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Award-Winning Eco Resort Isla Palenque on Track with Sustainable Development Plan

19 June 2013 6 Comments

Isla Palenque

By Yvonne Bauche

The award winning eco resort on Isla Palenque, 90 minutes from David, Panama opened its doors for the first guests this spring. The planned development as covered in this 2010 article, generated lots of interest with its aim to “create sustainability that is not only good for the land, but good for the people that will live on it” (Ben Loomis, President, Amble Resorts).

More recently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also recognized Isla Palenque for practicing biodiversity and conservation in its siting and design. As the awards and interest continue to build the plans for this 400-acre island in the Gulf of Chiriqui, still in its initial first phase continue.

The plan covers the eventual development of up to 230 homes, two hotels, restaurants, spa and marina. Built in a series of phases the goal is to provide beautiful luxury homes and hotels with a high level of quality construction and service, while retaining the island’s old growth forest and its pristine natural beauty. The island is primarily an untouched virgin beauty with 12 beaches, tidal pools, lagoons and bat cave. Well-marked trails lead to beaches and viewpoints. Several troops of howler monkeys live on the island as do anteaters, armadillos and raccoons.

Isla Palenque

As one of the first visitors to this island paradise, I wanted to see for myself how this grand vision is unfolding. The first phase of development is a small 6-bedroom boutique hotel built in the same style as one of the larger villas planned for development along Playa Primera (First beach).

Unlike many of the world’s monster concrete-and-tile five-star resorts, the construction feels refreshingly organic. The buildings built of a steel frame tied into the bedrock below, then clad with wood blend seamlessly into the environment. Insulated steel roofs reduce heat and rain noise as well as providing generous overhangs that shield the large floor to ceiling windows from excessive sun. The modular design, connected by open-air bamboo & wood walkways, allows each room’s position to take advantage of natural breezes. It also accommodates the large trees that provide shade and entertainment when the local troop of howler monkeys comes to feed.

The island has its own aquifer system, collected from the existing wells and filtered on site. It provides bountiful clean water. Irrigation needs are minimal as there is no extensive landscaping of the grounds. Nature is encouraged to do her part and grow back after construction is finished. Grey water is used for irrigating the onsite organic garden, where bumper crops of chillies and herbs flourish. A recently constructed large screened “greenhouse” will eventually house lettuces and other crops with more delicate natures. Banana and plantain planted alongside the access roads along with other fruit trees scattered throughout the area will provide fresh fruits once they have reached maturity.

Base Camp, where staff and construction workers live during their shifts also contains the “workshop” where local artisans create much of the resort’s furniture. Isla Palenque’s fallen trees have become bathroom shelves, tables and even towel hooks. The organic flowing headboards created from thick slices of the buttressed base of these island giants are truly unique. Casitas, canopy homes and villa sites are already marked. Some already purchased. As stated in the master plan, these are generally in areas previously cleared by farmers for crops or cattle. The spindly new growth inhabiting these sites is obviously much younger than the untouched primary forest cloaking the islands interior.

Isla Palenque Master Plan

I found the proposed canopy homes the most intriguing, perched on the island’s natural ridges, the proposed three or four level homes, take advantage of the steep topography at these sites. Entrance will be from a long bridge or walkway connecting to a communal road and parking lot. Each home fanning out from this central spot will have unique views from each level, some within the vegetation, others above the canopy and others with sweeping views of the beaches below.

The finished development, when complete, aims to have a building footprint of only five percent. The resort plans to keep a total of 220 acres encompassing old growth forest and lagoons as a nature reserve. This far exceeds the 15% required by Panamanian law.

The impact of building construction appears minimal. Gravel roads are narrow and follow the natural contours of the land. The proposed wind options outlined in the master plan are not yet in evidence at this early stage, solar water heaters are in place for the ocean view suites. Power supplied by a high efficiency diesel generator is sufficient for now, with plans to connect to the main grid on the neighboring island of Bocas Brava.

My impressions as a visitor in this early stage are that they are on track to fulfill their goals. Staff gleaned from the surrounding area is enthusiastic about maintaining this island paradise. I am not sure who was more excited about spotting an anteater foraging in the trees at breakfast one morning, our server or us.

I also noticed a refreshing trend within the hotel. Guests are encouraged to use stainless steel water bottles supplied and refilled as needed. The multitude of plastic soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles typical in many luxury resorts have been replaced with a stylish set of refillable stainless steel dispensers. Flat screen TV’s and telephones are gloriously absent. Each room has its own iPad allowing guests to email any requests they may have, check their own emails and even watch a preloaded movie (what else but Swiss Family Robinson?).

The small boutique hotel will soon expand with the addition of several tented suites overlooking beautiful Playa Palenque. These will provide a true opportunity to enjoy the thrill of outdoor living with all the luxury one could ask for, including the opening of the proposed spa. I look forward to seeing how the plan develops as the resort moves towards its full development and maybe even try glamping for myself.

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  • majken said:

    Just wondered how will the proposed development deal with sewage? and also waste water discharge? as there will have to laundry facilities, showers, detergents and shampoo used, dishes to be washed, cleaning and cleaning agents etc etc?

  • Ben Loomis said:

    Great question, majken – waste water treatment is an important consideration in sustainable development, especially in a ecosystem as precious as that at Isla Palenque. We are using sequencing batch reactors for our waste water treatment, which treats the water to produce greywater which we are able to use for maintenance and irrigation for our organic farm. This solution works well for us as a small hotel, and will grow with us as we become a larger development and add more processing tanks. Thanks for the great question,

    Benjamin Loomis, Founder and President, Amble Resorts”

  • carl bauer said:

    We have been manufacturing these homes in Australia for the last couple of years and have had some interest from the eco resort areas of the south pacific. We are currently in the process of expanding our manufacturing capabilities. Our product is easily shipped as 4 chalets can fit in one container. We can supply to lockup and you would be able to use local products for finishes or we could supply.
    Best of luck with your project.
    Carl Bauer.

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