If you’re planning a trip to the Central American nation of Panama and you consider yourself a hiking enthusiast, then summitting Volcan Baru should be on your Panamanian bucket list. Peaking at 3,474 meters above sea level, Volcan Baru is the tallest mountain in all of Panama, the 12th highest peak in all of Central America, and the most challenging hike in the country.
In addition to being the tallest mountain in the country, it is also the only place in the world where you can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean at the same time (with the exception of Cape Horn on the southern tip of Chile, which is not a mountain).
Volcan Baru is an active stratovolcano that last erupted around 400 or 500 years ago. While any local will tell you that Volcan Baru isn’t going to erupt, the truth is that scientists have registered seismic activity below the volcano that implies that it is still active.
Don’t let that discourage you from summitting this impressive peak. Volcan Baru is still not expected to erupt anytime soon.
On the eastern side of the volcano is the quaint town of Boquete and, on the western side, you’ll find the small communities of Cerro Punta and Volcan. Most people choose to begin their ascent up Volcan Baru by getting a shuttle bus from Boquete, but it’s possible to climb the volcano from the other side.
All of the information I’ve already given you can be found with a few quick searches on Google. However, knowing that Volcan Baru is a stratovolcano that lies 22 miles from the border of Costa Rica doesn’t really give you any insights into what the experience of hiking the volcano is actually like.
So, to give you an idea of what the journey up Volcan Baru is like and to help you decide whether or not you want to make the journey yourself, this was my experience of hiking Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest peak.
Before the Climb
I arrived in Boquete around nine o’clock in the evening feeling a bit tired. For whatever reason, the buses that brought me from the Lost and Found Hostel (which is about two hours from Boquete) did not have their interior lights on. This, combined with the fact that I had been partying rather late the night before, meant that I was rather sleepy when I arrived.
While most people planning to climb Volcan Baru book a hostel in Boquete and take a nap before beginning their ascent, I did not. I would learn the hard way that this was a mistake later.
Before climbing the mountain, I decided to meet up with some friends of mine at Blasina Beer Hostel and to enjoy a couple of beers at Boquete Brewing Company, the two of which are associated businesses located right next to each other. This was also a mistake.
As the hour neared to depart for the volcano, I came to the realization that I was probably slightly too intoxicated to embark on the most difficult hike in Panama. My friends convinced me to partake in a notoriously intense drinking game known as “Death Box” and another friend implored me to try some of his homemade basil-infused liquor. I’ve never been very good at letting people down in such circumstances.
However, as we all know, a few drinks can lead to extreme confidence. So, when the time came at 12:30 in the morning to hop on the shuttle bus to the foot of Volcan Baru (which is run from Blasina Beer Hostel), I got in without a second thought… and without a flashlight.
When we arrived at the trailhead and got out of the bus, I noticed that all of my fellow hikers (many of whom I had met before) were pulling out their headlamps and flashlights. I, on the other hand, having departed hastily from the Lost and Found Hostel and spending the time I probably should have spent prepping for a hike drinking in Boquete instead, did not have one. We then began to talk about what supplies we had brought with us and I realized that the three small packets of peanuts I had with me were probably not sufficient.
Don’t be like me. If you’re going to climb Volcan Baru in the middle of the night, you need a headlamp (with new batteries), a raincoat (in case it rains), at least three liters of water, three or four sandwiches (or the equivalent amount of food), clothing that will keep you warm in very cold weather, and clothing that you can change into that will keep you cool. You will be cold hiking up Volcan Baru and while you’re sitting on the top, but then you may get hot as you’re coming down.
Despite my lack of preparation, we started the walk up the mountain. It was completely dark except for the light cast from the headlamps of my colleagues. Since I did not have my own light, I had to stay close to the others or I’d have no clue where I was stepping.
On our way up, we chatted about this and that, trying to distract ourselves from the soreness in our legs. To be clear, the hike up the mountain is not too challenging for someone in decent shape. It’s long, but it’s not all that steep except for some points. If you begin your hike around 12:30 in the morning, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting to the peak by sunrise.
In the dark, you can’t see much of your surroundings but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to look at during your journey up Volcan Baru. The ever-present stars are absolutely mystifying in the absence of light pollution from the cities down below and get even more so as you climb further up the mountain.
Occasionally, you’ll also get occasional breaks in the foliage that allow you to peek down at the town of Boquete and its many lights. These sort of reminded me of what the bottom of the ocean might look like: pitch darkness speckled with bioluminescent fish. On the whole, the journey up the mountain was peaceful, long, and quite beautiful. However, that changed as we climbed the final mile or so to the peak.
