Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The hike.

When P.I.C. and I began narrowing down our cities to where we would travel in Panama, one we wanted to hit for sure was Boquete. Meaning "hole," Boquete is a beautiful town in the highlands of Panama, surrounded by lush, tropical mountains and flanked on one side by Volcán Barú, the only volcano in Panama. Additionally, Volcán Barú's summit is the highest in Panama, towering over the other mountains at 3,474 meters (or 11,398 feet for you non-metric users).

We knew Boquete would be an excellent destination because coffee is a huge industry. We love our coffee. We also wanted to do something rather daring and adventuresome. Maybe white-water rafting or a zip-line tour. One day, during the course of my research, I discovered that we could hire a guide to take us to the top of the volcano. Given that the hike was somewhat strenuous (13.5 kilometers up and then 13.5 kilometers back down), many recommended to break the trip up into two days and camp at the top. Talk about an adventure, right? I found one company that not only would provide a guide, but also would provide camping equipment for this adventure, Explora Ya. Perfect. We would hike starting early morning, camp near the top, and then we would climb to the summit before sunrise to watch the sun come up over the mountains. If we were truly lucky and there was a clear moment in the morning, we would be able to see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, allegedly the only place you can stand in the world and see two major bodies of water.

As an aside, I feel it prudent for me to note at this time that P.I.C. and I are not campers. While I have camped in the past, it had been years since I attempted to stake a tent into the ground. P.I.C. had never camped in his entire life. Additionally, while we walk a great deal in the city, we don't hike. Face it, Chicago is flat, and any hiking opportunities in the region do not boast terrain full of mountains, or even large hills. Not that we ever really hiked in any state parks or anything either. While this information was common knowledge to the both of us, we shrugged it off. We were going to be HIKERS. And we were going to CAMP. ADVENTURE, COMMENCE!

We meticulously purchased hiking gear (shoes, pants, rain jackets and the like) and planned accordingly for the hike. We packed warm gear, not a problem since we were coming from Chicago in December. We brought hike-worthy snacks. We bought our four liters of water the day before. We were ready. We had our backpacks all set. No worries!

We got to Boquete, checked into our hostel and later that evening received a visit from one of the guides at Explora Ya. He wanted to check in to make sure we were set. He advised us to bring our big backpacks since we would be carrying our own sleeping bags, mats, tent and food. We both have the big backpacks, mostly because they make traveling from place to place a bit easier. We both used them in Europe. Never, however, had we used these bags for actual camping. He also gave us the once over and declared us in good enough shape to go on the hike. (That bit made us both laugh.) Still, I was not feeling anxious. Hiking equals WALKING, right? Come on now. I walk all the time. Bring it on, volcano!

Sadly, our night of sleep was disturbed by some serious rooster crowage. I thought they only crowed at sunrise? No. Apparently 3:30 is good enough to break out the cock-a-doodle-doos. We didn't sleep well. The alarm went off too early. No matter, we were packed and ready. We went over to the Explora Ya office and loaded up our packs with the food, our sleeping bags (oh, THAT is what that little compartment is for!), the sleeping mats and the tent. They were somewhat heavy, but we could handle it. No problem.

The guide drove us to the highest point at the base of the volcano, a mere two to three minute walk up to the ranger station. We strapped our packs on and were off. Five minutes later, we arrived at the ranger station. I felt as though my chest would explode. Oh. Altitude. Duh. I forgot about that. We were started at over 1,000 meters above sea level. That is a big different than trekking around flat Chicago sidewalks, I suppose. My heart was beating in my throat and I could not believe how difficult it was for me to catch my breath. For the first time (and not the last that day), I thought, "I cannot do this." The signatures were made in the ranger station and I ignored those feelings of defeat. I pushed on. We began to hike.

The scenery was breath-taking. While my photos do look lovely, the actual panoramic while you are there, gasping for air, climbing higher and higher is enough to take away what little breath you have remaining in your body. Spectacular, truly. We would hike for a bit, then rest, occasionally taking off our heavy packs to let our shoulders rest. Our guide, Rafael, was incredibly knowledgeable not only about the trail, but also about the birds and plants we encountered on our hike. It made for a fun and very informative trip. Turns out, we were not hiking through a rain forest. Because we were over 1,000 meters above sea level, we were in a tropical cloud forest. I liked that. It sounds even MORE magical than a rain forest.

