THE HIGH LIFE ON PANAMA’S PRIVATE JUNGLE ISLAND
What you get when you charter Jean Pigozzi's Isla Simca—an eco-friendly and totally exclusive slice of Central America
MY PANAMA HIDEAWAY
ISLA SIMCA / BY JEAN PIGOZZI
Isla Simca. Seclusion like no other. Your own private island and, a short kayak ride away, 10,000 additional, private acres on Panama’s Pacific coast. Distant from all civilization, surrounded by empty seas and an archipelago that feels truly primordial.
Luxurious services and accommodations for up to 30 guests in a dramatically contemporary residence, combined with recreational adventures in a nature that is pure and wild.
THE INSIDE STORY
THE ART COLLECTOR'S PRIVATE ISLAND ART RETREAT
“You won’t see a single light tonight,” promises Jean Pigozzi, surveying a swath of Panama’s west coast from his new house on an island just offshore. And it’s true—as the sun goes down, the stars begin to twinkle overhead, but not one light appears on the coast as far as Pigozzi, or any of his guests, can see.
It is a sight—or the absence of a sight—that even the most seasoned travelers may never experience. It results from Pigozzi’s foresight, mixed with large doses of chutzpah, in buying 18 miles of Pacific coastline, plus the mountainous island on which he built his house, near Panama’s Bahía Honda region, and arranging the other buildings he needed so that none would be visible from his aerie. “Everything you see,” he says, “I own.”
But Pigozzi (known to his friends as Johnny) isn’t exactly living in the dark. As the sun goes down, thousands of LEDs embedded in the house’s translucent walls begin to glow red, blue and green. A diesel-burning generator, out of sight and earshot, produces enough power to keep the place glowing like a discotheque that somehow landed in the jungle.
“It’s a high-tech version of Cuixmala,” Pigozzi says, referring to the legendary estate that Sir James Goldsmith built on the west coast of Mexico, and which Goldsmith’s daughter, Alix, now operates as a luxury resort. Pigozzi remembers visiting Goldsmith at Cuixmala in the pre-Internet days; if they wanted to find out what was happening in the world, they sent an employee on a three-hour drive to Puerto Vallarta for a newspaper. Now Pigozzi is in constant contact with the world, commanding his empire—including a 220-foot yacht anchored just off the island, as well as houses in places like Cap d’Antibes and Paris—with just a few taps on his iPad. Which, in a way, makes this kind of jungle hideaway, while an indulgence, less of one. Thanks to technology, Pigozzi, a wildly successful investor and heir to a French automotive fortune, can be away from his office far longer than the previous generation of moguls, like Goldsmith, could be away from theirs.
And who wouldn’t want to trade the office for this tropical paradise? The attractions on what he calls Simca Island (for the car company founded by his father) include a pair of oversized pools. Why two? “One is Perrier, the other Pellegrino,” jokes Pigozzi before revealing the (almost as extravagant) truth: one is for saltwater; the other, fresh. Inside, the main pavilion includes a living room where friends can lounge on plush sofas beneath Murano-glass chandeliers and a dining room with a gold-leaf table set for 30. Just below the house, surrounding it like flower petals, are guest suites for Pigozzi’s intimates, who include Martha Stewart, Mick Jagger, Bono, director Brett Ratner (who gave him a role in the movie Tower Heist), and Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.
The buildings’ white terrazzo floors are all uncarpeted, in a concession to the island’s fauna. “You want to know, when you walk into a room, if there are any creepy crawlers on the floor,” Pigozzi says. (The island’s crickets, iguanas and land crabs are as oversized as Pigozzi’s hospitality.) Though the floors are bare, the walls are covered with elaborate artworks, including several monumental canvases from sub-Saharan Africa. For the past 20 years, Pigozzi has been assembling what is now one of the world’s greatest collections of contemporary African art. Some of it involves appropriation of mainstream images: There’s a black Mona Lisa and several recognizable Chinese propaganda posters, with Mao rendered as a black man. Appropriation is part of the game for Pigozzi, who volunteers that the glowing walls of his house are based on those of the Laban center, a dance complex in London designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. “I don’t think they’re going to sue,” he says.
Architecturally, Pigozzi’s greatest influence was his friend and mentor Ettore Sottsass, who died in 2007. Sottsass commanded an Italian design group called Memphis, which brought riotous colors and mismatched patterns to interiors in America and Europe. Marco Zanini, a Sottsass protégé, helped design Pigozzi’s island house, as did Simón Vélez, a Colombian architect who creates elaborate structures from bamboo. Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect known for his cardboard structures, is going to build a new shade structure for the roof deck.