Near the summit, we began to hear the rumbling of engines coming up from behind us on the trail. Soon, a pair of headlights appeared behind us, prompting us all to rush to the sides of the trail to avoid being flattened by the souped-up Jeep Wrangler that was driving entirely too fast up the mountain.
As the Jeep passed us by, it kicked up a cloud of dust that made breathing even more difficult than the thinning air of 3,000 meters of elevation. This would happen around 20 more times before we finally made it to the top. It was frustrating, to say the least.
Despite the “cheaters” flying by us in their off-road vehicles, we made it to the top of the volcano just as the sun was about to rise. The total journey up took us about five hours with a couple of brief rests in the middle. Tired, sore, and very excited, we all sat down on the edge of a cliff and waited for the sun to make its way over the horizon.
The sunrise was gorgeous. The hues of red, pink, and orange mixed together in lovely gradients where the layer of clouds (which we sat perched above) met the clear, blue sky. Toward the Caribbean Sea, there was a layer of clouds that stretched out like a luscious duvet as far as the eye could see. It gave the impression that one could walk across it into the horizon or simply lay on it and soak up the rising sun.
In front of us was a series of lower peaks over which these clouds would roll and thin out into a creeping fog. One of my companions remarked that it looked like “poison gas,” but I would have likened it more to a mystical fog moving through an enchanted wood.
Proud of ourselves and looking for some physical relief, we passed around small bottles of rum and packets of cookies until we all felt full and slightly buzzed. The sun came up quickly and changed the vivid colors of the sky into a harsher glare.
While the beautifully-painted sky was washed away by the sunlight, the heat of the sun’s rays warming our faces was soothing. With that, many of us drifted off into a much-needed sleep on the rocks.
After a quick snooze, we collectively decided that it was time to begin our descent. I felt a pang of sadness at having to leave this incredible view so soon. However, we had a long journey ahead of us and it was time to get moving. We gathered up all of our belongings and headed down.
The beginning of the walk down Volcan Baru was great. While the journey up the mountain was veiled in darkness, the trail was flushed with shades of green, bright pink, and purple flowers on the way down. As we made our way lower and lower, the species of plants that lined the trail changed with the elevation, giving an interesting insight into which kinds of foliage could survive in the higher-elevation environments. The clearings in the brush offered a new perspective on the valleys below, showing the rolling hills that led down to the town of Boquete in the light. Everything was nice until the Jeeps came again.
A few minutes after we started down the mountain, that dreaded rumbling started up again. Soon, there was a train of Jeeps going down the path, forcing us off to the sides, and kicking up clouds of dust into our mouths and noses. This time, though, you could see the massive clouds of suffocating dust as you hiked straight into them. This was not pleasant.
Now, here come the negatives. In the daylight, you start to notice how dreary the actual path looks. Most of it seems to have been paved at one point but has since deteriorated into a grey slurry of rocks and sand.
Going down the path is quite difficult on the feet and knees, and some serious soreness and irritation are to be expected on your walk down the mountain. At every turn, you will expect to see the end of the path until you remember that there are an entire 13 kilometers that you must cover before you’re able to find a taxi or a bus back to the town of Boquete. While the walk up the path is challenging and exhilarating, the walk down is grueling, dreary, and left me completely exhausted.
When the hike was finally over, we sat down on a ledge and waited for a taxi that a nice Panamanian woman called for us. While we waited, we took a couple more swigs of rum to try to dull the pain in our feet and knees.
The taxi ride back into town went smoothly and we arrived in the center of Boquete, all ready to sleep for the rest of our lives. But, while all of my friends had their respective hostels to sleep in, I did not book a hostel bed and had no option but to take the three-hour bus journey back to the Lost and Found.
This bus journey, unfortunately, goes through many lower-elevation areas that are much hotter than Boquete. So, having only sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt to wear (plus, my self-consciousness about my hair compelled me to keep my beanie on), I was sweating profusely the entire ride back.
At long last, I arrived back at the Lost and Found Hostel around five in the evening, poured myself a rather large rum-and-orange juice cocktail, smoked a cigarette, and fell asleep until the next morning, a total of 16 consecutive hours. Here’s a tip: if you’re going to hike Volcan Baru through the night, make sure you have somewhere to sleep in Boquete the moment you get back.
On the whole, I probably wouldn’t hike Volcan Baru from Boquete again. Apparently, there is another, more verdant trail on the other side of the mountain. So, if you’re interested in scaling the mountain, I would look into that trail as your first option. I’ve heard it’s a bit harder, but you’ll avoid the dust-spewing Jeeps and poorly paved trail conditions that soured my journey.
Special thanks to my friends Guillerme, Mauricio, Britt, Hannah, and Celine for this lovely experience. Oh, and the photos, too.