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)


  1. Whoa. Neat !!!!

    On the way back down, what % of the time were you going "WHEEEEEEeeeeeee," out loud ??

    Looks like a beautiful way to do a beautiful thing, and see a beautiful part of a beautiful country.

    And I'm glad the only SERIOUS fall ... was you, falling on your sword, for being late to meet J ;-)

  2. Sounds like quite an adventure. One more high point you can claim that has not been tagged by TNC.

  3. Thanks, like Mauna Kea for you! Although the Nicaragua volcanoes seem worthy in their own right...HOWEVER, I was surprised to learn that neither are the country highpoint, which is worth noting (at the Trailhead Tavern, if nothing else).

  4. If you decide to go there during hunting season (right side under Quick Clicks), be sure to wear the proper safety gear (bright orange) that will identify you as human or go on a Sunday when hunting isn't permitted. You don't want to be mistaken for someone's dinner!** best hydration packs