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As the Chorcha River descends from volcanic highlands in the Chiriquí province of western Panama, it curls around the hamlet of Chorcha not far from the provincial capital, David, and meets a gravel beach at the end of a narrow road. One morning earlier this year, a military-style landing craft basked there with its square-lipped bow lowered onto the bank, like an amphibious whale with mouth agape. Two men stepped ashore.
One was Rob Jameson, a six-foot-six blond Liverpudlian and talkative naturalist. The other—quieter and a foot shorter—was captain Jairo Pimentel; he grew up along this coast. Both men wore pale azure shirts and khaki shorts, the livery of Islas Secas, a luxury lodge on a private archipelago set like a broach upon 1,035 acres of dark ocean in the Gulf of Chiriquí.
Luggage stowed, Jairo pointed the boat downstream between mangrove-lined banks. Barrier islands, the mainland’s forward guard, lay between us and the eastern Pacific. Once beyond them, Jairo throttled the twin engines, and the boat nosed up. Soon large swells were rolling in, orderly saltwater hills. Rob shouted that they were stirred by a storm across the Pacific—unimaginable distances. What came to mind was the word oceanic.
What else came to mind was the phrase sea change from Ariel’s song in The Tempest. (“Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made...”) The hour-long boat ride to Islas Secas, just 20 miles off the mainland, draws a watery cast over the imagination, much like the longer journeys to the Cyclades or St. Kilda or Fantasy Island. The lodge is relatively accessible— on my return trip, I left at dawn and made it home to the U.S. for dinner—and yet the archipelago seems a world apart.
The sleight of hand succeeds because Islas Secas replaces the modern necessities of cars and television with walking paths, dark-sky nights, seabird colonies, barely fished coral reefs, and beaches with shells like carved agates dropped by careless gem merchants. In scale and scenery, the archipelago feels akin to a private national park.
Panama beyond the Canal Zone remains ill-defined for many prospective visitors, but geography defines the country as a point of intersection. Between two continents and two oceans, its seemingly contradictory assets include well-maintained infrastructure for trade and intact ecosystems of global importance. Unspoiled nature more often survives at the far corners of the globe. Islas Secas is an undiscovered near corner. It’s like Zanzibar without the flight, or Costa Rica without the crowds.
From sea level in the Gulf of Chiriquí, Islas Secas first appears as green dashes on the horizon: Morse code transmitted in geologic time. On closer approach, the green dashes substantiate into jungle-covered heaps and rocky islets, courtiers to the central splendor of Isla Cavada, the largest and only developed island in the group of 14. Mariners’ logs from the 16th century marked these islands secas, or dry, not because they lacked fresh water but because extreme tides drain the bays to a low ebb.
Jairo cut the throttle and entered a shallow cove with a dock. All told, there wasn’t a lot of development to see—approximately 75 percent of the archipelago consists of environmentally protected areas and is owned by Louis Bacon, an American hedge fund manager and founder of the Moore Charitable Foundation, which focuses on environmental conservation. Bacon’s real estate portfolio includes other properties that encompass ecologically sensitive landscapes. His most expansive acreage lies in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, where he paid the Forbes family a reported $175 million for the 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch, which today is run as an outdoors-focused lodge. Other properties include Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico and Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska.
At Islas Secas, the development on Isla Cavada mostly insinuates itself into the lush greenery. In addition to the boathouse where we arrived, the small main lodge hides a kitchen and showcases a handsomely appointed bar and library. Nine guest casitas facing the undeveloped mainland house a maximum of 18 guests.
High season corresponds with a rainless spell known in Panama as “summer” even though it occurs in astronomical winter. Each casita has a modest air-conditioner (solar-powered, as is the entire property) but also louvered walls that capitalize on the natural cooling effects of air in motion. Guest buildings are outfitted with finely honed tropical hardwoods, copper gutters, and excellent sheets.
After unpacking my bags, I walked down a crunchy path to the main lodge for lunch. The open-air palapa where most meals are served was built on the scale of a parish church and overlooked a secluded beach and a pretty bay flanked by centurion islets.
But what caught my eye was the beach itself: dirty blond rather than luminous gold, and intruded upon at both ends by thuggish mangroves that trapped muck and leaves among their roots. Instead of sterile sand for Bain de Soleil tourists, here was undisturbed habitat: the triumph of mangroves over mai tais. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to explore the island.
