Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Panama - Now or Later?

J and I greatly enjoyed a brief trip to Panama.  Even in that span, I wrote about 40-50 pages* of observations about the country itself; the world we live in; how J and I have changed together; how travel always has a 4th dimension of context; the common bond (and challenges) we share with people around the world and how it's a beacon of hope for the future, etc.  And how you're the first white person ever to come up with all these conclusions in a week.

* In my head.

On most trips, I'm too exhausted each night to actually write anything.  This'll be no different.
Now I've lost the immediacy of sensation and emotion, but eventually I'll compensate by misremembering and embellishing immensely.

But, anyway, should you visit Panama now?  Later?  And, why?


In summary and I suppose stereotype, Panama is a beautiful, safe and friendly country, that's relatively easy to get around and can be relatively cheap.  Panama City is booming and things are changing quickly.  In some respects, they'll quickly get even better, as a subway line is well underway and slated to be completed in 2014.  This will save on the largest hassle and expense of traveling in Panama City by taxi.  The rapid and aggressive completion of this project mirrors the progressiveness of other investments, such as Panama Canal expansion, and planned expansion of free wifi across the country (this is very real and usable in Panama City and David).
So although the business and tourism infrastructure is there, by no means did we feel overwhelmed by other American tourists or hassled in any way. It's still reasonable and easy to experience your own travel agenda without being surrounded by tourists, which felt a bit more refreshing compared to what Costa Rica seemed like (and that was almost 10 years ago), although that's certainly a beautiful country as well.

As for Panama City itself, it's a large Latin American city (meh) with the Canal close by.
But I was surprised how enjoyable it was to walk around the Casco Viejo area.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site; rightfully so, with buildings dating from the 16th and 17th century.  You can't just manufacture 300-year-old buildings anywhere, so this is a fabulous place to visit.  Glorious architecture, such as old buildings and churches, abound, and they are quickly being repurposed for business and residential use.

This has minor guidebook warnings about pickpockets and petty crime, and although we were only there in the late afternoon, the crowd and police presence made things feel very safe.  It seems to me like it has passed a tipping point of being a safe tourist draw, but you have to wonder or worry if some of that will be lost in coming decades.  It's something to see as soon as you can.

Bocas del Toro, (especially Bocas Town) by all means, has changed from the sleepy town it supposedly once was to a more of a tourist draw.  There are benefits in terms of finding lodging, dining, and supply of boats and boatmen to explore the other islands, but there are also challenges such as the amount of trash generated on the island.  Still, Isla Colon has only one road; you can enjoy a peaceful bike ride and solitude on the beach within an hour; and places like Isla Bastimentos are more laid-back, with the interior of that island and the others even more raw and natural.

I haven't yet exposed myself to the all-inclusive disappointment of, say, Mexican resorts, so the biggest saving grace of going to Bocas now is precisely this contrast...mostly.  But the temporary restraint on development of places like Red Frog Beach resort will only last so long, as the script familiar to Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica is likely to play out in our lifetime.
In that respect, go now!

And we didn't even have time to visit Guna Yala, which seems like a worthy trip in itself.

As for Boquete, it already has had an explosion of ex-patriation, and while I really enjoy the young folks that have made a leap to a simple lifestyle among the locals, the occasional clusters of old white people smug in their real estate deals, worldly self-satisfaction, and terrible Spanish does occasionally interfere with the preferred aura of international travel.

Still, look for the restaurants with menus (and prices) in Spanish, go for a hike, do things like go to the fair after sunset (when they return to their gated communities) and ride in the taxis and diablos rojos and you'll still get a Latin American experience.

What are the diablos rojos?  They're the crazy, incongruous, pimped-out schoolbuses that serve as cheap transportation.  The owners take pride in packing as many people in as possible; getting to a destination as quickly as possible; but mostly, tricking out the bus with chrome pipes, a booming speaker system, and graffiti art.  One common theme, being a highly-Catholic country, is to paint nearly all of the front window with graffiti honouring Jesus and El Senor.  In combination with a rosary on the mirror and the requisite faith, only a small patch of window visibility is apparently necessary for safe travel.

