Baru Volcano – The Highest Point in Panama…and Toughest Hike I’ve Ever Done

If you want to stand at the highest point in Panama, you better get ready for a challenge

“Baru Volcano. The only place on Earth where you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from land. It takes about six hours up and about four to five hours down. Might be quite difficult”.

This was the entry I had made in to my Google Travel Map. Long before travelling full time, I would drop pins in various places across the globe. When something caught my attention, if I thought there was a chance to visit it one day, I would record it. I’ve no recollection of dropping a pin in Baru Volcano. Yet, I was visiting Boquete in Panama and Baru Volcano was just down the road.

Baru Volcano Fields
The rolling fields at the start of the ascent are a beautiful sight

Thinking long and hard, I decided there was no need to put myself through such an ordeal and was going to skip it. Then I had a revelation. Whilst trekking to ‘The Lost Waterfalls’, I suddenly felt an urge to do something which put me in a very uncomfortable position. A test of will some might say. Perhaps a moment of clarity. Not allowing enough time to change my mind, that evening I set an alarm for 5AM. Baru Volcano was on!

A large porridge breakfast inside me I walked 1.5km in to Boqueute to find a Collectivo. “This will be a good little warm up for the trek ahead” I thought to myself.

In the Collectivo, the driver was accelerating at great speed in to every corner, bending and turn. Throwing the passengers around from side to side, narrowly avoiding dogs and school children in the process. Loud dance music blasted out the bus speakers. “Let’s Go! You can do it!” the lyrics shouted. This felt like a spin class. Motivation music included (but minus nearly running over kids!).

Baru Volcano Entrance Path
Here we go…

At 6:30AM, I alone got dropped off at the Baru Volcano National Park entrance. Looking at the dusty trail ahead, one thing entered my mind. “Oh crap!” It looked steep. It WAS steep! A huge ascent beckoned me. I expected as much. But laughing at the entrance sign which appeared to suggest you shouldn’t feed hamburgers to wild deers, I smiled to myself and thought “here I go.

Baru Volcano National Park Entrance Sign
I was so full of energy at the start 😉

And ‘go’ I did. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect. A cool breeze, the sun starting to burst through the clouds and just the song of birds to keep me company. Onwards. Upwards. This was going to be tough.

Yet 40 minutes in to the trek I’d gone 2km. Signs tell you how far you’ve been and how much further there is to go. At this point I should state the trek up is 13.5km. The only way back down is the way you came. A further 13.5km!

So far, it hadn’t been too bad. Of course, it wasn’t easy, but I was managing just fine. Light relief came at 2.5km as the path descended. Yet light relief turned to upset. If you go down, you’re going to have to go up even harder!

Baru Volcano Sunrise
The sunrise was gorgeous and a perfect start to the trek

Go up harder I did. Baru Volcano doesn’t let up. The path twists. It turns. It feels like it will never end. A moment of joy arrived just over two hours in to the trek. A man in an unintentionally silly hat came skipping, jumping and dancing towards me. His phone blaring out “Everywhere I go, every smile I see, I can see your face, staring back at me.” It was Janet Jackon’s ‘Together Again’. I had to laugh. I also had to wonder if I was hallucinating.

Dusty gravel hiking path
The path is steep

Silly hat guy had spent the night on the Baru Volcano. He asked how much further he had to descend. When I said I was two hours in, he blurted an expletive and then laughed. To each other, we must have both looked tired. “Hey we’re here once, right?” I said. “Damn right!” he echoed.

I had been coping well, but after three hours when I got to 7.5km I started to really feel the ascent. My mind wanted to continue, but my legs didn’t. Voluntarily, they just stopped. It’s an experience I’ve never known before. Unwillingly, my legs had decided what was going to happen, not my brain. I’d walk 20 steps and then freeze. What the hell was happening!!

Over the years I have been fortunate to undertake some incredible treks. Everest Base Camp in Nepal. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala. But Baru Volcano, this was kicking my ass!

Sad trekking face
With 7.5km behind me and another 6km to the summit, my ass had well and truly been kicked!

For the first time in my life, in any situation, I actually had doubts. “Can I do this? What if I can’t make it?

A trek had turned in to a battle of wills. Sitting down and tucking in to a peanut butter sandwich, I wondered what might happen. Would I suddenly be defeated?

No way! I can’t be defeated!

I tried to get it together. Taking it as slowly as my legs would allow. When I reached the sign saying there was 5km to go, I could have cried. Never in my life did I imagine I would be happy to only have a further 5km to walk up a volcano.

When I reached 10km, with just 3.5km to go, I caught the first glimpse of the peak. Satellites and antennas dot the horizon and peak of the Baru Volcano summit. It looked so close, but so far away. It also looked high. REALLY high! What had come before was only going to get tougher. “I’m coming for you. I’m going to do it. I will stand on that peak and for a brief few moments, I WILL be the highest person in Panama”. There was no turning back.

I battled on!

