Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Boquete and Cerro Punta – Days 203 to 209

We left Bocas del Toro by water taxi for Boquete, at 1500m and were met by Amy, with Pamela, our two Airbnb hostesses. They are a really nice couple, very laid back and happy for us to use the hammock on the balcony, slob out in the lounge on very comfy chairs and cook in the kitchen. 100m away is a brewery with bar attached, that serves about 6 really good ales and has a great atmosphere. It’s just a bit pricey, but so good it has to be used!

There’s also two very good ‘locals’ restaurants serving inexpensive hearty food, a nice central square and plenty of cafes and restaurants making this a smallish but very pleasant town. It also has a splendid climate of cooler air, about 26°C, feeling hotter in the sun and chilly at night, one night needing a sweater to go out.

The start of the Pipeline Trail (Walk no. 1)
There are many things to do in and around Boquete, most of them costing an arm and a leg, so we were careful what we selected. There is a rock climbing crag nearby, cleaned and fixed up by a local who charges US$45 each for a half day, including all gear and instruction, but as we don’t need instruction it’s a bit pricey. We saw the crag from the bus and it did look fabulous, a volcanic crag of very unusual shapes that would have been real fun, but we couldn’t justify it.

One of the bridges on the trail
Boquete (1500m), along with Cerro Punta (2000m altitude) are high on the slopes of a volcano, Volcan Baru, standing at 3475m. It is considered active, in that it last erupted in 1550, but today is heavily forested, with changing flora at different altitudes, tropical forest at the bottom, with flora we would recognise back home in the UK at the top, including dock leaves and clover. Temperature at the top can be about freezing at night and 8-10°C in the day, but the main reason for going up there is to be able to see two great oceans from the summit, the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, one of only a couple of places in the world where that’s possible while standing on firm ground.

A howler monkey watches from the trees
Expensive activities range from guided volcano walks at US$130 per person, or US$190 for a guided walk, camp at the summit overnight to see sunset and sunrise, a nearby area that has zip lines and white water rafting on the volcano rivers. Less expensive things to do is to hike the volcano on your own, US$5 entrance fee, hike the Pipeline path, where one might see the rare Quetzal bird, the national bird of Guatemala (well, we’re not that far away!) US$3 entrance (guide recommended, but absolutely not necessary), the Three Waterfalls Walk and the Quetzales Sendero trail that runs between Cerro Punta and Boquete. The Quetzales Sendero Trail was the one I really wanted to do, hence the reason we booked one night in Cerro Punta so we could walk back.

First walk – Pipeline Trail
1000 year old tree (they say). How do they know?
Nothing really much to say about this, it’s apparently a good place to see Quetzals, but we didn’t see any (but perhaps we did). It’s on private land and meanders through jungle, crossing several small rivers via bridges and ending at a waterfall with an impressive drop but only enough water to provide a sprinkle.

We saw only a few other people on the trail, one couple ahead of us (we let them go on ahead out of sight, so we could be quiet in the hope of seeing birds and animals) and about half a dozen others coming back the other way. 
Very pretty flowers
One couple told us that ahead, just by a bridge is a Quetzal in a tree, but it was gone when we got there. When we met the couple ahead at the waterfall they told us they saw it but it flew off, which confirms that we probably did see it flying into a nearby tree. It just looked like a medium sized dark coloured bird in the distance to me, but Jackie was convinced, and it fitted the timing of the one flying off near the couple ahead.

The waterfall at the end
Anyway, we got to the waterfall, had lunch and wandered back, spotting a couple of howler monkeys who stopped to peer down at us. Who was observing who we wondered!

Got back to the start just as a collectivo van was waiting at the entrance. We jumped in, paid our US$2 each and then went on up the lane to pick up people from the Three Waterfall walk and then up to the end/start of the Quetzales Sendero Trail (at least we know where it finishes now, ready for our trip the day after tomorrow).

Trip to Cerro Punta
The next day (7th April) was our day to travel round to Cerro Punta, leaving most of our luggage in Boquete so we could hike the trail light. It’s a 3.5 hour bus journey on two busses, the first takes one hour to go to the city of David in the south of Panama, near the Pacific, a mere 38km and low in altitude (so it’s very hot!), then another 2.5 hour bus back up to the other side of Volcan baru to the higher (2000m) town of Cerro Punta. 
The old school bus to David
Both busses are ‘local’ busses, stopping frequently along the routes to pick up passengers and going very slowly, but at US$1.75 to David and US$3 to Cerro Punta, pretty cheap as long as time isn’t a problem! A very scenic drive, going through lots of very fertile farming land, suddenly onions, cabbage, potato and other ‘normal’ things were all about us growing on ridiculously steep hillsides.

