Panama – Volcano Baru

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.

digital nomad

Panama uses the dollar.

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.”

I smiled. Thank you Dorian Grey! DSC01281

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?

DSC01290

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!DSC01301

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.”

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Costa Rica – Garlic Sandwiches and Cocktails 

Ever since I turned 19-years old,    whenever I had more than 9 days out of school, I would book a flight out of the LAX. My parameters were:
– the round-trip ticket cost had to be $400 or less

– destination: anywhere I have not been to

– travel time: about two days or less to go back and forth, this would give me eight days in a country

That’s it! Because I was in college, spring breaks and winter breaks were really the only times I did this (there was also the time I got fired from a sales job and road tripped across the states then biked down the California coast but now I’m just showing off). 

I call it the 10-day escape. Sounds sexy, ey? Well I don’t mean for it to be, that’s simply what I could come up with. With 10 days, I figured that I could get a taste of Jamaica (literally); and zoom through Ecuador’s Cuenca, its capital city of Quito and hike through its amazon. Note: that’s 10 days in each country. In every trip I went, I hardly ever did any research in advance. I did carry the Lonely Planet but I cracked that book open on the plane and only then, did I learn whether or not I was traveling during low or high season and that’s a big deal! But if you have 10 days, it’s fine. 

Take Costa Rica, it is low season for them. According to the Wikitravel and the Lonely Planet, rainy season is from mid-April to December, some places are rainier than others however, almost every receptionist will justify their prices by saying that it’s “high-season”.

“But it’s raining right now!”

“It happens from time to time.”

To be fair, one guy did admit that it was low season but that’s because he had to. While in San Jose, our eight day stay in the country was suddenly extended by the pending arrival of a friend from Belize so we decided to wait it out in one of Costa Rica’s most touristy destinations: Arenal*. Its rivers, waterfalls, thermal springs, volcano and all around luscious green landscape make it a great place to go zip-lining, do a rappel hike, go white water rafting and more. My objective was to have James go zip-lining. We’ve done the rappel thing before in El Salvador with dogs and without much equipment so we didn’t need to do that again. I’ve done the zip-lining before in Costa Rica–years ago–and it was amazing! It also felt very safe.

“I don’t need safe,” said James.

“We talked about this, you and I like to do things that are a bit edgy.”

My man! A Sense of Adventure has been one of the three foundations that has brought us together and turned us into the two-peas in a pod that we are today. Regardless, if he was ever going to go zip-lining, Costa Rica was the place to do it. So we sort of asked around but the rain came in sheets our first two days there and I wondered if we would ever get to do anything. There were plenty of free activities that we could do on our own like walk two kilometers to the Tarzan Swing** but damn the rain! It was really cool at first to hear the thunder behind the rain clouds and see the lightning light up the smokey sky with quick flashes. It was even more cool to dodge the quirky small rain clouds that sometimes stood in front of us like a shower head completely missing us. We got in Saturday morning and it was Monday (the big Kahuna would fly in Thursday but we wanted to be back by Wednesday to avoid any surprises) when we decided to just do anything. Buck it, we’ll zip-line in the rain or take a taxi anywhere. 

We walked into the small town and inquired about tours. A big travel agency wanted to charge $85 per person for one zip-lining tour and a small travel agency had a deal: rappel hiking, white water rafting, tubing down a river, horseback riding, chilling out in the thermal springs and zip-lining all for $45 a person! 

I was suspicious. “Why is it so cheap?” I waited for my boyfriend to kick me but he didn’t. 

“It’s low-season,” he said.

Oh so now it’s low season, no crap. But now wasn’t the time to act like a smart ass. Besides, I got a good vibe from the guy. I asked him about zip-lining in the rain; he said it wouldn’t be a problem. I asked him about Mosquitos; he said problem, do you have repellant? Well no, I left it in my bigger bag in San Jose. No problem, just eat two cloves of raw garlic. . . That works? Yes! Raw? It’s key.

Because I didn’t want to go out of my way to buy another bottle of OFF, the next morning I slapped a piece of whole wheat bread with marmalade and I sliced up three fat cloves of garlic and layered it on top. I made one for James and I. If this works then we could be looking at saving money on purchasing bottles of mosquito repellant for the year or forever! 

I am gullible. It did occur to me to look it up but I was afraid that Google might laugh at me.

“James, how could this work?”
He responded with a straight face, “Well you know vampires are afraid of garlic.”

“Right, so it has to work, we’ll find out soon.”

I gave James his garlic sandwich. I love garlic, but raw? And without onions? Sans sauté? I’ve seen one person spread a tablespoon of minced garlic on her rice before and it burned my stomach.

This was no different. The purpose of the marmalade and wheaty bread was to hide the raw garlic. The marmalade and bread did not serve its purpose!

After the first bite, my gagging reflex fainted (yeah guys, tell that to your partners). After the second bite, my trachea and esophagus fumed with a melange of burnt cinnamon and spoiled capsicum—that’s what it felt like! I chewed quickly and my mouth felt like an oven. My poor taste buds must’ve fainted from the stench as well and my tongue felt like a warm bed with one too many heavy blankets. By the fourth and final bite I felt a slight uneasiness in my stomach. Something heavy had fallen to the pit of my stomach and died and now it was going through rigor mortis. Perhaps it functioned like a spiral with its poison emanating and beating my windpipe. My nose felt warm and awake.

