Days on Isla Palenque pulse with energy. As the rich smells of cilantro, garlic, and peppers waft through camp, our singing chef Charlie croons along to the radio, competing to be heard over a host of island sounds both natural and man-made. Amid the hustle and bustle of cinderblocks being stacked on the construction site is the sharp metallic sound of the steel welder and the smooth buzz of the wood saw. Collaborative talk (or more likely teasing) rings out in cheerful Spanish. From the jungle around us comes the thudding of fruit-pits hitting the ground as monkeys snack, birds calling out and tiny lizards rustling the leaves of the jungle floor in a consistent chorus.
I’m always surprised by the sudden onset of evening on Isla Palenque. One second you’re basking in the merry commotion, glowing in those last long rays of sun during cocktail hour, and the next, that neon pink ball of daylight is suddenly right in front of you instead of above. As if on cue, the waves roar up, washing away all other sounds and signaling the start of the show: sunset. The birds seem to fly faster in their V, as if they’re running late for dinner, and I can feel the island settle in around me. My feet sinking into the wet sand of the rising tide, I imagine that the monkeys are snuggling together into the crook of a branch and the birds are tucking their heads beneath their wings for the night.
We, the visitors, are the only ones who don’t take nature’s hint that it will soon be dark. Instead, we gravitate towards the Western fringe of the island, mesmerized.
Each evening I steal this moment to myself, listening to nature’s wise reminder that night is a time to relax. You might think that after weeks on the island, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean would become familiar, regular, dare I say, boring? But it’s different here, where life happens within nature’s constraints without avenues of electric current coursing through the natural darkness.
But certainly after capturing dozens of brilliant sunsets, I get photographer’s fatigue and begin holding my camera lazily, carrying it out of habit, snapping a quick photograph because I felt like I needed to. Then of course, just when I’d gotten used to this ocean view, Isla Palenque opened her bag of tricks for me.
Around island night number 12 on my last trip, as I walked the beach more out of habit than purpose, lost in thought, a charging black shadow on the edge of my vision shocked me into a vivid awareness. I looked up to see our wild horse galloping from the jungle, spanning the length of the beach at low tide in seconds. He stopped abruptly where ocean meets land, the waves rolling in around his legs, and I watched wondering what he would do. Dipping his long nose into the sea, he quickly retracted it and shook out his mane in distaste — the realization of its salinity didn’t go over well. A long gaze at the horizon, a long gaze back at me, and as quickly as he had appeared he was off again, bolting in leaps and bounds until his black silhouette melted into the immense dark obscurity of the jungle at night.
Slack-jawed in disbelief, I turned back to the ocean ebbing in and out in its all-knowing way – did that just happen? Suddenly I remembered the camera in my hand and I switched to review mode, unsure if I had even managed to click the shutter in that dreamlike instant… on the tiny glowing screen appeared a fantastically blurred shadow – an archived reminder that I could live a lifetime and still never understand the true wonder of this island.
I was caught with the wrong camera settings, but I like the blurriness of these pictures, it captures the surrealism of the moment.
Hold it — how does a wild horse wind up on a 400-acre jungle island?
Good question, and one that we’re happy we can’t fully answer — except to say the following:
At very low tide (about once a month with the full moon), a sand bank emerges between Isla Palenque and the neighboring island of Boca Brava, allowing one to walk between the islands. We’re assuming this is the only way a confused, malnourished feral horse appeared on the island one day (in the same way we’ve acquired a few skin-and-bone dogs that we’ve since nursed back to healthy happiness, and perhaps the reason we once saw jaguar(!) footprints on the beach). This is all plausible because Boca Brava is huge (7413 acres), and so close to the mainland that these animals can easily swim the gap (see swimming cows) between Boca Brava and the largely uninhabited jungle wilderness of the mainland.
After we overcame our shock at a horse’s magical appearance on Isla Palenque in the night, good old Aris made peace offerings of delicious treats to the horse he named Pirulin. Aris nursed Pirulin back to health and made sure he was well-cared for and at home within the several-acre enclosure where our other horse, Peluche, hangs out. Of course, this “enclosure” is far from confining, given that it relies on a lagoon to form its main boundaries, which becomes almost meaningless during dry season — but it seems the horses enjoy calling this little spot home and we don’t often see them venturing beyond this part of the island. I have no idea what sent Peluche galloping to Playa Palenque that night, but I would like to believe he sensed that someone on the beach needed a reminder of the unpredictable beauty of wilderness.