Boquete is a small town in the province of Chiriqui, one of the Panama’s 10 provinces, close to the border with Costa Rica on the western coast. The climate in Boquete is much cooler than many other parts in the country and it gets even cooler when you head towards Panama’s highest point, Volcan Barú. Boquete is a lovely little escape from the city and a supremely laidback place to discover Panama’s nature and wildlife.
Volcan Barú, the heart of Chiriqui
The Barú volcano is Chiriqui’s main attraction and it truly is a challenging adventure only for the brave. While in Panama, you simply can’t miss this unique point where you may admire the sun rising on the Pacific and then setting on the Atlantic. Volcan Barú is the only place in the world where this feat is possible. Getting to the summit of this dormant volcano takes some work however; serious trekking will be involved to get 3,474 meters high.
One must first and foremost be armed with the knowledge that hiking Barù is not for the faint of heart so leave the flip-flops and beach shorts at home. Prepare for the trip by getting your hands on some good shoes, warm (and water-resistant) clothing, food, water and lighting and be sure never to go alone. The best period to go is between December and April during Panama’s dry season; when it rains you might not have a clear view at the summit.
When to start your ascension depends entirely on what you wish to see. Many tend to start at night with the aim of completing the 7 hour hike to the top with enough time to catch the sun rise and enjoy the dancing colours of the morning light. Others also choose arrive in time for sunset and camp there overnight.
There are two routes to reach the top. The more popular and “easy” one is called “the Boquete side” and it’s about 5-7 hours of hiking depending on your condition and speed. This side is relatively easy to walk along and cars also go up this road too so watch out for them, take your time and stay hydrated.
The other side is called “the Volcan side” or as I like to call it, “the never going back side”. This route takes between 8 and 11 hours to hike. Yes, you read that correctly. I was unfortunately, mad enough to try this one. Going in I had no idea it would be that hard. There is no paved path so you need a guide, excellent GPS or a strong sense of direction.
My fellow hikers and I started at 3am with little sleep prior to the trek as we had driven from Panama City to Chiriqui and started straight away – this probably wasn’t the best decision. The sky was full of stars however; the night was especially stunning due to brilliant silence and shooting stars that darted over us. Equipped with our frontal lights we headed towards the forest at the foot of the volcano. 3 hours into our trek, the sun started peeking out and brightening the forest, birds were singing and the weather was nice, zesty and fresh. The same cannot be said for the remaining 4 hours of this crazy trip.
It started to rain cats and dogs and the volcanic rocks were slowing us down so each step had to be calculated with immense precision. I was close to giving up but then the thought struck me that I could keep going or die there, halfway through. The decision to carry on was therefore made easily. This might sound altogether dramatic, but so was the intensity of the experience.
The landscapes all along the path were truly remarkable and like nothing I had ever laid eyes on before. Even though I was suffering, I took a minute (and a few breaths) to admire the wild nature. Once at the top, I couldn’t tell if I was elated or deflated. I perched and ate my heavy Papaya that I decided to bring along for some strange reason. Indeed, I carried a papaya all the way to the top of the volcano and trust me; this was the best papaya of my life; I was exhausted and famished. Lamentably, we were unable to admire the ocean as the pesky downpours got in the way. Nevertheless, I was exceptionally proud to stand at the legendary white cross atop this mighty volcano.
While at the top, you have 3 options to continue your journey back down. You may camp and relax and leave the next day, you can take the 5-hour walk down the Boquete side (don’t even think about going down the other side). You can also descend the Boque side by car. Needles to say, I took the latter option; I was too impatient to be reunited with a warm bed and fall into the deepest of slumbers. I am thoroughly thrilled to have competed the Volcan Barú experience, but better believe next time I’ll be taking the kinder route.
Panama is paradise for the coffee aficionado. In Chiriqui you can sink your teeth into what’s widely regarded as the Ferrari of coffee, Geisha Coffee. Originating in Ethiopia, Geisha coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world as it grows only in very high altitude regions and blooms only once a year. The taste is very subtle and shares little resemblance with regular coffee; it’s often described as having a tea-like essence. The delicate flavour and rarity makes this a must-try while in Panama.
While in Boquete, I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful Finca Lerida, a stunning coffee plantation. After 3 hours exploring the land, we had an hour of tasting and learning about the processes behind it all, right from retrieving the beans from the trees, to laying them out in the sun and finally to the last drop in your coffee cup. Even if you aren’t a coffee lover (or drinker), it’s marvellous getting lost amidst these red bushes, gazing around, being surrounded by multitudes of gorgeous flowers and the melodious sound of chanting birds.
Boquete Town and its strawberries – the taste of Chiriqui
After 2 intense days of walking, I certainly didn’t mind having some time to relax and enjoy this charming little town at a milder pace. Day 3 of our trip started with a yoga session in the backyard of our lodging (Hostal Garden by Refugio del Rio) then we explored the town. The entirety of Boquete can be discovered on foot, a brisk pastime I enjoyed thoroughly. Most of all, I couldn’t wait to try the famed strawberries of Chiriqui. I was expecting bells and whistles or some sort of special secret recipe for serving them, but it would appear that the motto is to keep things on the simpler side. The berries are plainly cut into slices and then topped with whipped cream, condensed milk or yoghurt – or all of the above. In all honesty, they were divine and deliciously fresh all on their own. So delicate, so good. I couldn’t help but go for a second helping the next day before heading back to Panama City.
On our way home, we made a pit stop at Fresas Mary, a privately owned house a bit out of town that takes strawberries as its predominant décor inspiration. Significant queues form outside this little boutique of people eager to appreciate these delicious Chiriqui fresas. This time around, I tried mine smothered in whipped cream and leche condensada. Mission accomplished. Do not come to Boquete without sampling the local strawberries. I repeat, do not come to Boquete without sampling the local strawberries. As we drove back to the bustling metropolis of Panama City, I started thinking fondly about the fresh air and breezy evenings we enjoyed. Boquete is exceptionally pedestrian friendly with stunning landscapes and a charming quietness. I wouldn’t mind finding myself there again to relive that weekend all over. Volcan Barú, I will be back for you once more, but maybe next time I’ll leave the papaya at home.