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Volcán Barú, a volcano that stands 3,474 meters tall (that’s 11,398 feet!)… and I just hiked to the top and back in less than half a day.
I’ve heard of people doing this since the day we moved to Boquete, Panama in August 2019. Even so, I just thought the idea was a little crazy.
But then we did the 4×4 tour to the top with our friends, Steve and Courtney, back in October. On the drive down, our guide started telling us about the hike, and for whatever reason, I decided then and there that I wanted to try it.
So I trained, bought some of the right clothes along with a hydration backpack (that worked very well!), and here we are. I hiked up Volcán Barú last Wednesday (1/26/22).
I’ll tell you about the good, the bad, a few of the problems I had, and some of the cool wildlife we stumbled on. Buckle up for the fun journey, folks!
Note: There are a ton of photos in this post. Right-click on any image and choose to open it in a new tab to see a larger version without losing your place in the post.
C’mon, Jim… do you really think you can do this?
I’m not going to waste a lot of time talking about my Volcán Barú training. I did enough of that in my post, Strength Training – One of a Few Big Workout Changes I’ve Made.
But I will say that my motivation was always right in front of me. You gotta understand – the top of this volcano is the highest point in all of Panama… and it’s just a few miles from Boquete where we live.
So we see it all the time from just about anywhere we’re at…
It’s like it’s calling out to me, “Jim, come on, do you really think you can pull this off? Look how majestic I am! Just give up and go drink a beer instead.”
Now, I do like where the volcano’s coming from with that but I actually resisted drinking (for a while now) and just kept training.
How much food and water did you bring?
I over-researched (as I always do) and talked to friends who do things like this on how much food and, more importantly, how much water to bring.
In the end, I think I did pretty well. I drank a 20 oz. Gatorade first thing in the morning before I headed out… mmm, delicious at 4:45 in the morning (please note blatant sarcasm).
My hydration backpack held two liters of water. I also brought two more 20 oz. Gatorades. By the end of the trip, I drank both of those Gatorades plus a little more than 1.5 liters of water. I probably could have finished off the rest of the water, too, but I think my rationing was off since I couldn’t easily tell how much was left.
Overall though, I think I brought the right amount of liquids. It could be different for others (heck, my guide only had about 1 liter of water), but this worked well for me. I’ve also heard others take 4 liters of water to hike Volcán Barú – ouch, that makes for one heavy pack!
Speaking of liquids, I don’t know what was going on, but I peed on poor Volcán Barú probably 20 or more times. I mean, I know I drank a good amount of liquid, but I swear I had to stop every 20-30 minutes to go. I’m sure the guide was rolling his eyes behind my back every time I had to stop!
As far as food goes, I ate an apple shortly after beginning the hike. That was breakfast for me since it was barely after 6 am. On the rest of the way up, I ate a Quest Cookies & Cream Protein Bar (which was surprisingly good!), a banana, and some banana chips.
Once at the top, I ate a Snickers bar (it satisfies, right?!) and a pack of whole-grain peanut butter crackers that I split with my guide.
And that was it. I didn’t eat anything on the way back down and just drank my water periodically. That’s probably the reason why I got a small headache about halfway down… live and learn!
I had other food, too, but I just wasn’t hungry. I gave my guide another Snickers bar I had left and then I still had another Quest bar and a dark chocolate Kind bar with nuts and sea salt.
More importantly, I forgot about the bag of trail mix in the waist pocket of my backpack. That was a party foul because that also meant that I didn’t notice the note Faith had snuck in there for me…
That would have made for a smile on the trip… oops!
All-in-all, my backpack weighed 13 pounds with all my water, food, cold-weather clothes, etc. in it. That’s not too bad and never really felt like too much on my back. And, of course, as I continued to eat and drink what I brought as we trekked along, the lighter my pack became.
Great weather and a lot of wildlife!
First off, I got lucky with regards to the weather. The start of the Volcán Barú trail is essentially always the same temp more or less here (low 60’s in the morning). But up top, it’s usually very cold – I’m talking 30’s to 40’s!
And if you travel at night so you can be there in time for the sunrise, that’s what you can expect. We did the sunrise tour via 4×4 so I can vouch for that!
But it does warm up a bit when the sun is out. Fortunately for me, it was an unusually warm day up there. In fact, I didn’t see much of a difference in temperature at the peak than I did throughout most of the hike. I would bet it was 55-60 degrees up there!
So, I brought a long-sleeve shirt, puffer vest, winter hat, and gloves for nothing. Not only that, it didn’t rain at all, so I never needed the disposable poncho I had packed either. These are good problems to have, people! I’d rather have packed them and not needed them than the other way around.
