Taking off from the small runway at Albrook airport in downtown Panama City, it’s just a short fifteen minute flight southeast over the gaping mouth of the Panama Canal. Over the hulking cargo ships that are waiting in the bay for passage, over the seemingly endless turquoise waters of the Gulf of Panama, to the Pearl Islands — a paradisiacal archipelago of some 200 islands a mere thirty miles away from civilization.
Outside the foggy airplane window, some of the smaller islands begin to reveal themselves like tiny cigarette burns on bright blue silk. And then larger islands. Most of them swathed in virgin rainforest. Some of them ringed by sandy white halos. Hundreds of years ago, these scattered mounds were known for two things: the rich pearl beds lurking in their waters and the menacing pirates lying low in their coves.