Highest Point in Panama, and the Trip's Highlight

The first guide wouldn't go because of the earthquakes, the second wouldn't go because of the lightning, I started the hike at midnight...


Highest Point in Panama, and the Trip's Highlight

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by buzz_1919 on October 23, 2006






Altitude:

At 11,400 feet, Volcan Baru's peak is the highest point in Panama. Boquete, in the valley of Baru, is a wonderful town and well worth the trip regardless of whether the hike is done. However, I can honestly say that it was the best part of my entire trip to Panama.
Being the only person on the mountain that day (and week actually), watching the sunrise and seeing both the Caribbean and Pacific from one spot was awesome. I highly suggest to anyone capable, who travels to Panama: make a point of going to Boquete for 3-4 nights, and do a night hike up Volcan Baru to see the sunrise.

This volcano (which hasn't erupted in 500 years) is also the only Volcano in Panama. Despite being labeled "dormant", many locals around Boquete will talk of eruption. In fact, the day I arrived in Boquete there was an earthquake measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale and rumors started flying about the smell of sulfur in the Rio Caldera.

The local paper, Critica ran a story regarding the seismic activity and finding a guide that would hike to the top with me was impossible due to the talk around town.


Setting

The scenery during the hike changes from rolling grass-covered hills to dense jungle to exposed rocky cliffs. At the 9km mark, there is a view of one of the craters, which is quite impressive. An hour from the top, after the moon had set and before any light from the sun was visible; I saw more stars than I have ever seen before.
When the sun started to rise, beautiful colors of purple, orange, pink and red appeared. The sky slowly ramped from black to blue while the clouds dissipated and re-formed due to the temperature changes caused by the rising sun. It is hard to put into words how amazing it was to watch this new day begin. I have seen sunrises before, but none compares to that witnessed at the top of Baru.

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What To Bring

The hike is described in guidebooks as "strenuous" and warns that those who take the hike lightly will get hurt. There is no water on the way, so it is important to bring enough (I took 3 liters). I also took the advice of friends and packed some fig newtons and apples. The books also say that most hikers can reach the top in 6 hours, and then return in 5.

What To Expect

I touched the cross at the top after 4 hours, 8 minutes, and took about the same amount of time getting down. Falling is just about unavoidable, and the rain from the previous day made for a slippery slope in some spots. To reach the absolute peak (where the cross is), it is necessary to use your hands and do some "light" rock climbing.

Honestly, the hike up was not as tough as I expected; I found the trip down to be harder (especially on my knees). I should note that a friend of mine tried the hike 3 weeks later and turned back about 3/4 of the way up. This was a surprise to me since this friend is 26, in great shape, and hikes frequently.For me, this hike was more mental than physical. Alone in a foreign country, hiking at night, up a volcano, after an earthquake – that was what made this hike tough (and extremely rewarding). Guides are available to escort you, but in my opinion are not necessary.


When To Go

The main reason for this hike is to see both the Caribbean and Pacific. If you don’t reach the peak before 9AM, you will probably only see clouds. In order to have a clear view from the summit, leave early (or as I did, at midnight).${BestWay}
To & From The Trail

I was able to find a taxi at midnight to take me to the east entrance, but I got lucky. The town of Boquete shuts down early, so make your arrangements before it’s too late.

Very important: ask the taxi driver to pick you back up at a specified time (allow for 10-14 hours). I didn’t think about this and paid dearly. I ended up having to hike the additional 8 miles back to my hostel. This hurt, bad.
To make matters worse, I took what I deemed to be the more direct route (which is through the farmlands). This route affords no opportunities for hitchhiking since there is no traffic and the farmers are busy working. So if you find yourself without a ride down, take the main (curvy) road, as it is more likely to have cars.