I wondered if James was taking it well but when I went to check on him, he was outside reading The New York Times on his laptop and munching on the sandwich as if it were a Wonka Bar. He mustered, “This is pretty good.”  

   
The verdict? 30 minutes later the Go Adventure van picked us up to take us to the site of the tour and the first activity was zip-lining. I was a little nervous—the thought of my limbs zooming awkwardly hundreds of feet above the ground across the jungle kicked in as soon as I saw how high above the ground we were. So as usual, I jumped around, surprised myself by doing a few pull-ups and unnecessarily ran to the bathroom before they put me in gear. All of this distracted me from the skunk taking a piss inside my stomach.  

   
James was not nervous, the guy kept smiling. This is good I thought, I have a boyfriend who is not afraid of heights. I wore shorts that day and I would regret it soon.

Yeah the raw garlic repellant is a myth. It did not work. Don’t try it. The adrenaline from being so high up wore down by the third swing line as I became vulnerable to the ubiquitous flying insects taunting my legs. My throat burned once again. 

And James? James was fine. He’s smart! He wore pants! 

    
   
Going back to the 4-day vacation, had we flown to Costa Rica for four days, we wouldn’t have seen much. The bus from San Jose took four hours, it rained for two days straight and we lucked out on the third day because it did not rain, it sprinkled.
Also, since it did rain a lot that week, the rappelling and white water rafting was nixed from the tour. However, we did ride on well-behaved horses and then slathered ourselves with mud before chilling out in the thermal springs. It was a good day. The moral of that story is that if you plan on going to Costa Rica for four days, really plan ahead.

Later that night, we went to the Peruvian restaurant: Restaurante Ceviche del Rey. There is also one in Madrid and in Paris. The guy who sold us the tour turned out to be Peruvian and recommended the place; said we’d get a complimentary welcome cocktail if we mentioned his name.

Alright, quick inspirational story about getting what you want. But I need you to be on my side first, okay? I need to ask you: what is a cocktail drink?

Whatever your answer is, if an adult offers you a cocktail, you have to assume that at the very least, it will have alcohol, right? Right! Don’t get smart with me, are you seriously going to assume Ocean Spray or the citrusy ketchup sauce?

So, James and I made the 15 minute trek to this Peruvian restaurant in the dark stormy night. It was a good looking restaurant. A fixed meal with a drink, an entree and a dessert cost $11 per person. Not bad for a fancy establishment. I mentioned the guy’s name, Jorge, and the waiter sat us. Stepping in and away from the rain, something about the palapa thatched roof decor got me in the mood for a Pisco Sour! I hoped that that was the welcome drink, it had to be! It’s the national drink of Peru! But when the waiter presented us with the choices of complimentary “cocktails” I said, “So none of them have alcohol?”

His smile was half apologetic, half embarrassed, “Correct.” 

“So it’s a fruit beverage without alcohol?” I asked

He said, “Yes.”

We put in our orders anyway but I wanted to leave. The cocktail was a draw but I almost wished to not have known about this place at all. We were about to shell out more than $22 bucks on a meal and starting off misinformed was not romantic! James was on the fence and he wanted to leave but he was also hungry.

“We could get rice and beans and rum for half the pice down the road.” That was my protest. James rubbed his chin; he was on my side of course. He said, “You make the call.”

I stood up, “I’m canceling the order.”

I walked to our waiter, he was just about to put our orders into the computer. 

“Excuse me señor, we’re going to cancel our order,” I said half apologetically. 

“Oh, why?”

“Jorge told us about the welcome cocktail and what you offered us are fruit waters. We were hoping for Pisco Sours. I’m really sorry.”

“No problem,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Two Pisco Sours? That’s not a problem.”

I felt my chest rise, it heaved out a nice groan. It said, mmm, Pisco!
I returned to the table, James was putting on his jacket just as I was taking mine off. What happened?
I said, “We’re staying.”
I felt victorious, hot and a bit feisty. I scored for the team and I didn’t even plan it! It’s not like I canceled the order after he put it in. I made sure of it. James was happy and assured me that it would be alright.

A few minutes later, we got two Pisco Sours and got Pisco drunk. It didn’t have any bitters so I was suspicious at first but less than half-way through our drinks, we felt tipsy in a very silly way and so we identified it as Pisco drunk. The food was great, too.

  

A sunny view of the National Park

  

One of the best kitchens where I cooked

 We returned to San Jose the following morning, it was Wednesday and our favorite hostel, Casa del Parque, felt like home. It was hard to imagine being anywhere else but I would be ready to leave in a few days. To where? We didn’t quite know yet. Either Puerto de Limon or to Panama City. We are in no rush to do anything or get anywhere. That was never our style. When James and I first started dating, we traveled twice and each trip lasted for almost 14 days. Like me, he saw too many cons with taking 4-day vacations (unless you go to Vegas or go to Improv Utopia camp aka adult camp). And apparently 14 days wasn’t enough so we quit our jobs and became vagabonds. 
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*We actually stayed in La Fortuna which is the base camp of Arenal and it’s where you’ll find all the bars, restaurants and inexpensive lodging.

** Wow! The Tarzan Swing. We walked to it but were forewarned about the guy who recently got swallowed up by the river. The rafts there were big so I passed on the swing. A few guys jumped into the small rambunctious waterfall and then we saw a girl almost drown. Someone got their phone out and called for help. 

This is where a girl jumped and almost drowned