As you journey overland and overseas to reach the shores of Isla Palenque, you write the opening chapter in your own tale of exploration, continuing the legends of discovery that surround this unique Panamanian wilderness. From the moment you set foot on Isla Palenque, there is no telling what mysteries may unfold along your hikes through her jungles or walks down her beaches. Darting in and out of the light as you move from under the canopy onto beaches bathed in brilliant sunshine, you seek an answer to the question “What is this place?” And by the time your adventure comes to an end, you’ve arrived at one that holds great significance to you and you alone, for you have earned it by pursuing your own curiosity.
However varied the answers may be, they are all punctuated by the same point, a geological landform that shelters Isla Palenque’s most dramatic beach and marks the break between Isla Palenque and neighboring Boca Brava: Punta Ballena.
Located at the westernmost end of Isla Palenque’s longest beach, Punta Ballena arises from a gigantic volcanic bluff that slopes gently upwards, supporting dense tropical jungle, until reaching its climax in a cliff that plunges straight down into the Pacific.
A jutting crevice separates the rocks below from the grassy bluff above, allowing water to flow in until sufficient pressure builds – then, the suppressed surf is released in a watery blast that dissipates over the cliffside in a fine mist.
From the heights of this of this tall, complex landform, the ocean stretches out unlimited, and time feels just as endless – the rhythmic crashing of the waves builds to the blowhole’s sonic eruption every couple minutes or so, reiterating the meaning you have found here for as long as you choose to stay.
The blowhole at Punta Ballena mimics the spouting of the humpbacks that summer in the surrounding Pacific waters. And like Pinocchio exploring the cavernous belly of the whale, you’ll find cracks and crevices galore at Punta Ballena. As you wait for the rising tide to set off the next wet firework, duck into caves and pass through human-sized inlets to find new vantage points from which to witness the exhilarating exhalation of this island’s built-in ballena.
Punta Ballena raises a call no island explorer can ignore. From the beachfront amenities at Las Rocas you’ll see a periodic glimmer of white as the spray erupts from the blowhole, sometimes refracting the sunlight in a rainbow arc. Each day you spend on the island disappears in a skyful of glorious color as the sun sets behind this westernmost bluff. And approaching Punta Ballena, you can’t help but to hear the call to adventure – an oceanic roar (not unlike thunder) is discernible over the regular rush of the incoming tide, prompting you to enter the jungle in search of the source.
To answer the blowhole’s beckon –
Begin your hike from Playa Palenque at low tide – this ensures an easy walk down the beach on the journey out and a bit of mild rock hiking on the return trip, while landing you at the blowhole in time to witness the most powerful blasts (and enjoy the refreshing spray) as the tide rises.
Your ¾-mile walk along Isla Palenque’s longest beach privileges you to an expansive oceanview on your left. But don’t forget to look right, too – the jungle overhanging this section of Playa Palenque is notorious for monkey moments.
Upon reaching the western end of Playa Palenque, you must cross into the jungle to continue your journey. Ravaged by the violence of a “ten-year storm” that took place in the summer of 2012, an old-growth tree, formerly one of the island’s tallest, marks the spot. Split by lightning, its reddish innards exposed, the trunk projects upwards into the sky like a natural monument. Pass beneath it to enter the emerald tunnel that will lead you to the blowhole.
Ferns of a thousand different patterns and shades of green fringe the trail; butterflies dart between shafts of light; the lagoon reverberates the roars of the howlers and the songs of the birds – all around you, a multiplicity of life contrives to divert your attention. But the sound of the blowhole keeps your feet trained on the wonder that lies ahead.
As the grade increases, you sense your nearness to the blowhole, though a wall of jungle still hides it from view. Follow your guide closely and keep a stick handy to part the curtains of ferns and spiderwebs that drape the path ahead.
At last, you emerge from the jungle into the natural clearing atop the bluff at Punta Ballena. The feeling of arrival, borne of nearly two hours’ journey over the sand and through the jungle, is impossible to convey… this is something every island explorer must see.