Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

by Mira Nencheva

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Mira, Ivo and Maya at Crestones Ranger Station, park Chirripo, Costa Rica

From Rio Claro we catch the TicaBus to San Isidro de El General, the largest regional city of 45, 000 population at the crossroads between some of Costa Rica’s most important destinations. The ticket costs less than $3 per person and it takes 4 hours to get there. In the beginning, we pass through palm oil plantations and jungles. Further, as we climb higher, the road starts curving along a wide shallow river, passing through small villages and dry forests. The TicaBus is a big comfortable bus serving all Central American countries, and it’s not too expensive.

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At the bus station

Midway, we make a long bathroom stop next to a big buffet restaurant on the road and in the late afternoon we arrive in San Isidro lying in a valley at the foot of the mountains, clean, tranquil and beautiful. A large white neo-Gothic cathedral sits heavy at the eastern end of the Town Square. We eat in a small Peruvian restaurant- one of the cheapest places in town where the food is pretty decent, and sleep in a hotel. The room for the three of us is $35 per night and it is pretty basic. It has two double beds and a TV. The bathrooms and showers are shared- outside of the room. But there is hot water and we wash our dirty clothes in the shower. We have only a couple of T-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks each, so we have to wash them every time we can. We are super happy to sleep in beds, after spending the past few nights camping on the beaches of Osa Peninsula and sleeping in a tent.

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Cathedral in San Isidro

In the morning, we take another bus to a small picturesque village up in the mountains- San Gerardo de Rivas. Our main purpose in Costa Rica is to climb its highest mountain- Cerro Chirripó rising at 3820m above sea level . It is located in the Chirripó National Park and is famous for its ecological wealth and extremely high biodiversity. San Gerardo is the town from where the trail begins.

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San Gerardo

Parque Nacional Chirrpo

There, we visit the Park Service where our ordeal begins. First, we have to make a reservation. We fill forms; write down names and passport numbers. Then, with a piece of paper and a reservation number, we go to another place to do a bank transfer ($7 per person; Maya pays too for the bank transaction) and pay the park’s entrance fee. We have to write down our names and passport numbers again. The park’s entrance fee is $16 per person per day, $1 for Maya, as she is 12. We need two days minimum to hike the 40-kilometer trek up and down the mountain, so for the entrance fee we spend $65 plus 21$ for the bank transfer.. So far $86 for the three of us, just to enter in the park. Now, with the proof of the bank transaction, we walk back to the park’s office. We have to fill forms once again, and write our names and passport numbers again, and with this done, we have to walk all the way to another office on the other side of town- about 15-minute walk- to pay for the sleeping accommodations and reserve meals inside the park, which is not done by the park’s services, but by a private local organization. There, we have to fill forms, write down our names and passport numbers for a fourth time, and we have to pay $40 per person to sleep in a bunk bed up in the “Refugio” (ranger station) 5 km before the summit. The meals cost $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch or dinner each! No thanks, we will be on canned ham and crackers diet for the next two days… Can we sleep in a tent instead of a shelter? No, there is no other option but the 40-dollar bunk bed. Tents are not allowed. Our total for a two-day trek to Cerro Chirripo is $206.00, food not included. We feel robbed. This is the most expensive mountain we ever climbed so far… We complain to every official in each of the offices we visit, and tell them that these prices are ridiculous and offending, and charging so much is not fair. We have climbed many other mountains in the Caribbean, Central and South America, many of them for free, including Pico Duarte in Dominican Republic, which is a very similar two-day one-night hike, and even with two mules and a guide, it is much less expensive. Costa Rica has by far the most expensive nature, and this unfortunately keeps many tourists away. But, as we found out, there is a cheaper way to experience Cerro Chirripo, as long as you have time and you plan it well in advance. You can sign up for the volunteer program and work in the park (office job or maintaining the trails) for a minimum of 6 days. Your accommodation will be covered. All you need to pay for is transportation to food. Kids under 18 can participate too, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. For more information you can download the PDF file of the park’s volunteer program (in Spanish) http://www.parquenacionalchirripo.com/pdf/voluntariado.pdf

Hostel Casa Chirripó

All the reservations and payments done, we are ready to find a hostel and relax for another night before the big hike tomorrow. San Gerardo is full of hostels, as many tourists from all over the world come to conquer Costa Rica’s highest peak. The one we choose is a small colorful house turned hostel at one end of town, next to a river. Hostel Casa Chirripó .

