Climbing Volcán Barú – Panama, Central America

I was part of a small group of teenagers who were huddled by the side of the road in the early morning sun, still a smudge of pink on the horizon, stars still glittering faintly. The truck that had brought us to this isolated spot on a bumpy journey through the darkness was now only a spot of black in its own dusty cloud, speeding down the rough road until it could be seen no more. We were alone. Surrounding the road was rainforest, nothing but rainforest. It stretched in every direction, dark, dense and full of noise so that it seemed as though the forest was a living breathing thing, sinister and dark. Volcán Barú towered up into the gradually lightening sky, a seemingly never ending rise of forest before disappearing into clouds far above.

This adventurous and slightly foolhardy group was undertaking a phenomenal challenge, to climb Volcan Baru, the tallest mountain in Panama. It summits at 3,474 meters and takes over a day to climb along its muddy rainforest trails. In the muggy heat of June, this would be an even greater challenge. After our final checks, ensuring we had our camping supplies, food and enough water to last the whole trek, we left the dusty road, a place of relative civilisation, and followed the narrow train that would lead us into the wilderness, the only route into the dense dark mystery. Almost immediately after leaving the road, the twisting ribbon of dirt we were following started to creep up the mountainside; it slowed our pace since we needed to conserve energy to complete our ten-hour hike for the day.

The heat at the lower stage of the climb was oppressive; temperature and humidity rapidly increased as the early morning sun crept higher into the sky and would continue until the midday sun had passed. Added to this was the increasing slope of the uphill slog. We hikers slowed again in the increased heat, sweat collecting on our foreheads refusing to evaporate in the already saturated air. The coolness of the morning had gone; we felt tired, sluggish and sticky with dirt and sweat. However we pushed on knowing we would reach a point where the altitude would cause the air to cool, even a little bit. One feature of this dense humid air was that it stopped us from becoming dehydrated.

The monotony of the uphill slog was broken by the appearance of monkeys: spider monkeys racing overhead, white faced monkeys swinging from branch to branch and howler monkeys calling across the vastness of the canopy. We experienced an amazing display of howler monkeys; their sound started as a noise in the distance like the barking of angry dogs growing louder and louder, similar to the terrifying approach of predators. Soon branches were snapping, leaves were falling down, the barks became deafening howls. Just as quickly, they were gone. We stood frozen in shock as the monkeys' cries and howls faded, replaced by the chatter and hum of birds and insects.

The climb was tougher in late morning; the trail steeper and rougher. We had to scramble over rock ledges which became bigger and more difficult to climb as we went higher. Thankfully the air had become cooler and fresher, giving an exuberance to the team. The scrambling, muddy climb continued until the forest began to thin, open out and disappear altogether. We came to a tiny clearing and saw the shear enormity of the mountain before us. ooking back from where they had come they the road they had left behind in the early morning was just visible, fading into the distance just a brown slither tracing a path through a sea of green. Looking further along the path in the direction still to climb the steep slope of Volcan Baru towered before them and astounding distance still to travel seen almost impossible. Apart from the spectacular panoramic view their vantage point offered showing nothing rainforest and green until the view was swallowed into the heat haze there was one unfortunate one unfortunate sight. Before their pathway wound its way up the mountain side it first wound its way down into a valley between the summit that they currently stood on and the main feature. This was a disheartening thought as they gazed down into the incredibly deep valley and thought of all the height they had just climbed and how much of it they would essentially have to climb again.

So it was somewhat reluctantly that the little group left their beautiful vantage point and stumbled back into the dark forest once again. They followed the winding path down into the deep valley with the thought that with every step they were only adding the already colossal uphill climb. However when the group once again began their uphill climb it became thankfully obvious that this part of the climb would not have the same extreme rocky conditions as the last part. The pathway ran smoothly through an ever thinning forest slowly creeping its way up the mountain side. At this stage of the climb the forest had changed from the more dense forests of the lowland to cloud forest. The forest now had a lighter airy feel, a cool breeze ruffled the branches and the intense background buzz of the insects seemed to fade a little. This combined with the cool air at this altitude and the glimpse of sunshine through the gaps in the canopy made it a more enjoyable place to hike.

Higher and higher this brave little group climbed and with each passing hour the air rapidly cooled and the forest began to thin out to the point it was more the scattering of trees than an actual forest. The trees became sparser and sparser dense forest fading into shrubs and bushes with the odd dwarf tree dotting the landscape. Looking back along the path they had travelled this changing landscape created an awe inspiring sight, simply the vast nothingness of the landscape and their insignificance in it. The group paused taking in this astounding sight as well as to pull on hats and jumpers to fight off the ever cooling air temperature which made the hot sticky forest of the morning seem a million miles away.

The assent after leaving this last pit-stop behind them the hike was difficult in a whole different way from before. They now found themselves scrambling up rock scree slopes that shifted dangerously underfoot sending showers of rocks scattering down the mountain side. At times when they did not have to battle with this ever shifting ground they had to shuffle along narrow ledges fingers scrambling on the bare rock face trying not to topple over into shear drop on one side. This final accent to the crater was the most testing but also offered some of the most spectacular views of hike now that all the trees were far bellow them. Soon they had left the last stunted tree behind them with the last sign of life, a small humming bird fluttering through its branches and they ascended through the clouds into a land of grey and brown rock.

Once the hikers had passed through the dense fog into the strange quiet lifeless world above the cloud there destination for the day was insight. The edge of Volcan Baru’s colossal crater towered above them a cracked and rocky outcrop towering up towards the sky. During this home stretch the group were spurred on by the promise of finally getting to rest there aching feet but it was deceptively far away because of the impossibility of finding anything to give perspective or scale in the strange moon-like landscape. Their destination was constantly just out of reach, forever slipping away from them and forever on the horizon. Eventually after over an hour of scrambling over this rugged terrain they clambered over the edge of the crater and stumbled down the other side into the huge flat wasteland which was once a lake of molten rock. This blessedly flat stretch of land although filled with rubble would serve as a campsite for the night. The exhausted teenagers stumbled through the routine of setting up camp and making a quick small dinner before crawling into their cramp tents and divining into there sleeping bags fully clothed and shivering as the night crept in and temperatures plummeted.

The group woke in the early hours of the morning while the sky was still dark except for a smattering of brilliant stars more astounding than it was possible to comprehend. They stumbled groggily and sleepily out of their tents despite the freezing temperatures and hurriedly packed up their campsite to complete the final accent before sunrise. Stumbling exhausted towards the path once more with aching muscles and eyes squinting in the darkness there was only once thought in everyone’s mind- ‘please don’t let it be much further’. Thankfully this wish was answered and after only a relatively sort hour scampering up the rocky pathway, trying not to stumble as they clambered over the rocky outcrops the group eventually reached the summit. Bizarrely placed at the very summit and marking the highest point in Panama was a huge cross which was probably originally white but was now covered in the graffiti signatures of all those who had come before.

Just as the small group reached this strange spectacle the sun peaked over the horizon lighting up the Atlantic Ocean and turning the sky pink and orange before throwing its rays all away across the land and glittering on the Passific Ocean on the opposite coastline. Before them the group could see the great Costa Rica rainforests stretching out into the distance seeming almost infinite. To the south the rest of Panama lay below them and the Panama Canal was just visible in the distance glittering in the early light cutting the country into two. In this gradually waking world this small group of Scottish teenagers surveyed the vastness of the Central American wilderness and knew that the climb had been worth every second of hard work because this place and this moment was indescribably beautiful. It was perfect.