The day began as no day should. With a flat tire.
And this was no ordinary day — it was our anniversary. We had arranged for a three-night stay at Isla Palenque — a new resort in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama, which we had heard good things about. The flat tire was going to cost us some time and put some stress into the day that we had planned to be stress-free.
To tell the absolute truth, I was going to Isla Palenque out of duty to my dear wife, Phyllis. Content with life here in Panama, I’ve become a homebody. Some say a hermit. I go to town when I have to, but otherwise I enjoy some design work in morning at our home in Boquete, Panama, taking nice long hikes in the hills nearby and generally avoid people and travel. This, though just a quick drive to the coast, was travel.
It wasn’t a few miles after fixing the tire, when out of the rear window, the car was smoking. What now? Phyllis jiggered with the 4-wheel lever which hadn’t wanted to dis-engage.
“Gotta go back;” I said, “figure out what’s wrong.” Neither of us happy, envisioning at least a day of our getaway wasted. We turned the car around and started heading home… keeping an eye out the rear window to notice that the car has stopped smoking. Really? Must’ve been what Phyllis jiggered (a technical term. I’m an engineer. I use them. Words like ‘whatsis’, etc).
We turned the car around again one more time, finally on our way to Boca Chica with rising spirts.
On arriving at Boca Chica, we made a wrong turn and went to the wrong dock. Our earlier frustration, just under the surface still, begins to build again — but Phyllis cut it short with a phone call — Isla Palenque’s concierge is already at the other dock and gave easy directions.
A smiling Rodolfo was there to meet us, and cheerfully took our luggage to the boat – just fifteen minutes later we could see the resort’s dock from a distance.
During the boat ride, Rodolfo mentioned our anniversary. With a “felicidades” he told us we’d been upgraded from the Jungle Room we’d booked to the Ocean Suite right above the beach. Now this is nice I thought to myself, warming up to our day of travel.
As we neared, we could see two people waiting for us. I expected the smaller one to say “Ze boat, ze boat boss!” It was the near-exact picture of that TV scene of so long ago.
Introduced to Jairon and Celianis, we climbed out of the boat and up the ramp into a van, which took us the short ride through heavy jungle to the hotel.
Latin America is known for its smiling people, its friendliness, and its lack of attention to detail. Isla Palenque is out of place. Oh, the smiles and friendly service are certainly there. But it’s the care with which the details are attended to that’s supremely remarkable. Everywhere you turn is something done particularly well, whether it’s the five small brochures telling of the island’s flora and fauna, the brushed nickel soap and shampoo dispensers, the bound book that describes the island and the eco-friendly development philosophy or the carved furniture, made from fallen jungle hardwood trees. There’s an iPad with Internet access on the desk. There’s a pair of binoculars on the coffee table for watching humpbacks or for birding. We didn’t think to bring ours. A white turtle made of folded towels is on the bed. Thinking of taking a hike? Rodolfo will give you a cellphone — in case you get lost, I suppose.
As we’d arrived later than the normal lunch-serving hours, and we’d spent an hour or so relaxing in the room, we expected no lunch. One of the staff asked us if we’d like something to eat. Thinking chips or something, we said “sure.” The “chips” turned out to be a red snapper meal for me and a ginger beef salad for Phyllis.
Later, dinner was served with a special menu, recognizing our anniversary as well as our dietary preferences. The food and its presentation were excellent.
I won’t say more about the food. Lee Zeltzer, my neighbor and blogger has covered the food here at Palenque in detail. Suffice it to say it’s just non-stop superb. Delicious and inventive with its inclusion of micro-herbs from the organic garden. To boot, artistically presented.
Arising a bit after seven the next morning, I’m down at the bohio having coffee when I notice what at first looks like a chicken — but not quite. About the size of a chicken with mottled feathering; a more focused look tells me it’s a hawk. It’s about 30 feet away and seems to have no care that I’m as close as I am. Carlos (the waiter) and I are watching it as it preens itself. I remark on its not being afraid of us. Aris, “the gentle giant,” another employee, comes up and tells of another bird — this one a falcon — that they’ve named “Sam.” Neither bird will indicate the slightest fear of nearby humans.
“Low-impact development” indeed.
The hawk flies a bit closer and lands on one of the tiki lamps near the pool. It’s about 20 feet away now. It watches us as we watch it — unmoved by our presence. A few minutes later it flies to where I’d first seen it, just beyond the beverage tray at the bohio. It was hunting. Turns out, it was about to breakfast on a crab.
And it did.
The day is drab. A cloudy start. Fairly unusual for the morning — even in the rainy season, which we are in now. Nevertheless, Phyllis and I set out on a short hike on a cleared path through the jungle and parallel to the shore. A light rain fell as we walked. I’m wearing my usual sandals, but with white socks. Geeky, right? The white socks didn’t stay white long. We got to Playa Perdida (Lost Beach) and reconnoitered a bit. Onward to the next beach (Cala Este). Phyllis stayed above, on the path, as I went down, taking the camera. Cala Este is the prototype deserted tropical beach. Buff-colored sand, with mangroves just beyond. The stuff of Robinson Crusoe. Drop-dead gorgeous. Even in the rain. I wanted to stay. I knew it was time to return. We re-traced our steps back to the hotel.
OK. I lied. I’ve got to say more about the food. Dinner Friday night was a seven-course meal. Bar none, the best meal I have ever had in Panama. We’ve been here ten years. Eaten well. But never, ever, like this. The chef, Oliver Blond, served each course assisted by the waiters Carlos and Averaldo, obviously proud — justly proud — of his work.
Saturday is bright and sunny. I’m off for a tour of the tide pools and mangroves. Phyllis hasn’t had her ocean fix yet, so she’ll stay behind and do that. Giving the tour is Manuel, “Oyster Man.” Accompanying us is the lovely Celianis. We start out with backpack, machete and all-purpose knife — and me in sandals, now traditional white socks, and a camera. I’m hoping this doesn’t get too Indiana Jones-ish.
First stop is the tide pools directly in front of the hotel. I’d been there yesterday. Oyster Man shows us various animals living under rocks. As a reclusive engineer, I’m quite envious. Starfish, crabs, and of course, oysters. Funny, I’d seen none of this yesterday.
Then off through the jungle. At Playa Perdida, we’re again looking at life between the rocks, when Oyster Man spots a large oyster. He begins the attack with his Bowie knife. The oyster doesn’t seem afraid. From various angles, he tries to dislodge the oyster. No go. He tries harder, using the heel of his hand. The oyster isn’t giving an inch. Instead the point of the knife breaks.
“Now it’s personal,” he mutters.
Using a rock as a hammer against the back end of the knife, he makes headway. The oyster, after a minimum of ten minutes — it might’ve been fifteen — finally comes free. Victory for the Oyster Man. I think I hear “We are the Champions” playing in the background.
We did see monkeys high up in the trees and searched for caimans in the mangrove lagoon. Manuel pointed out various plants that could be used in emergencies. Others that were edible. And still others that were poisonous. He found a beautiful bromeliad flower he gave to Celianis. But for me the highlights of the tour were returning to beautiful Cala Este in the sunlight and Oyster Man’s epic victory over King Oyster on the beach.
Re-reading this, it sounds like promotional material. It’s not. It’s neither paid-for nor comped. As I wrote, we’ve been in Panama for over ten years. The fact is I’m just stunned by the philosophy and execution of Isla Palenque.
July 1, 2013