The Last Volcano

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bocas del Toro was in the distance and I was making my way, half asleep, on the series of buses that would take me across Panama to the Pacific coast and then back up into the Chiriqui highlands. The scenery was beautiful but, I had trouble keeping my eyes open after my Saturday night sendoff from Bocas and I would like to think I managed to be awake to see most of the highlights like the large dammed mountain lake but in truth I probably missed a lot of it. It took about six hours all said to make it from Bocas to Boquete and I arrived just before sunset and checked into Hostal Palasio, right across from where the bus left us. There was a bit of lightning in the distance and cloudy mountaintops, but even so you could tell that this was a really pretty town. I was pretty hungry and walked up the street to a favoured haunt of locals, Restaurante Saboroso, and had some traditional Panamanian stew, Sancocho for $1.

The reason I had come to Boquete was to climb Volcan Baru, not because it was a volcano and for that matter the last volcano in Central America heading south, nor because at 3400 metres it was the highest point in Panama, but because it was one of only a handful of places on the globe where you can stand and see two mighty oceans with a turn of your head – and if there’s a place that is famous around the world for the fact that it brings these two oceans together, it is Panama. Back at the hostel, I learned that there was a group heading to the top that very evening, at about 11 PM to catch the sunrise in the morning. Although I hadn’t had much sleep, it was convenient to go with others and so I went out to buy some supplies for the hike including freshly sliced salami, Monterey Jack, tomatoes and sweet peppers for a baguette, a couple of apples, water, and cookies. Then I made my sandwiches and visited a bit with my fellow hostellers and hikers and closed my eyes for half an hour before heading out the door to hike all night. It was still less than 12 hours since I’d been having a Trits on the island of Bocas del Toro.

There wound up being twelve of us ascending the mountain at night. There were a couple American guys (Clint and Kenny), two solo traveling Argentinians (remind me to go off-topic at some point about Argentinian travelers), two Dutch girls, a Spanish girl named Amanda, an Englishman named Raj, and a few others plus myself. It was a lot of names to learn at once! I think it’s probably lucky that we went up at night because there was not much to see on the so-called trail, really a very bad 4WD/Hummer only road up to the top. I thought Ometepe was bad, but these roads would be impossible to bike on and were covered in foot and ankle punishing stones. We trucked on through the night, not really having a chance to be sleepy as it was pretty cool and we kept moving through the thinning air. We had plenty of time for sunrise by my calculations, but others were worried about making it on time so we split the group into two groups of six (faster and slower) and that promptly disintegrated into every man for themselves.

The two Dutch girls were in last place and having a lot of trouble with the altitude (although I think we were too low to really have altitude sickness, I’m no expert) and I stayed behind with them trying to keep them moving as they were getting pretty discouraged and wanting to turn back. There was little point in doing so as we were already halfway by then and while it was exhausting walking uphill in the night it would be treacherous coming down at night. I managed to both convince them to press on and get them keeping a decent pace so that they wouldn’t miss sunrise. Plus, it was night and I wouldn’t want to be two girls walking alone with nobody behind them in the forest. We all made it to the top with plenty of time to spare and those that had been so quick to get to the top had been sitting and freezing for quite a bit of time and had started a fire. We sat around the fire for a while and looked at all the stars (amazing up here) amidst all the cellular, radio, and TV towers. There is no place set aside to view anything, just rowers everywhere. Some national park.

The sunrise finally came and was nice but I was pretty tired by this point or at least it wasn’t my primary reason for being there. As the sun rose and mists were cleared, there was the Pacific Ocean, clear as day, and the distant city of David looking surprisingly close. Looking on the other side, the more distant Pacific and specifically the Caribbean could just be seen as well as the islands and river mouth that make up Bocas del Toro. This was pretty cool though if you’re looking for a photo, there was no way I could find to do it with the towers, guy wires, and power lines everywhere. As it got lighter, we started our descent and I got talking to Amanda, the Spanish girl who seemed pretty interesting. Her walking pole had malfunctioned the night before and as we were talking an idea popped in my head and I managed to finally fix it for her which was a pretty good feeling.