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Mira and Maya in front of the hostel

As soon as we enter, we feel like home and we don’t go looking further. This will be our “home” for the night. Our room is clean and tastefully decorated and Maya loves her cozy bed with cheerful colorful blankets. For the three of us it’s $40, breakfast and transportation to the trailhead in the morning included. Pretty awesome!

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Our room

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The Kitchen

But the best thing about the place, are the people who run it. They are the friendliest guys, especially Jose Anderson. He is the one who has painted the walls and he promises: as soon as we return from the mountain, the Bulgarian flag will be added on the wall with the flags. We will be the first Bulgarians staying at this hostel who climbed Cerro Chirripo!

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

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The Bulgarian flag on the wall!

Hiking with Jose

Jose is one of those easy-going people, who have the talent of becoming your instant friends, and a few minutes after you meet them it feels as if you have known them forever. He is also very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and offers to bring us to a small cave full of bats, and to show us a local cow farm. It’s a wonderful little afternoon walk; the path is surrounded by flowers, wild orange and lemon trees.

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– This little flower there is an orchid. It is small and it doesn’t look like and orchid, but it is, Jose laughs. And these lemons are supper sweet, try one. Oh! Look at this bird! This is a type of toucan!

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orchid

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We reach the cave. It is just a small opening between two big boulders at the end of a cow pasture, but it’s full of sleeping bats! I tell Jose about our friends back in El Golfito who study bats and cave systems in Costa Rica and who inspired us to learn and respect these animals. We are very happy we finally got to see bats! Thank you , Jose, you are brilliant!

Visit Hostal Cerro Chirripo and contact them through Facebook.

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Ivo and Jose in front of the cave

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Hiking Cerro Chirripo. Day 1

4:30 the next morning we are up and ready to go. This time, we leave our heavy stuff at the hostel and only take some food, water and jackets in the smallest backpack. It’s still dark when we start walking past pastures at first and then- in the wet mysterious evergreen jungle. At dawn, a family of capuchin monkeys are jumping overhead, going somewhere.

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The trail is beautiful and well maintained, not too steep. As we move upwards, the lower montane forest gives way to the montane rainforest with giant oak trees home of epiphytic ecosystems, towering at 50 meters and more over the other trees that average 30 meters, and the understory of ferns and bamboo.

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Every kilometer is marked and the countdown begins. There are 14 kilometers of uphill before us until we reach the shelter where we will sleep. Midway, kilometer 7 marks the end of the first part of the trail as we reach refugio Llano Bonito serving super expensive coffee, hot chocolate, and other treats. We drink some water and keep going. Here, we meet some sort of wild friendly partridges completely unafraid of us.

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The forest beyond this point and altitude is dry, the trees are much shorter, surrounded by cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher. It gets steeper and harder to walk. After kilometer 10, there is no more forest, but alpine grasses, flowers and some small very dry trees all around us. The montane forests lying above 1500 meters elevation up to approximately 3000 meters elevation, transition to the grasslands and shrublands of the Costa Rican Páramo.

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These are the Talamancan montane forests very rich in biodiversity and they are Central America’s most intact ecoregions, with 40% of the ecoregion protected by national and international parks. Scientist estimate that between 3 and 4 percent of the biodiversity in the world is found here with 136 mammal species (jaguar, cougar, tapir, deer, anteater and several species of monkeys) and 450 species of birds among which the harpy eagle and the quetzal. The Costa Rican páramo, also known as the Talamanca páramo, is a natural region of montane grassland and shrubland found above 3000 meters elevation on the summits of the highest mountains. These are also called sky islands- home of many species of plants and animals. Here, we feel like we are in a different world. It is breathtakingly serene and beautiful.

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We start seeing fat scaly lizards- some black other green-blue, sunning themselves on rocks and branches near the path. Later, we found out that these are the emerald swift or green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus)- a species of small lizard, native to Central America.

Emerald swifts

Emerald swifts are distinctly bright green in color, with males typically being more striking than females. They grow from 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in length. Like other species in the genus Sceloporus, their scales tend to be fairly stiff and heavily keeled, giving them a spiny texture. Emerald swifts are arboreal lizards. In the early morning they forage for insects, and then spend much of the day basking in the sun. They will retreat to a burrow, or under a rock or log if the temperature becomes too high or to sleep. (from Wikipedia)

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Emerald swift (male)

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Emerald swift (female)

At Crestones Ranger Station

After 10 hours of walking, we reach kilometer 14 and the Ranger Station Los Crestones already full with other mountaineers who cheer for us as soon as we walk through the door. Maya is the youngest hiker this day and we are once again the proudest parents. It has been a beautiful sunny rainless day; we are tired and hungry and super happy to be here. For the fifth time, we have to write down our names and passport numbers in the big registry book. By now, I just invent random numbers. We are then awarded with two blankets each and a key to a room with two bunk beds- the coldest most expensive “hotel” we have ever slept in and there is not even a shower. At this altitude, it gets freezing at night. While the rest of the mountaineers eat hot meals prepared in the kitchen of the ranger station, we eat canned food and crackers. Most of the people are locals (they pay less) and Europeans: lots of German and French. In our room, we sleep with our clothes on wrapped in the blankets.