The Hike

On the trail there are signs about every 4km stating the distance to La Cima (the top) – if you don’t see a sign for 6km start to worry (there are opportunities to get off-track). I stopped twice for 10 minutes on the way up and 4 times on the way down, changing my socks once.
The trail is very steep in some parts and I stubbed my toe pretty bad (it is still partly black, after 5 months); so a walking stick may prove helpful. The hike is published to be 22km, but another hiker (with GPS), mapped it to be 27km. The elevation change is a little over a mile, at a pretty steady slope (there are a few downhill sections on the way up).

The trail is actually a rocky, rutted, steep road for service to the communications towers at the top. It is possible to drive a 4x4 up the road, but a winch is suggested and I could see why.

This hike is safer tackled with a partner, but was extremely rewarding done solo.


Part 3: Heading down

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by buzz_1919 on October 23, 2006





Heading Down:

On the way up Baru I was racing the sun in order to see that sunrise. Going down, I was racing something else. Around 2PM in Boquete it rains - and it rains a lot. I definitely wanted to get down the volcano and back to my hostel before the skies opened up. So when it was about 9AM I decided I better start heading back down. My legs felt pretty good and I figured going down had to be easier than going up - right?
I took one final look out at the beautiful green valley below where I was now headed and scanned across and up to the Caribbean. Scanning further over to the left I could make out the coast of the Pacific Ocean and I took another minute to just stare at that view. With the sun up, the beautiful skies lit, and that wonderful feeling of accomplishment - it was impossible not to smile as a made my way back down the narrow trail from the cross to the main service road for the communication towers.


A Little Pain

I made my way carefully down the loose-rock road past a rest station and stopped just for a moment to snap some pictures of the peak. Getting my MP3 player out of my backpack (which I didn’t dare listen to on the way up for fear of the puma sneaking up on me), I switched on Cake and continued down the trail. Sipping water as I went, stopping a few times to enjoy the scenery, and thinking about what I would do when I got back to Boquete I slowly started to feel the pain in my left knee.
It wasn’t bad at first, just a little discomfort when I would step down hard due to the steep decline. But about 2 miles down from the top, pain accompanied each step. I slowed my pace and started to favor my left leg, which gave some relief – I turned off the MP3 player. I turned a corner and up ahead saw a huge mud puddle in the middle of the road. I remembered having to get past this puddle on the way up – but it didn’t seem like that tough of a task at the time. Looking at the puddle now I was pretty impressed with my night-hike abilities and actually had a harder time getting past it in daylight.


Not Scared Now

Around another turn I came across a very large bird sitting at the side of the road. This was the type of bird that the locals had told me about – the one that I had heard while hiking up. The bird has a very strange call, which sounds like a purring cat – not something you want to hear hiking alone in the jungle at night. In the light of day however, I could now laugh at myself for having been so paranoid.


Pleasure Spiked With Pain

Just heading down one of the steep paved sections of the road, I jammed my toe up against the front of my boot and man did it hurt! I have stubbed my toe before on furniture at home but nothing like this! As I am writing this (5 months after the hike), my toenail is still black. My pace no longer mattered, every step I took sent terrible pain through my left leg. I hoped the slope would soon soften out to a reasonable grade, but it was relentless – this was way worse than going up.
To try and keep my mind off the stinging in my knee, I looked around as I continued down. A couple times I slipped on the loose rock and was just able to keep myself from falling completely. The scenery was absolutely spectacular. I stopped every so often to get some pictures of the jungle around me, and of the Boquete valley below. It was a beautiful day, marred only by the internal tears caused by that unyielding slope.
About 3 miles from the entrance, I passed through the clouds as they made their way up the volcano. Passing through the mist was magical, but unfortunately none of the pictures I took during those amazing moments came out right (only an engineer would actually think that taking pictures inside a cloud would work - duh). Just beyond the clouds, I came up on a remarkable old fence and stunning wildflowers and again stopped to get some shots.
My spirit lifted at the awesome scenery and the knowledge that I was close to the end of my journey. With only a mile to go, my knee even started to feel a little better and I again listened to my MP3 player.


How Much Further?

