60. Boquete

Panama

A boat ride back to the mainland then a four hour minivan trip to David, through tree-covered mountains, deep valleys and low hanging clouds. It was reminiscent of northern England. The drizzling rain probably helped with this. David's bus terminal was more akin to an airport and it took some time to locate the second-class bus to Boquete. 45 minutes down a straight road, past mansions and country clubs, to a town lined with real estate agents. Had they discovered gold in the area? 

 

In line with the theme of the town, the first hostel we tried was far too expensive for us. As we were looking for another we passed a sign out the front of a house on a quiet street offering accommodation, so we gave it a shot. This one was more affordable. It turned out to be a family home with no family living there, and also no other guests. That meant we had the full-sized kitchen and lounge areas to ourselves, as well as the second-storey patio overlooking a garden and a stream. We couldn't believe our luck. Maybe we should follow the advice of random street signs more often.

 

We walked through town to grab a late lunch, to check out volcano hikes and to buy some supplies at the supermarket. This last activity took the longest amount of time. Not only was the supermarket unbelievably cheap (there must be an upmarket food source somewhere else in town for the country club folk), but they happened to have a vodka promotion. This wasn't just a buy one get one free advertisement - it was freebies. And by freebies I mean cocktails. Full strength, double shot cocktails. Did I mention they were free? We revisited this supermarket several times.

Money had reached some parts of the town.

My primary reason for visiting Boquete was to hike Volcan Baru, and at almost 3500m it was no baby. I knew this would be the last volcano we would see on our trip so I was determined to climb it. The summit is famous for being one of a handful of places in the world where you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea at the same time. Views were best at sunrise, which required an overnight hike up the bumpy dirt road. For us, this meant an early dinner and a 6:30pm bedtime to catch some shut eye before the adventure began.

 

The 11pm alarm woke me with a start, leaving me a little disorientated. At least I achieved a little sleep; Danny achieved none. We dressed, ate, packed some food and headed to the shuttle bus to take us to the starting point. Only one other person came with us, a German guy decked out in every bit of hiking apparel you could think of. You would think we were traversing the Alps, the way he looked. He would probably be good in an emergency. 

 

We commenced the 13.5km trek just before midnight, with only our torches to light the way. The track was easy to follow yet steep in parts, and the terrain was conducive to rolling ankles. It rained on and off, but our ponchos kept us dry and warm. One advantage to climbing a mountain at night is that you can't see how far you have to go. The summit could be right around the next corner or way above your head. Either way, you keep putting one foot in front of the other until you hit the end of the road. 

 

Our German friend held us to a solid pace, with little rest time to eat or catch our breath. We reached the top at 4:45am, well before sunrise. As soon as we stopped we felt the cold, and immediately put on every piece of warm clothing we had carried with us. Danny and I found a semi-sheltered patch of ground and huddled together to keep warm. Both of us feel asleep without an alarm, which was quite stupid as we could have easily missed the sunrise we had worked so hard to see. Amazingly we woke just in time to see light coming into the sky. Bolting up the final part of the hill, then clambering up large rocks on our hands and knees, we were witness to an amazing sight. It wasn't quite a 360 degree panorama (more like 270 degrees) due to a giant storm cloud obstructing part of our view. However this cloud provided a brilliant thunder and lightning show, taking our attention away from the scenery that we were up there for. Looking around we could see the tops of the clouds below, providing a "king/queen of the world" type feeling that I found incredibly inspiring. The sunrise itself was fairly mundane, nowhere near as grand as I was hoping. We could scarcely make out one ocean in the distance but not the second. Given the amount of rain lately we felt lucky to see as much as we did, as we half expected to see a white blanket of cloud encircling us. It was definitely worth the sleepless effort.

It could have been an easy saunter back down the volcano, but our German companion had other ideas. He almost flew the entire way down - we were half running to keep up with him. Now that there was daylight I wanted to look around, take a few photos, enjoy the surroundings. It wasn't to be. The steep road slowed me down several times, but not the German, and I had to sprint to catch back up. I was sure he must have been in the military. Birds were calling out all around us and howler monkeys were making themselves known, but there was no time to look up and search for the source of the noise. We made it to the bottom in a bit over three hours, which I was sure was a new record for "walking" down the mountain. In fact we were so quick that no one was at the ranger's office yet, which meant we didn't have to pay the park fees, but also meant we were stranded without a communication source. Unsure as to what to do next, we started walking down the road in what we presumed was the direction of the town. Miraculously a taxi dropped off a few people off right in front of us, so the three of us jumped in and made it back to Boquete in no time. At the guesthouse we ate a quick breakfast before hitting the sack, completely spent.

On our dash down the mountain.

It rained all afternoon, and as we had achieved our fitness and tourist goals for the day we felt no reason to go anywhere. Instead we loaded up on junk food and wine, sat on the couch and watched a movie, bundled up in our winter clothes. It felt very much like a scene from Australia, lazy weekends in the colder months, and it made us a little homesick. It was nice to have some downtime. 

 

The following day (after a massive 10 hour sleep) we caught the bus out to the nearby Quetzal trail, in the hopes of actually seeing this magical bird everyone talked about. It was famous throughout the Central American region but we had yet to see it in person. With a name like "Quetzal trail", surely this would be our day.

 

The first kilometre followed a four-wheel drive track, past several fields and farms. Then it veered off into the forest, with a narrow path winding its way through the dense trees. Low clouds hung over the forest, which was wet underfoot but thankfully the rain held out. Walking at turtle pace, it took us well over two hours to go a further three kilometres. We did not see a single quetzal. Many small, brown birds were flying around but that was the only wildlife we saw. We gave up and walked back to the entrance in an hour. 

Searching for quetzals.

On the way back from our nature walk we stopped off at Mi Jardin es Su Jardin, a grand, private garden open to the public. Flowers, sculptures, manicured shrubs (Christmas trees in June anyone?), tranquil water features covered every centimetre of the property - it was a horticultural paradise. Clearly considerable thought and effort had gone into the planning and execution of the grounds, and the results were stunning. A lovely way to finish our time in Boquete. That and those free vodka cocktails.

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