Islas Secas Reserve & Lodge

At this ‘anti-resort’ off Panama’s Pacific Coast, a series of private casitas comes with 14 volcanic islands all to yourself. The PRIOR team dives deep into Islas Secas’ fish-filled, emerald waters

After big planes, tiny planes, driving through villages of colorful houses with thatched roofs, climbing onto the nose of a small boat, and shifting through a mist of clouds (a mountain cumulus poetically referred to by locals as the “cloud forest”), we reached the Archipelago de Islas Secas. We were barefoot by the time we arrived at the smattering of eight isolated residences, so artfully simplistic and made with such natural materials they seem almost an extension of the main island, Isla Cavada, itself.

While this elegantly spare private reserve and lodge might be a mere 20 miles from the coast, it’s as close as we’ve come to fulfilling a castaway fantasy. Surrounded by 13 uninhabited isles, all there for you alone to explore, the word “luxury” becomes uncharacteristically jungly, natural, and raw—less St. Barths and more Gilligan’s Island. That’s exactly the way visitors are meant to feel, as philanthropist Louis Bacon originally brought Islas Secas Reserve & Lodge into being as a conservation project and marine sanctuary. He committed only to gently build upon a tiny fragment of the largest island while leaving the others fully unsettled.

Photographs by Conor Burke

The property’s low-impact structures including the casitas and the indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar all use recycled water, solar panel energy, and reclaimed tropical woods and other local materials—a sustainability feat that seems to straddle both the impossible and obvious. It helps to foster feeling of sheer, astonished gratitude as you stand agog from your private deck over the sparkling turquoise waters and look out into the seemingly endless archipelago. Your archipelago.

While the property has ample amenities including a beautiful jungle spa—with multiple on-site masseuses, soulful yoga instructors, and highly skilled spa technicians—the purest indulgence of Islas Secas is the rare and wonderful chance to suffuse directly into unspoiled nature while you’re there. Venturing out among the islands to see migrating humpback whales, soaring seabirds, and shoals of brightly colored fish is largely the point, which is why the resort’s activities focus on traversing the waters on a range of available sea craft, as elaborate as sport fishing boats and catamarans and as simple as pairs of flippers and snorkels. In most cases, you’ll be the only guests you see wherever you go.

If sheltered jungle walks, cliff-top lookouts, and a feeling of being utterly marooned (in a good way) sounds like your kind of island travel, then this may be the hideaway for you.

Islas Secas

Photographs by Conor Burke

The route? You’ll take an hour and a half plane ride from Panama City to a town called David. From there, the resort will pick you up and take you on a drive through modest but brightly colored local houses, corner shops, and women walking around with umbrellas beneath the Panama sun. It’s about a 30-minute ride till you reach the Gold of Chiriquí, and the rest of the travel is by boat.

Ours was operated by a man named Rob Jameson who is the property’s recreation specialist, but feels also like an archaeologist and adventure guide. His stories about the island and how he arrived on it to stay make the approximately 40-minute ride disappear. From the mangrove-swallowed port, you’ll head out through an estuary toward the main island, Islas Cavada, on which the lodge is set. If you’re lucky, the occasional long local fishing boat will pass by, with colonies of prehistoric looking birds surveying overhead before pivoting and slashing through the water into fish prey.

The scene? Your boat docks as the water moves from dramatic navy to turquoise shallows. From here sea turtles and rays glide and fish school. The resort greets you with gathered nuts and fresh fruits from the property and cold beers. The ‘lobby’ might have a beautiful, arched bamboo canopy but there are no plush lounges underneath; instead kayaks, scuba gear, sailing boats, paddle boards and fishing rods decorate the walls. You immediately get the sense that you have come here to play. From here, a tunnel tangled with beautiful subtropical vegetation and ground corral leads you eventually to the bamboo structures that house the restaurant, spa, and pool. On the way you pass an outdoor cinema with adirondack chairs and a screen made from a stretched out sail. To the right is a hill that leads up to the casitas where visitors stay.

