Tens of thousands of years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions tore across Chiriquí, running from the mainland mountains out past the continental shelf. Extensive lava flows and the collision of tectonic plates pushed ancient geologic formations up above the surface of the ocean, and created the island archipelago that includes Isla Palenque, the Gulf of Chiriquí National Park, and many other islands and islets sprinkled through the Gulf of Chiriquí.
Isla Palenque itself is 400 acres, with five miles of coast and over a mile and a half of soft zebra striped beaches, ranging from a large crescent-shaped beach which forms most of the island’s southwest side to numerous secluded private and hidden beaches, known only to those who explore the island extensively. It has a delightfully varied landscape of volcanic rock outcroppings, serene coconut groves, exotic lagoons and wildlife-rich jungles.
Panama’s Geological History
Panama owes its existence to tectonic collisions occurring more than 15 million years ago – a massive (yet slow) grinding of the gears as the Pacific Plate slid beneath the Caribbean Plate, causing sufficient friction to arouse volcanic activity. The resulting eruptions created islands which eventually fused to form the famous isthmus, while also leaving a smattering of islands off Panama’s bicoastal shores.
Other islands emerged later – including Isla Palenque, Islas Secas, and nearby islands strewn like emeralds across the Gulf of Chiriqui – from debris and sediment flung out upon the Pacific by an eruption of Volcan Baru.
This volcanic blast likely occurred during the late Pleistocene or early Holocene epoch. In case you weren’t aware, the Holocene is the geological period we’re currently living in. Before you start fretting over the fact that Panama has witnessed volcanic activity in the present epoch, consider that “present” and “current” in the geological sense mean something very different from other contexts: this eruption probably occurred somewhere in the ballpark of 12,000 years ago.
The larger islands in this part of the Pacific (a prime example being Isla Coiba) derive more of their composition from actual volcanic debris, whereas smaller islands such as Isla Palenque and our neighbors Islas Ventanas and Secas were once part of the isthmus, the result of cooling lava flows which form a type of igneous rock known as basalt, until rising sea levels separated them from the mainland.
Isla Palenque’s Natural Stone Gardens
The interplay of natural elements — sandstone, coral, mangroves, carbonaceous shales — and the island’s memories of volcanic activity, flooding, and erosion provides a host of geological features for modern explorers to discover on Isla Palenque.
The island’s “floor” is composed of boulders of different lithological composition within a matrix corresponding to silty clay sediments carried by the current to Isla Palenque’s shores throughout its geological history.
Time-weathered basalt forms rocky outcroppings which give rise to an outdoor activity we’ve dubbed “rock hiking” for lack of a term to accurately describe it. Rock hiking allows the adventurer to move between land and sea, over tide pools and through volcanic portals that appear and disappear with the rising and falling sea level. In some places, the boulders are over ten feet in diameter! The ebbing tide on Isla Palenque reveals these natural sculpture parks, as large as an acre in size and featuring rocks of varied size, shape, and color. Exploring the beaches of Isla Palenque at low tide allows you to climb over boulders brightly veined in quartz and jade and discover caves concealed in dramatic rockfaces overhung by jungle trees.
You can envision yourself discovering our island’s fascinating landscape via our Island Intern’s video of the Northeast Coast hike — he’ll take you through the natural stone gardens that emerge from the waves as the tides on Isla Palenque recede.