I have no one else to blame but myself – but I will complain anyway. When I got back down to the entrance I realized I was in trouble. Not only had I not made arrangements for someone to pick me up, but also there was no one around to ask for a ride. I decided to head down a road that seemed to go to straight to Boquete, flanked on both sides by farmland. I talked to a few farmers as I continued down the road and asked for rides. Problem was, no one had a vehicle, and if they did, they were too busy farming to give me a ride.
At least a dozen times I had the same conversion with someone new: Do you have a car and can you give me a ride to town? How much further is it? The answers I got were: "siento, no." and "poquito mas". Well, it turns out that "poquito mas" in English means "8 more dreadful downhill miles". My legs at this point were numb and I had pretty much conceded to the idea that I would get absolutely drenched very soon.


Hostel Sweet Hostel

Amazingly, it just barely started to sprinkle when I reached town. I was able to get to my hostel before it started pouring and collapsed on my bed at about 2PM. Hours later, I awoke to take my boots off and inspect my toe, before falling again into a deep sleep. Later that evening, I got up to get some food, limping the entire way, excited to tell others of my adventure.

Part 2: Heading Up

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by buzz_1919 on October 23, 2006





Heading Up:

The hike starts steep, and doesn’t let up. After about 100 yards, I was out of breath, clutching the straps of my backpack, staring straight down and wondering how much further I would go before I would give up.
The coolness of the night didn’t prevent the sweat from completely soaking my t-shirt, but I didn’t mind the dampness. After about an hour of hiking, my legs felt good with that familiar burn in the calves received while playing hockey. Happy that I felt this good after hiking such a steep slope for so long, I cheerfully started to whistle. My breath quickened and I was reminded of the altitude change I was undergoing, I stopped whistling.


Rest Stop

I decided to stop for a snack and to change my socks about 2 hours into the hike. I sat on a log for about 10 minutes, downing some fig newtons and an apple. After this rest, about 10 steps more up the volcano I felt my legs start to tire. They had been rewarded with some down-time and they wanted more. I ignored the dull pain and kept going, this wasn’t that bad – I was going to make it to the top!


Imaginary Puma

Being alone on this hike at night was quite frankly, scary. Part of the reason I kept going was that noises spurred my imagination, preventing me from stopping. Visions of a puma, following close behind helped to maintain my pace up the mountain.

Rustling in the jungle caused my already fast-beating heart to race. At one point, my flashlight caused the brilliant red eye-shine of an animal to appear in the trail ahead of me. I froze as the chills went through my body from my feet to me head and back down. The creature, about two feet tall I would guess, just stared back at me, probably more scared of me than I was of it… probably. It moved away after a minute and I waited a minute longer before thoughts of something from behind got me started back up the trail.


Scared Of The Dark

The trail maneuvers in and out of the dense jungle canopy, providing minutes of light from the moon followed by the pitch black of the jungle. While hiking in the moonlight, I turned the flashlight off in order to save precious battery life. I should have brought extra batteries, but looking back now, hiking up by moonlight was really cool and I am glad for those times when the artificial light was off.
Soon enough though, up ahead I would see the thick jungle approaching, the blackness of the trail seemed like an approaching tunnel. My pace probably slowed each time I saw that tunnel ahead, but my feet kept moving, and the flashlight clicked on 2 steps before entering the darkness.

The darkness within the jungle was thick, and the small flashlight provided little help. Sounds seemed to be magnified by the inability to make out objects clearly, and more of the sweat now came from fear rather than the humidity. As slow as I must have entered the covered areas, I must have exited that much faster. As soon as the gray light of the moon was visible up ahead my hopes seemed to soar and confidence was restored – only to be mocked again by the next patch of black.