The design? Islas Secas’ design overall is just unobtrusive, elegant, and supremely comfortable. And it very much speaks to its location. Each secluded ‘room’—ranging from one to four bedrooms—has a thatched roof and deep, shuttered walls made from natural materials. They are all surrounded by sweeping decks and have private pools that look out onto the glittering Gulf of Chiriquí.

The rooms? The casitas are like private little compounds, each with their own grand sized main room, canopied beds, high timber ceilings with fans, plus solar-powered air conditioning. Thoughtful little details stand out, like a rack that stores rimmed hats for your use, yoga mats, and wooden board games like chess and checkers that are ready to go for the beach. All the decorations are vintage maps, pieces of corral, artifacts in a glass curio that feel actually found and not styled by a designer.

The surrounds? The Barú Volcano is in sight and looks as high as any grand mountain. Because of the geography of the place, any time you look back towards the mainland of Panama there is almost always a line of hazy clouds hovering around it. This so-called “cloud forest” ends up protecting the islands from weather and make for ocean waters that are almost always calm. Looking out and being surrounded by it in the distance also intensifies the sense of privacy.

The dress code? Board shorts and a collared linen shirt will do the trick for dinner. But you essentially have the place to yourself, so if you wanted to turn up in swimmers that would be totally fine.

A day beyond the hotel? Once you descend the hill from your casita, all paths really point to the activity area and education center. You can either swim there or walk the footpath in a few minutes. No matter where you go on the islands, there’s a sense that everything you need is available—like stashes of sunscreen and insect repellant or a cold drink, which are set up seemingly everywhere—even if a staff member isn’t immediately present. Saying that, there’s a generous ratio of staff to people, considering that the maximum capacity of guests is 18. Warmth and passion pervade.

The days at Islas Secas end up feeling mostly about water activities and island hopping, but you get to do everything at your own pace and whim. Snorkeling in the reefs makes it easy to spot parrot fish, needlefish, turtles, and stingrays. The resort provides you with a visual key to all the fish in the area before and after so you can recognize and recap whichever you spot. A must-do is taking out a sea bob, a motorized little flotation device that allows you to dive underwater and keep pace with the fish, so you can ride right alongside them even when they scurry off.

What character from fiction would set up camp here? Robinson Crusoe, obviously.

If you weren’t staying here, would you go to the restaurant? You’re more going for the location and the feeling of dining alone (or nearly) on the beach: The food is a little fussy for being on an island, though the ceviche was wonderful, as is a dinner dish called guacho. It’s a risotto-like rice dish with prawns, mussels, lobster, and a kind of tomato-y broth base. Something you’ll want to eat every night. The breakfast has fresh fruit from the island, yogurts, coffees, and you can choose from a menu of empanadas, eggs benedict with a Panamanian sausage, avocado toast, and so on. They bake all the bread themselves, and it is delicious.

The staff can also set up a lunch for you on some of the white sand beaches in between kayaking or snorkeling. They’ll arrange a chef, umbrellas, and a meal cooked over a charcoal grill. We had simple grilled pork, chicken, and fish with vegetables and a really beautiful green salad. It’s just what you want.

The bar? The bar room is a really nice place to sit and hang, even if the bar program is rather straightforward. They don’t have a signature cocktail or a bartender who really takes the lead—it’s more about enjoying the ambiance and a simple or classic drink. There’s a decent rosé, but the wine list does leave something to be desired.

Salon and spa treatments? The spa is truly exceptional, and not because it has fancy products or the inside is particularly polished. It consists of two simple but beautiful tents, but clearly taken seriously. Remote locations can often struggle to find skilled technicians, but the team of local staff not only know what they are doing but do it in their own Panamanian way. Because there are so few guests, there is little tedious jostling for appointment times.

Be warned about The sun. You just always want to be applying sunscreen there. It’s also worth noting that the somewhat rustic approach applies to internal travel while on the islands. It’s an eco-minded resort, so the point is not to have golf buggies or a car service at your every beck and call. It’s a hilly little walk from the house to the main buildings, so it’s a bit more rugged—well, as rugged as an 8-minute walk to breakfast on a private island can be.

PRIOR Team

The PRIOR editorial team, overseen by David Prior, works together to write and produce stories that inspire curiosity about, and the desire to connect to, places and people across the world.

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