On a bus from Boquete to David, I watched the boy get out in front of me with something squirming in a bag -- this turned out to be a live rooster.

These are uniquely Panamanian, but are apparently a dying breed.

Perhaps the diablos rojos giving way to the subway is symbolic, as Panama is clearly enjoying a renaissance of business and tourist travel, but it's a good time to visit to capture it's lingering charms.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Volcan Baru: Bike and Hike to Panama's Highpoint

Volcan Baru, Panama 3,475msnm (11398' above sea level)
50km roundtrip from Los Naranjos, Panama
7000' gain
Hike and Bike, ~6 hours total

Visiting beautiful Boquete, Panama, puts one in the shadow of Volcan Baru, the highpoint of Panama that looms 7000 feet higher.  With a National Park surrounding it, and a rocky dirt road leading 13.5 km to the top, it's an accessible and (relatively) popular hike.  Although it's tainted with classic Latin American graffiti at the top, as well as a large series of communication towers, it also offers unparalleled panoramic views of the country.  When clear enough, in fact, one can uniquely see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans at the same time.

Since the rugged road from Boquete is actually driven by 4x4 vehicles in order to maintain the towers at the top, and it was dry season, I thought it would be worth a shot to ride it on a mountain bike.  Having read just a few hints online of riding it -- and watched a cool video -- I had to make a reasoned estimate of my time from Los Naranjos.  Although the hike itself usually takes 10-12 hours from the park entrance (saving about 75 minutes of bike riding), I allotted myself 4-6 hours.  This ultimately ended up being a close but unfortunate mistake, with great apologies to my wonderful yet tested wife.

First things first: I headed to Mirador Adventures at Hostel Nomba the day before to rent a bike.  I was hoping to meet Ryan Brandt, a Colorado ex-pat who was enjoying life in Boquete, but instead we first met his lovely wife, Sofi -- as Ryan was tending to their 5-week old son.  Having rented bikes abroad before, I set my expectations accordingly.  Among a half-dozen bikes, some were ruled out by size, others by lack of parts (e.g. pedals and wheels), but I did settle on an 18" Trek Hardtail.  Although a little small, most importantly, it had disc brakes, which alleviated my main concern of descending thousands of feet (possibly in the rain and mud).  After some tweaks (e.g. adjusting the rear brake) -- I had brought parts and a helmet with me -- it was serviceable and better than I could have expected.

Later, we did have the fortune of meeting Ryan, and he was very enthusiastic and happy to meet us as well.  Quickly after we talked about biking, (and thinking about U.S. standards) he apologized for about the bike!  No worries, like I said.  I regret not having contacted him earlier and having brought a Colorado brew with me.  I enjoyed learning how shopping in Miami in person was a preferred way to get things like bike parts.  Interesting to hear about those details.

Once everything was ready, I packed up and overprepared with warm clothes (including hat and gloves) and rain gear, for a possible precipitous drop near the summit, as well bike tools, maps/directions.  Leaving before sunrise, I also had a few lights for front and rear.
Understandably, J was nervous about the whole enterprise, as it meant being separated in a foreign country, doing something unknown with some risk to it.  ("You fell off a rock in town," she reminded me).   I did my absolute best to plan and prepare, and gave her my best estimate of a return time, with a plan to turn around if my worst-case (6 hours) was in jeopardy.  

As to the details, after descending from Los Naranjos to Boquete, it was a solid, 2000' sustained climb of 7 miles or so to the Volcan Baru entrance.  A bright flashlight on the front of the bike (no real ambient light for most of it), and a flasher on the back kept visibility suitable the whole way up, and I saw no cars, with just a few people walking.  With fat tires on a creaky bike, this took about 45-50 minutes of enjoyable sustained climbing.  A couple of turns were well-marked by signs, basically staying on the main paved road. 