But Pigozzi’s ambitions extend far beyond the house itself. There are miles of roads on which his guests pilot a fleet of quad bikes (heavy-duty ATVs). There’s a floating pool attached to the yacht and more than a dozen small boats for trips to nearby beaches. (Pigozzi’s favorite launch, a 32-foot Munson Packcat, is named Limo.)
But it’s not all fun and games on Simca Island. The property is also home to the Liquid Jungle Lab, a research station established by Pigozzi and used by scientists from institutions like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Projects include taking unusually detailed measurements of underwater currents. “If we can anticipate these tidal movements, we can eventually use machines to make electricity, or predict weather patterns,” Pigozzi told Departures in 2007, adding, “Perhaps then I’ll get a knock on the door with a request to test a new type of rain gear or a less-polluting engine or a new shampoo based on monkey’s hair. That would make me very happy.” Another fringe benefit to having the lab is the direct access he gets to the scientists. “If you walk 100 yards alone, it takes about two minutes. If you walk that same 100 yards with a scientist, it could take up to four hours,” he says. He relishes their detailed explanations of the ecosystem.
For all of Pigozzi’s devotion to natural habitats, though, Simca’s carbon footprint is huge. It’s not hard to see why. Building the house involved moving materials (including 1,500 tons of steel from Houston, thousands of tiles from Italy, mountains of bamboo from Medellín, Colombia) by boat to his private harbor, then on a narrow-gauge railroad that climbs the steep hillsides below the house. The project recalled the hardships of constructing the Panama Canal, 150 miles south, a century ago. “It was a crazy idea to put the house on top of the hill; the beach would have been a lot easier,” he concedes. But easier isn’t his way. “I have to be doing a lot of things at once or I go crazy.”
It’s why he plans to start a foundation that will be modeled, in part, on the MacArthur “genius” grant, but for African artists. And it’s why he takes dozens of photos a day, which fill books like his 2010 volume Catalogue Déraisonné. And it’s why he has plans to turn honey produced by Panamanian bees into a gourmet brand.
And it’s why he founded LimoLand, a clothing line for large men. (Pigozzi, who is a hefty six feet three inches, once complained to Tom Ford when he couldn’t find anything that fit him in his store. And the designer responded that he didn’t care about fat guys, or so Pigozzi says.) The New York Times’sCritical Shopper provided a perfect description of the person who might wear LimoLand: “It helps to be rich enough to be willing to explode conventional ideas about fit, style and color palette. It helps to be rich enough that failure doesn’t matter.” This describes Pigozzi to a tee, but are there enough other customers like him? He has one LimoLand store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, where a photo of Jagger and L’Wren Scott on Pigozzi’s yacht greets visitors. He is talking with an Asian company about opening hundreds of additional locations. “We’re getting ready to invade the world,” he says.
If so, it will be an invasion by water. Pigozzi transformed an Italian fishing vessel into Amazon Express,a candy-colored pleasure palace. The ship’s captain, Mark Hancock, and his crew of more than a dozen, can position it anywhere in the world in advance of Pigozzi’s arrival; the boat has been his home in places as far-flung as Greenland and New Guinea.
It was from his yacht that Pigozzi first spied the land on Panama’s west coast that came to be his Eden. Altogether, he says, he made some 100 purchases to assemble his 13,546 acres.
Pigozzi’s world isn’t for the 99 percent, but it may become a bit more accessible. He is talking to a South African company about building a high-end ecolodge on the mainland portion of his estate. His goal isn’t to make money so much as to strengthen his claim to the property. The reality of owning a large parcel of land, he says, is that “people want to burn it, farm it, live on it. Unless you want to have barbed wire and machine guns, you have to be proactive; you have to have at least a little something going on.” In the meantime, he is building security outposts to fend off interlopers.
Pigozzi is also toying with the idea of renting out the island house (following the lead of other private-island owners like Sir Richard Branson and David Copperfield). “It’d be a great fat farm,” he says, “because you can’t run away to McDonald’s. And it’s perfect for a celebrity wedding. The paparazzi couldn’t get here.”
But it would be almost as hard for the guests to get there—Pigozzi’s private airstrip is too short for even the smallest jets, and it lacks lights for nighttime or inclement weather landings. There are also several helipads. The other way on and off the island is a small boat that makes the two-hour trip to Puerto Mutis—a minuscule fishing village linked by road to Panama City—three times a week. Who said heaven was easy to get to?
Another problem for potential renters: The house is a lot less fun without Pigozzi. The moment he left on a short jaunt to Los Angeles, this reporter, who was scheduled to depart the next morning, felt like someone had turned out the lights. Pigozzi’s presence is what animates the island; he glows as brightly as the house’s LEDs.
