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Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel: Worth It? Try Panama’s Palenque Island

  • Rachel Kowalczyk
  • 3 December 2012

The biggest names in entertainment seek the seclusion of far-flung locales, private islands and remote hideaways for both their pleasure trips and their permanent homes. Perhaps the best example of the lengths to which celebrities will go – and the prices they will pay – to get off the grid is Chris Blackwell’s GoldenEye, tucked into the Jamaica coastline and visited by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and, more recently, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

jungle hike, Isla Palenque, Panama

Jungle hikes on Isla Palenque, Panama, are a treat both for what's hidden in the trees and the views hidden by them. Here's a view that emerged of Playa Palenque. Photo courtesy of Mike Corey

The mind leaps to conclusions about paparazzi avoidance, but I’d argue that the world’s wealthiest actors, musicians and filmmakers favour these hidden places for more than just a chance to escape the flashbulbs. In emerging destinations such as Panama, there are also excellent opportunities for genuine local connection and creative stimulation – the bread and butter of entertainers who earn a living by communicating the human experience through the arts.

Fortunately, these benefits of travel off the beaten path are not exclusive to the rich and famous. How? Sometimes you have to abandon traditional definitions of “luxury” to truly appreciate an off-the-beaten-path destination.

sunset, isla palenque, panama

The rising tide glides in at sundown on Playa Palenque, the longest beach of Panama's Isla Palenque. Photo courtesy of Mike Corey

Explore the Local Ambience

I learned this firsthand in my visit to Panama, a country that remains relatively “undiscovered” – for now. Of course, the Panamanian people and government welcome growing tourism with open arms and infrastructural improvements, but much of the interior is still wilderness, dotted with indigenous communities living much as they did centuries ago.

Upon my arrival in the capital, Panama City, I was met by a proud Panamanian guide, Efren, who spoke with excitement of the positive developments underway in “his Panama” (most notably the Canal Expansion slated for completion in 2015) during our road trip through the chartreuse highlands of Chiriqui Province. I was immediately drawn in by this passion of Panama’s culture.

Panama City skyline

Taking in the skyline of Panama City. Photo courtesy of Luke Hansen

Savour Local Experiences

Rather than dine in one of the many trendy restaurants cropping up in Panama City, my travel companions and I ate at an old-fashioned diner frequented by locals. I don’t think I have enjoyed authentic Panamanian cuisine quite as much in any other atmosphere. I will not soon forget the taste of those carimañolas on the little porch of El Trapiche.

Another perk of the off-the-beaten-path travel in Panama I enjoyed: the sense of peace I found in Boca Chica, a tiny fishing village overlooking the Gulf of Chiriqui. Here the locals live by their daily catch of fish and the occasional traveller’s business. During one idyll in the weak light of pre-dawn, on the veranda of Boca Chica’s one and only restaurant I practiced my Spanish with the local fishermen as puppies frolicked between our legs and the camarera offered us coffee. The moment was also bittersweet, for I stared seaward at the incredible place I had just left, the place further off the beaten path than any other I had visited in Panama – Isla Palenque.

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Sample Island Life

My time to Panama was bookended by exploration of the capital and Chiriqui Province, but for five days in between I lived on a remote island where the natural environment has been preserved through the conscientious efforts of an eco-development company. Once completed, the eco-development will cover just five percent of the island’s 400 acres, blending harmoniously with its surroundings through native landscaping, LEED-certified buildings and a range of sustainable tourism practices. Through the developer’s careful stewardship of the island’s five ecosystems – mature tropical and littoral forest, lagoon, mangrove and beach – Isla Palenque has maintained its wild look and feel.

What this meant during my stay was that I could take to the trail and within minutes meet some of this Panamanian island’s “locals”: Swainson’s hawks (like me, a visitor on Isla Palenque), howler monkeys, iguanas who confounded my efforts to photograph them and tropical birds I knew only as a snatch of song or flicker of colour amid the dense green leaves. Wilderness survival practices long observed by indigenous Panamanians remain relevant in these environments: I toed the trail cautiously in grassy areas where snakes discreetly slither and I carried adequate water supplies on long hikes.

Isla Palenque

The author traverses the rocky, volcanic northeast coastline of Panama's Isla Palenque. Photo courtesy of Emily Kinskey

Traversing portions of the volcanic coastline required that I channel my inner mountain goat to find sure footing. I maintained this slow and careful pace while hiking emerald passageways through the jungle too. A native Panamanian biologist informed me that many of the plants I admired for their brilliant colour possess medicinal properties, such as Lantana camara, which is traditionally used by locals to treat respiratory infections. The jungle jaunts that filled my days filled my pages by nightfall as I scribbled down everything I had learned until the waves crashing under the stars said “hush,” and I set my notebook aside.

Lantana camara, a native plant species

Lantana camara, a native plant species found on Isla Palenque in Panama, is used by locals in the treatment of respiratory infections. Photo courtesy of Mike Corey

Reflect and Recharge

In the months that followed my trip, I periodically revisited these notes and discovered that time had cultured the creativity borne of my experience in Panama. Panama’s people, creatures and wilderness remain with me as vibrant memories that deepen the perspective I achieve through extensive reading and writing about sustainable travel.

Engaging with all five senses in an authentic place is a pure source of inspiration for practitioners in virtually any profession. Actors, accountants and even adventurers like me are all certain to find creative renewal on their next journey off-the-beaten-path.

The geo-responsible Panama resort at Isla Palenque is due to open in early 2013. In addition to guided wilderness excursions on the island, the resort will offer immersive travel experiences among the people of mainland Chiriqui.

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Rachel Kowalczyk

An advocate of cultural creativity as a source of solutions for today’s challenges, Rachel writes, edits and travels with the goal of increasing global awareness and supporting holistic approaches to a more sustainable future. Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachczyk for 140-character insights into authentic travel.
Rachel Kowalczyk
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Central America, ecotours, forests & jungles, islands, local knowledge, North America, Panama, personal experience, traveller tale, whl.travel,

2 Responses to “Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel: Worth It? Try Panama’s Palenque Island”

  1. Rachel says:

    Emily — you nailed it. The boat to reach Isla Palenque, and the one that carried me from the island, were essential to the overall experience. With nothing in view but blue ocean and sky and a smattering of green island gems, I entered into a sense of calm such as I’ve never felt in any other environment, and a week’s worth of impressions began coalescing in my mind, to form a story I’ll never forget. I’m glad Ethan and The Travel Word gave me a chance to share it.

  2. Emily says:

    The appeal of a “desert island” is to feel completely removed from the civilized world and completely connected to the tiny, self-sustaining land that it takes a boat to reach — unfortunately, that usually comes at a price. What I love most about Panama was that most of the islands are either protected as a comarca (a reservation for the indigenous people) or as a national park, as is the Gulf of Chiriqui, which means that access to an idyllic island paradise is as easy as hiring a local taxi boat driver to take you there. Unless you find a private island resort like Isla Palenque, pack a picnic, because when they say uninhabited, they mean it! As a US expat in Panama, I’m happy to see this area on The Travel Word, I love the wild ocean adventures of the Pacific islands.

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