 I was already sweating more than expected, and at 6000 feet after having been at sea level earlier in the week, even breathing harder than expected.  Finally, just before the entrance, the grade increased as the road turned to gravel.  I made the paved section in one push, but gave up any heroic thoughts on the gravel as I took a walking break to the main entrance.  Almost an hour after I started, it was now light enough to see.

The entrance was unmanned, so I was unable to pay the normal $5 entrance fee for now.  In the park, the main road remained obvious and signed, noting 13 (but actually 13.5) km to the cima.  These occasional signs would ultimately be useful in judging progress and speed.
I continued onward, occasionally hopping on to ride some climbs, and ultimately some flat areas and even descents along some fincas on the park boundary.  With the ascents being ~16-18% in grade, however, I was too blown to keep riding up (the knobbies on the rear were also pretty worn), but looked forward to the descent.

Things were going smoothly for almost 4km or so, when I hit a chunkier patch of trail.  Huh.  Not only was I not going to ride up it, but it was a section that I'd certainly walk going downhill: I'd barely ride some (and not all) of those sections in the U.S. on my own bike, but it would be slow with perfectly modulated brakes and barely faster than running, let alone the penalty of falling.  At this point, pushing the bike uphill was pretty slow.

I rounded a corner and the terrain improved, which I hoped was a better sign of things to come, but it was short-lived.  More bowling-ball sized rocks and ruts everywhere, on steep sections.  This isn't what I was hoping or expecting from the bike video (previous) that I had seen, but knowing what I know now, the rough terrain all comes in the middle of the trail, and all of that (save for some walking and a fall at 6:00) is skipped in the video.  That also aligns with another report from the ADV rider who rode up there, but said he dumped his bike 15-20 times.
Now you -- and I -- know!

It had reached a point where pushing the bike was slow (just getting traction and moving around on different lines) going uphill, and it would likely not save any time downhill.  So I ditched the bike in a patch of jungle on the side of the road.

It was only 7:15, so I figured I had plenty of time to hike, although my time window was now clearly 10-11am.  The day was still pleasantly clear, so I didn't have to worry about being overtaken by clouds and rain just yet, but actually the sunshine and warming temperatures were taking more of a toll, as I was dripping in sweat.

With the grade and gain in elevation, and a heavy pack still stuffed with extra clothes and bike gear (should have ditched some of that), I just kept up a steady hike, with no real thoughts of running.  I was enjoying the day but making steady yet slow progress based on the km marker signs, and most of the views were a repetitive tunnel of nondescript foliage to either side.

At this point, things were going fine, and I still hadn't seen anybody.  Some reports online suggest hiking with a guide so as not to get lost, but my only small concern of being solo in that regard was the possibility of getting robbed at gunpoint, which was referred to in an online post from 3 years ago (and I don't doubt was real), but that's in comparison to dozens more safe ascents.  While it would be terrifying, my impression was similar to the old risks of driving in Baja, Mexico -- pay $20 and move on.
With regard to hiking -- I'll explore this in future writing sometime, a topic I call "sin guia" -- my general observation is that hiking without a guide in Latin American countries has overblown warnings for both economic (understandably trying to increase guiding services) yet also cultural (it's neither as common nor accessible to do destination hikes outside one's hometown in Latin America without a guide) reasons.  In my observation, this is why Latin American travel "guidebooks" still give scant textual information on hikes and then a list of guiding services, as the culture of maps and records for hiking isn't the same.  At the same time, local guides may have a very deep knowledge of the trail that may be a worthwhile investment.

Still, it seems to me that even locals may have exaggerated fears about hiking sin guia, in the same way they may dismiss neighbouring larger cities or countries as being "unsafe" despite not having visited.  The insinuation is that traveling with a guide or group prevents against other dangers -- but I don't want to be in a dangerous situation with or without a guide!  So one must use discretion.  And I become ironically defensive, because it paints a beautiful country of friendly people in a negative light, when by far I found everything to be safer and more pleasant than anything in the U.S.

