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Climbing Panama’s highest peak

The taxi driver sped away, his job complete.  Mine was just about to begin.  Surrounded in darkness, I looked at my watch with the aid of my small inadequate hand-torch.  Just after four o’clock.  Unaware if I was ridiculously behind schedule or not, I squinted through the pitch black.  Aided by the eerie, sparkling white light of the moon, I was able, just, to make out the ominous outline against the night sky.  Volcán Barú, Panama’s highest summit.

I’d been told back at the hostel in Boquete that the best time to reach the summit was within an hour after sunrise, before the clouds dashed all hope of seeing both oceans from the top.  So I knew I was pushing it.  But it was worth a go.

Having conveniently found a long rugged piece of wood that would do as a walking stick, I adjusted my backpack and turned away from the road along which I had travelled from the small town of Boquete.  With a deep breath, or maybe a sigh, I placed one heavy hiking boot in front of the other, and my trek began.

The guidebook reckoned on six hours to the summit, but I was confident I was fit enough to do it in a considerably less time than that.  I was willing to accept that there could be no messing around, that for just a few hours I would need the determination and focus of an Olympic athlete in order to ascend the volcano as fast as I could physically manage.  Setting off so early had one bonus in that I was unlikely to be distracted by nature’s lures whilst everything was so obscure in the darkness.

At first I felt quite comfortable.  My backpack was light, as I was carrying only some suncream, water and snacks, and the incline wasn’t too challenging to begin with.  I settled into a breathing rhythmn in sync with my walking pace, and I felt that I was making good progress.  Conscious of being completely alone, the whaling wind and the rattle of the leaves unnerved me somewhat.  I was unaccustomed to being so at one with nature, and the slightest animal movement or birdsong would startle me as I ground my way onwards.

Aware that dehydration would be a major obstacle, I drank frequently – every half hour followed by a fifteen minute rest every hour so as to recuperate and contemplate the next stage.  And I think this plan worked as well as I could have hoped.  But it didn’t make the going any easier, as the gradient remoreslessly ate into my energy sack.  The sweat, initially such a trickle, became a hindering stream across my forehead and down my arms.  Like a pilgrim drawn to his sacred destiny, something within kept me from thinking about anything else but the summit, as I dug my stick ever harder into the gravel with each shorter step, and pushed forward and upwards with my arms.

With the lush moonlight gradually exchanging honours with the sunlight being delivered from the west, it began to dawn on me that I had misjudged the length of time it would take to conquer Barú.  Despite my walking pace, which still seemed to be hurtling along at an impressive rate, there was little chance of my reaching the heights so soon after sunrise.  The summit had yet to even come into view.

As I emerged from the calm shadows of the woodland that decorated its slopes,  the top of Barú suddenly loomed like a dormant monstrosity before my eyes.  The sensation was one of sheer exhileration, as I was finally aware that my goal was in sight.  An inner impulse drew me onwards, as a renewed hunger to see the two oceans reignited my enthusiasm. 

As expected, the final stretch to the top was the toughest, with the pathway at its steepest and most unforgiving.  Yet I just knew that my goal was in sight, and so any temptation to rest, to give a brief respite to my battered legs, or to even look at my watch, was fiercely resisted.  The wind blew stronger, the air felt colder, and my sense of isolation increased as the incline gradually eased into a gentle slope, as I entered the finishing straight. 

And suddenly I was there. 

It was a curious sensation, knowing that this was the highest point in the entire country.  Perhaps it was due to my being entirely alone, but I suddenly felt ever so small and insignificant as I contemplated the spectaular vista.  There were indeed some clouds by this time, but thankfully the summit was not completely covered, and it was still possible to make out both the nearby Pacific and the more distant Atlantic.  The whole country, it seemed, was within sight – such an abundant mixture of different shades of green and yellow, and the stark contrast between the highlands and the barren lowlands as they slid out towards the beaches on the Pacific coast. 

I felt humbled, and took the opportunity to rest a short while on the wooden bench nearby, turning around from time to time as I pondered over the many facets of the beautiful bounty that this bridge of the Americas had to offer.  I had managed to reach the summit in just over four hours, and it had been worth every ache and pain.

The retreat from the top of the volcano was necessarily conducted at a more leisurely pace, as I took the time to observe more of the abundant wildlife that had in fact surrounded me on my forceful march uphill.  The highlight by far, however, was the sighting of a resplendent quetzal, thanks to the kind advice of one of several hikers I passed on my way down.  With its brilliant green and blue feathers, and eye-catching twin tail feathers that extended like a pair of legs from its crimson breast, it was easy to see why this bird was considered so sacred by the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples of Central America.

Seven hours after I had been abandoned by the taxi, I was back at the eastern entrance to the park.  Finally starting to flag, and with painful blisters making their presence felt on my heels with each tired step, I was ready for a comfortable ride back to town.  If only.  The one sour note of the entire venture was the lack of transport service or personnel at the exit.  With a brief sigh, and once last glance at the imposing Volcán Barú, I continued my way down the tarmac road to Boquete, all alone just as I had begun that morning.

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