Hiking Volcan Baru
When my oldest childhood friend and I decided to go to Panama, we knew that we had to hike its tallest mountain. Being from Colorado, where 14,000 foot peaks seem to be everywhere, we felt pretty confident that we could conquer Panama’s highest mountain, which stands at just over 11,000 feet. However, as we set out in the dark on our trek up the volcano that early morning, we did not fully anticipate the difficulty of actually reaching the top and coming back down in one day.
- The hike is 30 km round trip from the trailhead outside of Boquete.
- It should take 5-7 hours to reach the top and approximately the same amount of time to descend
- Volcán Barú is the tallest mountain in Panama at 3,474 meters (11,398 ft) high.
- It is a dormant, but potentially still active, volcano that is located in the Chiriqui highlands just south of the Continental Divide.
- Volcan and Cerro Punta are on its western side and on its eastern side is Boquete.
- Rising from a fertile area of cooler highlands, Volcan Baru stands out above the other peaks nearby, though the top is often shrouded in clouds, especially during the rainy season.
- The volcano can be hiked from either side (leaving from Cerro Punta or Boquete), but a guide is needed to do the technical and ill-marked trail from its western side.
- The most common, and easier way, to get to the top is hiking up a 4×4 jeep trail from the mountain’s eastern side near Boquete (though I am not sure if its possible for any vehicle to navigate this rough road/trail).
- Volcan Baru either be hiked in one or two days. Some prefer to hike up with packs and camp somewhere near the summit to break up the 30km round trip venture. During the rainy season (May-December) clouds often move in on Baru in the afternoon, so camping can also help you avoid doing much hiking in the rain.
During our venture up Baru, we decided to avoid hauling our camping gear up the side of the mountain and to do the whole thing in one day. The trailhead to the top of Baru is almost a full day’s hike in itself from Boquete, so the day before the hike, we arranged for a taxi to pick us up in the center of town at 4 am. We agreed to his slightly inflated rate of US$4 each for the ride to the trailhead. An early start is necessary to avoid afternoon rain, and we were hoping to beat the clouds to the top and get a peak of the view, famous for allowing hikers to see both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans. Unfortunately, when we reached the summit just after 9 am, the top of the volcano was already shrouded in clouds. We couldn’t see 5 feet in front of us, so needless to say both oceans were totally out of sight. I hear the view, if you are lucky enough to catch it, is amazing though.
We will call this next stage of the hike, “Thank god Julie brought her headlamp.” The taxi dropped us off at the trailhead to the volcano in the pitch black, with no one and nothing other than jungle and its animal residents around us. It was terrifying. Lindsey and I spent the first 2 km of the hike paranoid at every noise coming from the darkness and trying to remember why we thought hiking up this volcano was a good idea. For the next two hours, we hiked through the dark, never really getting used to the sounds of the jungle waking up around us. We survived the darkness and finally daylight arrived and we continued the 15km, 5 hour hike to the summit.
The hike to the summit is steep and difficult, but definitely doable for in-shape individuals. We hiked at a fairly moderate pace and made it to the top in about 5 hours. The hike down actually took just as long, as the trail is full of loose rock and pumice and is slow-going. Be prepared for sore joints if you do the hike in one day.
How to Conquer Baru: Hiker Tips
- If you do this 30km hike in one day, make sure you leave early and strap a headlamp on your head. You won’t be able to see the trail without one
- Bring warm clothes. The top of Baru is chilly. In the dry season it often frosts at the summit and it has snowed in the past
- The day before your trip arrange for a taxi to take you to the trailhead. For your way back into town you can either pre-arrange a taxi or wait for one on the side of the road. They do pass by with semi-frequency and you can hail one down. You may end up riding in the back of a truck, but it will only cost you US$1-$2
- Bring plenty of water and snacks to sustain you during the 10-hour hike
- Prepare to be both mentally and physically challenged. This is a tough hike for a person at almost any fitness level, so be prepared hurt
- Don’t be surprised when you can’t walk the next day. I couldn’t.