A cautionary tale:
Shortly after lunch, we decided to take a hike to the blowhole on the other end of Isla Palenque. We left camp on the east end of the beach and walked about half a mile down Playa Palenque to the head of the trail, hardly noticing the bluff in the middle of the beach as we walked around it. After a couple hours of rock hiking and sitting around near the blowhole getting sprayed, we headed back. I subconsciously noticed that the beach was now about half as wide as it seemed when we arrived at the trailhead, but it wasn’t until we approached the bluff, however, that what had happened became all too clear: the tide had risen significantly, rising up around both sides of the bluff, and now we were trapped!
Well, okay, not quite trapped, though we did have to do some rock climbing to get to the other side of the beach where camp was located. A little pre-planning could have saved us the trouble.
Tides are mysterious. They are affected by both the season and the phase of the moon, which can interact in strange ways; in some parts of the world, high and low tides each occur twice a day, but in a few the cycle is just once a day. And while some tides can be measured in inches, there are other parts where they are measured in stories: the day-to-day fluctuation at the Bay of Fundy approaches five stories (!)
Befitting the overwhelmingly diverse little land bridge that connects North and South America, the tides in Panama display a huge range of characteristics. On the Caribbean side of the country – as in all of the Caribbean – the tides are very small: about a foot, and typically measured in inches.
On the other hand, the Pacific coast of Panama has some of the most extreme tidal variation in the world: near Panama City, the tide can fluctuate by over 20 vertical feet in one day. Though the Bay of Fundy has Panama beat by a factor of two, there are very few parts of the world with the kind of tidal extremes that Panama displays on its Pacific Coast.
At Isla Palenque, on the Pacific side but some 200 miles from Panama City, the daily range can be as high as thirteen, and is never less than five, vertical feet. Because few beaches in the world are subject to extreme tides such as this, it can throw people for a loop. As in the story I used to introduce this subject, such a tidal variation has the ability to take a beach that was 100 yards wide at noon and make it disappear before sunset.
This means a number of things for Isla Palenque and the resort we are building here: tides become an important daily fact of life, and one forgets about them at one’s own peril.
When it comes to construction, the main considerations are at the docks and loading terminals. Since boats may be coming to the island at a height that will vary by up to thirteen feet, we need to build a ramp into the ocean for heavy-duty loading and unloading of materials: it must be capable of accommodating barges and landing craft whether the tide is at its lowest point, or thirteen feet higher.
For us, this means a ramp that is some 110 feet long. Likewise, building a dock isn’t as simple as tacking a deck on piers at a fixed height. With the need to accommodate water (and boat) levels that can vary drastically, you need a floating dock, one which rests on the water; when such a dock is large enough, it can use piers as guides, with connections that allow the deck to slip up and down along the piers.
The tides of Isla Palenque also have implications for operating a hotel and running tours. The best time for snorkeling and beach-hopping around nearby Islas Bolanos, Gamez and Secas depends very much on the tides; as does the timing of kayaking trips through arches and into small coastal caves in the area.
One revealing example of how the coast changes (in addition to my cautionary tale above) is simply the size of Isla Palenque. As it says on our website and other marketing literature, Isla Palenque is 400 acres. But that is measured at the highest high tide. At a typical low tide, and including all of the exposed beaches, Isla Palenque is about 440 acres: that’s right, we have about 40 acres of beach, at least as measured when the waters are near their lowest point. On the eastern end, our largest beach — Playa Palenque — is some 400 feet wide at low tide, even though it disappears completely for an hour or two a couple times a month, during the highest high tides just after full moons.
For the curious, the Wikipedia page on tides has a wealth of information about them, including this world map which gives a sense of how extreme tides are in different parts of the ocean. Tidal charts of all kinds can be viewed and downloaded at freetidetables.com; they have a page specifically with tide charts for Isla Parida, the station closest to Isla Palenque. While we always operate with tides in mind and tell guests when high and low tides will be, taking a look at this chart before you plan your trip can be helpful, especially if you are an avid boater, sport fisherman or beach bum bent on watching the gorgeous sunsets at Playa Palenque when the beach is at its most expansive.
I have come to see the tides here as utterly fascinating, and find the above links “interesting reading.” In addition to using the charts on a daily basis to ensure you don’t get trapped while hiking the coast or boating around unfamiliar places, just reviewing a couple months’ worth of tables will reveal, for example, how the tidal variation is always smallest about five or six days before the full moon and largest a couple days after full moon, or how the timing of high (and low) tide moves forward around 15 to 25 minutes every cycle, creating a constantly-shifting temporal pattern of tide and time of day. It’s the kind of thing that can be a real annoyance for those who want things to be simple and uncomplicated, but for me it’s the kind of thing that just creates one more layer of depth to this island, another thing that must be understood to truly respect and genuinely inhabit it.