It was some great weather all around and it was probably around 65-70 degrees for most of the hike. I’m just guessing though since my phone was in airplane mode almost the entire trip to conserve the battery.
If you’re reading this because you’re planning to do the hike yourself, know that the time of year makes a difference. We’re in the dry season in Panama right now (more or less December through April), which, if you haven’t guessed, usually means a lot less rain. January and February are also supposedly the best months to hike up Volcán Barú as well because fewer clouds mean better views from the top.
All bets are off during the rainy season. It’s probably going to be a little bit colder, the trails can get very slippery when muddy, and hiking in the rain can just be miserable in itself.
I asked my guide, Gabriel, about some of the wildlife to expect along the way. A few of the animals he mentioned that I didn’t want to see:
- Mountain lions
- Large snakes
Luckily, we didn’t run into any of those. But we did see a ton of other wildlife, most of which didn’t have a care in the world that we were there. Here are some of the cool wildlife we came across:
Quetzals seem to be the bird that everyone looks forward to seeing in Boquete. In 2½ years here though, we’ve only seen them once – while on a hike on the Pipeline Trail. The day of the hike was different. We heard and watched the quetzals throughout this whole Volcán Barú excursion.
So strange though – I don’t think I got any photos of them.
Gallito de montes (roughly translated to “mountain chickens”)
These were pretty cool. They hung around for a little bit while we were there but as we moved closer they headed back into the brush.
Gabriel spotted a baby tarantula on the hiking trail. I was not disappointed that it was dead though. Still, it was cool to see it…
I heard a lot of birds singing, but would never have seen most of them without Gabriel pointing them out. The guy’s an eagle-eye with this stuff! This little guy blended in very well in the trees…
I was looking off to the side momentarily at one point when we heard a noise and Gabriel pointed out a deer running across the trail about 20 yards ahead of us. I only got a brief look as it ran off, but the animal looked almost reddish instead of the brown ones we have everywhere in the States. I didn’t even know they had deer in Panama!
Pava negra (translates to “black turkey”)
These interesting birds were in the thick of things so I didn’t get a good picture. You can see great pics of them on the eBird site here.
I don’t know the difference between the different species of lizards. However, I saw a couple of small lizards on our Volcán Barú hike. While I was standing on a rock taking a picture of a view of Boquete, this one showed up. It wasn’t alarmed at all with me being there next to it…
You’d think it would be boring to see pigeons since they seem to be everywhere. However, they were interesting here because the songs were something I’d never heard before… very cool.
We have a lot of hummingbirds in Boquete. Most of the ones we saw on the Volcán Barú trail seemed to be so much smaller though. They also made sounds I had never heard before. They move so fast it was hard to get good photos, but I think this fat guy might be one…
We would never have seen all these creatures if we had been driving up. It’s a lot different when you’re hiking, however.
We also likely wouldn’t have seen them if we had hiked up overnight like a lot of folks do. The idea is to get up to the top to see the sunrise. Not only is that technically not allowed right now (lots of folks still sneak in and do it anyway), but you’re in the dark and don’t see anything except the monsters in your head.
And even if you head back down during the light, you’re moving at a much faster pace so it’s tougher to notice them.
So I’m grateful that we saw as much as we did. We paused for several minutes many times just to watch the wildlife. It made for a longer trek, but what’s the hurry? It was great to stop and smell the roses along the way.
Oddly, we didn’t see any coatimundi. The peak had several of them when we went up on the 4×4 tour before. Maybe the crowds draw them in since they know they’re going to get fed.
How’d it go overall?
My guide, Gabriel, picked me up from our place in Valle del Rio about 5:45 am. So it was still early in the morning and slightly dark when we started up the trail at 6:07 am (I told you we’re close to the volcano!).
This might be a letdown to hear, but it wasn’t the march of death I expected on my body. I’m not going to say it wasn’t grueling but it was somewhat easier than I thought it would be. It was still a really tough hike though.
The hike up was easier for me and I believe that’s usually the case for most people. It takes longer than the downhill part, but it’s a lot easier on your body overall.
If you remember the post where I made the decision to hike up Volcán Barú, I was pretty adamant that I wanted to do this hike with Melissa. She’s one tough cookie and I wanted her on team “Route to Retire Conquers a Volcano.”
Well, at the last minute, she wasn’t able to go and I decided to go with another guide rather than wait to try to reschedule this. And so I made the trek with Gabriel, who, I gotta say, was great.
First off, he speaks great English, which is extremely helpful when you’re spending an entire day with someone. Most of the time, he would speak in English and I would try to speak in Spanish (great practice!) much of the time.
