Isn’t it clearly stated in our hiking rules that you should ALWAYS hike with a partner? Yes it is, and we cross our hearts by this rule – but after 6 months of welcoming adventurous guests to Isla Palenque, and being the type of hoteliers who have never met a norm we didn’t like to buck, we know that when your hiking partner would rather read by the pool, when you come back a second or third visit, or even just at the end of a good week of tours, you’ve connected with the island in a way that makes you want to call it your own. Venturing off down a jungle path without a guide isn’t nearly as intimidating as it seemed when you first arrived – in fact, that path seems to be calling your name.
Because I know well that undeniable dare of the wild, and have listened in delight and horror to guests who have already decided to set off solo, I thought it best to provide a few hiking tips for the inevitable – when you go exploring without a guide on Isla Palenque.
Having once lived on the island before there was such a thing as trail markers or maps, I feel that I have mastered the art of solo hiking Isla Palenque – admittedly I still struggle to effectively use a machete, but I’ve mustered up a few skills by trial and error (like rock hiking and monkey whispering). Exploring the island is both intimidating and liberating, and once you begin to feel comfortable with the trails, topography and general layout, hiking the island without a guide shows you an entirely different perspective, and one that I find incredibly rewarding.
So, here are my 10 tips for solo hiking Isla Palenque:
(or, learn from the mistakes of one very adventurous and accident-prone island girl.)
Yes, I had to, and I mean it! The more comfortable you become with the island, the more important it becomes to ensure that you always carry a tide chart, a cell phone (with the correct time) and water – and it doesn’t hurt to ensure that you throw your headlamp and a granola bar in your pack as well, just in case. Always in pursuit of a good ocean vista, some of my favorite island hiking is to and along the coast – entranced by tide pools and compelled by secret inlets, time often disappears, and without a doubt, the tide has risen up dramatically over the past few hours. We once almost lost the Managing Editor of this very travel blog, when the tide rose and left her stranded on the sand bar between Boca Brava and Isla Palenque. Hiking safety is imperative, and if you’re setting off alone, you should have the basics memorized.
The iPhone is the greatest wilderness tool since the pocketknife – bring it.
I’m a huge advocate of disconnecting and taking a technology detox while in wilderness environments – but even without cellphone service and out of wireless range, the iphone has an extraordinary gamut of uses in the wilderness. The compass is invaluable for way finding, the flashlight app works well when dusk comes sooner than expected, and I like to record the various bird calls that I hear for identifying later with the Voice Memos function – and of course, the camera is a must for quickly sharing your adventure when you return home again – all of this in one compact handheld device? It just can’t be beat.
Know the route, and then take a different one.
Start by following a route that is mapped or that you’ve done before with a guide – I suggest trying to find the bat cave or the blowhole yourself once you’ve completed those tours (leave about 2 hours before low tide, make sure you are inland by about 2 hours after low tide). While following a guide, these routes are straightforward, but without, every bend in the bushes seems like a potential turn in the trail. Finding your way the first time is an adrenaline rush with massive reward at the end (and probably a few stressful moments of being lost). Once you’ve hiked a route a few times, then (and only then), it is time to get creative. If you always hike around one side of Isleta Amelia, try the other side – and there are several ways to reach the blowhole …I won’t give them away…
At night, stick to the road.
A large majority of the island’s animals are nocturnal, which provides a certain allure to setting off in the pitch black. However, unless you are a snake charmer, certified wilderness ranger, or professional tour guide, I urge you NOT to wander off through the jungle at night. If you want to see the stars, head to Playa Primera, Playa Palenque or the arrival dock for a clear view of the sky using the road only – and let someone know where you are going and when you’ll be back. Listening to the jungle come alive at night is an extraordinary thrill, the chorus is unbelievable, and simply standing still on the road will provide this experience – however, do keep a flashlight on your feet – the tiny jungle rodents scurry at night, and their predator is snakes.
On the coast, always keep three grips.
Without a doubt, the best adventures and easiest ways to die are on the islands coastal bluffs. By doing it all the wrong way, Amble’s corporate team has proven a few things in our early days of exploration: a good grip-hold will crumble, the volcanic rock is very sharp, those rocks are slippery, and the vertical scale of the cliffs in certain places makes it impossible to rock hike your way around the outlying coastal bluffs in an attempt to hike the entire circumference of the island. We all fell in at some point, and luckily, it was in a shallow area that we are able to slide down in an only mildly painful way to reach the water to swim. The daredevils won’t believe me, and will try anyways, so I will provide one golden rule for bluff climbing: always know your three points of contact. That means that you have some combinations of hands AND feet gripping the rock. The more vertical the rock face, the more imperative this becomes, but even as your hiking along the boulders, always know which two grips will hold you when the third breaks.