Anyway, I hadn't seen anybody yet, and although I generally prefer solo hiking, I would actually prefer to see others on the trail.  By now, the views of the summit had opened up.  The bad news is, it looked quite distant (I was within 1.5 miles though, it just meant the trail was getting steeper); the good news is, it was, despite the antenna, a picturesque above-treeline escarpment, rather than the nondescript enjunglement that appeared below.

Now within 45 minutes of the summit, I was pushing my limit on time, but still within reach.  I saw my first hikers here, undoubtedly up early for a sunrise summit, and they were friendly and cheered me on.  By the second group, I was rounding a corner of a rare flat spot that I was jogging, and I enjoyed some cheers, thumbs up, and a "Mucho respeto."

At this elevation, though, it was definitely work, and I resorted to power hiking.  I was glad to see the true summit was cleanly above all the towers, although marked with a cross.  After a few hours of grinding up hill, I enjoyed a couple minutes of running long a ridge spine, followed by a genuine scramble to the summit.

The summit was not enveloped in clouds, so I had fanastic views.  
The backside showed the much more enjoyable trail route that comes from the West.


What about the oceans?  In a place where it's possible to see both, 
I saw zero.

Sadly, I enjoyed just a minute or so on top, before having to move back down.  It was now 9:20 at the antenna towers.  The video of the bike descent was a 1.5 hour descent, and I had an extra 10 minutes to get back to Los Naranjos.  I had to move exactly as fast as the mountain bike descenders.

I tried, but was worked, and with a few uphills thrown in at elevation, I was really pushing the time limit.  Some of the gravel on top of the steeper hardpack made for a tenuous ball-bearing descent, and I slipped sideways at one point and drew some blood.  Things got more comfortable lower with more oxygen, but the temperatures were up, and I had just enough water.  All by itself, though, (without the extra weight), this dusty road is a decent and recommended trail run, since most of the trail proper in the area is through rainforest and gets quite muddy.
I passed a few of the groups again, and one of the guys, dripping in sweat, shook his head and stuck his tongue out at me.

Finally I got back to my bike cache, but fumbled around getting the bike and then pushing it down the chunky stuff that caused me to abandon it in the first place.  Had I ditched the bike 2 turns earlier, I would have saved time in both directions.  But now I was able to ride, the running was over.

With just a couple miles of dirt, I had to balance keeping up speed with tenuous brakes, vs. not wiping out.  It was much better than walking, and I caught up to all the other parties along the way (and a few more heading up), but I looked forward to the pavement.

After all of that, the pavement was glorious and the highlight of the ride.  I got to see all of the scenery I missed in the early morning darkness, including towering pine trees, and smell the surrounding vegetation, which I would have missed had I taken a taxi, and bombed down as fast as I could at 50-65+ km/hr, sitting up in the wind to bleed off speed before corners.  This was fantastic, but I dropped into Boquete past 11. I stood up and pumped as hard as I could to make it up the hill, but was already disappointingly late.


Anyway, this is a beautiful hike.
  • Prepare with proper clothing, food, gear, and allotment of time.  
  • The route is straightforward from the Boquete side, and is possible and safe, provided proper preparation, to do without a guide.  
  • Mountain biking is possible, but be prepared to push your bike through most of the climb, and possibly a large portion of the descent.
  • A quality full-suspension downhill bike and protection might be pretty fun for an advanced rider
  • Hiking/running is probably faster for most people
  • If you're more of a cycling enthusiast, the paved riding around Boquete is spectacular, and other alternatives are probably better (even on a mountain bike).  Consider the following:
    • Riding up/down Volcancito Road
    • Bajo Mono/Alto Quiel loop
    • Alto Lino loop
    • Following Ave B Oeste (rocky) up toward Volcancito for a loop
    • Other loops (talk to Ryan at Mirador)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Guinn Mountain, Arestua Hut Ski

Guinn Mountain (11220')
with visit to Arestua Hut
~9 miles roundtrip (Guinn Mountain Trail up; Jenny Creek return.  See map)

This was a trip from last weekend, that makes for a great ski or snowshoe loop.
Starting at the busy Eldora Ski Area parking lot, I headed up the far (climber's) left of the learning ski area, along the marked signs for Jenny Creek Trail, which remains a publicly-accessible NFS trail.  I enjoyed decently-packed snow on mellow terrain on waxless skis, until arriving at the Guinn Mountain trail intersection after a couple of miles.

