If Lara Croft and Robinson Crusoe got hitched and took a honeymoon, Isla Palenque — a Cayuga Collection property — would make the perfect destination. Located in Panama on the Gulf of Chiriquí, the “barefoot luxury” getaway offers eight beachfront casitas and one villa estate, all cradled within 400 acres of verdant jungle. Named as one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges Of The World,” it’s a sanctuary that promises to transport you to another realm, far away from the distractions and chaos of modern society.
With cuisine described as “dock-to-dish,” the property implements a sustainable fishing program and sources its ingredients directly from their on-site organic farm. Once you’ve addressed your appetite, venture out through the region’s primary rainforest on an anthropology walk led by an expert guide.
In an afternoon straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure, you’ll spend the hike greeting howler monkeys, iguanas, and two-toed sloths, all the while admiring artifacts and treasures that once belonged to pre-Colombian civilizations. Afterwards, take advantage of the ocean at your doorstep and dip into the calm waters of the Gulf of Chiriquí for a swim — then retreat back to your luxurious casita for more R&R. All of this to say, it’s easy to assemble an itinerary that blends the best of both nurture and nature.
This is amplified by the fact that the team at Isla Palenque are deeply committed to upholding the highest ecological standards to preserve the integrity of their surrounding environment. The property’s social and environmental sustainability strategies includes hiring locals from the nearby town of Boca Chica to join its family of staff, initiating community outreach activities, implementing a tree planting program, and banning single-use plastics (papaya straw stems > plastic straws). Intrigued by the sustainable philosophy of the property, I spoke with Benjamin Loomis, the architect who helped to develop Isla Palenque.
What appealed to you about working with the owners of Cayuga Collection on this project?
The experience that they have with a dozen or so similar hotels in Costa Rica shows that they are able to execute at a high level service in Central America, which is no easy feat. Even the big-name chains can’t do that in Panama, because the culture is not one where you can just simply impose the standards of a large U.S. or other foreign organization and expect it to take hold. You need an intimate understanding of the local culture, and Cayuga is able to provide that.
How did you keep sustainability and eco-luxury in mind as philosophies during the design of the resort casitas and other buildings?
The most important design choice that we made was to ensure that we only developed a small percentage of the 400-acre private island — the total developed footprint is approximately five per cent of the island, with over half kept as a nature reserve. It was also a priority for us to have buildings and roads that integrated into the landscape. We sited buildings around trees and brought in largely local materials — like plantation teak for the structure and thatch for the roofing — that minimized the need for large vehicles. We also utilized an on-island woodshed to turn a lot of dead and naturally felled trees on the island into our furniture and flatware. Furthermore, showers are heated by solar panels and buildings make use of natural ventilation as much as possible. And thanks to our efficient shading, guests can comfortably enjoy nature from their decks, rather than just staying in an air-conditioned cube. Finally, we treat wastewater on-site and can re-use it for irrigation.
How do you see sustainability impacting travel?
My surveys of current and potential guests at Isla Palenque suggest that the elements of sustainability that people care the most about are those that they can experience. For instance, learning and visiting our organic farm, having easy access to nature paths and parks right outside their rooms, receiving education on the archaeological expedition tours we offer, and gaining insight into Panamanian culture, food, and art from locals. All of these elements are essential to enrich and connect to our foundational eco pillars of reducing our carbon footprint and conserving water. Ultimately, our goal is to give people an experience that will change the way they see their connection with the rest of the world and hopefully have an impact on how they approach sustainability throughout the rest of their lives.
How would you describe Isla Palenque?
It’s really casual elegance — barefoot luxury — that allows for an immersive connection with nature.