At 11:45 pm we set off in darkness, climbing a steep path into the mist of the night. Our mission was to reach the highest point in Panama in time to watch the sunrise from our viewpoint above the clouds. We were attempting the strenuous, overnight hike up Volcan Baru near Boquete, Panama.
To reach the entrance, we had booked a taxi for 11:30 pm from Mamallena Hostel in Boquete town. I had found two other hikers at the hostel to join me for the journey! A girl from England and a young guy from Germany. Our backpacks were stocked with snacks, water, warm clothes and of course mine was mostly camera gear.
The Volcan Baru National Park Station was unmanned and we stepped around the fence and ticked off the first official meter. We had been told the trail was actually closed but with no real report on that, we decided to go for it anyway. The station is only staffed till late afternoon so we knew we could head on in anyway. The weather looked clear so it didn’t seem that it would be too dangerous. This was echoed by a local guide I had asked and the front-desk staff at Mamallena.
Incline. That is the only real way, to sum up, this trail. It begins with an incline and ends with more incline. Throughout the Volcan Baru trail, you will ascend more than 1300m in total by the time you hit the summit. The good thing to know is that for the most part, the trail has gradual incline rather than incredibly steep sections. It was also handy that after each section of incline the trail seemed to flatten out so you could recover before the next incline stung you.
Muddy. Several sections of the Volcan Baru trail were in fact quite muddy and we did our best to keep our feet as dry as possible. Somehow cars manage to get to the top of this road, which when you see it the next morning as you walk down will surprise you immensely. It is often rocks and mud in piles, hardly a road you want to be driving up or walking along in the dark. That’s why it is important to have a headlight or a torch for the journey. Other than some mud and rocks, the trail is straightforward and easy to follow.
With the steady incline, we were making time very well. Too well. We calculated that we would reach the summit far too early and be waiting in the freezing cold at the top of Volcan Baru for the sun to rise. We started to take longer breaks while it wasn’t too cold yet.
There isn’t too much to see during the night except for a few nice vistas of the city lights. Other than that, the sound of birds and animals kept us on edge as did the ever-rolling fog.
There were signs along the way, which were a good motivator. At every 1-2 kilometers, a green and yellow metal sign would tell you how far you had trekked, how far you had to go and how high you were. We looked forward to these signs and looked out for them around each corner as we edged closer to the Volcan Baru summit.
As we trudged on into the night, sharing stories and travel tales, we were starting to tire. In fact, it was the first time in my life I have started to fall asleep while walking. It’s a thing. I’m not sure if the altitude contributed but I found myself closing my eyes and waking up as I hiked.
We made it to the 11.5 km mark of the Volcan Baru trail and realized we were way too early. It was 4 am and the sunrise was at 630 am. It would only take us 30-40 minutes maximum to reach the summit from this point. We decided to find an area as hidden from the wind as possible and wait it out until 530 am and then begin the trek to the summit. It was freezing cold waiting and I found myself pacing and doing jumping jacks to keep warm. I also found myself falling asleep while standing up. *TIP: Leave at 1230am from Boquete town and you will have timed the run much better than us.
By the time 530am rolled around we were all frozen but the sky was now a soft blue. We were so stoked to get moving and that we might actually get a decent sunrise. Boquete had been raining for two weeks straight so we assumed we wouldn’t get much of a show but now all of a sudden we had hope. The sky was blue and quite clear.
Energized by the hope of a sunrise at the summit of Volcan Baru, we set off with renewed vigor, eager to reach the summit. As we edged closer and closer the sky became clearer and clearer. We reached the camping area, which is at the foot of the trail to the summit. We could now see the radio towers and had already noticed that the clouds were in fact, below us.
The sky was now starting to turn pink and I had turned it up a gear as I wanted to be at the summit right now! The final trail to the summit is quite steep but we were motoring. Everyone could tell it was going to be an epic sunrise. We were getting so lucky!
We made it to the summit! 13km of effort in the cold and the dark and now we were here. We looked out over to the horizon and all we could see was a blanket of clouds below us, the sign was trying to break through and then, it did just that.
Now we had the perfect sunrise as the clouds lit up and began flowing up towards us. It was a crazy moment as the three of us stood on the edge of the summit and watched clouds surge towards us with incredible speed. The stoke couldn’t have been any higher.
We hung out watched the clouds and shooting for about an hour at the summit. Our fingers were frozen and we decided we had hit the limit and needed to trek back down to cooler temperatures. We were really lucky that the sun was out, which softened the blow of the cold summit. I can’t imagine it on a cold, rainy morning!
The trek back down was quite slow but it was great to see all of the scenery we missed in the darkness the night before. We kept our eyes peeled for the elusive Quetzal but didn’t spot any. Some of the jungle scenes on the way down are beautiful and almost worth the hike in themselves.