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Climbing Cerro Chirripo. Day2

The next morning, we wake up at 3:00 a.m. and start walking in the dark with little headlights on. There are 5 more kilometers to the summit, and these are the toughest ones. At this altitude, I can barely breathe. It’s freezing cold. We can hear a river, but don’t see it. All we see are billions of stars hanging above us, and contours of black mountains. We are walking through the thick grasses of the Costa Rican paramo. The path is hard to find in the dark, especially when it goes over flat rocky areas. We lose it. We have to come back and find it again. We keep walking. We want to get to the summit just before sunrise and watch the daybreak from the top of Costa Rica, but I am struggling with the altitude and am way too slow. I don’t feel good at all. I want to quit. I want to go back in the shelter and wait there. But Ivo and Maya are urging me to keep going. They stop and wait for me while I rest every couple of minutes. I need to sit down, catch my breath, and wait for my heart to calm down. The terrain gets rougher and steeper, and on top of that the cold wind picks up. After one last turn, we finally see the last peak. Cerro Chirripo is beautiful and frightening- a vertical steep pyramid of grey rocks. I give up. I will not reach this summit. It’s way too hard for me. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me behind and hurry up to catch the sunrise. I want to start walking back and will wait for them at the shelter. Reluctant, Ivo and Maya continue without me. As they start the final ascent, I hear Maya in the distance saying- “Mama, don’t come, this is way too difficult for you, you can’t make it!”

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Alone, I sit and rest for a while but it gets too cold. I have to keep going or I will freeze to death. I get up and start walking again. Towards the summit. Slowly, I climb over the rocks on my fours. This reminds me of our ordeal going down from Volcan Baru in Panama... The sun is already out and I can see the dark crater lake and the sea of white clouds below. Ivo and Maya are already on top and when they see me struggling across the final vertical meters of the mountain like a wounded old turtle, they are super happy and surprised. In fact, I haven’t seen Ivo so happy and proud of me for a long time. This makes me feel happy too. I made it! We all made it to the top of Costa Rica, what a glorious unforgettable moment!

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Maya with Cerro Chirripo behind her

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After a few freezing cold minutes on the summit and a well-deserved chocolate, we start the long downhill walk. It’s 5 km back to the shelter plus 14km back to the village for a total of 24 km for the day. The walk down is easier on the hearth and lungs, but proves harder on the knees and legs, and I struggle again. The weather is once again perfect. We don’t get a drop of rain the entire time both days, and only when we return to San Gerardo and finally sit on the bench in front of the small grocery shop in town eating some cheap spicy sausage and drinking local beer with a young coupe form Quebec, it starts poring. But we don’t care. We are back, we are dry, and we are resting. No more hiking for today.

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Ivo, Mira and Maya on top of Cerro Chirripo 3820m

Tips for climbing Cerro Chirripo

Make reservations in advance if possible. There are only 60 people per day allowed in the park, as there are only 60 beds in the ranger station. While we were in San Gerardo, we met a guy who had to wait one more day, as the park quota was reached and he couldn’t climb the summit the same day.
Bring good mountain boots, winter jackets and hats, and flashlights. The lights at Crestones are switched off at 8:00 p.m. and the hike in the morning begins in total darkness.
Bring a bottle of water. You can refill it at kilometer 7 and once again before Crestones.
Even though we didn’t get any rain, it is highly possible that you will, so bring rain ponchos.
If you feel, like we do, that the park fees are way too expensive, you can make a complaint. Hopefully, they will lower the prices if more people express their opinion. For more information, visit the park’s website Parque Nacional Chirripo

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Hiking Volcan Baru

Hiking Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

We wake up at 4:30 a.m. and, loaded with our huge backpacks, head for Volcan Baru- a dormant volcano and Panama’s highest peak rising at 3475m. Ivo’s backpack is as big and as heavy as a small chubby dead person who even in his desperate state of utter lifelessness hasn’t lost the ability to put on weight and grow slightly each day. We call him The Chinaman. Ivo hauls him on his back up and down mountains, in cities and villages, in jungles and across borders and we all hate him with passion. The Chinaman and the two other backpacks are our biggest enemies right now.

