Baru Volcano National Park, Panama
Set just outside the town of Boquete in Panama’s western highlands, the Barú Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcán Barú) is large and impressive. The park contains Panama’s only volcano, highest peak, and several scenic (albeit rugged) hiking trails. Birders are especially fond of the park, as it offers the chance to spot one of Central America’s most elusive birds, the resplendent quetzal.
The Barú Volcano National Park extends across 14,300 hectares (35,336 acres). The volcano rises to a height 3,478 meters (11,411 ft.), the highest point in Panama. On a clear day, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea from the peak. The volcano, which has seven craters, is no longer active but has had four eruptive episodes over the past 1,600 years, the most recent of which was 400-500 years ago. Seismic events during the 20th century and a recent 2006 earthquake serve as reminders of the tectonic terrain that still exists beneath the volcano.
The Barú Volcano National Park includes a variety of climates and terrain. There are humid montane forests, low humid montane forests, and montane rain forests. Some 250 species of birds have been spotted within the park, including the resplendent quetzal, the black-bellied hummingbird, black-cheeked warbler, yellow-thighed finch, and the hairy woodpecker. All five of the big cat species live within the park, including pumas and leopards, as well as porcupines and other mammals. Average temperatures vary between 20°C (68°F) to 10°C (50°F).
One of the park’s most popular trails is the Sendero Los Quetzales (Quetzals Trail), which runs between Cerro Punta and Boquete. The trail is 8 kilometers (5 mi) long and takes around five or six hours to hike. The surroundings are beautiful—the trail runs through forests and meadows, and is crisscrossed by the Río Caldera. Along the way, you get wonderful views of the Boquete valley.
Cerro Punta is about a kilometer higher in elevation than Boquete, so the hike from Boquete to Cerro Punta is uphill. Some people prefer to go from Cerro Punta to Boquete and take advantage of the downhill walk, while others favor hiking uphill to save their knees from the steep descent. In either case, it’s advised to hike the trail with a guide. Doing so will help you avoid making a wrong turn, as well as greatly improve your chance of spotting wildlife.
Hiking to the summit of the Barú Volcano is also popular, although it should be noted that this is a serious, all-day trek. The hike runs steadily uphill for 13.5 kilometers (8.5 mi), which usually takes 4-5 hours. Along the way, you pass through shady forests and sheep-filled meadows, and get wonderful views of the valley below. At the top you can see far into the distance; if the weather is clear, you can even see both the Pacific and Caribbean. The hike down typically takes 3-4 hours. Bring meals and snacks and lots of water—you don’t want to get hungry or dehydrated up here. Guides are also recommended for this hike.
A less strenuous walk that travelers can do is the Bajo Mono Loop. This 20-kilometer (12.5-mi) paved loop begins and ends north of Boquete. Rising above the town, the road passes through dense forests and gives panoramic views of the Boquete valley. Be careful, though, as cars share the road.