Hiking up Volcan Baru is a decision that you will probably come to regret somewhere between 2 and 4 hours of setting off on the climb. When I first decided to take on the challenge of hiking up to the highest elevation in Panama with a friend, it seemed deliriously exciting. Brilliant. Inspired. Adventurous.
Why? Because we – along with many intrepid volcano-hikes – elected to view the peak at sunrise, which is at around 6am. The climb is 13 kilometres, pretty well ascending all the way. This means setting off at about 11.
11pm the night before the summit.
So you climb through the night, until the sunrise.
But then again, you are rewarded with incredible views from the top of Panama’s highest volcano. You get to look out over the mountains of Boquete, see red-tinged cloud edges and misty, multi-layered hills stretching into the distance… and all this in the knowledge that you’ve just hiked for about 5 hours even before the sun has got out of bed – so whatever you plan to do the rest of the day, all treats are justified.
And trust me, after the descent, all the treats will be in order.
But anyway. I’m getting lost in my bitter reminiscences of the ordeal.
(I’m exaggerating: ‘ordeal’ is too strong a word. Slightly).
Here’s all you need to know about the jewel of Boquete hiking: climbing up Panama’s highest peak, Volcan Baru – DIY style.
How to get to Boquete, Panama
The Volcan Baru hike starts from Boquete, in the province of Chiriqui, western Panama. Hiking in Boquete is pretty great in general, so even if you don’t feel like tramping up a volcano, it’s worth a visit.
The likelihood is that you’ll be heading to Boquete from either Bocas del Toro, or Panama City, so just briefly, here’s how to do it:
From Bocas del Toro to Boquete
From Bocas del Toro you’ll need to take a water taxi to the mainland from whichever island you’re on (around $5). From there, it’s a colectivo-style taxi for about a kilometre and a half to Almirante, (about $1), and then from Almirante it’s a roughly 4 hour bus (aorund $8).
In order to get to Boquete you have to go via Chiriqui’s main city, David, but everyone at the bus station there is super helpful so you can just ask them where to get the bus. The bus from David to Boquete leaves about every half hour and costs $1.75.
From Panama City to Boquete
Panama City to Boquete is a fairly easy trip, but again you’ll have to transit through David. Buses leave pretty regularly from Albrook terminal, and cost somewhere between $12-20 depending on the company. It takes between 6-8 hours (the express ones are six, the slow buses closer to 8).
If you want to do the journey overnight, I’d recommend taking the midnight express bus from Panama City, which will arrive into David around 6am. Then from David you’ll be able to take one of the first buses to Boquete.
Volcan Baru packing list: What to wear and take on your hike
I’m not your mum: I can’t tell you what you should which pair of knickers you should wear. Except that I will say this: whatever pair of knickers you do pack for the Volcan Baru hike, make sure it’s a warm pair. Or several pairs.
The nub and gist of it is this: it is (unsurprisingly) bloody freezing at Panama’s highest elevation. Like, hovering around the zero degrees mark. With biting wind and general discomfort for anyone who didn’t dress warmly enough – which is everybody.
Apart from All The Clothes, here’s what you should pack for the hike:
- Decent torch, or ideally a head torch. Even better, as the friendly hostel receptionist suggested to me, two torches – in case the first runs out of battery. I blithely assured him it wouldn’t, and inevitably it did. Well, six hours is a lot of use for a lil Maglite torch. Take your phone or something as backup (as if you wouldn’t have your phone on you anyway).
- Plenty (PLENTY) of food. Your body isn’t going to know what’s hit it on this hike. What with waking up a couple of hours after you’ve gone to bed and hiking all through the normal sleeping hours, your body clock is going to be Messed Up. Allow for that with many and varied snacks. Also chocolate biscuits will be essential for the way down.
- Decent footwear. You can definitely do this hike in trainers (it’s not muddy or anything), but make sure they are comfy and have good grip. The terrain isn’t too bad (compared to Mount Rinjani in Indonesia, it was a total breeze), but still – volcanic rock and ash make for easy slips and trips. Especially on the way down, you will be grateful for sensible shoes, if you have them.
- Water, and lots of it. Though it’s heavy, and for the most part you’re hiking in the coolest hours of the day (i.e. the middle of the night), it’s thirsty work trekking up a volcano. Bring 2L or more if you can.
- Scarf and gloves and hat. I am not kidding when I say it is cold at the top. You might feel daft carrying all this stuff up the mountain, especially as you’ll get hot when you’re hiking, but those thirty odd minutes at the peak are hell if you don’t have enough clothing.
- Layers. Again, seriously. When we did it, I wore a t-shirt, jumper, fleece and windproof jacket and I was still cold. If I did it again I’d take an extra pair of trousers to wear over my leggings, and possibly wear thermals underneath my top.
- Camera. An obvious one, but you’ll want to document just how worth it this hike was. You’ll understand when you get to the pretty sunrise part.
Arranging transport to Volcan Baru
In order to hike Volcan Baru from Boquete, you need to arrange transport in advance. There are a few options for this. Either you can take a shuttle bus from Mamallena’s Hostel, located right alongside the park in the centre, or you can arrange for your own taxi. The shuttle costs $7 per person, and a taxi (apparently) costs $15, so about the same if there are two of you. Sign up for the shuttle bus in the day before your hike; and similarly, arrange for the taxi some time in the day before.
In theory a taxi should be less because it’s not that far, but my hostel told me that because everyone is aware of the shuttle bus, the taxi prices have increased accordingly. And it is pretty late so inevitably it costs more than it would in the day.