Seasonal changes are constant – and everything changes.
I spent the better part of two years on Isla Palenque, and have never had the same hike twice. The ecosystem is constantly changing. In dry season, every week brings a variance of birds, butterflies and wild flowers, and once the rains begin, different mosses, ferns and mushrooms find their way as the weeks become progressively moister. I didn’t expect such extreme variation, as the temperature is constant year round, but it is truly a phenomenon to explore the island over the course of a seasonal year. What this means for hiking – sometimes the jungle moves faster than our guides can keep it cleared. I once become completely lost in a massive grove of Birds of Paradise flowers that sprouted up in just a week since I had last visited that part of the island – it was quite beautiful, even among that frantic realization that I’d been walking in circles. The lesson – don’t take it for granted that you know an area of the island by heart – the beauty is that the island will constantly surprise you with new wonders.
Island species: hold still, be quiet, and don’t touch.
The only thing louder than you tromping through the jungle in hiking boots are the howler monkeys and the cicadas – to spot anything else, you’re going to have to slow down, hold still and be quiet for a few moments. As soon as you do, start by gazing at the ground – lizards, tiny little frogs and giant iguanas will scurry by – listen for the dropping of fruit and scuttling of leaves – monkeys, black squirrels, sloths, anteaters – and then the birds will begin to call again – parrots, hawks and so many tiny tropical songbirds. Isla Palenque species are wild, and we like them that way, so keep your distance and do not touch the wildlife – for your safety and theirs. A cautionary tale: once as I was drifting through a sunny patch of heliconia, banana and avocado humming to myself and running my hands along the lush green leaves, my index finder was suddenly shot with an intense pain and began swelling up to twice its size within the minute. Alarmed, I began to look under the leaves to see if a snake was hiding there and had bitten me – but no, it was a tiny, fluorescent blue and green caterpillar. I guess even the cutest creatures have their defenses, so keep your hands where you can see them! (My finger was fine within 24 hours.)
Spend time alone, even if you don’t hike alone.
If I weren’t so concerned about your safety, this would be my number one tip for hiking on Isla Palenque. The experience of standing amongst one of the world’s remaining wildernesses, on an island far-removed from the tolls of daily life, surrounded by rugged natural beauty, is truly a soul settling experience. Even if you hike with a partner, take a moment to step away from the group and sit quietly on the forest floor, or perch yourself on a coastal boulder and let the sights and sounds wash over you and set your thoughts free. A moment like this is worth preserving in your memory forever.
You will get lost, even if you don’t admit it.
After you’ve spent several weeks solo hiking, you’ll laugh that you ever got lost on Isla Palenque – each area of the island has such personality, and the topography is so distinct that knowing where you are will eventually become second nature – until then, hiking in dense jungle and mangrove can be absolutely mystifying. I have absolutely no sense of direction, so it took me longer than most to know where I was. Aside from experience, a few good practices will help stay on track. Use your compass (iphone) to have a general sense of what direction you are heading at all times, this will help decrease the panic once you realize you’ve lost the trail. If you get lost, walk straight – you’re bound to hit a coast eventually. Once you do, look for landmarks – If you’re on Playa Palenque, you’re close to the road and free and clear, but if not, it’s a bit tougher. Can you see the Panama tree? The sand bar to Boca Brava? Isla San Jose? (the island in direct view of Eden restaurant).These landmarks will help you place yourself on our trail map and head back with an excellent story to tell over a much-deserved cold drink.
Climb a bluff, climb a tree, dig a hole, lay on the jungle floor, do a cart wheel, yell from the edge of a cliff, strip off your hiking clothes and run into the water, sing along with the birds – you are on an island without another soul in site – if there’s time to feel like a kid again, it is now. Play is a guilty pleasure that we simply don’t make time for as adults. It is a liberating, joyful act that epitomizes living in the now. There is no objective, no purpose, just expression, creativity and letting go. You don’t have to tell anyone how rusty your cartwheel was, how unfamiliar and wild it felt to yell at the top of your lungs for no reason, or how you forgot the words to Amazing Grace (the first song that popped into your head), just so long as you take advantage of that moment of absolute joy and freedom. Have fun!
Exploring Isla Palenque with only your internal dialogue as a guide allows you to become closer to your hiking partner, yourself and the planet. We are still discovering new species and natural wonders on Isla Palenque after 4 years of exploration – the opportunity is yours. If you decide to adventure without a guide on your stay, be sure to come back here and share your tips and discoveries in the comments. Happy hiking!