The other evening (an especially clear night) I stood on Playa Palenque holding up a map, trying to identify the islands I could see in the distance. On hazy days, the islands look like a purple chain of mountains on the horizon, but clear skies reveal dozens of jagged isles painted in an array of distinctive blue tones. Just when you think you’re getting to know a place…
Playa Palenque is so long that as you walk from one end to another, the outlying islands seem to shift depending on where you stand – the crescent shape of the beach provides 280-degree views of the islands on the curving horizon, so that on the other end of the beach, you’re looking at a different side of each island. The longer I gazed at the archipelago, the more intricacies I could visually define, one landmass crystallizing into the explosive shapes of individual isles so complex that it’s hard to believe they’re natural forms. After 45 minutes of head scratching and map turning, I began to wonder if all those islands weren’t actually giant sea creatures swimming around playing tricks on me… (because it couldn’t possibly be my map reading abilities, right?)
The only thing to do was set off on an island-hopping adventure the next morning. I jumped with practiced skill into our boat, Jacob, and settled in with my camera, snapping photos as we passed the familiar shores of Boca Brava, noting the patterns of inlets, palm groves, the stripes of the jagged cliffs and glowing beaches. Honestly, that’s what I thought I was in for: a relaxing, rhythmic day of boating and gazing with wonder at these uninhabited islands, dotting the waters like larger-than-life natural exhibits.
I should have known that this chain of islands — carved from molten lava millions of years ago, host to some of the most rare and threatened pelagic species on Earth, known as the “Galapagos of Central America” and nearly impossible learn about online or in books — would provide an experience I never could have fathomed beforehand. I laugh at my ignorance in expecting something merely placid. Even after last summer’s adventures sailing the famed limestone islets of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, I was floored with wonder at the sculptural magnificence of the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui.
Each island we came to had a landscape so unique that I began to question if I was still on this planet, if this were the same Pacific Ocean that calmly laps the soft sand of Playa Palenque, if these could possibly be the soft blue shadows I had glimpsed from afar so many times before. Our little boat rose and fell ungracefully on 20-foot swells that crashed with mighty force on the walls of the islands, rebounding to perform a swaying and swirling dance on the boulders hiding just below sea level. And just when I thought I would surely end up pancaked onto one of these islands, we arrived in a cove as smooth as a lake, watching a blowhole erupt from the side of a cliff to our left, a snow-white beach beckoning from up ahead.
Passages from William Somerset Maugham’s “The Pacific” sang in my thoughts for hours as we wove through narrow channels and the vast open sea I was sure would swallow us, capturing this complex landscape better than my words or photographs ever could.
“The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man…
…the trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown. The billows, magnificently rolling, stretch widely on all sides of you, and you forget your vanished youth, with its memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless, intolerable desire for life.”
Towards the end of the piece, he calls the Pacific “a wilderness of waters.” And until you come and explore this undiscovered wonder of the world yourself, I’ll leave you with that phrase for your imagination to go wild with, and a few pictures.