Volcan Baru is the highest mountain in Panama at 3474 metres it is also the only place in Panama and one of the only places in the world where you can see the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean at the same time on a rare clear day.
It is famous for its amazing sunrises and the classic way to see one is to walk up starting in the middle of the night so you can arrive at the top just before the sun comes up. It is also possible to pay for a jeep tour to see the sunrise if the walk is too daunting. It is a serious hike. The best time to go is December to April. The Volcano is in a National Park and they close the road in bad weather so plan a few days in Boquete to make sure you get a good night to go. We met others who had been to Boquete and had not been able to make the trip because the road was closed for several days while they were there.
To get to the base of the mountain you can drive, take a taxi or take a shuttle from Hostel Mamallena. In order to take the shuttle you need to stop by the hostel in advance and sign-up. They charge $5 each if there are 4 or more, $10 each for 2-3 and $20 if you are alone. We used the shuttle because we thought it would be good to have other people to follow as we had no guide and we were heading out in the middle of the night. Many books suggest you need a guide for this trip.
In order to make the trip you need a headlamp, warm clothes and rain gear. We had hats, gloves and down jackets which we brought on the trip just for this climb. You really need to dress in layers because it’s hot at the bottom and it can be below freezing and windy at the top. It’s a 12 hour return trip and there is nowhere to get food or water. Staying hydrated is particularly important because of the altitude.
We arrived at Hostel Mamallena at 11:15 pm, even though they were just sending us off on a shuttle there was a quick briefing and a delay because one of the hikers did not have a light of any kind. They found him a flashlight in a drawer.
There were twelve of us and we left the hostel at 11:30 pm. At 11:45 pm we were dropped off at the entrance road to the park. We also meet two other hikers one had driven the other took a taxi.
Once you are on the right road it’s basically a long steep slog 13.5 km on a jeep road. The footing is rough with lots of loose rock and boots would be the best option. We did not want to carry boots from Canada so we only had running shoes as did most of the other people we saw hiking up.
The sunrise was scheduled for 6:30 am and we had been warned that if we were too fit and fast we would get there too early. The top can be cold and windy so you don’t really want to get there and wait for an hour.
We were travelling at about 3km an hour which was going to get us there too early and the two of us were leap frogging back and forth with another group of three younger guys so we joined together, chatted and took some breaks. Two of them were German and the other was from the US.
The jungle is pretty thick on the sides of the jeep road, it was dark and we had no idea what might be lurking in the jungle. We were drinking to stay hydrated and I was the only women walking with four guys. This presented me with a bit of a challenge. There are NO bathrooms anywhere on this trip. The guys could stand of the side of the road and pee into the jungle. I was not about it walk off though thick jungle in the dark. There is a campsite near the top with a bit of a shelter, it has no bathrooms but at least the jungle was cleared.
The last part of the road is very steep we were surprised that a jeep could get up it but they do. We arrived at the top by 5:30 am. We could see our breath but we were lucky there was almost no wind and it was dry. With gloves, hats and down jackets we were fine. There are several large antennas at the end of the road and a sign to the path to the top which is less than 500 m away. The first spot you reach is a shoulder with a great view we waited there until there was some light as the last part of the trail is a bit technical. There is some scrambling required to get to the top which I would not want to do by headlamp, a couple of people did.
The sunrise from the top was truly spectacular, easily the most amazing I have ever seen. The colours kept changing and getting better and better.
We had clear sky’s and were able to see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. We got lucky! One of the guys up there had been 10 times and it was the first time he had seen both. We took a ton of pictures and the one I posted on twitter was re-posted by Panama Tourism so I think we had an above average day.
The toughest part of the trip was going back down. We left the summit at 7:00 am and were back at the bottom by 11:15 am. It took us almost as long to get down as it did to go up. The footing was bad, there was lots of loose rocks and we were falling and sliding. I am sure it did not help that we had been up all night.
It was nice to have company and as an added bonus John the American we were walking with had a car at the bottom so he drove us back to town. You can ask the ranger’s at the bottom to call a taxi for you or wait for the collective van to come by another 1 km down the road. We would have paid for a taxi! When you leave the park the ranger station which is closed at midnight is open. They ask you to sign in/out and we were told there is a fee but we were not asked to pay.
A couple of our fellow hikers got a ride from a local!
We saw people walking up in the daylight. You can walk up and camp at the top but it would be a tough hike up in the heat with a full pack. there are some great views in the daylight.
Overall it’s a bit of a slog but it was worth it. Having said that I am not sure I would have said the same if it had been cold and wet with no view!