Barely 37km from the border of Costa Rica is Panama’s tallest mountain, Volcán Barú. At just under 3,500m, it’s still considered high altitude but is really just a molehill compared to 6,000m tall mountains of Andes. Volcán Barú is commonly climbed for the rare possibility of seeing both the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean sea to the north. It’s rare because the view to the Caribbean is often blocked by a layer of clouds.
There’s two ways to the top of Volcán Barú, either taking a 4×4 vehicle tour or to hike. The hike is difficult and long at 13km from the trailhead to the peak (with a 1,750 climb in altitude) before 13km back again. What makes it a challenge is most people begin climbing at midnight, aiming to see the sunrise from the summit after walking 6 hours in the dark. Hiking 26km makes for a long day at the best of times, but beginning at midnight makes it just nasty. I even tried to nap in the afternoon, but only managed an hour, which was nowhere near enough.
Getting to the trail head is fairly easy, with one of the hostels offering transport for US$5. Then after a very short briefing, we were pointed off along a wide track and told to just keep climbing no matter what forks in the trail we see. Except for 3 short descents, the 13km was a steady climb along the wide rocky trail. When you’re hiking at night all you have is your head torch and the ground directly ahead of you to look at.
We were lucky to be walking under the full moon, so it wasn’t always necessary to use the head lamps. But even in daylight there would be little to see, as there are trees along both sides of the trail. We did come to several locations where we looked down upon the township of Boquete. The lights were beautiful but fleeting and too distant for good photos.
Getting to the summit for sunrise was not my aim, so I took is more slowly. When sunrise did hit, I was still half a kilometre from the summit but was able to watch it, seeing the same view as I would have from the top.
Unfortunately it was around this point where altitude sickness struck. It felt like someone had split my head in half and prodded at the insides with their fingers. As I climbed the last of the trail to the radio tower buildings at the top it grew worse and I started to feel ill.
The last 500 metres was steeper than the rest and when I made it to the top I found the howling wind rough. I found a secluded spot and put on some warm clothing. When dressed, I looked around the buildings and took photos of the surrounds.
To the south was the city of David and the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui beyond.
To the west, Costa Rica.
On the other side, I discovered the buildings were not at the absolute summit, as there was a rocky outcrop that climbed perhaps 30m higher. To get to the top was a rocky scramble, but with the state of my head and stomach I decided against it. The cross on top is the highest point in the country.
From the northern side of the summit I was out of luck with seeing the Caribbean sea but instead clouds fading away into the distance.
While I sat huddled out of the wind, one of the girls from my hostel found me and sat with me while I brewed a cup of tea using my hiking stove.
The walk down was very long but straightforward. The trail descends for most of its length except for three points where it climbs. Half way up the first and longest of the three climbs, my tiredness gave out and I lay down on a large rock for a power nap, letting my friend walk on alone. I woke forty minutes later slightly refreshed and no longer feeling the altitude.
The rest of the walk was more of a stagger although I did manage to catch my friend again. We discovered there were many wild flowers growing along the trail but was too exhausted to take photos beyond this one…
We passed some of the lookouts and caught daylight glimpse of Boquete…
We eventually made it to the end of the trail and exhausted, booked a taxi through the ranger before being whisked away back to the hostel for a shower and a well deserved sleep.
Overall, the hike up Volcán Barú was okay. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t suffered altitude sickness at the end and if we’d started at a more reasonable time. While walking at night was fine – it’s cooler out of the sun and there isn’t much to see anyway – the main difficulty is the length. To make the hike more enjoyable, I would make it a two-day hike, camping just below the summit, climbing to see the sunrise early on morning two before the long walk back again.
The Lone Trail Wanderer.
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