Dusty and rocky hiking tral
You can’t get lost on the trail as it’s one path, but don’t turn left at this sign; it’s placed the wrong way around!

Every foot step was agony. Lifting one leg, putting it in front of the other. I was moving like the sloths I had seen in Costa Rica, albeit it without their beautiful carefree smiles.

When it came to the final stages, every turn made me think I was nearly there. I was, but not quite. Reaching the satellite pylons, I knew it was almost over.

The final challenge awaited.

Tree carving of a face in Panama
I’d started to lose my mind at this point in the trek!

Marking the peak of Baru Volcano is a large white cross. I could see it, but getting there required a scramble on all fours over a series of boulders. One foot wrong and you could have descended hundreds of metres to your death. Today was not the day I was going to die.

Ready to keel over, exhausted, elated and happy to be alive, six hours after starting I staggered to the summit. Arms stretched out I hugged the large white cross like I’ve never hugged anything before. I just wanted something or someone to tell me it was going to be ok and this was the only thing around.

White Cross Top of Baru Volcano
This white cross is at the peak. At this stage, I just wanted someone to hols me and tell me everything was going to be ok

Nobody else was here. It was just me, the clouds and an overwhelming sense achievement. I couldn’t believe I was there. For those moments, stood hugging a cross, I was the highest person in all Panama. The entire country waited below.

In guide books, rumours persist that you can see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from here. It’s tosh! There’s no photos online and I’ve never met a traveller that has seen either ocean. Yet it doesn’t matter. Being there was more about a battle of wills, than ‘seeing the sights’.

I watched the clouds roll past me and float over the valley below. I was here. I had done it. A triumph of which I can barely describe. I was on cloud nine!

For 40 minutes I soaked it up. Would I ever experience such accomplishment again? Who knows, but it was time to descend. The hard work had been done, but I had to return down via the same 13.5km route.

View From Baru Volcano Peak
View from the summit of Baru Volcano

Going down was a walk in the park compared to going up. Sure, it’s not easy to walk that far when your legs had previously decided to leave the party. Yet at that moment in time, I could have achieved anything.

For the next three and a half hours I strutted down Baru Volcano. In mind I was John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. With ripped leg muscles I probably looked more like Vince McMahon, ashamedly hobbling towards the ring in that classic meme.

Broadcast Towers on a Volcano
Volcanoes don’t usually have broadcast towers at the top, but the dark clouds make them look spectacular

En route I passed such glorious wildlife. The birds sang more clearly. Coatis crossed my path and seemed to nod at my achievement. It was beautiful. My senses overloaded with the world around me.

On reaching the end, the sun was starting to set. It was now 5:30 PM and I had spent an entire day traversing a volcano. I made it!

Baru Volcano wasn’t about summiting. It wasn’t even about exquisite scenery. It was a mind game. Something which I pitched myself against and won. I’ll be forever grateful for such an experience.

Do you have to trek Baru Volcano in the night?

Prior to undertaking the Baru Volcano hike, it was hard to find information about trekking in the day. Noone seems to do it. The standard suggestion is to start the hike at 11:00 PM and arrive at the summit for sunrise. I’m fortunate to have hiked sunrises all over the world and knew this one was going to be a huge challenge. Did I really need to do it through the night? At a time when it was going to be even harder? My conclusion was no, I do not!

I was so happy with my decision. There was no one else summiting in the day and personally, I felt this gave me a unique experience. In addition I got to experience the wealth of wildlife on the trail, having previously read there isn’t any! (Maybe there isn’t in the middle of the night).

Fields and dusty trails
You’d miss all this scenery on a night time ascent

Can you see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit of Baru Volcano?

Guidebooks and websites talk about this. Yet I’ve still not seen picture evidence. Meeting other travellers who summited, none of them had seen the twin oceans either. They had also done the overnight hike and in theory, the weather should be more clear first thing in the morning. Perhaps it’s possible to see the oceans, but it would need to be the most perfect of perfect days! Or maybe, it’s just one of those travel rumours! Don’t get your hopes up.

How do I get to Baru Volcano?

f you are trekking overnight, your accommodation will be able to arrange a taxi to collect you at 11:00PM for $5 USD. This is the standard price.

To get to Baru Volcano by public transport, Collectivos depart one block north of the central park in Boquete. They start running around 06:00AM and leave regularly. The cost is $2 and you are dropped off at the National Park entrance. On the return journey, you will likely have to walk 1.5km down hill from the park entrance and flag down a Collectivo. Fortunately, two lovely Polish trekkers on their way to Baru Volcano stopped their hire car to ask me about the trail and then offered to drive me back to Boquete. Thanks guys, I’ll forever be indebted to you after such a tiring day!

How much does it cost to visit Baru Volcano?

The National Park entrance fee is supposed to be $5 USD, but the ranger station is often unmanned and you may not end up paying. I have read that when exiting the National Park, if the ranger is in attendance they may stop you to chat. Sometimes they charge the $5 USD, sometimes they don’t.

Whether you pay or not, it’s cheap for such a challenging and incredible experience.


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