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

The town of Boquete is asleep. Those who told us that there is a bus to the trailhead at 5:00 a.m. must have been joking, as there is not a single car on the street; not a bus, not a soul, except for one crazy hobo singing a happy tune, telling us in Spanish that “the road is long”. Desperate, we walk up and down the empty town’s streets for a few minutes and just when we lose hope of getting to the park’s entrance on time, we spot a lone taxi. He takes us up to the trailhead for $7. It is still dark and the park’s office is still closed, which means we are on time, because we can walk right past the office building and begin the long hike without paying the entrance fee- $5 per person, charged only after 6:00 a.m.

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

We walk under the heavy weight of our backpacks loaded with sleeping bags and rolled matts, jackets and clothes for hot and cold weather, cereal bars and canned food for two days, water bottles and photo cameras- all the stuff we will need in the next one month while visiting Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where we are heading after Panama. Most of the heaviest stuff and the tent make up The Chinaman- about 30 kg. Maya’s pack is 7 kg, mine- 15 kg. Soon, our legs begin to hurt and the higher we go the harder it gets. We are not used to high altitudes and huge backpacks.

Hiking with heavy packs

Hiking with heavy packs

If we had no backpacks, the walk from Boquete to the summit would be much easier and painless, even pleasant, on a wide rocky road accessible by 4×4 all the way to the top, passing by mountainous forests, green pastures and rocky hills, so beautiful we forget about the pain of the long walk and pause often to admire Nature’s charms. Large trees dominate the lower slopes, giving way to smaller plants, bushes, scrub and alpine wildflowers as we go higher. It is uphill most of the way for 12km, not very steep, starting at around 1600m with 1900m elevation gain.

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We stop to rest frequently. At noon, we eat lunch on a huge rock in the middle of the road thinking how difficult it would be for those 4WD cars to pass through here. But they do. They suffer and roar and struggle, but those Toyotas somehow miraculously do get to the top and back in one piece (half of the time).

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Lunch on the rock

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Normally, it should take 6 to 8 hours to get to the campground area, which is just before the summit. But we barely make it in 10 hours, completely destroyed, and pitch the tent under a large roofed shelter, half burned and rotten, surrounded by low moss-covered trees. It’s just before sunset- fog and light rain- and at 3200m altitude, it’s freezing cold. We “sleep” with our hats and NorthFace jackets on inside the sleeping bags. It is incredible that just a few hours ago and at 1900 meters lower altitude it was hot tropical summer. Many people start climbing in the warm weather unprepared for the freezing temperatures. One person has died of hypothermia on top of Baru in 1995. Besides cold, it is also uncomfortable, and our legs hurt so much from the long heavy walk it’s hard to sleep. Rather, we wait for the night to end in a series of short nightmares.

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The place we slept the first night

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It’s freezing cold

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Around 4:00 a.m. we hear a group of people passing near the tent. They flash lights at us and this is a sign it is time to get up and go one and a half more kilometers steep uphill to the summit. These guys have started the hike from Boquete around midnight, walking all night in order to get to the summit before daybreak and watch the glorious sight of the sun rising over the clouds below and the sky turn from black to purple to blue, orange and pink. It is said that in clear day you can see both oceans from the top- the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west, but we are not lucky that day. As we climb the last kilometer and a half wrapped in our winter jackets and hats, a strong cold wind brings clouds and rain.

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On top of Baru there are some large unromantic installations and cellphone, internet, TV and radio towers emitting constant buzzing sounds. The group of early hikers are freezing huddled next to one of the buildings’ walls; one guy is in shorts and his legs are white-blue. He starts looking for wood to make fire. We are observing him thinking that for the first time in our lives we will see a person dying of hypothermia in front of our eyes, when Jaime shows up and invites us all inside the warm cozy ranger’s station. Jaime is the summit and installations’ guard from Panama’s National Police Force. He is stationed alone on top of Baru spending 15 days per month away from his family in a small room, on top of Panama. He is a great guy and invites us for coffee and hot chocolate.

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On top of Baru

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Ivo on top of Baru

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Mira, Maya and ivo on top of Baru

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At the station, we found out that we could have slept there for free (instead of the tent a few meters below) if we had walked 30 more minutes the previous day….It’s an emergency shelter, and the guard stationed there is super welcoming and a very nice person. He loves guests!