Gudruns lovely house in Cerro Punta. On the right is the open lounge diner for guests with a big fireplace, left is the sauna/steam room, left again was our bedroom
Jackie finds the hammock
Got dropped off at the fuel station where we asked the driver to phone Gudrun, our new Airbnb hostess her and got taken to her really nice house with fabulous extension containing our en suite bedroom, a room with sauna and steam room and another garden space with giant fireplace that Gudrun had designed, comfy chairs and a low dining table, with fabulous views of the river at the bottom of the garden and the surrounding mountains. We’d thought this accommodation was expensive when we’d booked it, but it was worth every penny and we really enjoyed our afternoon and evening there. 
Wine and home cooked pizza in front of a roaring fire
For an extra US$7.5 each we had a bottle of red wine between us and a giant home-made pizza in front of a roaring log fire. When the sun went down it was cold, and I hadn’t taken a warm layer, so had to wrap up in a blanket and sit near the fire, but it was a lovely evening. The bed had a thick duvet on it so we were really snug overnight. It really felt as though we were in a four or five star place and looked after so well! Breakfast the following morning was all home-made;  toast, yoghurt, jams, and excellent coffee, to make us ready for our hike.

The Quetzales Sendero Trail
Gudrun driving off from the rangers hut after dropping us off
For a US$10 fee, (taxi $15)Gudrun drove us in her four wheel drive to the ranger station and highest point on the Quetzales Sendero Trail, 2500mher lift saving us the initial 500m of ascent, which felt a bit like cheating, particularly as we drove past a few people sweating their way up, but the rangers station at the summit is the official start of the trail, so we can still say we did it all, as it happened, all downhill! That’s why we did it that way round, to avoid a day of uphill walking!

Here we go then...
Walking downhill we saw the vegetation changing from cooler climate flora to bamboo and then tropical rainforest, all with occasional amazing vistas through the trees. Two thirds of the way down we stopped for the rest of our pizza, still hoping we might spot some Quetzals, having only seen lots of different small, but still interesting birds, but no big cats, which apparently inhabit these areas. 

Getting lower, we're into bamboo now
There was another smaller trail leading off from the one we were on so, after finishing our lunch Jackie suggested we go and have a look along it. We walked about 100m and there on a branch right in front of us was a darkish green medium sized bird with short tail feathers which Jackie identified as a female Quetzal. I was unconvinced as I’d been led to believe they were lighter green and quite big, but when it flew away we could clearly see its very red breast, so she was right!

And here is a female Quetzal
Further on we finally saw a male Quetzal, with its characteristic very long green tail feathers, red breast and white lower front area. No mistaking that! Then there was the female, possibly the one we saw earlier and then another male, each singing, flying around the female and trying to impress her. Finally! We were delighted and I have photographic proof, but sadly of pretty amateurish quality from my very average camera (which incidentally has now stopped working altogether, leaving me with an even more average phone camera!). We did see another male Quetzal further on which was a much brighter green, but it was too fast for me to get a photograph.

And there's a male in that tree
We arrived at the end at the rangers hut to be told there would be no collectivo bus coming, so we started to walk downhill towards the Three Waterfalls Walk, only to meet a collectivo coming up. Result! Got back to Pamela and Amy’s mid-afternoon happy people.

This is what they should look like
Now have a look at this Youtube clip of video I took. It's not very good, but it's also not very long: 

Earthquake – actually just a tremor!
A humming bird on Pamela and Amy's balcony
We were reminded that we were near an active volcano and on the edge of the ‘Ring of Fire’ whilst still in Bocas del Toro on Sunday of last week (Jackie forgot to mention it in the last blog). Sitting in our apartment we suddenly felt a swaying movement, like someone was gently shaking you to wake you up but with not a sound. It took a moment to realise what was happening and it only went on for a minute, long enough to sharpen the senses, look outside and go out to check with others, who had all come out as well. It stopped and we thought no more of it, that was until we got to Cerro Punta where Gudrun,  told us that the quake was centred about 1km from her house, right by the volcano. 

Look what we found in one of the shops
Bocas del Toro is only about 35km away. She had no damage, but things fell off shelves and gave her quite a fright at the time and during the many aftershocks she felt for the following week. Disappointingly we didn’t feel any aftershocks while we were there!