But Gabriel also knows this volcano pretty darn well. Get this – our hike was his 254th time hiking Volcán Barú. 254 times!! This is like walking around the block for him by now.
And that was helpful for a few reasons:
- He knew what to do and what not to do.
- He was very well versed in all the wildlife.
- He knew exactly where we were at all times.
So when I would be cruising along just trying to make good time on the way up, he’d slow me down because I was breathing too heavy. When I was attempting to move fast, it actually slowed us down because I had to stop more often. To get acclimated to the altitude change, I needed to move at a slower but steadier pace.
Without his guidance, I might be passed out dead on the side of the trail right now from a heart attack.
He knew the Volcán Barú trail so well that he could always tell me where we were at any time and how much longer until we got to a specific spot (are we there yet?!). He knew each hill too… “ok, this is the last steep incline for probably another 10 minutes.” That kind of input was helpful for me.
And he knows a lot about the animals and birds there. He knew the songs the birds would sing. He’d whistle them and they’d sing right back to him. When there was a rustle in the brush, he knew what kind of creature it was before even seeing it. He pointed out all the wildlife to me – I probably would have missed most of it otherwise.
So a guide might not have been necessary for this trip, but I’m glad I hired one. Well worth it to me. They’re called We Love Boquete Tours if you’re looking to do the Volcán Barú hike or 4×4 drive or any other type of tour in the area.
The trail is well-defined and easy to follow. However, it’s mostly loose rock and that makes it a little less stable and not as easy to walk on. And unless you have a raised 4×4, you’re not going to be driving to the top either.
Halfway up the volcano!
One of the most interesting parts of hiking up Volcán Barú starts at around kilometer 10. It’s nicknamed “La Nevera” which means “The Fridge” in English.
What makes it fascinating is that the name is pretty accurate. As you’re walking, it’s like you suddenly hit a wall of cooler air… it’s probably a good 5 degrees or so cooler. It’s so strange. I don’t know why this is but it stays that way for several minutes of the hiking trail and then the temperature goes back to normal.
Throughout the hike up, I needed to take periodic breaks but not for very long. It was a tough hike up but not too crazy.
But then you get closer to the peak where you can see the cell phone towers all over the place. It’s motivating to know you’re so close but it’s a little demoralizing because it also looks so far away still.
Eventually, we made it to the top. Holy #$%^, I just hiked to the top of Volcán Barú!
At the very top where the white cross stands, there was no one else there. There were only two other hikers at all around there besides us. That’s a lot different than when we came here in October for the sunrise tour. I’m sure hiking it on a Wednesday helped with that. That’s the biggest reason I booked it for that day of the week, too… retirement is great!
The view from the peak is amazing and I took a ton of pictures before we even sat down because the clouds were starting to roll in and I didn’t want to miss my chance.
And boy, did the clouds come rolling in – you could almost touch ’em! I had asked Lisa beforehand to try to take a picture or two of Volcán Barú sometime in the early afternoon from down in Boquete. Here’s what it looked like at 12:10 pm (right before we got to the top)…
And here’s what it looked like by 2 pm from the amphitheater in Valle Escondido where I did a lot of my training…
After about 20 minutes of a Snickers bar reward, a pack of crackers, and a bottle of Gatorade, we were ready to start the journey back down.
And I was still feeling pumped. My energy level was good and I was ready to go.
I also knew though that hiking down is much harder than hiking up. I was trying to be careful because I was worried about my toes and my knees. I just wasn’t happy with the shoes I had for this trip before going, but we’re also moving back soon and I don’t have my hiking boots here. So I was wearing a pair of running shoes that were just a couple of months old but a little tight… ok, but far from great.
And my left knee isn’t as strong as it used to be. Funny enough, while training, my right knee then started complaining sometimes too. So I had a brace on each knee for some support.
I was also using trekking poles, which helped tremendously on the way up and on the way down.
I had researched some strategies to help take pressure off my toes like taking a criss-cross path and doing side steps. The problem though was that this hiking trail is not very accommodating. As I mentioned, it’s a lot of loose rocks with some not-so-safe places to walk on. Because of that, neither of these strategies worked well.
Sure enough, about halfway down, both of my feet started to hurt. I knew it was my toes, but what are you going to do? I had sports tape in my bag and probably should have dealt with it, but hey, bad decision… I kept going.
Add in that I got a headache around that same time, and it made the last couple hours of this Volcán Barú hiking trip not so pleasant. The headache could have been from not eating enough, not drinking enough, or simply because of the altitude change. It wasn’t too bad though so… I just kept going.