By the time we got to the five kilometer mark, I was struggling. I had to rest every few minutes or so. My breath was becoming more and more difficult to catch. We stopped for lunch. At this point, I was really worried. We were barely to the half-way mark, and I was having serious issues. We heard a rumble in the distance. Our guide told us it was probably an ATV tour. Apparently, the rocky trail was enough to take an ATV to the top, another fun adventure that only took a couple or hours or less. Sure enough a group of ATVs came roaring through. They paused though, stopping to chat with our guide. Sure enough, they all knew each other. After some chatting, they offered to take our bags to the top.



They took our bags from us. We were free to walk up the hill unencumbered by the twenty-five or so pounds we had attached to our backs. Our shoulders rejoiced, and we continued our journey up the volcano. Still, it was difficult, but at no point did I think that I would have to quit. True, at the last 100 meters, P.I.C. had to coax me up twenty-five steps at a time. I did it though. Well, we did it. I wouldn't have been able to do it without his gentle encouragement.

We got to the top a little before 4:00 p.m. Even without our bags for half of the hike, it took us nearly eight hours to reach the top. We set up camp at the telecommunications base to shield us from the wind. It was very cold at the top, so we bundled up in our hats, gloves and extra sweatshirts. We put the tents up, then sat down and had some wine. Shortly after that, we had our dinner: chicken and rice. It hit the spot after a very long day of physical exertion. We went into the tent at about 6:00 p.m. with the idea that we would take a nap and wake up to see the stars later. We woke up, but only to the sound of a hard rain pelting our tent. Back to sleep we went until about 11:30 p.m. We both had to get up, so we had the opportunity to check out the night view. The rain had let up and the skies cleared to show us the magnificence of the sky and the stars. Never in my entire life have I seen so many stars. It was tremendous. We were exhausted, however, and made our way back to the tent for more sleep.

Rafael woke us a little before 6:00 a.m. It was time to climb to the summit and watch the sunrise. I threw new contacts in (how I accomplished this with my cold and grubby fingers was beyond me. Say what you will, but hand sanitizer doesn't make your hands feel truly clean.) and were out of the tent as soon as we were able. We began the last 20 meters to "la clima." There was a brief assent, then we had to climb up some rocks. It wasn't intense as in "we should have had ropes," but both P.I.C. and I confessed to each other that it was enough to make us feel like we were on a Mission Impossible.

We reached the top for the sunrise. Words can't do it justice. Honestly. That says a lot for me, a woman clearly of many, many words. We felt as though we were on top of the clouds.

A semi-lovely morning, we were able to see the sun rise, the Pacific Ocean and the mountains of Costa Rica. It was too cloudy to see the Caribbean Sea (we were lucky to see that up close and personal a few days later), but the views unobstructed by clouds were marvelous. Shortly after the sun was up, the clouds came in and we climbed back down the rocks to our camp site.

We packed up and headed on down. Because it had rained, conditions were slick. I fell. Four times, in fact. I was tired, it was slippery, and my legs felt as though they were made of jello. It was hard to remain upright. The journey down was more business and less sight-seeing. We made it down to the bottom in under six hours with our packs the entire time.

We. Did. It.

In retrospect, I think we were absolutely insane to embark on such a challenging and intense hike. We should have settled for one of the half-day hikes and called it a day. However, I would never take back the experience and the sense of accomplishment I felt at reaching the top. It was incredible. The views were spectacular, and really, when can you say you hiked to the top of a volcano? Not that often. In the event you have a momentary lapse in sanity, I highly recommend the guides from Habla Ya/Explora Ya. They were very knowledgeable, professional and very fun. It's not a cheap tour, but since we were not great hikers, we wanted to go with a person who knew what he (or she) was doing.

Also, we were incapable of walking for three days after this. Seriously.

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