On Sunday we bumbled around Boquete, Jackie and Pamela going into town so Jackie could get a haircut, Pamela get her nails done and to translate for Jackie. In the afternoon we walked into town for an Easter parade that looked about to happen. The main street was closed to traffic, viewing platforms had been arranged, seats placed along the street, there was a dog show going on and lots of people about. We waited and eventually a police car came down slowly, followed by dancers, a band and then just a load of people on horses. A rum wagon and a beer wagon were amongst them handing out alcohol to all the riders, probably not a good combination of slightly inebriated riders, and big horses next to people, but it all seemed to work and we even got a rum drink from the wagon. It was the locally brewed Panama rum called Abuela that Jackie had bought for Wendi on Bocas, half rum and half ice – very strong and very nice!
Who's a pretty boy then?

Volcan Baru Hike
Flower gardens in Boquete
I had thought long and hard about doing this on our own. Most things we had read indicated that a guide was mandatory, but it’s also possible to get a jeep ride to the top and we’d heard the track was in pretty good condition, despite the recent earthquake. How hard can it be? It’s clearly marked on Google Maps and I’d put it into my GPS and into my phone, altitude would be the only problem as I’m not good at altitude. We could always turn round if it’s too hard I told Jackie (not a chance while I’m still breathing I told myself!). 
She looks elfy (ha-ha!)
I was helped in my quest to persuade her by another German couple who were staying in the other room at Pamela and Amy’s. They were going to do it on their own, going up one day, camping at the top and coming down the next day – the day we planned to go up, we’d see them on their way down. As they were preparing to leave another young couple appeared at the house to take over their room. They had just arrived from Panama City on the overnight bus, intended to get a late afternoon/early evening sleep and then hike up on their own overnight to catch the sunrise. We’d therefore also see them coming down as we go up.

The start of the parade in Boquete on Sunday
Followed by lots and lots of people on horses
Well, I talked her into it, so Pamela arranged a taxi to collect us at 06:00am and take us to the start, but she was so concerned, even fit people she knows take 5 hours to get to the top (did she think we looked unfit/too old?), so if we weren’t down by say 5:00pm she would alert some people. Don’t worry we told her, we’ll be fine. Anyway, Jackie only agreed as long as I agreed to turn round at 5.5 hours if we weren’t at the summit. Fine I said. It starts at 1700m and goes up to 3475m, so it’s over 1700m of ascent and well into my altitude sickness zone, but I was going to do it! Along with the 13.5 km each way!

Jackie looking happy with her Abuelo rum
Off we went making good progress, passing the 4.5km mark 1.5 hours. That’s about 4.5 hours by that timing, but I was sure we’d be slower in the higher thinner air. We pressed on, passed the 6.25km halfway mark and still no people coming down. At about 7km we saw the first three people coming down, then a four wheel drive carrying about three people (shame on you!) and, shortly after at about the 8km mark the young couple who’d set off at midnight. He looked bad and was clearly suffering, but they were going down. ‘You’ve done the worst steepest part’ they said, apart from the steep bit right at the end.

Sunrise at the start of the Volcan Baru hike
Quite a while later we saw the German couple who had camped on top, both looking in good shape. Both couples had taken far more water than the 2 litres we had and we’d already finished 1 litre, so they gladly offloaded a litre onto us, adding 1kg load to the rucksack Jackie was now carrying. I have to add that I carried it for 95% of the time, but asked her to take over as it was making my previously damaged shoulder ache. It just so happened that they appeared during the small time she was carrying it. Obviously Jackie made the most of it!

Just to show that Jackie does occasionally carry the rucksack
So as we went on my old friend altitude sickness began to creep up on me, very mildly. Tightness in the head, a slight sick feeling, legs with absolutely no energy and just feeling so tired. Steps uphill became slower, and breaks more frequent to stop my heart nearly pounding out of my chest. I couldn’t stop to wait for my heartbeat to come down too much as time would have got away, so I pressed on only having to stop after 100m, then 50m then 25m. Will I make it, sure I will, we’re not far from the summit and still under 5 hours.

The 12km marker, just 1.5km to go. Feeling quite knackered at this point
I saw Jackie reach a flat between the many transmission masts placed on the top, but even then I had to have a final rest not 10m from her as I just couldn’t do it in one. She just doesn’t suffer in the same way with altitude, she is so lucky!