It took us about 3 hours to make the trek back down with a few lengthy breaks. You can likely make it down much quicker if you need to. We even spotted a very calm little lizard on the trail during our trek down.
We reached the sign-in station and the man asked us to sign our name but didn’t ask us to pay. Our luck just seemed to continue.
We then caught the colectivo bus back to Boquete for $4 per person and headed straight to Sobroson’s Cafe for a feed and a recovery coffee. That afternoon I slept for five hours til 7. I then woke up, edited all the photos and went back to sleep from 11 till 8 the next morning and I was good to go from that point onwards!
Hiking Volcan Baru was my favorite moment from my Panama trip so far and I highly suggest it. I hope you get as lucky as us with the weather and the sunrise!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE HIKING VOLCAN BARU
Weather: The weather is freezing from mid-way through the hike and only gets colder as you get higher and higher. Depending on the season, it can be sub-zero at the summit and incredibly windy.
It is important to check the forecast because it will be a miserable hike if you are dripping wet. I understand you might need to take a risk on the weather if you only have a couple of nights in Boquete and want to hike Volcan Baru. However, make sure you check the weather and pick the best possible night as 27km in the freezing old as you are wet is going to be one hell of a journey!
It wouldn’t necessarily be dangerous in the rain as the trail is on a road the whole way. You may slip a lot but you aren’t going to fall down a mountain on the trail. However, at the summit on the rocks, it can get dangerous with big drop-offs. I would be very, very cautious in wet weather at this summit. The photos I took on the rocks was on a completely dry day as you can see from the sun! Always play to the weather. Be smart and don’t try and take on mother nature. She never loses.
Distance: 13km to the summit and 13km return the same way out. 27km total.
Clothes: You might be a backpacker like me and don’t travel with a ski jacket or hiking gear. What I suggest is to borrow one from someone in town or at the hostel. I would also buy a pair of $2 gloves from Boquete town. I wore shorts to begin the hike, running shoes, a t-shirt, a rain jacket and a beanie. Throughout the hike, it got colder and colder. After 10km of hiking, I was no longer hot and changed into my second dry t-shirt, put my pants on and put my hoodie on underneath my rain jacket. I was bloody freezing at this point! I really wished I had a down ski-jacket.
Entrance Fee: We were told there is a $5 entrance fee. However, there is no-one at the station when you arrive at night. Therefore, we were expecting to pay it on the way down. There is even a sign at the bottom that says the fees. However, we arrived down the next morning, the man at the station made us sign our names but never asked for a fee. Assume there is a $5 fee but it isn’t always collected apparently.
Solo or in a group?: I am a solo traveler and do a lot of hikes and dangerous activities by myself. However, I am very glad I did this with two people I met at the hostel. Walking in the night into the misty darkness was very creepy. We were joking that it was a bit of a horror movie scene. It is possible of course to do it alone but it’s a bit spooky and unless you are looking for some kind of challenge against your fears, I suggest grabbing a mate from the hostel. It’s also great to have a hiking mate for safety.
Is Volcan Baru active: The volcano is not currently active and is safe to hike into as of 2018.
Volcan Baru height: The Volcano is 3475m above sea level making it the highest point in Panama. We were well above the clouds at the summit, which is one of my favorite things ever!
HOW TO GET TO VOLCAN BARU ENTRANCE
There are several options of how to get to Volcan Baru. There are actually two routes to the top. One is from the Cerro Punta side and one is from the Boquete side. I can tell you about the Cerro Punta side but I trekked in from the Boquete side, as do most people because it is much easier (still quite hard) than the Cerro Punta side.
The most common option is to organize a taxi for you and your friends. From Mamallena hostel, they have a standard rate of $7 per person or a minimum of $20 for their regular taxi man. It isn’t a cheap ride considering the distance but it is quite late at night. The distance from Boquete town to the Volcan Baru hike entrance is 11 kilometers. We hiked up in a group of three so we paid $7 each. The staff at Mamallena booked the taxi for us and made sure it was on time. If you are not organizing it through Mamallena Hostel, you will need to meet and greet a taxi driver during the day and agree on a meeting place and a cost. It won’t be hard to organize.
The other option is to walk to the start of the trail, which I highly discourage as it is 11km to the trail entrance and then you will have a 27km round-trip.
VOLCAN BARU MAP LOCATION
HOW TO GET BACK TO BOQUETE FROM VOLCAN BARU
To get back to Boquete from Volcan Baru you have cheaper options available than when you arrived. This is because after watching the sunrise and trekking down it is likely around midday. Therefore, the bus service is running. Once you hike down back past the sign-in station, walk to the bottom of the hill. The bus service will pick you up from here and the fee for us was $4 per person. It will be hard to get a taxi from this point so the bus really is your only option. The bus will drop you right back into Boquete town.