A Tide-Determined Trail Filled with Surprises
Approaching Isla Palenque’s Northeast Coast from the jungle, you’ll hear and feel the ocean before you see it. The waves crash over the buzzing of the cicadas; the ocean air wafts through the gaps in the trees to tickle your skin. Like the rain, you can follow any of the natural streams punctuating the cliffside in their path towards the sea.
Before you set out for the Northeast Coast, I recommend packing an extra water bottle, maybe some plantain chips to snack on, and giving yourself the luxury of time. You’ll soon see why there’s not a crack or crevice to be overlooked in this incredible part of the island. I spent two full days here – the supply of natural treasures is inexhaustible.
Isla Palenque’s beautiful volcanic skin is full of stories. Some of the rocks appear to be moving until closer inspection reveals that, scattered among the stones and occasional shards of quartz and jade, hermit crabs are attempting to remain hidden, given away by their clumsiness.
Mounds of colonial mollusks bind sand into tubes which create patterns very similar to coral. I spot one of my favorite coastal animals: the Sally Lightfoot crabs. Flat as skipping stones and colorful as fireworks, these are the fastest-moving creatures on most coastlines. Only an island gecko would prove a worthy challenger for one of these crabs in a vertical race up the cliffside. These crabs seem just to wander from the shore straight into the forest – perhaps because on Isla Palenque, the jungle actually overhangs the cliffs. In all my travels, I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
While the scenery permits the Sally Lightfoots to move at whim between environments, it provides some interesting options to humans as well. The trails hug the coastline, so the fringe of massive trees doesn’t fully block the rising or setting sun from penetrating the forest; at dawn and dusk, the jungle is lit up with sparkling spiderwebs and shafts of light. A lengthy hike along the Northeast Coast will allow you the full spectrum of illuminating experiences as the sun moves across the sky.
This hike begins on the eastern Playa Primera where the sun rises, and ends on Playa Girón to the North. An exploration of the Northeast Coast is divided by the islets Maria and Amelia, and the experience is integrally defined by the tides. As the tides near their highest point, the sandy beach disappears and a window opens onto a challenging afternoon of rock hiking and bouldering. While testing my limits on Isla Palenque’s volcanic playground is fast becoming one of my favorite island pastimes, I can’t deny the magic of the receding tide on this part of the island.
As the ocean ebbs to its lowest tide, the secrets of the Northeast Coast are revealed one by one. Small cavelike alcoves begin to grow out of the shore – cozy private beaches carved out by time and the tides – until suddenly in the very place where chest-high waters lapped the cliffsides just a few hours earlier, the low tide has unveiled a sandy stretch you can walk down, weaving between giant rock pillars in a natural sculpture park.
I found myself wandering here at just the right time to chance upon a few of Isla Palenque’s best kept secrets. Between the gigantic boulders and smooth stones worn by centuries, I nearly forgot to look up until my nose reminded me: ancient frangipani trees cling to the bluff above, bathing my hike in the scent of jasmine. The frangipanis are in bloom almost all year long, their white flowers recognizable as the ones used in making leis because of their unique structure: instead of having petals, they are a single piece that fall from the tree leaving a perfect hole in the center to be easily threaded into a natural necklace. Also covering the twisting branches above are at least a dozen species of bromeliads, orchids, vines, and other plants. Butterflies and frogs like to lay their eggs here. These trees are each a distinct ecosystem, humming with life.
About midway through my hike, I chanced upon a pair of jutting islets. The first, Isleta Amelia, beckoned me under her arch to look out upon the ocean. Turning to my left, I noticed a sandy path leading up to a gaping mouth in the rock: a small cave.
At 15 feet, the ceiling is too high to touch, but the cave is still fairly small at just three arm-lengths wide. I enter its dimly-lit quiet to make one of the coolest discoveries of my time on the island (so far): above my head, a multitude of tiny bats emit soft chirps in response my intrusion on their sanctum.
Luckily I’m too awed to cause them any alarm.
Two hours later, the returning sea has risen to tuck these secrets away for tomorrow. The tunnel through a massive boulder I discovered at low tide: once again vanished, its entire form underwater.
To Hike the Northeast Coast:
Begin at the Villa Inn and follow the trail to your left, heading North parallel to the coastline.
The terrain is mostly flat, with the occasional small incline or decline as the cliff face grows and shrinks. You’ve several options for descending to the beach; I recommend the third natural ramp, as it is where the coast begins to show its personality. Whether you decide to go down to the beach, or continue along the jungle path, both slowly ease westward and end up in the same location, Playa Girón.