you can go snorkeling and island hopping in a small but comfortable wooden fishing boat. We found Niņo, our boat captain and guide, on Playa Larga, the beach in front of the Contadora Beach Resort. We did some of the best snorkeling I've ever done anywhere in the world.

    After a morning of fantastic snorkeling, I asked Niņo where "Survivor" was filmed.

    "Close by. I will take you there," he said.

    Niņo took us to Mogo Mogo, one of many uninhabited islands just off the shore of Contadora. As the island's white sandy beaches came into sight, we noticed a clearing where people were putting finishing touches on what looked like a game for contestants. Our boat captain told us it was for "Desafío" ("Challenge"), a Colombian version of the popular reality show.

    The word on Contadora was that a few countries (Bulgaria, Serbia and Israel, to name a few) were either finishing filming "Survivor"-type shows or starting new seasons. A representative for the Panamanian Institute of Tourism told me the government had limited information on the filming and could not confirm the word on the street.

    We jumped out of the boat, waded through the clear, warm blue water and onto Mogo Mogo, unacknowledged as work continued on the wooden set. Noticing a well-worn path, we decided to check out the rest of the island. We thought we were alone when we reached the beach on the other side. But as we walked down what we thought was a deserted beach, we spotted an orange flag in the sand.

    We knew the American "Survivor" was filmed on this island, but we did not expect to be standing in front of contestants in orange buffs, sitting on a log in the shade. This is when the man with the walkie-talkie shushed us because they were filming.

    The locals talk about the shows and the many countries they hail from, but they don't seem to capitalize on the "Survivor" fame. Contadora locals certainly make money off the film staff, medics and contestants, but evidently they haven't printed the T-shirts yet. The only shirts we saw were on the backs of others that identified them as "Survivor Crew." Perhaps a true fan could purchase a shirt directly off someone's back.

    The island is only so big, and you are bound to run into a crew from some country. One night, we were the only non-reality show customers in Gerald's restaurant, a popular place for beer and pizza.

    After our innocent but failed attempt at a guest appearance on "Desafío," we returned to the basic comforts on Contadora. That night, as we relaxed in a restaurant -- cold drinks in hand, a warm hearty meal just ordered -- darkness fell. The rain, as it often does in the tropics, started coming down in sheets. I leaned back and thought to myself, "If I was a contestant, tonight I would vote myself off of Mogo Mogo."

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