Climbing up a volcano and seeing two oceans at once when you reach the top is what adventure is all about. With little in the way of fitness but thirsty for adventure, Coralie Modschiedler attempts the climb of her life in Panama. Little did she know how challenging it would be…
THE LAST HURDLE
The rain is getting worse. I’m soaking wet and can’t see anyone around me. My water and food supplies are running low and I’m starting to shiver. I’m so exhausted I can’t feel my legs, but I know I need to keep moving. How the weather could go from hot and humid to wet and cold in a matter of hours still puzzles me. The campsite where I’ll sleep tonight can’t be far now. I’m sure I’m nearly there.
FOURS DAYS TO GO
Rewind four days and here am I, on a flight to Panama with all the trekking gear you could imagine. I’m very excited and anxious – a weird, stomach-churning feeling. I’m about to climb Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano in the western Chiriquí Province; Panama’s highest point and the highest volcano in southern Central America at 3,474m (11,397ft). I’ve never done anything like it, but my biggest concern is being the only unfit person on the trip. I used to do a lot of sport when I was younger but unfortunately, over the past few years, my desk-bound job has spared me little time to keep fit.
Nevertheless, I’m about to take part in the first ‘Boquete Barú Eco Fest’ joining hundreds of trekkers from all over the world, from curious tourists and experienced walkers to local guides. The trek should take between four and 10 hours over very challenging terrain. This doesn’t bode well but I’m up for the adventure.
After a few days visiting Panama City (the new part of town is very Miami-like) and the famous Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks, the time has come. A short drive from my hotel in Boquete lies the entrance to Volcán Barú National Park. The climb starts at the park ranger’s station. It’s 6.30am and I’m planning to reach the Los Fogones campsite – 12.5km (7 miles) away – by 3pm. Others have bravely opted to trek at night to avoid the relentless heat and stifling humidity and still arrive in time for the sunrise.
The views going up are good as the sky is clear. Lush greenery (and plenty of mosquitoes) surrounds me. The heat is, of course, relentless. It doesn’t take much time for everyone to separate as we’ve all got different rhythms. I grab a bamboo stick to help me walk up the boulder-strewn path. Wooden signs informing me of my progress are dotted en route: “11km a la cima”, “9km a la cima”, etc – these are a boost at first, but soon they start to taunt me.
Two hours in, the path becomes much steeper and narrower. The weather also turns misty. I need to make sure I reach the campsite before the rain starts. The trek is increasingly challenging and my energy levels start to wane. I take regular short breaks to recuperate. I meet a lot of friendly hikers along the way. Some offer to carry my bag (do I look that tired?) but I don’t want to take the easy option so I politely decline. One Panamanian family become my companions; Dores, her son and husband tell me (in English) about their life and daughter. The son is about my age and surprisingly struggles as much as me, despite being a regular football player. If anything, the parents are faster than us!
Six hours in, I’m still three kilometres away from the campsite and torrential rain starts. Thank god I brought a poncho! I’m not too far now but I feel completely drained. The Panamanian family has increased their pace so I’ve lost sight of them. I’m alone and cold but I know I need to keep moving.
I finally reach the campsite just before 3pm, eight hours after I started the ascent. There’s no champagne or welcoming committee. I can’t believe I’ve achieved this amazing milestone but there’s no one to share it with. Most of the others arrived hours ago and are in their individual tents. Instead, it’s cold and still pouring down. I see my guide Gilberto who shows me to my tiny tent. He’s thankfully pitched it for me but how can I squeeze into it with my wet clothes, shoes and backpack?
Oh no, water is leaking into the tent. And there’s no phone signal of course. I head for the centre of the base camp a few metres away consisting of a dilapidated open-walled hut missing part of the floor – not quite what I had in mind. It’s packed with people and despite a couple of attempts to join the group, there simply isn’t enough space for everyone. I return to my tent. Hours pass and feel like days. It’s a long, lonely night.
That night, the temperature plummets to about 5ºC (41ºF) so I don’t sleep much. By 5am, I’m ready to summit the last kilometre in time for sunrise. I’m glad I brought a head lamp. It’s pitch black. Climbing up at night is very exciting though. As I reach the top, the sun is almost appearing on the horizon. The presence of radio masts and graffiti-covered rocks is quite unsightly but it doesn’t take away from those magnificent views – a breathtaking panorama of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, soon obscured by clouds.
After spending an hour or so on the peak, I return to the campsite and make my descent. Gilberto takes my camping gear and goes ahead. It only takes me about four hours to return to the ranger’s station and I enjoy every minute of it. Well, the pain in my feet towards the end is truly excruciating but as I cross the virtual finish line, I feel exhilarated.
The only thought going through my head? I did it! I got to the top of Volcán Barú! I later learn that because of the heavy rain, a lot of people had turned back – out of the 300 people who began the ascent, only 130 made it to the summit and only about 80 stayed the night. I can’t believe I’m one of them! And I’ve proved it’s not just for experienced trekkers – unfit people with determination can do it too.
The climb: Registration for the next Boquete Barú Eco Fest in February 2013 opens this month (see here for details). Price: $15 for adults and $10 for children (over 14 years old), including return transportation from Boquete to the park ranger’s station.
Must-haves for the trek: A good backpack, quick-dry underwear, warm waterproof clothing, jumper, trekking shoes, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, toilet paper, first-aid kit, two 1L aluminium water bottles and energy bars.
Camping essentials: Tent, sleeping bag, change of clothes, gloves, fleece, head lamp and sanitizer.
Insider tips: The atmosphere during the group climb is unique as you meet and share the experience with hundreds of trekkers from all nationalities, but if you want to climb up Volcán Barú at another time of year, make sure you go with a guide. Another way up is via a 4-wheel drive, which takes 45 minutes. And if you want to record the experience, consider carrying a tape recorder.
Getting there: Several airlines offer flights to Panama City from the UK but one of the best options is KLM. The closest airport to the Volcán Barú National Park is David in the Chiriquí Province. From there, it’s easy to transfer to Boquete by car.
Where to stay: Valle Escondido Resort Golf and Spa is a well-located luxury resort surrounded by lush greenery.
Best time to go: During the dry season January-March.