Jan 05

Volcano for New Years

The sun makes it first appearance of 2013 in Panama.

The lead up to New Years

We arrived in Boquete in shambles, I was scraped and bruised and slightly shredded, Tony was in pieces and not worth much more than scrap aluminium.  It was raining.  I checked into Mamallena’s, a hostel in central Boquete that I had been hearing about by word of mouth for months, and before doing anything I went upstairs and got on Skype to make my belated Christmas calls to family.

I felt beat-up, but spirits were still pretty high.  I wasn’t going anywhere until after New Years anyways, there was no bike mechanic in Boquete, and the rain matched my mood perfectly and gave me the excuse I didn’t need to take it easy the rest of the day.

We begin our hike in the final minutes of 2012

The next day, with the help of Miguel, the owner of Mamallena, we drove Tony down to the city of David and submitted him to the care of a mechanic there.  We were going to have to rebuild two wheels, and once that was done and Tony was rolling again, I could have another look at him and see what needed to be taken care of.

We picked him up the next day, and I spent that afternoon cleaning him up and getting him into working order.  He was rolling now, but I also had discovered that the front disc brake was no longer working.  Because of the rim I had on the front wheel, I couldn’t switch to V-brakes like I had in the back, and because my rims are special I couldn’t get a different rim.  In the end I just dismantled the brake telling myself that I could easily do the 40 km ride down to David without it.  Then, perhaps we could get it fixed there.

I got drunk that night.  Very, very drunk.  My indulgence was fueled courtesy of the free rum provided by Miguel, and the next day was a write off as I was bed-ridden with a serious hangover until the late afternoon.  It was more than just your typical hangover though and I woke the day after that to find that I had come down with some sort of illness, sweats and vomiting included.

The rest of the week I did very very little.  I had become a sort-of unofficial volunteer at the hostel, and helped out with driving, translation, and BBQs from time to time in return for the help and favors that Miguel had been giving me.  There wasn’t much to do in the actual town of Boquete, and the wet weather prohibited me from doing what I had come to do: hike.  I was in a lazy mood as well which meant that I spent my time eating, chatting, and watching movies rather than catching up with my blog and finishing the spanish book Cascabel I was half-way through.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I was getting fed up with myself for having sat on my ass for a week.  I wanted to do something to start the year off right.  The day before I had turned down the offer of a ride and free place to stay at Bocas del Toro.  Everyone was heading to Bocas for New Years and what was assured to be a huge party.  I turned the offer down though because I had already had enough of drunken revelry for one year.    That last hangover had been a red-flag for me.  If I looked back at the last couple of months and I could see that I had been drinking much more than usual, and on the days I was drinking, I was drinking much more heavily than normal.  This was less the behaviour of a care-free reveler enjoying life, and more the behaviour of a worn-out traveler drinking to escape.  I knew I needed to keep that poor, tired soul in check.  The very last thing I wanted to do was start the year off with a hangover.

I decided, weather permitting, that I would do the midnight hike up to the top of Volcan Baru, and welcome the first sunrise of the year from the summit.  That, I decided, would be welcoming in the New Year in style.

Waiting for sunrise…

Climbing the Volcano

Volcan Baru, at 3475m (11,400ft) is the highest point in Panama and one of only two mountains in Central America from which you can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans (on a clear day).  Climbing the volcano was one the the main reasons I had come to Boquete.  I figured that I had bounced back and forth from Pacific to Atlantic so many times this trip that it would be nice to see them both at the same time.

Fortunately I would not be doing the hike alone and, to my surprise and delight, no less than 10 others from the hostel would be climbing it as well.

A midnight hike on New Years to the top of Volcan Baru is a tough hike to prepare for.  You want to take a nap, but with fireworks going off and New Years

festivities under way, you will be lucky to squeeze in a power nap just before setting out.  You will be hiking at night, so you need to pack torches and headlamps.  At the top of the volcano the temperatures can get down to freezing and the wind chill factor is not something to be under-estimated, so you need to pack a lot or warm clothes.  You are almost guaranteed to get some rain, so pack your rain coat.  Finally, you will be doing hard hiking for about 12 hours, so make sure you pack enough food and water.

It was 23:30 when we got dropped of at the trailhead and started in silence the 13.5 km (1600m (5300 ft) elevation gain) hike to the top.  We had the perfect weather for the hike, which was miraculous considering how bad the weather had been all week, and we hiked in the quiet moonlight leaving our headlamps dangling around our necks.  It was a long slow slog, in part because it was tough going, in part because as we added more layers we needed to stop more often to cool off, and finally because we were in no rush.  Sunrise was at 6am, and to get to the summit early would only mean waiting longer in the cold windy darkness.

We got there just in time.  The last 100 m was an easy scramble up and across a rock formation until you arrived at the top of all of Panama, the summit marked with a large concrete cross covered in graffiti.  We arrived in complete darkness, with an icy cold wet wind whipping over us, and as we stood by the cross we had absolutely no visual confirmation of the vast emptiness that surrounded us on all sides, but by instinct we knew it was there.   We had spent only about ten minutes on the top, posing for in-the-dark photos, when Steffan shouted out, “Hey there is the sunrise!”.  We all turned and looked as one at the eastern horizon and watched as the faint blue smudge slowly widened, lightened, and reddened, gradually filling the sky and beating back the darkness.  Then, in a single moment, the sun came up.  It rose in an explosion of orange and blood-red, reflecting brightly off a patch of pacific coastline and poking up above the cloud layer that was spread out far below us.  We all stood behind a rock that shielded us from the cold wind and bore witness as the first sunlight of 2013 spread out on the land around us and painted the the sky itself orange as waves of fog continued to drift by our perch far above the horizon.

It was a new year now, and anything was possible.  Happy 2013 everyone!


For more photos of the Volcano Climb go here




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