Climbing to the summit of Volcano Baru was the most grueling, strenuous and emotional hike of my life. It was so bad that if I had to do it again, I would not! It was so bad that three miles into the hike, the realization that there was no way to turn back made me cry. I cried a lot. I cried because after the first hour, I felt doomed. “Why would anyone do this to themselves? This is beyond silly!” Before I go into further detail, I will assess the situation for you.
What? The tallest point in Panama: the dormant Volcano Baru. 14 steep kilometers to the top and 14 steep kilometers back down for a total of 28 killmenows. That’s 18 miles!
Where? Boquete, once known by Forbes as one of the best places to retire. I could see the allure but it’s not on any of my list of Where To Die someday.
When? This is the worst part! The freakin hike begins at midnight. A shuttle picks you up from the center plaza at 11:30pm and drops you off at the entrance of the volcano park. The cost for shuttle ride per person is $5. The shuttle is offered every night and many crazy people apparently do this hike.
How? On foot! Bring 2 liters of water, a sandwich, snacks and a pillow in case you decide to break down in the middle of the hike and sleep in the dark with the bugs.
Why? It’s the only place in the world where you could see both the Pacific and the Caribbean ocean at the same time. The reason why the hike starts at midnight is because it takes 6 hours to get to the top. If you’re a whiner and cryer like me, factor in an extra hour and find a way to begin the hije at 11pm. I didn’t, and that’s probably why we missed the view and never saw both oceans at the same time. Sorry James.
Why else? Let’s see. Completing a 13-hour steep hike through the night gives you significant bragging rights.
When I first saw the sign on the board regarding the $5 dollar shuttle that drops you off at the entrance to Volcano Baru I thought: that’s a typo, 11:15, pm? Every night?
I said to the receptionist, “Oye señor, don’t you mean every morning?”
He looked up from his computer, his eyes twinkled, his lips pressed together in a bad attempt to hide his smile. He nodded, no.
It looked more like a grimace followed by a smirk. I was not the first person to assume that the board had a typo. He explained to me, proudly, that if I want to see both the Pacific and the Caribbean ocean at the same time, I would need clear skies and the best chance for that is to get to the summit by 6am which is why most people begin the hike at midnight.
I said, “It takes 6 hours to get to the top?”
He said, “Son 14 kilometros.” And it’s steep.
“How steep? Is it up-up, or is it up-up-up?”
Only my friends know how to respond to this but basically it’s up-up-up. Meaning, it’s really steep.
Since this hike, I’ve added another term to rate hikes. It’s: up, up, up, up. So, I wouldn’t compare it to a wall, per say although it certainly looked like that in the dark, I would compare it to the stair master.
But as usual my assumptions were that it can’t be that bad and the best way to find out is by doing it. This is my thought process before embarking on a hike which I know I can chicken out on. For the record, that has never happened but knowing that I can give up gives me a peace of mind. That would not be the case this time.
I asked the receptionist, “So the hike is during la madrugada? When everyone is usually asleep?”
He nodded yes.
I said, “Why would anybody do this to themselves?”
But the guy just shrugged and told me to make sure that I bring plenty of water and a flashlight. I asked him if he rented any—a sign that my mind wanted to do it even though even though every muscle in my body was squirmed.
I left the tour agency and reported the news to my boyfriend and he was totally on board. No question! That’s when I felt my calf muscles tighten as if to warn me that they would punish me, people would hear about it and they will hate me.
Remember California? This is not an 8-day bike ride. This will be worse because it’s steep! There was some very steep roads for miles before Santa Cruz and there was sun, lots of it. I can do it. So the cold dark is better? You will regret this.
This is the discussion I had with my legs. Anyway, I told James that I would have to think about it and he made a comment about me losing my sense of adventure. Excuse me?
Back in Playa Venao, Panama, a few days ago, I had been weary about going too far into the beach. I heard that sting rays like to lurk near the shore but I think that the real reason why I am sort of scared of the ocean now has to do with me almost drowning in a beach in Puerto Rico. I yelled for help in several different languages and that interrupted a coupe of guys who were on vacation. The guy who saved my life turned out to be from California.
I digress. We signed up the next day and tried to nap for four hours before the hike but couldn’t. So we ended up watching an episode of the FX show Fargo. Then we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and read to kill more time.
We arrived at the tour agency a little early and met two guys who would join us: Sean from the UK and Mario from Mexico. They too tried to nap beforehand with no success.
Twenty-minutes later we stood at the bottom of the volcano. Another shuttle dropped off a few other people: there was an older man who looked to be in his 50s, a woman in her 30s and another woman who was about my age.
It was dark. There weren’t any clouds thank goodness, a sliver of the moon played hide-and-seek behind a cloud above us and there were barely any visible stars. I beamed my headlight on the road ahead of me. Here’s what it looked like.
It looked like a medieval wall from the Game of Thrones. I have astigmatism and have been diagnosed with poor in-depth perception so this is actually true.