The shuttle bus leaves at 11.30, always – so one advantage of getting a taxi is that you can choose your time of departure. I’d suggest leaving at about 12, actually, because despite the difficulty of the hike it really doesn’t take more than about five hours to do if you’re going at a normal human pace. Add in breaks and you’ll be more than fine with starting at about half 12. If you’re a fast hiker you probably only need about 4.5 hours from the drop off point to the top.
I am not a fast hiker. We got a taxi at 11.30, started walking at about 11.45, and we really had to drag our feet in order not to get there too early. We were still up at the top about half an hour before sunrise. And it was freezing – we had to huddle together and dance around madly to German rap music for warmth. It was a bit of a bizarre start to the day, truth be told.
Timing your Volcan Baru hike
This particular volcano hike is an example of how slow and steady very much wins the race.
In case I haven’t managed quite managed to get my message across, Volcan Baru’s peak is very, very cold. You do not want to spend more time up there than you have to. So take your time with the hike – have plenty of nice rest stops, snack breaks, pauses for clothing adjustment.
If people overtake you with smug enthusiasm, realise that they are idiots and that by the time you reach the peak they may just have turned into icicles with their self-satisfied grins frozen onto their faces.
As I mentioned, we set off at 11.30 in the taxi (due to a very stubborn hostel manager who ignored me when I politely asked could he please arrange a taxi for 12). If you also set off this early, for the love of God take your sweet time with hike, and relish that sweet sweet lower-altitude temperature while it lasts.
Camping on Volcan Baru
One other option is to camp near the top of Volcan Baru. This means you’ll do the majority of the hike in the day, then you’ll stay overnight and get up to the top for the sunrise. There’s not much going on up at the top of the mountain – the campsite is literally just a small shelter and a sign – but at least you stand a better chance of getting some sleep, and you don’t have to hike quite so far in the dark.
Again, make sure you bring plenty of clothes – it’ll get cold overnight.
Surviving the Volcano
I think hiking Volcan Baru is largely a mental challenge. Honestly, the hike itself wasn’t that tough – it was just really long. And the thought of having at least five hours hike ahead of you, at midnight, is not particularly appealing. But the great thing is you really can take it slow.
I’d highly recommend downloading Maps.Me before you go, because that way you can see how you’re progressing, and how far away from the top you are. This was very helpful in the last stretch, as we knew how much time we had left, and could therefore delay going up and being battered by cold winds for as long as possible.
One great thing about the hike was the helpful, encouraging signs every so often telling you how far you’d hiked and how far you had left. Oddly, to begin with there were two different sets of signs, with conflicting information, but after km 4 the first set seemed to give up so we were relying on just the one set of data.
Once you near the top, you’ll see the antennas up on the hill. I’d advise to stay below that point for as long as possible – that’s where the weather really hits. You can see it on Maps Me.
If you do decide to hop up top and you arrive too early, there is a place to shelter – in the field of antennas itself, more or less. Just go in through the big gates, turn right towards the building, and there’s a strange little cubby hole where you can huddle. And huddle we did.
Once the sun begins to rise, you’ll want to escape from the relative warmth of the cubby hole and go scramble up towards the rocks for the best view. There are kind of two view points – the second involves some surprisingly intense rock climbing for 6 in the morning, but you are going the right way and it will be worth it.
Don’t stop at the first rock viewpoint, is what I’m saying.
The sunrise will be so so so beautiful but you will likely want to cry from being so cold. So relish that reddish golden light fringing those clouds, marvel at the misty morning eerily silhouetting the radio antennas, gawp in wonder at the sight of the Pacific Coast, and then get the hell out of there as soon as you reasonably can.
Heading to Panama City next? Check out my guide to the old town
The Dreaded Descent
This is where it gets tough. The hike up is no problem because you have a goal in mind: the peak, the accomplishment, the sunrise. Going down your brain is just thinking of crawling back into bed and possibly consuming your bodyweight in refined sugar products.
This is where the chocolate biscuits will come in handy.
In theory it should take you a lot less time to come down than it did to go up; however for myself and my friend it was still kind of hell as our legs didn’t seem to react according to the commands of our brain and we fell/stumbled/slid a lot.
Just keep going. Put one foot in front of the other, and you’ll get there in the end.
When you get to the bottom (that glorious yellow gate!), you’ll meet a pleasant man in a little booth who wants you to sign out from the hike. Apparently you’re supposed to pay $5 for the privilege of hiking for ten hours before 11am but we never had to, so I’m not entirely sure on that one.
Then you can stroll merrily on past, and worry about the next problem: getting home.
Getting back to Boquete from Volcan Baru
Delirious with sleep-deprivation and with legs like barely-set jelly is not a state particularly conducive to bargaining with a taxi.
In any case, there were no taxis about when we arrived back at our drop off point.
For getting back to Boquete, there are a few options:
- Have a pre-arranged time to be picked up by a taxi
- Hope that there are taxis floating around the area when you want to go back
- Catch the bus from El Salto (?) (which has a pretty erratic or possibly non-existent timetable)
- Hitch hike back with a friendly local
We ended up taking the latter option – though honestly, it wasn’t an entirely active decision. We were just making our sorry way down towards El Salto, hoping forlornly that a bus might materialise, when a nice bloke who worked on trail maintenance stopped to offer us a lift back to Boquete. We definitely looked like we could use some assistance, I’m sure.
Next stop: bed.
Or possibly ice cream and then bed.
I can almost guarantee that you will be a shell of a human for the remains of that day, and in my case the day after too.
I still think it was worth it. Those sunrise views, though…
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