Boquete and a Tour of Volcan Baru

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We arrived in Boquete a week ago and similar to San Cristobel de las Casas in Mexico, it has proved to be one of those places on our trip which we have temporarily adopted as home and is proving difficult to leave! We feel good here. Boquete is a small country town nestled in a picturesque valley in the northern region of Panama. It is an eccletic mix of European and North American retirees, travellers and indigeneous mountain people. The vistas cycling into the town were breathtakingly beautiful with Volcan Baru hovering immediately overhead. We were not surprised to hear that there is a Swiss colony here as it has a distinct alpine feel. 

A fellow cyclist, Gary, recommended a newly opened hostal called Mamallena, run by a very charasmatic Panamian called Miguel and what a gem of a place. Mamallena is an old wooden house bursting with character in the centre of Boquete. We felt at home from the moment we arrived and have met some real characters here. This was to become our base for our 7 day sojourn in Boquete. Mamallena is without doubt the best place we have stayed on our trip to date.

We soon discovered there were so many things we wanted to do in Boquete and we had time to spare before our Colombia boat trip on 10th May. Our first morning was spent enjoying the Caldera Hot Springs to relax our sore cycling legs following our epic mountain rides in previous days. One of our main reasons for making the slight detour to Boquete was to climb Volcan Baru and camp at the summit of the volcano overnight to witness the sunrise.  

The ascent to Volcan Baru …
Volcan Baru is located at an altitude of 3,474 metres and is the highest mountain in Panama. On a clear day it affords views of both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and is apparently the only place in the world where this is possible.  

And so with fresh legs from the hot springs the previous day, we set off on our 13.5km hike to Volcan Baru equipped with warm clothes, a tent and food. We checked in at the ANAM ranger station at 1,800metres and set off along a steep dirt road. The ´road´, closely resembling a steep river bed, climbed steadily and within about an hour we had entered a green and lush cloud forest. The road is also used to serve the dozen or so communication antennas near the top. Only the toughest 4×4’s can make it to the summit. We met 2 such 4×4’s on our way up and it is a job in itself to get those things up there.

The hike was strenuous but not technically difficult on the ascent and was a comfortable enough climb up for us with our rucksacks. Closer to base camp, we spotted one of the volcanos seven craters through the vegetation. We made it to ´base camp’, 1km short of the top in just over 4 hours  before night started to close in on us and just in time to catch glimpses of the sun descending. We had gained about 1400mtrs in elevation and the effects of altitude were beginning to hit us with depleted oxygen levels, our bodies had to work extra hard to compensate for this.

We put up the tent inside a wooden shack and reheated our precooked dinner on our MSR stove. It was such a clear night and the stars were plentiful. We could clearly see the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. After some star gazing, we settled into our tent for the night. It was only 8pm but we were ready for bed. We had an early start. The alarm was set for 3.45am!

We jumped out of our tent with excitement and anticipation the following morning at 4am and gathered our belongings to make the final 1km climb to the summit of the volcano in time for sunrise.

We made it to the top just after 5am and prepared breakfast in the dark feeling fulfilled with our accomplishment. We expected to see fellow hikers on the summit as sunrise approached as many people make the ascent during the night in time for sunrise. Much to our delight, we soon realised that we were the only people there, which made it even more special. The volcano was ours!

The Summit …
At 3474 meters, the view was remarkable. The valleys below were blanketed by forest. We had clear views of the Pacific side but it was difficult to make out the Caribbean Ocean among the haze and cloud with fluffy white clouds contrasting against the stunning forest greens. The sun was slowly rising and we could see the bright morning light strewn among the valleys below and the silhouette of the mountain ranges in the distance. It was silent apart from the strong wind that was blowing around us. We sat there for at least an hour marveling in the raw beauty of it all and feeling a natural high. The pictures tell the rest ..