About every 30 minutes or so, I would come across a power pole. For some reason, seeing these poles made me feel safe. I laugh at myself now, but those power poles probably helped me get to the top! I reached the spot where I could see the communication towers after about 3 hours, 45 minutes, and decided to again take a quick break.
Elated that I had made the journey this far, thoughts of the view I would soon see played out in my mind. I looked up, and was blown away by the number of stars in the sky. I had seen pictures like this, but never with my own eyes – absolutely breath-taking! I quickly ascended to the top, using my hands in some places to get to where the 8’ tall white cross is.


Victory!

I touched the cross at the same time pressing the stop button on my stopwatch. 4 hours, 8 minutes, 35.72 seconds. I dropped my bag at the side of the cross, set the camera on the ground aimed at the cross, hit the 10 second delay and walked over to get in the frame. I had done it!
The overwhelming feeling of accomplishment drowned out the dull throbbing in my legs. I sat, rested, and waited for the sunrise – huddled in my parka at the foot of the cross.

Part 4: My Legs are Killing Me!

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by buzz_1919 on October 23, 2006





Psych'd To Go:

I have done very little hiking in my life, and what I have done; I would consider "light" hiking. At 27, I am in good shape - I play hockey, ride my mountain bike about 20-40 miles once a week, and exercise my fingers on the keyboard at least 8 hours a day. When I decided that I would make a stop in Boquete with the intent of hiking Volcan Baru, most of my friends thought I was nuts.

I read very little about the hike before I went – a little from the Lonely Planet guidebook (which turned out to be pretty faulty information) and a little online, but not enough to scare me off. So despite the pleading of my mother, and the criticism of my co-workers, I decided to do the hike. In an attempt to "force" myself to make it to the top – I told as many people as I could about what I was setting out to do. This way, I could rely on the old "don’t want to look like a wimp" if I hit the wall on the way up.


Pushed By Fear

Leaving at midnight, hiking by flashlight, alone, with all the jungle sounds you can imagine gave me a little extra boost on the way up. It seemed like every time I started to slow in an attempt to provide a little relief for my legs I was spurred on with a rustle in the jungle behind me. The slope is relentless, with very, very little downhill sections. I would equate the hike to about 4 hours of quick-paced stair climbing.
Stopping twice on the way up was absolutely necessary, and I would have stopped more if I wasn’t in such a hurry to get to the top to see the sunrise (and wasn’t so scared of the puma I was sure was hunting me). Each time I stopped, when I started back up the volcano my legs groaned in stiff pain, reminding me that I was using muscle groups that I don’t normally use. Hockey is rough on the calves, but this hike was rough on the whole leg.


The Decent

"Going down has got to be easier", I said before leaving the states, discussing the hike with my friends. "You’ll see", they responded – boy did I ever! I passed the rest station about half a mile down from the peak and thought to myself "nah, I don't need to rest". Well, let me tell you - going down hurt. I mean hurt! It seemed like each knee-popping, toe-jamming, hip-jarring step would be the last one taken before collapsing and trying to roll the rest of the way down. My pace going down matched the pace going up, not because it was at all monitored and controlled – the slope and trail condition dictated the pace.
About 3/4 of the way down, I stubbed my toe bad against the front of my boots, winced in pain, but kept moving. When I reached the bottom, to my horror I realized that the hike was not yet finished. Finding the shortest route back to Boquete, I headed out searching desperately for a ride to the bottom. The long road back to Boquete was paved and had a steady downward slope that didn’t help with the pain in my legs. Amazingly, I found sweet relief in a short section of uphill walking! I found myself wishing that I was going up, instead of down.


The Pain Train
I stopped along the side of the road in the farmland area outside Boquete and sat on a log for 5-10 minutes giving my legs a rest and my toe some downtime. When I arose and started back down the road I realized that I would not be able to stop again before I reached my hostel – my legs were killing me! I was actually scared that I would not make it back and I knew at this point that I was looking at hours if not at least a day of rest before I could walk without a heavy limp.
Determination set in to replace the fear of not making it back to that wonderful uncomfortable bed in Hostal Boquete that I was now longing for. I became like a robot, ignoring the painful electric bolts that accompanied each step I took. I focused 10 feet ahead of me and did not dare try to guess how many miles were left.