The road down was hell. Pure and utter hell. The big rocks strained knees and ankles while the smaller ones targeted the feet and before long I found a stick appropriate in size for a walking stick to help out my left leg. I was going about the same speed as the Americans and we had gone ahead of the girls because it’s usually less hard to go down a bit faster than to force your legs to always brake your descent. Soon, however, I was hobbling down like an old man, leaning heavily on my walking stick as my left knee, ankle, and outside of my foot (problem with my arch?) were agony. We eventually found a nice lookout and laid down to wait for the girls to catch up. They also had the only cell phone and we thought it would be a good place, about an hour away from the bottom, to call and organize transport. We waited for about 40 minutes and when they showed up a 4WD did as well and they took off in it leaving us alone on the mountain with no phone to walk down on our own. Now that’s gratitude. They didn’t even offer to call us a ride, they just waved at us and bumped away down the trail.

This sleight angered us and perhaps fuelled us as we hobbled down six more kilometres out of the park and to a crossroads. Coupled with my extreme fatigue and lack of sleep, it’s probably lucky I didn’t run into the girls again or I probably wouldn’t have been very polite OR friendly. By this point I almost couldn’t walk on my left foot and we still didn’t have transportation. In the past 36 hours I had partied Saturday night in Bocas, drove across the country to Boquete, hiked overnight to the top of a volcano and back down some 30km, and I was now sprawled out alongside the road, beaten. Eventually, a collective or minivan came by and we got ourselves home for $!. I wanted nothing more than to sleep, but I was starving and it was my dad’s birthday, so I grabbed a quick bite then went to an internet cafe to call my dad. It turned out that he was no longer interested in meeting me to go to the Galapagos, which would have been a great time and obviously it would’ve been nice to see him, but at the same time it was a relief in that I could spend however much time I wanted in Colombia without worrying about having to be somewhere at a certain time. Plus, trying to book from here and in advance meant more stress and much more expense than I probably could afford (though I’d do it anyway, who knows when I’ll be back in Ecuador).

Still, stress and whatever worries might have been alleviated, I was a bit disappointed not to mention sore and tired. I went to the doctor before going to bed to see if they had an X-Ray or anything because my foot hurt so much (even with two painkillers) that I thought I must have done something pretty serious to it. The secretary didn’t know what an X-Ray was and wouldn’t let me ask the English speaking doctor without opening a file. I wasn’t getting in a better mood, that’s for sure. It was time for a few hours or mid-afternoon sleep but when I went back to the hostel he had given my bed away to someone else and (with my permission) wanted me to move to another room with smaller creakier beds and terrible mattresses. Of course, there really was no option as the new guy’s backpack was all over my bed and in my fatigue I could have killed the overly friendly hostel owner, Pancho. “I don’t care what else might be around here, I’m out tomorrow” I decided. I managed to get an hour of sleep or so and then woke up and went out for beer and dinner with my Swiss roommate, Denise, who was a pretty nice girl and probably pretty good company considering that I didn’t fall asleep on the table in front of her, even with two beer in me.

The nearby hot springs would have been handy for my sore joints and foot, there’s a famous scenic walk nearby (not ready for it yet), flowers leftover from the recent festival of flowers, and more but after my sleep that night any doubts I had about leaving left me. I was so tired I should have slept straight through the night and into the next day but I was up from 3-5 swatting at the hundreds of mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, trying to keep from overheating, and trying to keep my whole body under the sheets while always aware that the slightest twitch sent loud creaking noises that could be heard on both coasts. I left the next morning for Santa Catalina as Boquete had offered me one thing at least, and that was first hand accounts of recent SCUBA dives with whale sharks AND manta rays. I set off with Raj, Clint, and Kenny for Panama’s Pacific coast and left Boquete and Central America’s last volcano behind me, beautiful but deadly.

Boquete Photos

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