After savouring the majestic views, we commenced our descent, this time going down the back of the volcano, a route not often attempted. This was not for the faint hearted and definitely not for someone with vertigo, like me! It was quite a technical descent and was much harder on the legs and knees due to the steepness. It soon dawned on me that we were essentially descending down a mountain. The start of the descent consisted of a steep climb down some big rocks for 30 minutes. This was followed by a scramble down loose volcanic ash and scree with cables to assist on the way down before reaching a jungle. We thought at that point we would reach the road soon after as we had already been walking for 3 hours .. not to be. The path continued to wind its way deep into a forest and steep ascents and descents were to follow until we finally broke out into the daylight sunshine. The only clue we were on track were subtle markings on the trees, fresh footprints and ,sadly, chocolate bar wrappers en route.

Martin was a natural effortlessly gliding from rock to rock like a mountain goat and would have made it down in 2.5 hours if he wasn´t holding my hand for most of it. Suffice it to say that the route back was long and scary, for me anyway. We reached the road to Volcan after a tough 6-7 hour hike. We rested our weary bodies in a basic posada in the country town of Volcan, where we spent the night. We would have slept in a bush that night we were so exhausted. Despite my vertigo on the way down, the trek to and from the summit of Volcan Baru was a most fantastic and memorable experience. I felt proud to have done what I did.

Alastair was very much in our thoughts in the mountains. 

The Quetzal Trail
The countryside surrounding Volcan and Cerro Punto is spectacular, filled with abundant flowers, Swiss chalets with hummingbirds buzzing around. It has to be seen to be believed. The region is the epicentre for agricultural production and supplies much of Panama with their produce. 

We were headed for the Quetzal Trail, reputed to be one of the most scenic treks in Panama. The trail is also one of the best places to spot the rare quetzal, the Mayan bird of paradise. We didn´t manage to catch sight of one on the hike. The trail runs around the northern side of the volcano and would bring us back ‘home’ to Boquete. The start of the trail plunges down a steep valley, eventually meeting the Río Caldera. It is a pleasant 4-5 hour hike, mostly downhill, through spectacular cloud forest. The rain started to close in and following 3 days of tough hiking, our legs were beginning to give way. We knew we had at least another 4km walk ahead of us on the road.

As luck would have it we met a coffee farmer with Welsh parents close to the end of the trail with a pick up truck. We could not have wished for anything more at that point as we were exhausted, wet and hungry. He offered us a lift to Boquete. We climbed unsteadily into the back of his pick up truck, exhausted but relieved. In typical panamanian / central american style he stopped at every finca en route which proved to be an adventure in itself. A whole series of events began to unfold including meeting his son, stopping off at his other son’s trout and salmon farm and finally his own coffee finca. He then modestly informed us that his coffee won second prize in a coffee competition in the US that weekend. He offered  us coffee beans, tamraillos (tree tomatoes) and blackberries from his farm before dropping us back to the door of our hostel. He said he hoped to see us again.

 

Back at the hostel ..

We were glad to get back to the hostel and I was particularly pleased to finally have my feet on terra firma again.  We felt a real sense of accomplishment when we looked up at the mightiness of the volcano from down below. We had conquered it. We came back to some old and new faces at the hostel. The 3 day hike left us unable to walk properly for a number of days. We smiled to ourselves when we saw the perplexed look of travellers as we told them our cycle story and we hobbled away.

Saturday we celebrated Martin’s birthday. We spent the morning in Paradise Gardens, an animal sanctuary. That evening, we decided we deserved a treat so splashed out on a 3 course meal in the evening at Panamonte Hotel and had one of the best meals we have had in a long time. As luck would have it, the bar next door was offering a free bottle of champagne to anyone whose birthday was in April. We happily accepted the bottle of champagne while listening to a live Jazz band in the background. I think he had a fun birthday 🙂

Martin and the mountains …
The past few days I have been beyond impressed by Martin´s fearless nature in the mountains. I secretly envy how he seems to effortlessly work his way through the terrain, yet safety is always at the forefront of his mind.  It is defnitely a second home for him. I appreciated his patience while coaxing me to cross yet another ledge on the descent. He is meant to be in the mountains.

We leave Boquete tomorrow but we will not forget our time here. Our journey to Panama City starts and South America is now fast becoming a reality. Panama has so far been full of surprises and anyone seeking a new holiday destination should definitely consider a trip here.

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