Here, I headed up the Guinn Mountain trail, which climbed a bit more but was still manageable without skins on a packed trail.  Getting closer to the hut, the terrain opened up from a narrow tree-lined trail into an off-camber trail on a bit steeper slope, which included the ruins of a different cabin.  It was nice to have a previous track to follow, and would be both more work and a minimal but slight concern after heavy and blowing snow.  Shortly after this, the trail steepened enough on more powdery snow that it was worth putting my skins on, and I was soon up at the Arestua hut.

In the empty cabin, I enjoyed taking a few moments to eat and drink a bit, check out the register log, and the various ski posters.  Also within the hut was a guitar, a deck of cards, and a few shots of whiskey.  I left a dollar in the jar, as requested for day use, but hope to return some evening for a nice night in the woods, and get a full $2 worth.

The weather was still looking good for my planned goal of checking out the nearby summit of Guinn, which required 10 minutes or less of heading due south through the trees in the path of least resistance, slightly gaining in elevation, until the snow ran out, as the terrain opened up into a fantastic windswept tundra walk surrounded by mountains all round.

The sun felt great but it was windy as always near this part of the Divide, so I layered up and enjoyed more views.  Straight across from me was Rollins Pass road winding it's way through the iconic Needle Eye Tunnel, bringing back much warmer memories from a previous bike trip to Winter Park.

Noting the ease of travel on the terrain above the summit, I continued on to survey what the west and south aspects held, so as to descend to the Jenny Creek trail and make a loop.  After crossing the bare pack-trail just below the summit, I again found skiable but variable snow in the trees on a mellow angle to the west, and then hit a flat, open basin just below Yankee Doodle Lake.
Having seen Yankee Doodle Lake before, and achieving superior views from above, I didn't make the extra effort to visit it again.  And, the steep, ominous headwall above the lake and Rollins Pass Road reminded me of an unfortunate decade-old avalanche incident in which two otherwise well-prepared skiers were actually swept down into the lake (which then surged after the avalanche).

So I headed back down to Jenny Creek trail and saw a few snowshoers -- the first people I'd seen in a few hours.  I gradually descended the moderate grade (with the one short climb in the ski area) back to the car.

This was a fun and relatively tame loop for XC/backcountry "lite" touring, on a nice day -- when the winds pick up on the Divide and visibility is reduced, all bets are off.  I might actually suggest the loop in the opposite, clockwise direction, so as to have a more fun descent down the slightly steeper Guinn Mountain grade.  There aren't any really good turns right along this loop, so skinnier skis (with edges) work just fine, and although it seems slow to me, it'd actually be a pretty good snowshoe loop, considering the short hike over the Guinn summit.

Friday, January 4, 2013

See "Ski the 14ers" video online

Take 40 minutes and watch this.

Chris Davenport - Ski the 14ers from TJ Burke on Vimeo.

If you didn't know the history, this is Chris Davenport's project of skiing all 54 Colorado 14ers in one year.  This project was successfully completed over 5 years ago, and despite excellent footage, he wasn't allowed to release the video due to Forest Service rules regarding releasing film of commercial value in legal Wilderness Areas.  This public posting is the first time to see the film for many.

Not only does the video give an appreciation of his raw skill and effort, and an aesthetic appreciation for mountains, but even if you're not a skier, you'll enjoy seeing some of our favourite Colorado mountains, and may recognize legendary Colorado mountaineers like Lou Dawson, Neal Beidleman, and Ted Mahon.