Volcan Baru: Panama’s highest point, our lowest hour
Volcan Baru in Chirique province is the highest mountain in Panama, and a dormant (though potentially active) volcano. Its main claim to fame, however, is that from its summit hikers can look west to the Pacific and east to the Atlantic in a single pan-oceanic view.
Sunrise atop Volcan Baru is said to be a photographer’s wet dream.
The hike up Volcan Baru lures people to Boquete from all over Central and South America. Depending on who you ask, it’s an easy (our guide) to insane (us) hike. But we didn’t know any of this when we traipsed into our hostel Tuesday afternoon.
Itchy from a too-long layover in the unremarkable city of David, Panama, we were on a natural high upon arrival in the fresh air filled adventurers’ paradise of Boquete. Beyond visiting a coffee farm we didn’t have a set plan. So when the courtyard message board announced, “Hike Volcan Baru! See the sun rise over the Atlantic AND Pacific!! Tour leaves at 2am!!! Only 2 places left!!!!”, conversation went thus:
Me: BOTH oceans! ONE view! Let’s!
Cliff: …a HIKE for $45 EACH? Our Panama budget is $60 a DAY….
The guide revealed that this was the only night of our stay that the hike would be offered. The terrain was benign, the views stunning, and we could easily hike in the shorts and sandals we had on.
Cliff felt a little under the weather and that night I dabbled with my first food poisoning of the trip. But when the 1:30 am alarm stirred us from the nap we were pretending to take, we decided to chase the sunrise.
On a 19km hike. At 2 am.
Hiking in the dark sounds romantic, in a John Muir kind of way. Coming back down the very steep, even rockier trail in the morning, daylight reveals that hiking Volcan Baru in the dark is an abusive romance.
Cliff calls it the most dangerous hike he’s ever taken. I just remember feeling like I was in the waning hours of a three-day bender—my headlamp induced tunnel vision the only thing powering me onwards.
The hours-long vertical assault was grueling. At the top, Volcan Baru was so cold and foggy that even though we couldn’t see one—let alone two—ocean views, crying just wasn’t an option. In leu of sprawling views there was a sprawling cluster of cell phone and radio tours.
It was too cold to rest long, so we turned around and hiked back down.
So, was it worth it?
If you’re inclined to tackle nature’s every challenge, then hiking Volcan Baru is worth it. But do it for the climb, not for the view—the climate we experienced has to be more common than not. And neither a guide, nor doing the trek in the middle of the night are worth it. However, paying for a 4WD ride partway up the trail, and bringing someone to hike with are both very good ideas.
This is what the view from the summit is supposed to look like. It’s a fun tool—scroll fast enough, and you can even give yourself a good case of the food poisoning effect!!
In contrast, this is what we saw: