A small cave and a narrow tunnel hide in the western coastline of Isla Palenque flanking its longest beach.
Few know of them, fewer still have entered, and those who have earned it by jumping into 20-foot tidal surges, scaling vertical cliff-faces and doing things barehanded that typically require rock-climbing belays to accomplish.
Our 2012 Island Intern takes you inside a tiny cave and tunnel captured on film for the first time during his month on Isla Palenque last year. Watch “Off the Map and Into a Cave”:
Visible from Playa Palenque, but difficult to access. You’ll get a peek at it through the tunnel.
Túnel de Sorpresas
You’ll encounter this first if you start up the coastline in pursuit of the cave. Difficult, but doable.
Island explorers at Isla Palenque return from their adventures glowing from exertion and bursting to tell of whatever they found. Those welcoming them back are always just as eager to coax out the details and call out the exaggerations.
It’s a rewarding ritual for both storyteller and audience, one that occurs nightly at the hotel as guests buoyed by a great meal and exotic cocktails see how long they can outstay the early-setting equatorial sun while unraveling their yarns.
In this tradition I prompted Mike Corey to share his experience discovering the Túnel and Cueva Sorpresa tucked into the western coastline of Isla Palenque. Below is our conversation:
RK: What time and tide did you set out in?
MC: We [myself and Marketing Manager Emily Kinskey] went mid-morning as the tide was nearing its lowest point. We were thinking the cave we saw from shore was probably only accessible at low tide. As it turns out we were right; both caves are filled with water running a strong current at any other time.
RK: What conceals the caves so effectively?
MC: The cave is actually very visible from the beach… but you’ll reach the tunnel first once you start advancing towards the cave. I first noticed the cave on my way back from a visit to Punta Ballena: a black slit in the rocks not far off. I wasn’t sure I could access it at that tide height and while I was loaded with equipment. I knew it would be difficult, that I’d need to ditch the gear, grab a co-adventurer for safety and to share the experience with.
RK: Did the tide reach dangerous levels in the caves at any point you were exploring them?
MC: As we were leaving it was starting to pick up. Everything we had seen was soon to be submarine. The waves crash powerfully against that part of the island (hence the amazing features hammered into it). I’d guess the water reaches 4-6 feet inside the caves at high tide.
RK: Differences between the cave and tunnel?
MC: You’ll first reach the tunnel, though it’s the cave you can see from the beach.
The tunnel comes as a surprise. It starts as a crevasse in the bedrock that forms the coast and slices its way into the cliff face as if someone stuck a machete into the corner of two blocks of wood placed at 90 degrees. Half the cut is in the floor, the other half sunk deep into the rock wall. You can lower yourself into it and hear the ocean rushing 30 feet away and see the reflection of light off the wall of the cave (green, from the jungle) entering at the other side. Once inside, you walk a bottom like a small stream with deeper pools and tiny riffles, the passage about 15 feet high and 4 across. You can only venture so far until the stream becomes the powerful pulsing tide on the other side and you’re forced to turn around, but not before you catch a glimpse of the cave through the exit.
To reach the cave, you must first exit the tunnel and climb up along the coastline (only for a few paces). You’ll then take a downward slope towards the waves into a 15-foot surge channel leading to some huge boulders, then another stone ramp up to a view of the cave, gaping at you, daring you to make the jump/swim across the channel to see what’s inside.
Look to the right and you’ll see the tunnel’s exit, and realize that some time ago, the cave was most likely an extension of the tunnel before the cliff-face broke apart leaving a giant gap between the two.
RK: Any moments of fear?
MC: Not in the tunnel; the tunnel was all fascination, and easy to navigate. The cave was different. It’s the gouge in the coastline you can see from shore, daring you to enter. There’s no way to explore it without jumping into the tidal surge. It took some adrenaline to make that crossing. On some level I knew that if I timed it right, it would be completely safe (it’s just a 15-foot swim), but timed wrong and I’d be swept onto sharp rocks. My heart started to two-step at that point…
RK: To better illustrate the layout, how about a treasure map?
Guests of our Panama island resort can look forward to guided island adventures at Túnel and Cueva Sorpresa with the Rock Hike to Punta Ballena tour, which we plan to start offering later this year. Before we can do that, we need a professional rock climber to outfit the cliffside with some belays and determine the safest way for us to conduct tours here.
- Join Emily on another island adventure “Rock Hiking the Volcanic Bluffs of Isla Palenque, Panama”
- Follow Mike to the blowhole at Punta Ballena in his video “Hold on Tight!”