The road was all rocks and the incline was 45 sometime 90 degrees. Sometimes the trail flattened out and gave us false hope that it would stay that way for a long time, rejuvenating our fatigued muscles. It was always short lived.
The trail were poorly marked with teasers: 10km, 9km, 8km… It was hard to find these signs and I found that the more time I spent looking for these signs, the bigger my break would be.
Alas, we must carry on! Said the boyfriend. Or we will miss the view! We did.
Earlier in the day, I was actually excited about hiking up a volcano! In the dark! But when that shuttle left, it really dawned on me that there was no turning back. No plan B to meet the guys on the other side because where’s that?
By 2 am I began to cry. James tried to support me but I wasn’t very nice. Do you need a push baby? No baby, I need to sleep. My eyeballs are jammed with so much melanin that I don’t mind drifting off to sleep right here on the cold bed of rocks. That doesn’t sound like a good idea, you could die. Don’t most people want to die in their sleep anyway, please just let me be.
I held on to my walking stick. I hiked up Wayna Picchu in Peru, I hiked in Chiang Mai in Thailand and I crossed the Tongariro in New Zealand. This was the first time that I was using a stick!
James tried to comfort me again by assuring me that we could take as many breaks as I needed. Not like we were holding anyone back. The British guy was at least a kilometer ahead of us, everyone else was, too. Mario hung out with us because he didn’t rent a flashlight and we enjoyed eachother’s company.
So we took a break after every kilometer and a half but it was dangerous because as soon as I allowed my eyes to close, the weight of my eyelids would clamp heavily against my lower lids.
I let my eyes close for a blissful second and entertained the idea of taking a harmless 30-minute nap on the steep bed of twigs, stones and rocks.
When I turned to the guys, James was standing up, ready to go as always. Mario was fast asleep.
“Let’s go! C’mon. Are you good?” said James. I said, “No.” But got up anyway.
I thought about the many ways that I could give up.
I could hang out here till the sun rises and go back. Oh, but what about the scorpions? I saw one in Panama City. What about the black creature with the horns that crossed our path an hour ago? Jane that was a cat.
What is a cat doing in the cold?
I looked at the two guys ahead of me; I was thinking out loud. Mario said, “Fear is all in your mind.”
It was 5:45ish when the skies finally started to lighten up. This lifted the weight from my eye lids. Suddenly, there was green everywhere. Birds chirped. I tried to appreciate the moment. I was awake now and I could see! But the lack of sleep was hitting me like three shots of rum. I was delirious.
Your physiology can affect your mind and vice versa. Smiling for six seconds has shown to lift your mood. I have a high sense of risibility so I sang Julio Iglesias and waltzed the rest of the way. We finally made it to the top at 6:30am. We were in the clouds and did not see any body of water anywhere but it didn’t matter because we were probably late. I was just happy that I made it!
There was a cabin at the top with two bunk beds and a TV showing episodes of Glee, somebody was singing Rihanna hits.
Mario knocked out as soon as we got there, James was anxious to start the hike down but he waited patiently for us to catch our breath. That man, he’s always ready to go. I love it! But in that moment, I didn’t care for it. Also, guess what! This was the first time that I was discovering Glee! What? There’s a show about nerds singing acapella?
On the way down I got giddy and loquacious. I was delirious. I felt like I had just spent eight hours cramming for a test sans sleep.
The worst part was over, sure, but I hadn’t processed the fact that we were only half way done with the hike.
The steep slope down hill was hard on our knees and every time my foot hit a big rock, it felt like I had stubbed a toe. At least the scene was beautiful, I stopped getting nap pangs and giving up was out of the question. To pass time, I played Dan Savage podcasts. It took six hours to reach the bottom but just when we thought it was over, again, we spent another hour walking to the bus station. When we got into town, we headed straight to the Señor Gyro’s restaurant. It was 2pm. We ordered the jumbo sized chicken gyro wrap to-go and wondered why they didn’t sell any sides. You want fries with that? Ain’t nobody got time for that!
We turned on Fargo, we stuffed our faces and fell asleep. We woke up around 8pm and I felt disoriented. I was making us some tea when two girls walked in to the living room with that look of exhaustion, relief and sluggishness. I said, “How are you doing?”
I let her talk for a minute about the grueling hike. She showed me her Fit Bitch Watch (whatever that is) and said that she burned 4,400 calories and walked an x number of steps.
“4,400 calories? I thought it’d be more,” I said.
“Yeah but we made up for it just now.”
I thought about my Gyro; I had some cookies on the side and a piece of bread pudding. I felt that I should go for some ice-cream later.
My entire body ached the next day. It felt like I rode a horse that hated the world. My body throbbed with pain whenever I tried to sit, to lie down, to stand up. Stepping up hurt just as much as stepping down. The pain lasted for over two days. I said to James, “Never again, okay?”
I saw him choose his words carefully. He said, “I won’t ever sign up for a 13 hour midnight hike.”