Earth : North America : Central America : Panama : Pacific West : Volcan Barú
Volcano Baru or Volcan Barú is in Chiriqui Province of the Pacific West in Panama. Volcan Barú is the highest mountain in Panama. There is a rough and very steep 4x4 road to the top from near Boquete. Near the summit there are numerous cellular towers, and the rock face of the summit is covered with graffiti. A graffiti covered cross marks the summit itself. In spite of the graffiti, the views beyond are breathtaking.
SCAM ALERT As of July 2018, there appears to be a new scam by tour agencies in collusion with the park rangers. On the trailhead, there is a paper saying that the park is closed, and the ranger claims it is closed. However, the tour agencies continue guided visits up, charging $65 per person and up
The best views from the peak are at dawn. On some days (if you are lucky), it is possible to see both the Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as Costa Rica. On other days (if you are unlucky) you will just see the surrounding mountains in the fog.
There are two possible ways to be at the peak at dawn. First, you can start around midnight and be on the top for sunrise and hike back the same day. Second, you can go the day before up to the camping site 1km before the peak, sleep there, wake up early see the sunrise, and then walk down.
There are two routes to the summit of Volcan Baru, one from the east and one from the west. The two trails merge just before the summit, just after a pole stuck in a rock if coming from Boquete.
The first 3km, KMs 6-9, and 11-12.5 are the steepest. There is a downhill around KM10, which is followed by a steep uphill. There are frequent KM markers, with elevation (not 100% accurate) and distance to summit.
Although the road up is wide and clearly marked, do not be fooled: This is a challenging hike. It is 13.5 km long and involves 1,700m of elevation. The road up is steep and only occasionally flattens. Inexperienced hikers should take a guide, as there are risks (hypothermia, mild altitude sickness, broken ankles) that they may not be prepared for or able to judge well. For the same reasons, doing the hike alone is risky. That said, hikers and employees of the towers at the summit traverse the path nearly every day, so rescue is often possible within hours -- but there are no guarantees. A guide from a tour operator can also provide a full set of hiking gear for those who do not come with their own. As the road is wide and clearly marked, those without a guide do not need to fear getting lost.
Hikers should be prepared for three main issues: Cold, wetness, and a lack of water.
The base of the trail and the first half of the hike are usually fairly warm (perhaps 20c during the day and 10c at night), so a light base layer is recommended. The summit, and the campground near the summit, are close to freezing -- a bit above in the rainy season, a bit below in the dry season. Layers are best for this -- something like a 300 weight fleece (or down sweater) and a windwall. A hat and gloves are a must.
It can rain any time, though it rains much more in the rainy season. Rains typically appear in the early afternoon and last a few hours, but may appear at any hour. Rains can be torrential, and can get into backpacks over the shoulders under the rain fly, and into waterproof hiking boots through the ankles. For this reason, extra precautions (such as wrapping clothing and sleeping bags in grocery/garbage bags, or taking rain pants) may help. A poncho may also provide more protection than a rain jacket. Rubber boots will not get wet the way hiking boots will, but provide less ankle support. Extra dry base layers are recommended.
There is no water available -- there may or may not be a ranger at the summit who may or may not be willing to provide rainwater. Typical water consumption would be two liters going up, one and a half liters going down, and one liter overnight.
Bear in mind that at the time when the hike starts to get colder (around perhaps km 11), it may be raining and changing clothes may be difficult.
It is the highest mountain of Panama (3474 m) and if you are lucky you might see the Pacific and the Caribbean ocean from the top. Best chances for that is right on the sunrise.
Flora and fauna
This not a tropical forest because of its altitude. There are plenty of birds to see and it has characteristics of a cloud forest. Timber line is close to the summit.
From May till November it is pretty wet and above 3000 meters it could get very cold at night.
The easiest way is to take a cab from Boquete for US$5 until La Casetta. There are also buses from Boquete center (one block north from the central square) to the trailhead for $3. Just ask for "Volcan Baru"
There's a park entry fee payable at the ranger station on the Boquete side. If you start your hike late at night it will be closed - you need to pay it on your way down. Entry is US$3 for citizens of Panama and US$5 for foreigners. Camping is US$5 and US$3 for students.
Walking is the cheapest way to go but it is possible to take a 4WD tour that will drive you to the summit (about US$125). People have also done the hike with mountain bikes - difficult on the way up, and dangerous on the way down, but an exhilarating ride.
There is nothing to buy in the park, do your shopping in one of the nearby towns or villages.
Eat & Drink
There is no water source after the registration station, and no shop in the park, so bring enough supplies for your trip.
The only possibility to stay overnight in the park is camping. There is a shelter with some bins for trash about 1km before the top.
Be aware that you might get wet (especially in rainy season) and that the temperature in the early morning hours might drop under 10 C°. So bring a tent, second set of clothes, good sleeping bag, water, food, rain jacket and optionally a camping mattress.
Pass the registration hut and continue walking until "la cruz" (the crossroads) there you should be able to get a taxi or a bus which brings you back to Boquete (both around US$1/pp).
Follow the path until it turns first into a 4wd track, and then a small road. Keep walking until you meet the main Volcan-Cerro Punta road, then flag down a passing bus.