Rutilio’s Spanish words barely stir the air between the trees, so soft and flutelike is his voice. Its minimal vibrations leave ample space for his contagious sense of awe as we hike Isla Palenque’s jungles, pausing every 5 meters (often less) to examine a different specimen.
He passes behind a tall tree without flower or fruit, gazing up into its boughs with curious intent.
“Estéril,” Rutilio declares the tree (known locally as sigua) and explains that it normally would not be so barren.
He caresses the trunk before tipping his machete to meet it, chinking off a bit of bark, which he then hands to us with instructions to inhale. Our four heads (mine, Ronny’s, Rodolfo’s, and Manuel’s) bend in sequence over the aromatic sample.
“Se huele como la Navidad,” I think. (After just two days of hiking with Isla Palenque’s local Panamanian tour guides and Rutilio – all of them native Spanish-speakers – I am already thinking in Spanish.)
This silent impression is echoed, aloud, by my comrades: the bark does indeed smell of pine and cinnamon. It summons memories of snowy Chicago Christmases to clash with my jungle surroundings.
We had started out on the island’s coastal trails and worked our way inward, moving from the dense underbrush of secondary tropical forest into the primary forest that makes up most of Isla Palenque’s 220-acre nature preserve.
Now in the shade of sky-high ancient trees, in a section of jungle much quieter than any we had previously explored, we become attuned to our surroundings, speaking little and in hushed tones. Less light is able to penetrate the manifold green layers above, and our machetes remain sheathed in the absence of those sun-loving shrubs and plants that grow in abundance elsewhere on the island.
After a time in this arboreal sanctuary, we emerge from the trail onto one of my favorite spots: Playa Cala Este. It’s a favorite of Rutilio’s, too, well-remembered from his prior visits to the island. He’s been to Isla Palenque perhaps four or five times, always on official business to perform environmental assessment for Amble Resorts’ development team – but work and play tend to be indistinguishable for this avid nature-lover, as evinced by his smiling warmth throughout our expedition. The balance rests decidedly in favor of “play” at Playa Cala Este. Our Isla Palenque tour guides hack open some coconuts and we all rest together in the shade of the towering palms, passing the white meat to one another and drinking deeply from the husks.
While the guides are occupied with finding and opening more green coconuts, I sit atop a lone rock in the middle of the beach. The tide pool moat surrounding my perch teems with tiny shrimp only a shade away from the sandy color of the water.
“My isla,” I say to Rutilio. He laughs and sits down on the beach nearby. A few hermit crabs scuttle past him towards the lagoon.
“I once spent a month on an uninhabited island by myself,” Rutilio tells me.
“How did you like it?” I ask.
“Lonely,” he answers. “I became very sad having no one to talk to.” His soft voice, like the pan flutes his fellow Kuna play, seems designed to carry such melancholy. That month alone on an island must have felt like several years to him, and I’m sure many of the jungle survival skills he’s shared with us were put to good use during that time.
I don’t tell him this, although I think it afterwards: how strange it is that the anonymity of life in a big city like Chicago (my home base) can be just as lonely as life on a desert island, although in a different way.
Meet the Biologist
A native of Panama’s indigenous Kuna people, Rutilio Paredes is a biologist, author, and guide. His published work includes Guía Interpretativa de Plantas Medicinales and he has contributed to exhibits at The Field Museum in Chicago and other research institutions. With his deep understanding and extensive knowledge of Panama’s ecosystems, Rutilio provides our development team with valuable insights that help us achieve eco-sensitivity within the wild environments of Isla Palenque.
Over the course of 2 days trekking Isla Palenque, Rutilio identified many species with applications for human survival in the jungle. Our local guides and I learned a lot, as you’ll discover in tomorrow’s post: “Scratch, Sniff, Eat, Avoid: Island Survival Techniques.”