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The Nomadiks with Jaime

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Jaime Alberto stationed on guard duty on top of Volcan Baru

We go back down after spending some time at the summit watching the sun rising underneath a thick blanket of clouds and the clouds become gold, purple and pink; we pack the tent and bring everything back up, as the trail to the other side of Baru towards the town of Volcan starts right at the peak. We decide to take this unpopular, shorter but much harder and steeper path on the western side of the volcano instead of walking back down on the eastern flank to Boquete (a medium- difficult hike), and very soon we regret this decision, but it’s too late.

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The walk down on the western flank is rated : “Muy dificil” (very difficult) going almost vertically down some unstable lava flows. Click on the image to enlarge.

The hike from the top of Baru to the town of Volcan is rated ‘very difficult’. More difficult than this would be rock climbing, and going down proves to be much harder and more dangerous than going up. Here, the volcano shows its true character. The trail follows old crumbling lava flows, huge burned boulders and extremely steep cliffs. Our heavy backpacks throw us off balance and act like sails; we are constantly “jibing” when strong puffs coming from behind push us. Yet, our biggest problem is no longer the weight of the packs but the terrain which here is not just difficult, but extremely dangerous. Ivo and Maya are much faster, but I am terrified as one wrong move here can be fatal, and sometimes it takes me forever to make even one step. Instead of covering the entire 7 km of the trail in about 3-4 hours, we cover one kilometer in 3 hours, starting at 10:00 a.m., after spending some time drinking coffee and hot chocolate and chatting with Jaime. By the time we are down from the rocky slopes and into the jungles of the lowlands, it is already late afternoon.

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In the jungle, it doesn’t get better. The path is still steep downhill and we have to jump down muddy narrow crevices and fallen trees. It has been eight hours of nightmare; my knees are shaking by now and I cannot make another step. I’m done. Ivo, with The Chinaman on his back, takes my backpack too and keeps walking like a leaf-cutter ant with almost double the load, bitching. We are by now completely miserable and just want the ordeal to be over. But the trail keeps going on and on and soon it’s dark. Night finds us in the middle of a tropical forest, exhausted, dehydrated (we finished the water around noon) and far away from civilization. We keep walking with small headlights in the darkness, thinking about snakes, jaguars and other monsters.

In this kind of extreme situations, one’s true character emerges. It turns out, I am a quitter. I just want to stop walking and sleep. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me in the forest with my backpack and sleeping bag; I cannot continue; I’m not afraid of the jungle; I’ll find them tomorrow in the village. Ivo is a survivor, a stubborn mule with limitless strength and the exact opposite of a quitter. With the two heavy backpacks he keeps going even though he is also completely exhausted and won’t leave me alone in the jungle. He is helping me as much as possible even tough at this point in time and space, we hate each other with passion. Maya is ahead of the two of us and her true character turns out to be one of a hero. She walks without complaining and tries to cheer us up, telling us “We are almost there; don’t give up; I see the end (even though she doesn’t), we are almost out of the jungle; we can make it; come on!”

Around 8:00 p.m. we are out of the jungle, walking on a wide leveled path covered with thick tall grass. Here, we pitch the tent on the side of the path over a grassy patch and sleep. The wind is violent that night, coming down from the mountain, the tent bends and tries to fly away like a kite, but we don’t care. Thirsty and hungry, we sleep.

The next morning, we awake renewed at the bottom of a beautiful valley- a sea of purple meadows, spiky trees and enormous cacti surrounded by black hills. Thin rain clouds are slowly nearing from the north and with the sun low above the eastern horizon we walk again, under a rainbow. We discover that the end of the trail is just 100 m away from our campsite but it is not the end of the road. From here, we have to walk a few more kilometers on a black road to the first village- Paso Ancho. Luckily, a local woman dropping off tourists heading to Baru gives us a lift on her way back. And this journey is over.

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Our campsite the second night

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Mira pointing at the summit. On the right side of her finger is the trail from Boquete rater ‘medium difficult’ and on the left side of her finger is the trail to Paso Ancho rated ‘very difficult’- vertical down!

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First people we meet after our descent! These guys in the pickup truck are going to climb Baru from the very difficult western flank…. They have no idea what’s ahead of them… and are super exited

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Ivo and Maya walking hand in hand under a rainbow.

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The first house we see as we walk down toward the village. We go there to ask for water.

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At the ranch, we are greeted by indigenous Guayami kids

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Their mother comes out to see us too.

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She has the most beautiful smile in the world….

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After unloading the hikers, the pickup truck picks us up on the way back and saves us a lot of walking to the village of Paso Ancho.

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The Nomadiks with the woman who gave us a ride. The journey is over!

 

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