Light At The End Of The Tunnel

I soon noticed that people were around me, and I was back in town. I made my way across the square at my robotic pace and turned into my hostel. Funny thing is, after all that, I now had to climb up the ladder-type stairway leading to my room. Getting my legs to move in the manner my brain was telling them to proved almost impossible as I tried to climb that stair. I was so glad the housekeeper of the hostel was not there to laugh at my attempt to make it to the room.
I closed the door, dropped my pack, and collapsed on the bed – waking up hours later to painfully remove my boots before again falling into sweet, deep slumber. It will be a long time before I get more satisfaction from sleeping in a bed than the one I slept in after that Baru hike!


Part 1: Where there's a will...

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by buzz_1919 on October 23, 2006





Tony The Guide:

I arrived in Boquete in the morning and was greeted by Tony, a guide who was born in Panama City, but lived in Texas for many years and speaks perfect English. Tony was a nice guy; age 30-something, acts 19, but knows a lot about the area. His Tacoma is parked at the central park area of Boquete and he charges $20-$60 for various hikes around Boquete.
Problem with Tony is that he drinks, and he does it well – so reliable is not a word I would use to describe Tony.


The Plan

The earthquake was a 4.6, enough to scare two guides out of taking me to the top of the Volcano – but Tony was up for it. We set the hike up for the following night, leaving around 2AM (his recommendation).

The day before the hike, I went white-water rafting, with the intent of eating dinner afterward and then going to sleep before waking up at 2AM for the hike. When I returned from the white-water rafting trip at 3PM, I called Tony from the pay phones in the town square to verify the time – no answer.
I went and ate, and gave Tony another call around 4PM – no answer. I went back to my hostel and packed my bag for the hike, I killed some more time talking with some locals, then I called Tony again at 5PM – no answer.


Starting To Worry

My schedule didn’t allow for wiggle room for this hike – so I started to get a little nervous. There was no way that the excuse of "the guide wouldn’t answer the phone" was going to fly with my friends back home – I had to do this hike, come on Tony, where are you?!?!

Finally, at 7PM, Tony answered his phone. He was in David, would be in Boquete in 40 minutes, and would come to my hostel. Tony showed up 75 minutes later and told me that a lightning storm was rolling in from Bocas del Toro and he wasn’t going to do the hike that night. Disappointed, I agreed that it wouldn’t be done and went up to my room to read and try to decide what I would do instead the next day.


Lightning Shmlightning

At about 9PM, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t scared of a little electricity – besides, how many more opportunities would I have to hike up a volcano and capture both the Pacific and Atlantic in one panorama picture? I’ve forgotten to shut the breaker off when changing out a light switch… voltage doesn’t scare me!

I called Tony back and told him that I was going to do the hike myself, and asked him for a ride to the entrance at 11:30 – he warned against it, but agreed to give me the ride. With only 2.5 hours till the hike, and with the adrenaline starting to pump, I couldn’t sleep, so I just stayed up and read.

11:30 came… 11:40… dangit Tony! I called again and it immediately when to his voicemail – I am sure that Tony was passed out, with his phone turned off. I politely stated exactly what I thought about Tony to the wall and then looked around for a ride.


Taxi!!!

Boquete is the most beautiful, peaceful, quiet place at midnight - there was no one… I mean no one. I walked to the local supermarket (which was surprisingly still open) and saw a cab! I found the driver and asked for a ride to the entrance, he agreed but said he needed to give two girls a ride home first.

Feeling sorry for me, the girls said I could ride with them and even told the driver to drop me off first (probably cause I stunk). We drove for 10 minutes up a winding, paved road that turned to dirt and after a few more minutes the driver stopped and happily said "ok!"
I looked out up the dirt road, pointed and said "aqui?" – "si, si" he said. So I got out, checked my flashlight, waved, and started my journey up Volcan Baru, looking back once at the dimming taillights of the taxi.


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