For a recent vacation, my girlfriend, Haley, and I took a trip to Chiriqui, a province in Western Panama bordering Costa Rica. Most people who visit this area stop in the mountain town of Boquete, famous for world-class coffee, ecotourism, and Volcan Baru, the highest peak in Panama. Boquete has experienced a real estate boom in the past decade as internationals have retired or opened businesses here, sometimes both. There are many hotels, hostels, and restaurants as the area’s economy has become quite dependent upon tourism. We wanted to visit Boquete, however, we decided to take the road less traveled to get there.
Leaving from Panama City, we took a bus to David, the second largest city in Panama. Our adventure started as we crossed the border into Chiriqui province as guards entered the bus to check documents. I did not have my passport on me but did have a copy of it and and a copy of the stamp I received when I entered the country; which allows me to be here for six months legally. The guard gave me one of those “come on man” looks when I handed him my copies and explained that there was no way for him to tell that the stamp came from my passport. It probably did not help that my passport copy was in color while my stamp copy was in black and white. He said next time bring your passport and let me off with a warning. “Warnings” in Panama tend to cost you $10-$20 in the form of a bribe but thankfully I did not have to go through that process here. We proceeded to David to spend the night in a neat little hostel with A/C and even cable television, something I am not used to at this point.
From David, we hopped on a bus to the Cerro Punta/ Guadelupe area, which lies about 15 miles from Boquete with Volcan Baru in between the two areas. Cerro Punta and Guadalupe are gorgeous little mountain towns that depend more so upon agriculture than tourism. There are a few little hotels and camping areas but the tourists have not arrived in droves (as has happened in Boquete), although the area has potential to further develop tourism if it wants.
We found a little start up hostel/ camping area and decided to camp for the night as I did not bring a tent to simply lug it around for 5 days. After setting up camp, we spent the day meandering through the mountains, stopping to sip coffee, eat strawberries (the area is famous for them), and shopping at little artisan craft shops. Nothing too exciting, but very relaxing. Its amazing how enjoyable cool, fresh, mountain air can be after being in Panama City for a while. We made it back to camp, which also had a small restaurant, and ate double cheesburgers while watching Panama tie 0-0 with Honduras in a World Cup qualifying match. It had been a very enjoyable day and we went to bed early to prepare for what be a grueling next day.
El Sendero Los Quetzales is widely regarded as the most famous nature/ hiking trail in all of Panama. The trail, roughly 8 kilometers long, connects the Cerro Punta area with Boquete and we decided we would hike it instead of taking the bus back to David and then up to Boquete. After a delicous breakfast of eggs, patacones, chorizo, bacon, and coffee, we found a 4 X 4 taxi to take us as close to the trail head as possible. From where he dropped us off, it was about an hour of steep climbing up to the trail’s beginning. Thankfully we had brought plenty of water. The trail begins at the Volcan Baru National Park ranger station and costs $5 to enter.
Cerro Punta is about 1,000 meters higher in elevation than Boquete, so we would be hiking downhill most of the day. This sounds easy but there were some very steep, slippery sections with questionable “stairs.” The first hour or so of the hike took place in alpine forest, not the thick jungle we would encounter later. We found a few nice lookouts and saw some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. At several points we were looking down upon the clouds which is always a neat feeling. We stopped for a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and strawberries and continued trudging downward into the jungle. The National Park has all five species of big cats that live in Panama and at one point we heard a loud roar. We told ourselves that it was thunder but it was no doubt a big cat and we picked up the pace a bit after that. My girlfriend Haley’s knee began to hurt pretty bad but we had no choice but to keep moving. She’s quite the trooper.
Overall, the trail was well-marked and pretty fun to hike. You can see all kinds of trees including bamboo gardens and some ancient trees from primary rainforest. We did not encounter much wildlife but did see several birds, none of which were the Resplendant Quetzal, from which the trail gets its name. There are several well-constructed bridges and the trail is quite passable despite being a bit muddy in most places. I would not recommend it to those looking for an afternoon stroll, but if you are prepared and in relatively decent physical condition, you can do it in about 5-6 hours.
After several hours of hiking downhill through all types of vegetation, the trail finally flattened out a bit, but we were not out of the woods yet. We came across several forks in the trail without any signs but we trusted our instincts and made what we would prove to be the right navigational choices. As the trail flattened out and opened up a bit, we came across a spooky one-story structure, which took me by surprise. Even more surprising, a giant black dog was staring right at me as we passed an open doorway and my heart skipped about 6 beats. I had a large knife ready but thankfully I did not have to do anything as the dog did not take any interest in us. We trudged along and came across about 12 Panamanians working on the trail who stared at us as if we were aliens. We asked them directions and they confirmed that we were still on the right path although they continued staring. We’re used to getting funny looks from locals but these guys looked especially surprised to see us.
The trail turned into a dirt road and continued past a small agricultural area and several houses. This was a truly beautiful area and it was good to see some form of civilization again. We were beginning to wonder where the ranger station on this side of the trail was and continued walking, albeit a bit nervously. Our backpacks were really starting to weigh us down and we could not wait to set up camp again. We finally found the end of the trail and exited the park to set up camp at the ranger station. My girlfriend was a bit hesitant to stay here but I did not want to keep hiking or wait for a bus that may never come. As it turns out, there is a bus that comes to the park’s entrance several times daily that connects to Boquete and one came as we had just set up camp. We should have taken that bus (I’m still hearing about this from Haley) but I was stubborn and happy with our tent. Almost as soon as we set up camp, the rain began to pour. Thankfully, our tent had a good rainfly and we did not get wet, but this really limited our ability to move about.
Things were fine until it got dark. We heard some rustling around and managed a quick “hola” out to whomever may be out there. A man responded and shined the light on our tent. I poked my head out to talk to him and he assured us that we were safe and that there would be a bus in the morning. Things got quiet again and we had a few sips of rum to help us go to sleep. About an hour later we heard more voices approaching. Once again we got a bit nervous and yelled out “hola.” This time there was no light but we did get an “hola” in response. The guys must have been sitting at the station because we continued to hear them chatting very close to us but they had stopped moving. The chatter continued and we began hearing more and more voices. This was a very uneasy feeling.
At one point, someone tripped over one of our rainfly ties. This shook our whole tent and at this point we were wide awake and terrified. I never thought anyone was out there to hurt us, but when you’re a stranger in an extremely remote location, you never know what is going to happen. We continued hearing voices throughout the night but no one approached the tent again or spoke to us. We got a little bit of uneasy sleep and were ecstatic to see the initial morning rays of sunlight.
We emerged from the tent to see a group of locals gathering for the morning bus down into Boquete. Needless to say, this was a good sign. We packed up quickly and waited with them. They were friendly but I had not had any coffee so conversation was limited. I have found that coffee, rum, and beer (in no particular order) help my Spanish abilities more than anything. We crammed onto the small bus that showed up around 7 am and were in Boquete by 7:30. After arriving, a large breakfast was in order at Cafe de Encuentro, a locally owned restaurant with the greatest huevos rancheros of all time.
We spent the next couple nights relaxing at Refugio del Rio in a private one bedroom tree house overlooking a small stream, quite a bit different than our two previous nights spent camping. Boquete was really enjoyable as we partook in a coffee tour, visited hot springs, and ate amazing food. It was a nice, relaxing end to what had been quite the adventure.