Jean Pigozzi: The Details
Pigozzi’s extensive contemporary African art collection can be viewed at caacart.com, which includes information about the artists. For more details on Pigozzi’s other projects, go to jeanpigozzi.com.
It’s not hard to feel like you may have stumbled into an episode of Lost on Isla Simca, and not just because of the howler monkeys. Their howl—a cross between a gang of barking dogs and a strong wind cutting through a canyon—bounces between the hills and valleys of this small private island off the Western coast of Panama.
Upon arriving, however, you’ll notice the surrealism of the island’s main complex. Perched up high in the center of the forest, rather than lounging lazily on the beach below, it looks as if Apple designed a tree house that was refurbished by a quirky nightclub owner and then invaded by an art collector. It is, in fact, the vision of Jean Pigozzi, an Italian philanthropist and photographer, whose joie de vivre infuses every corner.
In 2012, Pigozzi invited Abercrombie & Kent, a high-end experiential travel company that pairs adventure and luxury, to manage the property, which is now listed as a private charter. Essentially, you rent Pigozzi’s villa and get exclusive use of the 278-acres that surround it—17 private beaches included.
The main complex, which claims to house the largest collection of contemporary African art in the world, consists of a multi-level network of guestrooms (sleeping up to 36 comfortably), lookout decks, two salt-water pools and a cinema.
Though it blends in during the day, the house is unabashedly flamboyant at night: The walls literally light up in alternating blocks of red, green and blue; interior neon artwork adds a purplish glow. It’s as bright, brash and perplexing as it sounds, but it’s a further reminder that this isn’t some hotel styled to a generic sense of taste but rather the home of a man with very individual flair. And you are his guest.
Abercrombie & Kent spent the past year sprucing up the place—upgrading guest amenities, training new staff (a mix of locals and imports, all incredibly pleasant and helpful) and beefing up activities, which include miles of new walking and cycling trails, a herd of kayaks, a pack of jet skis and a “toy shed” of all-terrain vehicles (from which this writer promptly flung himself, becoming gracefully entangled in a thicket of vines).
Your guide to these gadgets and the surrounding wilderness is Garth Hovell, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent Panama, who is part Crocodile Dundee, part Indiana Jones and part Willy Wonka. He and his wife Lindsay (think Gwyneth Paltrow meets Mary Poppins) serve as your hosts and points of contact for every question from “what’s for dinner?” to “what’s that bird?”
A hike through Isla Simca or visit to the nearby national park island of Coiba (40 minutes by boat) with Garth is the entertaining, anecdote-fueled, educationally rich field trip you wish you had in high school. His gusto reawakens a long-lost, giddy sense of discovery.
(Scuba diving is also offered for a supplemental cost; the experience, led by Smithsonian-affiliated master diver Kevan Mantell, a gentle British ex-pat now living in Pixvae with a permanent tan, is a must.)
Lest you forget that you have chartered an island with staff, chef and an eye to luxury, there are moments to remind you. On occasion, you will turn a corner and stumble upon an elegantly set table on the lip of a white-sand beach or along the river in a mangrove forest with a large picnic lunch that includes salads, fish, meats and dessert. (House wine is included in the cost, though you’re welcome to bring your own. And back at the main house, a full bar is at your disposal.)
Most of the food served on Isla Simca is either grown on site or locally sourced or even self-caught (on a sundown fishing excursion, we reeled in a gorgeous 32-pound wahoo that became spicy fish tacos the next day). Isla Simca grows many of its own fruits and vegetables, raises its own chickens and ducks and even produces its own honey. Auntie Elvia bakes the fresh bread; her husband brings in the fresh seafood.
Nearly every meal was enjoyed al fresco. From just before Christmas to just after New Year’s, we had embarrassingly perfect weather; hardly a light sweater was needed in the evenings. As Garth put it, “The most boring thing about Panama is the weather,” which is true roughly from the end of December through mid-April, at peak season.
The experience overall feels like a cruise, safari and beach resort melded together. It can be a daiquiri-by-the-pool kind of vacation, but those with an appreciation for nature have a real garden of earthly delights within reach. The howler monkeys will make sure to remind you.
How to get there: To get to Isla Simca, you can fly into Panama City and charter a one-hour flight to a private, grass landing strip in the village of Pixvae (operated by Abercrombie & Kent); it is not recommended to drive from Panama City. From Pixvae, a half hour boat ride brings you to the island’s base. You can also yacht or helicopter in.
Climate: Peak season is mid-December through mid-April. May, June and July are still pleasant; August through November is the rainy season.
Cost: Determined by number of guests, length of stay and time of year. For more information or a quote, contact Ritz Strategy email@example.com