An Identity Crisis at Isla Palenque

The absence of guests on Isla Palenque has led to a bit of an identity crisis among the team. Chefs have departed the kitchen to become birders, managers have moonlighted as English teachers, naturalist guides have developed an interest in farming & the head of HR has moonlighted as a photojournalist. Is this a case of island fever? Just what exactly is going on behind the scenes while Panama’s borders are closed?

Chef Jean Discovers a Love for Birding

Chef Jean (foreground) birding with Isla Palenque head naturalist guide, Chava.
Chef Jean (foreground) birding with Isla Palenque head naturalist guide, Chava.

You never know when a new passion might take hold of you. Jean is Isla Palenque’s talented chef who uses the plate as his artist’s palette. He’s an early riser by nature, but without the need to be in the kitchen to oversee breakfast for Isla Palenque’s guests, Jean has used the morning hours to join the resort’s naturalist guides on their birding walks. His intuitive eye for detail has drawn him to the hobby, focusing on the variations in shapes, color, appearance and calls that distinguish the 55 (and counting) bird species that make their home on or near Isla Palenque. The change in seasons has also brought a number of migratory birds to the island – where they’ll pause for a few days before continuing their trip – adding another layer of intrigue to the identification process. Isla Palenque regularly offers daily birding tours at sunrise and sunset, at various points around the island to expose guests to the variety of birds that inhabit the various ecosystems, from dry tropical forests to wetlands to palm forests & coast. Perhaps one day the birding guide ensuring that you spot the Lineated Woodpecker will be the same individual serving you a perfect tropical curtido for lunch – Chef Jean!

English Lessons for Staff

While all front of the house staff at Isla Palenque are multilingual and fluent in English, many members of the grounds crew and maintenance team don’t feel comfortable or confident enough to interact with English-speaking guests. At the onset of the border closure, several team members approached management about using this time to improve their English communication skills. Isla Palenque’s GM, Patricia, and Chava, head naturalist guide have organized free & voluntary conversational English classes for all island staff, with the support of Cayuga’s Sustainability Program & Career Ladder. Classes are held twice a week on Tuesdays & Thursdays and response from attendees and teachers alike has been full of enthusiasm. To date, several students have maintained perfect attendance.

Peppers ready to be picked
Peppers ready to be picked

Hyper Local Farm to Table

It’s been a goal since Isla Palenque’s inception to have a garden, small farm and greenhouse on the island capable of fulfilling the food needs for guests and staff alike. This is not only to reduce the number of weekly trips to markets in the Chiriqui Highlands but to offer guests more hands-on culinary experiences and ensure that our menu centers on food that has been organically & sustainably cultivated every step of the way.

Farmer Chava and his chickens
Farmer Chava and his chickens

But like every gardener knows, it takes time and careful observation of the natural world to understand what coaxes the most abundance out of a particular patch of dirt. The team at Isla Palenque spent two years testing the soil with various organic additives and fertilizers & identifying the beneficial relationships of certain native tropical plants with domesticated fruits and vegetables. Today, the island’s garden is 100% organic and more fruitful than ever. The garden, greenhouse and flock of chickens (32 laying hens and 23 “Broilers”) are the pride and joy of the entire staff and two dedicated gardeners, Lolito and Evilo. Chava, Isla Palenque’s lead naturalist guide, has also taken a keen interest in the garden and farm activities always lends a hand with the daily chores. While most of what is cultivated will end up on the menu once guests return to the island, currently Isla Palenque is spreading the abundance around and ensuring that all staff and many local families in Boca Chica receive regular food deliveries of fruit, vegetables and eggs.

Lolito, Evilo and a giant Guanàbana, which later became ice cream
Lolito, Evilo and a giant Guanàbana, which later became ice cream

Some of the fun culinary creations the staff have enjoyed and learned how to prepare recently include farm-to-table pizza and Guanàbana (Soursop) ice cream, which features a tropical fruit that grows wild on the island. When guests come back to Isla Palenque, they’ll be able to visit the “Granjita” on the Sustainability Tour and pick their own produce and eggs for culinary activities with the Chef.

Photojournalism 101

The photos featured here are all from Chava and Xavier (Isla Palenque HR Director), who participated in the Cuenta Cuentos Workshop arranged by The Cayuga Collection. Cuenta Cuentos means “story teller” in Spanish. All interested staff members from each Cayuga hotel were invited to attend a series of online workshops, hosted by Coffee Abroad, in which participants learned how to capture better photos with their cell phones and develop an eye for everyday scenes that tell an interesting story and help maintain the human aspect of hospitality that we’re all sorely missing right now. And while a screen won’t ever replace the warmth of a genuine smile or a personal conversation on the beach while sun sets (interactions that come naturally to these hospitality professionals), the social media & marketing skills introduced in these workshops may eventually lead someone to a different career! It’s all about planting that first seed of possibility and introducing new ideas and experiences.

Some of Isla Palenque’s core team. From L to R, Xavier (HR), Patricia (GM), Jean (Executive Chef) and Chava (Lead Naturalist Guide).
Some of Isla Palenque’s core team. From L to R, Xavier (HR), Patricia (GM), Jean (Executive Chef) and Chava (Lead Naturalist Guide).

As a member of the Cayuga Collection, Isla Palenque is part of a larger family of sustainable luxury hotels and lodges in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua where the opportunity for local staff to grow in their careers and develop both professionally and personally is part of the company’s DNA. Cayuga’s commitment to their people – and steadfast belief that all team members with great attitudes and enthusiasm can be taught the skills to aspire to the highest levels of hospitality and beyond – isn’t just a marketing slogan. They live this mission every day through programs both large and small that enrich the lives of their staff and the communities surrounding their hotels and lodges. In 2018 the World Travel & Tourism Council recognized their efforts with the prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow Award in the People Category.

Guest Blog by Kirsten Gardner. The original blog was posted here: https://www.clarkkotula.com/blog/2020/7/1/swapping-roles-amp-sharing-skills-at-isla-palenque. Thank you Kirsten and Clark for all the great work you do for us at Isla Palenque and Cayuga.

4 Responses

    1. Thank you Jamie. We are working hard to make sure that the experience at Isla Palenque will be better than ever when travel to Panama is possible again. Saludos.

  1. Kevin and I have booked a trip in March. This story provides a beautiful glimpse of what we can expect. Thank you for finding a way to capture the gifts that this chaotic time has devliered to us. We cannot to visit.

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