We had a vehicle pull up alongside us that was heading down and asked if we wanted a ride. They already had some hikers in the car that we had met at the top.
No thanks! Even a little pain isn’t going to stop me from completing this mission by accepting a bailout car ride.
And, I made it… obviously. This would have been a weird post if I was still stuck on the volcano typing it.
It was such a feeling of pride when I got to the bottom. I set out to hike Volcán Barú, knew it would be difficult, and came through. What a feeling of accomplishment!
My Volcán Barú hiking results and stats
So what were the results from hiking Volcán Barú?
I’d say they were about average. We left the car to start hiking on the trail at 6:07 am and got back to the car at 5:16 pm.
I used an app called Outdooractive to track the entire excursion and, as usual, it did its job well. As a side note, I had my phone in airplane mode, but I ran this app that used the GPS the whole time in the background and I took a ton of pictures and videos throughout. Even so, I still had about 35% battery life on my Samsung Galaxy S21 phone when we got back to the car.
Here’s what Outdooractive had to say about the Volcán Barú hike…
I kept track of the time outside of the app as well. In a nutshell, it took just over 6 hours to hike to the top of Volcán Barú. We hung around up top to take pictures and have lunch for about a half-hour. Then we headed back down and that took about 4 hours.
So, even with us stopping to take a lot of photos and videos along the way and hanging out with all the wildlife, we still knocked out the hike in a very reasonable amount of time.
The other facet I was interested to see was my total steps for the entire day. This probably won’t surprise you, but Samsung Health reported this to be my personal record… and I’m not disputing that!
Now, it is possible that I delicately walked an extra 300 steps on the heels of my feet with my phone in hand at home just to push that number over the 45k mark… it had to be done!
So, I’m definitely happy with my overall results. I wasn’t aiming for it to be a race and we weren’t in a hurry. Still, it would have been an embarrassment to me if the times were crazy off the charts.
Awesome photos throughout
I took 399 photos and videos throughout my Volcán Barú hike. That’s a lot! And if my OCD knew the photo/video count, it probably would have forced me to take one more photo!
But I always take extra pictures and delete the duplicates that aren’t that good. I’ll probably still end up with a whopping 200 pictures and videos once I get through them all. It’s still a lot, but I got a lot of great shots.
It was cool because we went up early in the morning. Some of the views were right before sunrise and then in the early morning. On the way down, some of those same landscapes were so much different later in the day with the sun fully up. That helped pave the way for more fantastic pictures the second time!
I can’t share them all or I’d run out of space on my web host, but here are some of the shots I like other than the ones from the top I already showed you…
A few minor injuries
Volcán Barú didn’t leave me as beat up as I thought it would.
When I got back home, even after this monster hike, I still took the steps instead of the elevator inside our building… elevators are for wusses. It was only to the second floor, but I figured, what’s the difference now?
As I walked to our door, I was greeted with this…
And then the girls blew off party poppers when I walked through the door… what a family!
As I stripped off my backpack and clothes, that was my first opportunity to see if hiking Volcán Barú did any big damage. Luckily, there wasn’t much, but I did have a few minor injuries.
The worst was that I had a blister on each of my big toes. That’s what caused some pain during the second half of the hike down.
I also had one slightly purple toe (the 4th toe) that looks a little bruised but fortunately, it didn’t hurt…
But as of yesterday, it’s looking a lot more “purplier” (I made that awesome word up!). I think my poor little toenail is destined to fall off in the near future. I’ll miss you, little fella – you’ll be a way to remember this Volcán Barú trip over the next year while you grow back!
Then there was some chafing on the back of one of my legs from wearing my knee brace. I didn’t have the same problem with my other leg because the brace on that leg was just a sleeve.
And finally, I had a little bit of sunburn. This likely occurred on the way down. I wore a wide-brimmed hat on the way up and that sheltered the top of my head and the back of my neck. On the way down, we were mostly heading toward the sun but it didn’t seem very sunny so I didn’t wear it much… I guess it was though!
Wow, I sure talk a lot (over 4,400 words!)! But there were a few good reasons for that with this post:
- I’m proud of this accomplishment and really wanted to share the details.
- There are others who might want to do this same hike and want all the information they can get.
- The scenery was amazing and needs to be shared. The pictures are only a fraction of how good it really looked, but I think they still came out fairly well.
And, in case you’re wondering, I don’t plan to be crushing mountains every weekend like my friend, Dave from Accidental Fire (who also helped me with a lot of great advice before I did this). But, I can’t say this will be my last trip either… time will tell!
Hiking Volcán Barú was something that I just felt the need to do before we move from Panama and I’m so glad I did it. It’s a triumph that I’m proud to have knocked out!
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