Volcán Barú is the highest mountain in Panama, so naturally we wanted to be at the top. When I told the girl at the hostel desk if we could get directions to the volcano, she seemed surprised that we were going hiking during the day. Many people join guided hikes that start in the middle of the night so they can watch the sunrise from the top.
We left early, because we had read that it is a long climb, and we were hoping to get to the top before the clouds obscured the view too much, and so we wouldn't get caught in rain or darkness on the way down.
You can take a bus to the trailhead, but we had our car so we drove the 10 kilometers or so to the volcano. We parked on a side road with a bunch of other cars where the pavement ends and the steep graveled incline begins.
That initial climb to the ranger station was a doozy. It's quite steep, and already my boyfriend was saying that if the whole hike was like that, it wasn't going to be much fun.
We signed in with the ranger and paid $5 each before getting on our way. The next many steps (I'm terrible at guessing distances) were just as steep as the first part, and my boyfriend's knee started to hurt (he has a history of some trouble with that joint). Not a good start, but the good news is that it does level out a bit -- the whole climb isn't as brutal as that first kilometer.
As we climbed, we were passed by several four-wheel-drive vehicles full of passengers and luggage. Cheaters!
We passed a sign that said we had gone three kilometers and had 10.5 to go to the top. This news was somewhat devastating, because it felt like we had been hiking for quite a while. Update on the knee: starting to really hurt.
Onward and upward. A couple of the Cheaters we had passed while they were sitting and snacking after their long, hard Jeep ride hiked right past us -- but sweating all the way.
We passed the seven kilometer marker, but my boyfriend's knee was not holding up well. It was looking like we would have to turn around. After another kilometer or so, we did.
Which is, of course, incredibly disappointing. We went so far, but not quite far enough to be rewarded with those rich views from the highest point in Panama. At the same time, my legs were pretty tired, and we still had those eight kilometers to backtrack on -- anyone who hikes knows that the downhill can be worse than the uphill, especially those steep parts on tired legs.
On the way down, we passed several people stopping for breaks, and several people plowing ahead full force. We got out our spare plastic bags and filled them with the garbage we found along the trail -- it only took about two kilometers to completely fill both bags.
Our more-than-half mountain round trip took five hours, and we weren't exactly poking along. The full trip would have certainly taken all day. We were glad to have lots of water, apples, and granola bars, even though the backpack was heavy (you just have to eat faster!). We also each packed long pants and a sweatshirt; the wind up there gets pretty chilly. And especially if you're a girl, don't forget the toilet paper!
We're not novice hikers, and we're also both in pretty good shape. If it weren't for the knee, we would have gone all the way -- but it wouldn't have been easy. It was a challenging climb. It's now two days later and my calves are screaming sore.
If the top is more important to you than the trip up, go ahead and take a ride up as far as you can. If you love to hike but don't think you can do it for an entire day, there are lots of other, less challenging hiking opportunities around Boquete. If you're ready for the challenge, get up early and go. Even if you don't make it all the way, you'll appreciate the clearings in the trees that overlook a cloudy valley and the effort that gets you as far as you feel like going.