Volcán Barú is the highest mountain in Panama and can be climbed as a day walk. In good weather the summit presents a rare opportunity to view ocean on both sides of the Central American isthmus. The ascent starts near the coffee town of Boquete and follows a 4WD track through cloud forest to an array of communications equipment near the summit.
The walk is often started at around midnight and completed by mid-morning. This approach avoids afternoon downpours and can enable you to see dawn over both oceans.
Situation and history
The trail is situated within Volcán Barú National Park. The park was formed in 1976 and covers 35,400 acres.
The ascent to the summit can be broken into four sections: the lower section, the main body of the trail, the undulating upper section to the refuge, and the final steep section to the summit.
From the sealed road start walking up the steep rocky 4WD track. After a couple of minutes you will pass the ranger station on the left. Theoretically there is a fee of ~$10 to access the park but at night the building often isn’t manned to collect the fee. After a few more minutes the road flattens somewhat and the track follows the contour of the land past farmland. Quetzals are known to nest in this area so be on the lookout during daylight. The trail then climbs again, passes a private hut before passing through a road cutting and down briefly into a valley.
The next section, covering most of the trail length, is basically a steady ascent. There are occasional views back down towards Boquete. Stands of mature trees provide habitat for birds and you may smell mammal sign, even if you don’t see them.
About 7km from the start the main ascent has been completed. The trail now winds up and down towards the base of the peak. There are excellent views of good condition cloud forest from the track, although binoculars would be required to spot wildlife. There are several flat sections where the water ponds on the trail and you may need to traverse into the bush briefly to avoid wet feet. After a final ascent you reach a motley collection of flat grass areas and the refuge. The facilities are underwhelming but camping is possible and it’s a good place to rest in comparative shelter before the final summit ascent. This is particularly relevant if you are hiking up for dawn and don’t want to be exposed on the summit for too long.
From the refuge the 4WD track snakes up the hillside with increasing steepness. After about 20min walk you arrive at a collection of soulless buildings and mesh fencing which service an array of large communication antennae. Turning right past this uninspiring development the 4WD track ends and a brief, narrow trail continues up over some precarious rocks to the summit. Caution is recommended on your way up this final section, particularly when passing others. There is ample room at the summit itself to sit and relax next to the large white cross.
Weather dependant, you may see both the Caribbean sea and the Pacific Ocean far below. The mountains of Costa Rica are often visible to the west. If you arrive for sunrise then it is worth spotting the enormous triangular shadow of the volcano as it forms and then creeps in from the Pacific as the sun rises.
Planning Your Trip
The total trip typically takes around 11 hours. This includes about 5hrs ascent, 1-2hrs at the summit and refuge, and 4hrs decent.
The trail runs through cloud forest and rain is prevalent in the afternoons. Night ascents are popular and starting at midnight will generally allow sunrise at the summit.
Starting elevation: 1,840m
Summit elevation: 3,474m
Total ascent: 1,634m
Trail distance: 13.5km (each way)
Average gradient : Medium 1:8
Rough 4WD track with loose stones for most of the trail. Final short section to summit lookout on narrow trail and over rocks.
The trail is largely in cloud forest so be prepared for rain. Wind and cold can be an issue on the final stretch to the summit. It is possible for temperatures to reach freezing at the summit.
Sturdy shoes are an asset on this walk, especially in the dark. This is due to the large loose stones and occasional puddles. During daytime and with reasonable alertness very basic footwear would suffice.
Access to and from the hike
The trail head is located at the end of farmland 7km uphill from Boquete in the west of Panama. Boquete is easily accessed by car or bus from the town of David. From Boquete it is possible to drive or take a taxi (costing around US$10) to the trail head. There is no carpark at the trailhead although it is possible to pull your vehicle off the road. Several hostels and tour operators in Boquete offer shuttle services.
Leaving the trail is more problematic. People complete the walk at different times depending on ability and there is no shuttle or taxi rank from the trail head. Taxis do occasionally ply the road but you are best to hedge your bets by walking the 500m downhill to a bus stop located on a side-road. From here your chances of flagging down a bus or taxi are dramatically improved.
Navigation & Facilities
No food or drink available on the walk. It is recommended you take an extra bottle of water to hide beside the track 2-3hrs into the ascent – this saves carrying unnecessary weight to the summit and back.
There is a dilapidated refuge in a sheltered area before the final section to the summit.
Signage is relatively good, with distance markers including altitude. It would be unlikely to get lost on the main trail.
Most of the trail is on a 4WD track so evacuation would be relatively simple, albeit bumpy.
The trail is relatively popular with walkers and 4WD enthusiasts. You may feel safer walking a small group if you are ascending at night.
Flora and fauna
Cloud forest with several bird species including the Resplendent Quetzal and humming birds. No mammals sighted.