A black seabird, attenuated and sharp like flung scissors, sliced past the boat. As I followed it with my eyes, I caught Rob watching me, watching it.
“It’s a frigate bird,” he said. “The magnificent frigate, Fregata magnificens.”
The epithet suited. With a wingspan of eight feet, its silhouette evoked the elegant menace of a black-sailed pirate ship. And yet mariners once hoped to spot the magnificent birds because they brought the promise of land. The one Rob and I watched swiftly disappear (its red throat indicated a mature male) probably belonged to the noisy nesting colony on Isla Coco.
When we visited the colony after lunch the first day, it proved to be—oddly, for someone who takes only passing interest in birds—a highlight of my trip. Something about the teeming numbers was awesome to see: the fecundity of nature uninterrupted. On another afternoon, during an hour-long boat ride to Coiba Island National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we seemed to be traveling a sea turtle highway, so often did we see their armored shells, like porcelain figurines cast at heroic size, bob to the surface.
One morning at dawn I walked to the north end of Isla Cavada to see the Bufadora, a “blowhole” on the rocky coast that spews mist as waves roll in. Fleet iguanas raced away, scattering dried leaves with the racket of a New Year’s Eve noisemaker. Past the Bufadora, Canales Beach emerged at low tide as a spit of sand connected to a jungle-like islet where, in 1961, Smithsonian archaeologists surveyed an ancient ceremonial complex. (Other unexcavated sites dot Isla Cavada; in the wet season, stone axes and clay pots wash down the creeks.) Nearly every sheltered beach crawled with uncountable hermit crabs that minced and cowered along the sand. Underwater, coral reefs shimmered and flashed with shoals of fish.
In fact, Panama means “fish aplenty,” explained angling guru and Outdoor Channel star Carter Andrews, director of the Islas Secas fishing program.
“This is one of the fishing destinations in the world,” he told me over a predinner snack in the bar. “Our inshore fishing has cubera snapper, grouper, big roosterfish. Offshore there’s the Hannibal Bank, legendary water. Hemingway fished here.”
Another guest at the bar overheard us.
“The writer Hemingway?” she asked. “Was Hemingway a fisher?”
“Was Hemingway a writer?” he said, holding the woman’s eyes until she realized he was teasing her. “He was a fisherman before he was a writer.”
Carter returned to his theme: What sets Islas Secas apart is the marine diversity and the proximity to big-game fisheries at Coiba, Montuosa, and Hannibal Bank.
“Nobody else has the access we have to those pristine places,” he added. “That’s what makes this really, really, really unique.”
Panama has long been a point of convergence and a place of transport. There’s the canal, of course, and before that was the overland passage of export goods, from New World silver bound for Spain to brimmed straw hats woven in Ecuador and mistakenly named for their point of passage. Ecologically, the 2.8 million-year-old isthmus forms both a recent barrier between two oceans and an active bridge between two continents, making it epically biodiverse. From the marine perspective, the Gulf of Chiriquí draws migratory humpback whales from two hemispheres.
“It’s the only place in the world where both the southern and the northern hemisphere population come,” explained Daniel Palacios, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, whose whale research with Kristin Rasmussen, president of the U.S. branch of Panacetacea, is supported by the privately funded Islas Secas Foundation. “In August there are so many whales it’s unbelievable.”
Dinner on my last night was a cookout at the casitas. Chef Katie Thurgood kept sending out platters of taro chips alongside poke made with local fish. The mood was full and light, like the shared happiness after your team wins. Kristin and Daniel had spent the afternoon using underwater microphones to track a male humpback as it sang. I had been out with Rob and Jairo to snorkel among eagle rays and whitetip reef sharks. In our various ways, we all had felt the thrill of being a human interloper in a wild environment grandly indifferent to our presence.
“I was just telling Kristin that we should lobby for a unesco designation for this place,” said Daniel with a glance at the surrounding Gulf of Chiriquí.
“We’ve been to a lot of places, but not many that are so pristine,” she added.
At that moment, a common black hawk, Buteogallus anthracinus, dropped down and perched on a post across the grass, as austere and imperious as a Hapsburg prince. It was a reminder that we were intruders in its demesne. We froze with admiration. Then Daniel realized what had drawn it in.
“Hey!” he shouted at the hawk, as I caught on to its cunning. “Get away from the poke!”
Islas Secas opens in January. Casitas from $1,000 per person per night, all-inclusive.