The Gulf of Chiriqui, Isla Palenque
One of the best things about Panama is that there are a lot of great destinations not far off the Pan American Highway. Considering most of the highway is relatively easy to drive (minus the radar-detecting police and a short stretch on the other side of Santiago), it’s an easy task to find places to visit. My family of three decided that we needed another road trip under our belt and chose to visit the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Boca Chica being the main town in the area (think south of David if looking at a map). Boca Chica is very small, about 300 people, located about 20 minutes off the highway – and we were delighted to find the road from the highway is fully paved. The town lies right on the Pacific water and is the gateway to the islands.
The islands are not as developed as Bocos Del Toro but you get the sense that they are going to catch up someday. The main type of accommodation you will find amongst these islands are fishing lodges. The islands are renowned for their world-class sport fishing – particularly where black marlin is concerned.
As you traverse the waters, you can see some nice homes perched on island bluffs and the odd local fisherman setting his nets.
Our first task before we left was finding a place to stay. While surfing on line, we came across a new hotel that was in the middle of their “soft launch.” What that means is that they are open for business but still putting the final touches on some things. What that meant for us was half off their regular rates!
The Resort at Isla Palenque is located on an island you will not find named on any map – Isla Palenque, attached at low tide to Isla Boca Brava.
This is a true luxury eco-resort whose owners and staff take great pride in their little piece of paradise. A stay there is not just a stay – it is an experience. Every one of their packages includes at least three organized excursions – they are passionate about sharing the flora, fauna and wildlife, both underwater and above, with their guests.
The list of unique features at the resort is lengthy: an on-site organic farm that feeds their restaurant; and a comprehensive jungle fitness program that includes yoga. Less than 5% of the 400-acre isle will be built upon, including all buildings, roads and trails. Over half the island, 200 acres, has been dedicated as a private forest reserve.
The architecture of the buildings has been optimized to substantially reduce energy needs. Water conservation and treatment techniques employ sophisticated water filtration methods and modern water saving devices; greywater is used to supply all irrigation needs and passive cooling techniques reduce the need for air conditioning.
The resort met our every expectation – and then some. To start off, we were met in Boca Chica by two staff members who helped us with parking and loaded our luggage onto the boat. They both spoke English, were enthusiastic, and pointed out some notable sights as we drove out to Isla Palenque.
Upon arrival we were met with complimentary drinks, shown our rooms and given a quick tour of the facilities. The hotel itself is small, but packed in the area is an infinity pool that cascades over a waterfall into a second pool; a restaurant/bar under a bohio with spectacular views of the ocean; sitting decks located throughout the property with easy access to the beach; and a common area with beautifully designed furniture.
The hotel is nestled on a hill hidden under the green jungle canopy and within footsteps of a quiet secluded beach.
Our room was meticulously clean with a queen and single bed. We learned later that the unique headboard was hand-carved from a huge cedar tree that had fallen on the island. It was quite striking.
A large closet, safe and desk complemented the space. The bathroom was large and designed with large stones and tiles. There were two separate patio decks with one overlooking the beach and the other looking into the jungle. To top things off, the resort provides every room with an iPad. Surprisingly, the wifi was extremely fast and never failed us (I wish I could say that about my condo).
But this property is more than just a hotel. Their multi-year plan includes a housing development with small, eco-friendly bungalows. They have already sold a half dozen.
The owner, Ben Loomis, has been able to develop the island within his own vision, which is all about environment and sustainability. They encourage guests to use the series of marked hiking trails throughout the island, which give people access to the jungle and other beaches.
On one such hike we were able to see (up close) many howler monkeys, lots of different birds, including green parrots, and even a snake.
On a second hike we ended up at Playa Palenque, which is a long sandy beach surrounded by palm trees – basically a picture perfect postcard. We were met on the beach by Manuel and Rodolfo, two of the employees. They were there with drinks and lawn chairs so we could relax and watch the sunset!
Another tour we embarked on took us to some of the different islands in the area. We managed to get in some snorkelling, visit some beaches and, again, relax with some drinks.
The highlight for us was the spectacular food we had. We’ve have some very good meals while in Panama but the incredible and varied dishes we had at Palenque was far and above anything else we’ve had. The resort’s resident chef, Oliver Blond, comes from Panama City and is able to get fresh and natural ingredients from the island, local fishermen and farmers on the mainland.
Our first night we were treated to a seven course wine tasting dinner, which included ceviche, duck, steak and mango mousse. Amazingly, since I don’t drink wine (please don’t be upset with me) and stick to the cerveza, they managed to pull out a Belgian beer for me to make things even more delicious.
Over the course of our three night stay we had salmon pasta, payaya with huge tasty shrimp, lobster risotto, glazed pork, a variety of salads and soups, hamburger sliders for lunch and fresh fruit plates for breakfast. And both lunch and dinner came with desserts, which included pineapple ice cream, cheesecake (to die for) and coconut mousse.
Finally, something must be said about the service at the Resort At Isla Palenque. You will want for nothing here – the friendly, smiling staff cater to your every tiniest need. Even when you go on hikes and excursions, everything is provided – towels, drinks, chairs, etc.
At the end of the day it was one of the best weekends we’ve had in Panama, and we’ve had lots. Isla Palenque provided us with the feeling of being on our own deserted tropical island while, at the same time, allowing us all the luxuries of a high-end boutique resort.
To get to Boca Chica
The drive from Coronado takes approximately 4.5 hours. Travel along the Pan American Highway through Santiago and towards David. Approximately two hours past Santiago you pass through the small towns of Pueblo Nuevo and San Lorenzo. A few short minutes later you will need to look for a blue sign indicating a left turn to Boca Chica.
Once on the road to Boca Chica you will pass through the town of Horconcitos. This drive will take about 20 minutes. There are two forks in the road – stay to the right both times. Eventually you will come to the small town and see the water.
If staying on an island you will need to park. There is parking behind the small church for $2 per day. The church is very close to the water on the right (just past the one-pump gas station). If staying at The Resort at Isla Palenque, they will have someone there to meet you to help with parking and luggage.
The resort’s “soft opening” goes until April 30, so deals can still be had. Check out the different packages at http://www.amble.com/IslaPalenque or https://www.facebook.com/IslaPalenque