I had been putting off climbing the volcano for months. “I’m waiting for the dry season”, I would explain to other tourists when they asked why I hadn’t made the journey. Actually, I had encountered more than one weary and wet hiker complaining about the high winds and cold rain that made climbing the volcano 12 hours of misery. But when I was invited to go with three other hikers, I decided it was now or never.
When my alarm chimed at 5AM an internal battle was waged, “I’ll go tomorrow” promised one part of my semi-conscious brain as I rolled over and killed the annoying beep. “Get outta bed right now you lazy…” squeaked the other side of my drowsy mentality. I hesitated for a moment, waiting to see which part of me would prevail. Finally, after a few moments more of hesitation, I rose and grabbed my bag.
I was discouraged when I stepped outside and felt a rain drop. As usual in Boquete, I saw heavy clouds to the north and a clear sky to the south. When I arrived in the Boquete Central Park, my companions were nowhere to be found. Luckily, a taxi drove by and I jumped in only to meet an American girl heading for the trail to Volcan Baru. The taxi raced around the curvy dark streets for about 15 minutes (I think we were overcharged but it was too early in the morning to argue).
The road to the peak of Volcan Baru is used to service communication towers at the top. The road is rocky and only the toughest 4×4′s can make it to the summit. The road inclined steadily and within an hour we had entered a incredibly green and lush cloud forest. The sun had risen and we could see the bright morning light strewn among the canyons and valleys that carry the rivers and streams to the Pacific below.
Ali and I were engaged in conversation when she spotted a rainbow arcing between mountain and morning moon. The sky was clear and the rainbow seemed to be caused by tiny water droplets drifting through the crisp, cool air. All of the colors of the forest seemed vibrant with intense contrast against the deep blue sky.
As we rose in elevation, the air was noticeably thinner. I felt a euphoric high which was not disturbed by headache or dizziness as is often the case at high elevations. I simply felt incredibly happy and Ali and I giggled at the permanent smile attached to my face.
The forest grew larger and livelier, and we stopped several times to watch birds chirping overhead. Wildflowers of violet, red, yellow, and blue were scattered continuously along the road side as though they had been meticulously pruned and manicured by a professional landscaper. Peering into the forest I saw bark covered in moss and lichen and huge trunks topped with pointy green leaves. The thin air made the colors appear extra vivid.
My feet felt heavy as we struggled up the last 50 meters. There was a rocky ridge that required both hands and feet to climb to the top. It had taken more than 5 hours to get to the peak which is marked by an eight-foot white cross. At 3475 meters, the view was remarkable. The valleys below were so completely blanketed by unbroken forest it seemed as though if I leaped from the volcanic ledge, I would land in green pillowy softness. We snacked at the summit, feeling fulfilled with our accomplishment. Boquete appeared to us among cloud cover, but it was difficult to make out the Pacific Ocean among the haze and cloud below. To the north were fluffy white clouds contrasting against the stunning forest greens.
Before beginning our descent I decided to explore further along the ridge. In the distance I could see another lookout point and as the clouds parted, a fantastic green valley clawed dramatically down to the tiny village of Cerro Punta. I hollered to Ali and we both sat awestruck at the vista before us. Occasionally the clouds would part just enough to glimpse unfathomable distances.
It was a long road back and the loose rock was slippery in places. We trudged along and Ali nearly walked right over a snake which slithered to the road side as we approached. It had round patches of burgundy surrounded by a dull gray outline. The descent was long but gradual, and took just over four hours to reach the ranger station at the bottom. My legs were wasted, but my head was buzzing and my spirit felt exhilarated.
The trek to the summit of Volcan Baru was a most fantastic and memorable experience. My only regret was not bringing gear to camp the night to the see the sunrise between two oceans.
By Michael Manville
Written in 2001
Las Lajas – Las Lajas in the most popular beach destination in the Province of Chiriqui, Panama.
Volcan Baru – Volcan Baru is the highest peak in Panama offering incredible ocean views and spectacular cloud forest.
Santa Catalina – Santa Catalina has the best break in Panama for surfing.