With an indigenous Panamanian biologist leading the way, it was easy for me to feel safe exploring Isla Palenque’s densely-forested interior. Guide Rutilio Paredes was familiar with nearly every species of flora and fauna we encountered, and he knew many useful applications for the natural treasures found within our wild island paradise.
The photos below will introduce you to a few standout species from Isla Palenque’s ecosystems and teach you some ways they have been traditionally used by people living in Panama’s jungles.
(Known locally as palo de agua, vaquero, and muñequito.)
Our indigenous guide nicked the trunk of this tree with a machete, allowing a little whitish sap to ooze out, which he warned us against touching because it can cause skin irritation. (In general, milky secretions are indicative of potentially harmful substances; clear liquids are usually safe to touch.) A preparation made from the roots of this tree can be used to treat fever.
HEALTH & BEAUTY:
Nickname: “food of the gods”
A tree species women will love: seeds of the cacao tree can be buried, fermented, and roasted to produce chocolate… or you can boil them with a little oil until they become white to make a facial cleanser that is absolutely marvelous for your skin.
(There’s a plot of island cacao growing near Muelle Girón, planted by a farmer long before we acquired the island — and we’ll be planting plenty more cacao saplings this spring and summer.)
Called cuero in Panama.
This tree contains a chemical that acts as a natural insecticide. It blossoms with delicate purple cup-shaped flowers and bears yellow seedpods containing a sticky, chocolatey syrup that smells pleasantly fruity but isn’t good for anything.
(Cuero grows all over the island — we have many tall cuero trees upwards of 70 years old.)
BUILD YOUR CANOE:
Known as el mijao, caracolí (Colombia) or espavé (Panama)
The wood of this tree is light and water-resistant: ideal canoe material. Be careful while cutting it, as the resin contained in the bark can cause skin irritation.
And you know what rhymes with canoe? Cashew! You’ll find our island’s espavé trees bring forth wild cashew nuts, which will be ripe and ready for roasting in March or April. The tree also bears tasty fruit that makes a delicious jelly. The flavors of marañón and pepita are featured in our island cuisine, so you can appreciate the bounty of the espavé in our house-made helado and fresh chichas.
(Local name = palma pacora.)
Seeds of the palma pacora tree contain a liquid which can be extracted to make a potent wine – something native Panamanians have been doing for centuries. Watch out for snakes while collecting the seeds, as boas and other jungle serpents like to twine themselves around this attractive palm.
(You will find palma pacora growing near the coasts on Isla Palenque, in areas where secondary tropical forest intersects with beach ecosystems.)
Apeiba tibourbou & Manilkara zapota
(Known to locals as cortezo & nispero, respectively.)
Apeiba tibourbou (cortezo) produces a spiky little seed that functions as an impromptu island hairbrush — presumably useful in maintaining a groomed appearance while alone on your desert island so the monkeys don’t forget who’s boss.
And the Manilkara zapota (nispero) tree promises to keep your complexion clear and your breath fresh: you can apply a topical preparation from its leaves to skin blemishes and they’ll dry right up, or boil the white resin to make a sweet chewing gum!
(We’ve encountered cortezo near Playa Perdida as well as on the trail to Playas Niños. Nispero grows in abundance all over Isla Palenque — it shades the beach below the Estate Rooms, and can be seen all along all of our island treks.)
Flacourtiaceae tribe, Xylosma species 1
An extract from the young leaves of this plant is used medicinally as an antispasmodic, narcotic, and sedative. Take a deep whiff of its wood to enjoy its soothing minty fragrance, or eat the little dark purple berries for a sweet snack — just watch the thorny branches as you pick.
(You’ll find brushholly growing near Playas Perdida and Primera on Isla Palenque — as if you needed help chilling out near the beach. 🙂 )
Known as jagua in Panama
The fruit of the jagua tree contains a clear-to-yellow liquid that oxidizes into dark blue dye – you can draw on your skin with it, similar to Indian henna, and your designs will last about as long as a henna tattoo. The fruit is also delicious any way you want to serve it: as jelly, an ice cream flavor, in drinks, or just by itself. And the fruit extracts are naturally soothing to the skin, so a few drops in your bath may be beneficial if you’ve got mosquito bites or a sunburn.
The exterior of the algorrobo fruit is rather stinky, but if you can get past the smell, the pulpy center is edible and a good source of starch. Its leaves can be used to make a tea, its high-quality wood for furniture and flooring, and its incredibly durable resin becomes beautiful amber and serves as an excellent natural varnish. Is there anything this tree can’t do?
(Algorrobo grows abundantly all over the island.)
I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything there is to learn about jungle survival while hiking Isla Palenque… I might just have to compile a part II to this post. After a two-day expedition with our local guides and the esteemed indigenous biologist Rutilio Paredes, I look upon the jungle with new eyes. Where previously I’d seen forest, I now appreciate individual trees – an ironic reversal of that adage about seeing “the big picture.”
All this newfound practical knowledge aside, I don’t claim to have the survival skills required to live on a wild island like Isla Palenque. Fortunately, there’s a new Panama resort here with comfortable rooms you can inhabit right in the middle of this pristine wilderness. 🙂