Isla Palenque Construction Camp, 2:00 PM, Tuesday February 21, 2012
A map is splayed across the table at base camp, its neon hues looking ridiculous against the natural spectrum of green surrounding us on all four sides.
“Where haven’t you been?” says Ben (Amble President and lunch-break naturalist), indicating that I should choose the afternoon’s destination. I pull the map closer, tucking my hair behind my ears as I lean in to study the intricacies of Isla Palenque’s coastline – complex, carved from volcanic rock, and full of secret vistas.
“Is this a beach?” I point to a tiny smudge of white amongst boulders lining a bluff on the east coast. There seems to be an equal likelihood of its being a printing error or a brilliant pocket beach.
“It is… but I had a helluva time convincing our topographers of that,” Ben says with a smile. “Let’s go find Playa Perdida – Lost Beach,” he says, sweeping up the map and settling that we’ll be off now, but leaving suspense in the air – on purpose I am sure.
The mysterious aura of Isla Palenque is a welcome break from the regularity of my time in Amble’s Chicago headquarters. It’s my second week on the island, and I still wake up every morning with that “first day of vacation” feeling – we’ve spent our lunch breaks hiking and happy hours watching the sunset while dinner sizzles away over an open fire, but I’m yet to see 8 of the twelve beaches and endless corners of jungle. I still feel like a dinosaur is going to pop his head around one of these massive jungle trees – we found one yesterday that I think had to be 20 feet wide. The island is already close to my heart, but anything but familiar.
We’re deep in the jungle and can hear the distant sound of waves crashing against the shore before I give in to my anticipation and ask why this particular beach is considered lost. As part of the marketing team, I’m given to weaving magical vignettes about undiscovered lands, because that is how Isla Palenque feels, but perhaps there is more truth to the mystery than even I could craft with my dinosaurs-still-exist imagination.
“This island really is so big,” Ben explains. “I had to hike for the equivalent of two straight weeks with a satellite photograph in hand to even begin to understand the basic composition.” He’s still shaking his head in disbelief three years later. The forest breaks into seaside brush and he starts hacking our way through with a machete, and then stops, looking around as if for some sort of way-finding sign among the vegetation growing taller than us on all sides.
“Seriously, I know we cut a path here… where did it go?” He looks behind us one more time before hiking on. The sound of the waves is our only landmark.
Perdida proves to be a worthwhile discovery indeed. We’d reached the coast several times to find ourselves too high on a bluff to access the beach, allowed only a tempting glimpse of white sand before we were forced to re-navigate. I’m still not convinced there was ever a path to this hidden beach. When we finally emerge, I’m afraid it might be a mirage. Perdida boasts perhaps the whitest sand of any beach on the island that I’ve seen, glowing almost pink in the warm light of late afternoon, framed on either side by enormous, pitch-black volcanic boulders. After running straight into those elusive waves we were chasing, I climb for an hour, discovering tide pools and fossilized rock on my way to the summit.
At last I reach the highest point, scaling that final 5-foot boulder and carefully standing upon it, absolutely euphoric. Looking out upon distant islands in the Gulf and then back to Palenque, I recognize Playa Cala Estes across the way. Now I’m the one scratching my head – I’ve stood on that beach dozens of times gazing out, and never once noticed Perdida hiding over here. But how could I miss this beach so white that it practically glows? A realization strikes with the force of nature: hidden from plain view, disappearing paths, unplottable to professional topographers – Perdida isn’t lost at all, she’s magical. Will you find her?
The Back Story
Sleeping in a hammock on the edge of Playa Palenque, Ben and his earliest employees got to know Isla Palenque the way bold explorers have been doing for centuries – by blazing forward into the unknown. Walking for hours, only to end up where they started, or to break through the dense foliage to find yet another slice of unique coastline to remind them that the island’s beauty is unbelievably varied, perhaps endless.
Back in Chicago months later, awaiting the title to the land, Ben and the early stakeholders excitedly sat down to view the map drawn by the topographic surveyors – only to find that a sizable chunk of the east coast was missing from the map entirely. It took a flight down to Panama with a satellite photo, a machete, and a determined, circuitous hike to reveal one of the beaches Ben took pride in discovering during his initial treks of Isla Palenque – and thus Playa Perdida “came to be.”