Anyway, I made it and to a fabulous view, the crater of the volcano way below us, the city of David in the distance and the Pacific Ocean beyond that. Turning clockwise we could see what we think was Cerro Punta and Boquete far below us. 
On the highest point 3475m
Beyond that were the islands of Bocas del Toro in the Atlantic Ocean. We’d made it and what a view. Well actually we hadn’t quite made it, there was a higher rocky bit with a cross on the top. ‘We have to go up there’ I told Jackie, her shoulders slumped forward and she said ‘no we don’t’. ‘Yes we do’ I said and set off, asking her to take the rucksack again. There were no other people around so she left it there and said we don’t need to take that up there, so we set off with some snacks and water.

Looking down into the crater. The Pacific is in the distance on left and centre. Just to the right of the pointy rock on the right is the city of David, 38km away
Oh, and by the way, I made it too!
Ahead she reached a post and was resting there when I struggled up in about three attempts, hoping that I hadn’t seen the cross on an even higher bit. ‘Come on’ I told her setting off for it. ‘We don’t need to go up there’ I could hear her saying as I started on up the scramble over the rocks. She was behind me and finally we got to the cross and the highest point.

‘What time is it?’ I asked her. ‘Nearly 11:15’ she said. We started at 06:10 from the taxi so we did it in just about 5 hours! ‘Only very fit people do it in that time’ Pamela told us and even the young couple who started at midnight took 5.5 hours, so there’s life left in us old uns yet! Jackie would have carved a good 20 minutes off that time if I hadn’t held her back.

The Atlantic Ocean and islands of Bocas del Toro
So we took some photos, drank some water, ate some salted peanuts (good for stopping cramp) and headed down. We made good progress, down in 3.5 hours, but it just went on and on and we were walking almost in automatic mode hardly speaking. ‘I just want to get down and have a pint’ Jackie said, ‘that’s the only thing that’s driving me!’

Looking the other way and you can see the Pacific Ocean
It was thoroughly arduous, on the way up, on a very rough track that caused us to slide about on its steep slope and almost fall over on a number of occasions. Relentless on the way down we encountered a four wheel drive vehicle, followed by a JCB type digger, followed by a bulldozer that was too wide for the track. He just blundered through with it causing boulders and soil to fall in its wake, making the path beyond for us quite broken and even more difficult.

Here's where we were and how we could see both oceans
In summary, is it worth it? Well, being able to see both oceans from the top is cool, but there’s little else to merit it. Had we paid for a guide at US$130 each I’d have been very disappointed. As it was we only had tired legs!

Here's our plotted route up and down the volcano. 28km in all and 1700m of ascent. 5 hours up, 3.5 hours down
Did we mention there were a few transmission masts on the top?
Today we’ve left Boquete and taken the bus to David. Another Airbnb run by a guy who wants to have the village hall in his back room, so today was yoga. Would we like to join in? As it was it was just the three of us, and he is carrying an injury, so when we explained to the teacher we did Baru yesterday, she structured the whole class round stretching for us. We even got some massage during the relaxation. It was a truly joyous experience, neither of us expected, another great travelling experience. We stay here tonight and take the 8 hour bus to Panama City tomorrow for a week. It’s the start of the Easter holidays now and people have told us of mayhem on the busses with people trying to get away, but after speaking to people at the bus station they tell us no-one will be going to Panama City, they are all trying to get away. Let’s hope so – we’ll see!
This was the final little bit up from the crater rim to the summit cross. Not far, but it was hard work!
Jackie coming down the scramble from the summit cross
The forested crater. There's big cats somewhere in there, apparently two young female travellers were killed and eaten a couple of years ago after they got lost. A boot with a foot in it was found along with other remains. Their camera told the story, which is why there have been moves to make it a guide only hike
Stopped in our tracks to let a four wheel drive vehicle pass...
And a JCB type digger...
And this Bulldozer, too wide for the track, but that didn't stop him!
On our second pint in the brewery afterwards. Jackie looking particularly knackered I think! Yes there is some condensation on the outside of the glasses, because they do chill the beer slightly. The brewer completely agreed with us that serving it at cellar temperature as we do in the UK brings out the flavour more, but he says locals demand chilled beer, so he chills it just a bit. Still plenty of flavour though, he does a great job


  1. Looks like you are having a fab time. Weird thinking it's so cold at night. The Q bird is amazing! Xxx

  2. Looks great and reminds me of my travels many moons ago. Should start saving up to do something similar!