Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

Climb the Volcano in the Wee Hours of the Morning, They Said

Boquete, Panama

Panamá 059

When I went: January, 2014 (high season)

Boquete is a small town relatively close to the southern border of Costa Rica.  It’s in the mountains and higher in altitude than most places (and thus a wee bit colder than one would expect), but it’s situated in some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen.  Actually, one of the best moments was as I was sitting in the bus to leave, and it started drizzling.  The cool thing was, it was sunny out, so the drizzle was this brilliant gold color in the morning light, and with the green mountains in the background, a cool breeze coming through the bus windows, and the promise of a new adventure in a new place, life was pretty ideal.

I ended up in Boquete almost by accident–and I’m glad I did!  I was in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and planning to stay there for at least a week, but I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would, and after a couple of days, most of the friends I had made left, so there wasn’t much for me there.  A friend from Germany told me he was going to Boquete to climb some volcano, which sounded a lot better to me than doing nothing on the beach, so I went with him to a place I had never heard of before.

What I Did

We couldn’t see this. It was dark. But presumably it was at the entrance when we started as well as when we finished.

The highlight of my time there was climbing Volcán Barú, the highest point in Panama.  The hostel offers a shuttle to the entrance of the park for $5 a person every night at 11:30pm.  The idea is to do a night hike up in order to be at the top for the sunrise.  Great idea!  In theory.

It’s a 14 km, or 8.7 mile, climb to the top.  And man, is it a climb.  The afternoon before we set out, we talked to an Argentinian guy that had done the hike the previous night.  We asked him if it was worth it, and he kind of grinned at us for a few seconds without answering.  Considering he hadn’t yet slept since the hike, I’m surprised he was still functioning.  Eventually, he told us if we’re going for the view, it’s not worth it.  They say you can see both bodies of water on a clear day, but he just got a good view of clouds.

First light, and we were still at least half a kilometer away from the top.
First light, and we were still at least half a kilometer away from the top.

And thus, semi-naively, we set out at midnight in the light of a nearly full moon with six other brave souls for a perch in the clouds.  And it was great.  And then I started getting sleepy.  And my legs started protesting.  And it got cold.  Who brings clothes for cold weather to Panama?  By 3am, I was thinking we had to have gone at least 12 km, but then we saw a sign that said we had only gone 7km.  That’s when things took a turn for the worse.

I consider myself to be a relatively fit and tough young person, but that self-perception was severely tested as I got to a point where I couldn’t go 100m without resting.  A mixture of altitude, exhaustion, a steep climb, and cold at a time my body expected to be asleep made life tough.  My friend was great about encouraging me and staying with me, even though he could have climbed faster.  We were nearly at the top around 5am, so we had about an hour until sunrise.  I napped in an open hut-thing, pulling all my body-parts together for warmth.  At this point I was wearing about five layers of t-shirts, a hoodie, and a thick rain jacket my more cold-adapted German friend had been kind enough to loan me.

La sombra del volcán.

When he woke me up, I was afraid we had missed the sunrise, since the beautiful colors of first light were starting to show.  We booked it went marginally faster than an injured tortoise up to the top, thankfully in time to see the sun peek over the edge of the earth.  I planted myself on a ledge not quite at the tippy top and refused to move for at least thirty minutes, with barely the strength to raise my arms and take pictures.

But really.  I’m not exaggerating.  Ouch.

Eventually, I motivated myself to go to the top.  We were lucky and could indeed see both the Caribbean and the Pacific, but my favorite part was seeing the shadow of the volcano across the land.

Already halfway down, and still above the clouds.
Already halfway down, and still above the clouds.

The path back down was at once heavenly and brutal.  We saw what was hidden in the dark, which was all sorts of different wildflowers and hummingbirds and green trees in the morning light, which is definitely the best light.  The air smelled like pure joy.  At the same time, my knees and toes protested the down down down, and my feet kept slipping out from under me.  I developed graceful ballet moves to keep from wiping out, and only landed on my bum twice.

We got back to the hostel around 12:30pm, after roughly 10-11 hours of actively hiking, and I fulfilled my fantasy of climbing into bed and sleeping all afternoon.  And then I stayed up all night.  My body was confused.

The only other notable activity I did in Boquete was take a trip out to a river-canyon and some nice hot springs, which was chill and laid-back, and not quite as earth-shatteringly awful, or awesome, as the nighttime hike up Volcán Barú.

How I Got There

Behind me, you can see the top I refused to climb to at first.
Behind me, you can see the top I refused to climb to at first.

I left from Bocas del Toro, which is a group of islands in the Caribbean, so I had to:

  1. take a lancha, water ferry, for $6 to the mainland
  2. take a taxi for $1 to the ‘bus’ in Almirante
  3. take the ‘bus’ (cramped van-thing) to David for around $8
  4. and take another bus from David to Boquete for $1.50ish.

So for just over $15, I made it to Boquete using public transportation.  I know they offer a shuttle service from Bocas to David for $25, I think, so it was worth the $10 to figure it out myself.  It wasn’t too hard–people are very helpful, especially if you speak Spanish.

Where I Stayed

Hostel Mamallena
I hadn’t done any research into hostels, so we ended up staying at one that was conveniently located facing the park where the bus stops.  The dorms were $12 per night, and we got the last two beds.  Apparently we were lucky to get them during high season, so I would recommend getting a reservation the day before if you want to stay there.  And you should.  This is definitely my favorite hostel I have stayed at thus far.  It’s bigger than it seems and has this airy, grandma’s attic feel with old wooden floors, clean white bunks, and colorful walls.  I liked that it had a good balance of peaceful and social atmosphere.

My friend, looking epic.
My friend, looking epic.

There’s a back patio where people hang out in the evenings, sometimes just talking, sometimes partying.  I met a lot of cool people, including one girl I randomly ended up in the same dorm with the next place I went.  The night my body clock was all out of wack, I stayed up until 5am hanging out with the hostel workers, a group of 20-somethings from all sorts of different countries that were making a little money so they could keep traveling.  I drew a humorous map of Texas to put on the wall in reception, so if you stay there, check it out.  I’m intensely proud of it.

There are some good tours that leave from the hostel, so it was nice that I didn’t have to search for something to do.  I stayed for three nights, and it was worth it.

So many flowers.

Overall, Boquete is a pretty little town with a good balance of tourists and locals in an idyllic location with a deceptively climbable volcano.  And I love it.


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