They left us there, on that deserted island. My husband and I watched as the 40-foot Munson landing craft pulled away, beaching us on a speck of jungle surrounded by the Gulf of Chiriquí. We had only our bathing suits, two beach umbrellas, a double kayak, snorkels, masks, fins, a cooler of Balboa beer, two fresh pasta salads, four fluffy towels, sunscreen, bug stuff, and a shortwave radio. These meager provisions would have to last us three hours.
It was our two-year anniversary. We waved and set off in our kayak to explore Isla Pargo, one of 16 islands in the remote private archipelago of Islas Secas.
I’d heard about Islas Secas Resort from my childhood friend Carter Andrews. Carter and I grew up normally enough in Nashville, Tennessee, but then he went on to become one of the world’s best fishing guides, with sea-monster cameos on ESPN. Last year he signed on as the fishing director for Islas Secas and several other properties owned by a conservation-minded billionaire. “You’ve
got to get down here,” he told me. “This place is ridiculous.”
He wasn’t kidding. The approach alone is like something out of Jurassic Park. From the small mainland fishing-lodge settlement of Boca Chica, we hopped in a 34-foot SeaVee boat and roared an hour toward the Pacific horizon. By the time we sighted Islas Secas, 25 miles out, the mainland had disappeared. We slowed past green cliffs lined with frigate birds and arrived at a long dock where Enrique the bartender waited with two papaya smoothies.
Islas Secas is my kind of roughing it. Guests stay in seven solar-powered yurts, each with its own bathroom and a plantation bed wrapped in mosquito netting. Every morning at 6:30, Enrique delivered a fresh carafe of coffee. Dinner was a stroll to another yurt on a crescent-shaped beach, where chef Alexander Rojas cooked up fish curry and fresh-picked-mango cheesecake on a bay that, each August, fills with breaching humpback whales.
That’s the real draw of Islas Secas: the sea life—parrotfish, puffer fish, king angelfish, shovelnose guitarfish; whitetip reef sharks, green and ridley turtles, spotted and spinner dolphins. The Gulf of Chiriquí serves as a nursery for the Tropical Eastern Pacific Marine Corridor, a nutrient-rich highway of currents stretching from Costa Rica all the way to the Galápagos. To put that a little less scientifically: the fishing and diving are insane. Much of this bounty is found in Coiba National Park, a 430,825-acre sanctuary surrounding the 124,320-acre volcanic island of Coiba. Coiba was belched up from the Galápagos hot spot 70 million years ago. More recently, until 2004, it was Panama’s most notorious penal colony. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the park includes the most biodiverse waters in the region. Islas Secas is the closest jumping-off point.
We circled Coiba one day with Carter and his family, his three-year-old daughter, Payton, snorkeling alongside her mother in 25 feet of clear water. But most days we fished, banging 30 miles out to the seamount of Montuosa to cast popping lures for 50-pound yellowfin tuna. Carter has a bear’s physique and a bruin’s mane of hair; his first mate, local Juan Spragge, is a 21-year-old fishing prodigy. The other captains call them Yogi and Boo-Boo, which might bother them more if they weren’t tagging and releasing more 700-pound marlin than anyone else on Panama’s Hannibal Bank. At one point, we came upon four boobies sunning themselves on a floating log, watching for fish. Carter stopped the boat. “Mahi—under there,” he said. One cast and a dorado was on the line, flashing green. Carter handed me the rod.
“You know what you caught there?” he said, radioing back to Chef Alex that dinner was in the boat. “Passion-fruit ceviche.”