(Not) Hiking Volcan Baru
I stepped off of a yellow school bus into the city center of Boquete and looked around at the new atmosphere. It was very different from the hot islands of Bocas Del Toro I had come from, now I was in 60-degree weather with mountains in sight. As I stepped off my bus I caught a glimpse of Hostel Mamallena right in front of me which is where I was headed to ask about their shuttle and sign up to do the overnight hike up Volcan Baru.
I was looking forward to the hike ahead and the beautiful view it promised (as long as the weather obliged) and walked in with a few other people from the bus following behind me. The staff at Hostel Mamallena was exceptionally welcoming, I was totally impressed by their hospitality. They showed me where to sign up and had a luggage storage area right in front of the desk under constant supervision even though I wasn’t paying for a bed that night. I put my name on the list, and sat down as I charged my phone and used their guest computers in the check-in area.
Let me take a moment to explain where my head was going into this adventure. I am from Florida, the flat, flat lands of Florida, I have been here my entire life and have never so much as tried to walk up a hill. Totally oblivious to what it meant to hike up a volcano, and reading nothing on the internet but the words “moderate hike” and “beautiful sunrise” I thought it would be a piece of cake. It wasn’t until my first day in Costa Rica when I asked someone I met about the hike, and he was the first of many to say something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that hike. No, I can’t say that I would necessarily do it again, but I mean, it’s pretty at the top.” he also was the first to give me the heads up of the 30 degree or less weather at the top, and the fact that I shouldn’t take breaks for too long because my muscles would get too tired. This was what started to make me apprehensive about the hike, but I thought, “I can do it, it’s just one night of hiking, it’ll be hard, but who cares, it’s not like I won’t be able to do it, I’ll just have to tough it out.”
I went to the restaurant next door to the hostel to have a good meal, knowing I would need to fuel myself for the all night, “moderate difficulty” hike ahead of me, then to the grocery store to buy a liter of water, apples, and some almonds I figured would suffice as my trail snacks. I then went back to the hostel, got my day pack ready, and got my jackets out of my backpack, but I still had time to kill. The people at Mamallena let me use everything in the hostel as if I was staying there, so I tried to sleep on the couch, eventually I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep so I went to play the guitar for the last hour approaching the hike. One of the people working there heard me and played too, so he called me into the other room and we played guitar together until it was time for me to go.
I got out of the shuttle with my group of 7 people and we started our ascent. Immediately we were going uphill and as my thighs start to burn I start to worry. I figured it would be fine though, every so often we would come to a flat area that would give my legs a rest, and at this point my biggest concern was the Israeli guy relentlessly trying to convince me that I should date him. I was thinking “I don’t even care about my legs right now, if this guy keeps it up for the next 8 hours I’m definitely not gonna make it,” but I politely brushed him off in efforts not to make things more awkward than they already were. After about 2 km we came to a clearing in the trees and we could see the lights of the city twinkling below us, I thought about how small it seemed, and that this would all be worth it in the morning at the top, and then I thought about how I had no idea what the heck 2km was because I am from America where we don’t use the metric system, but I hoped it was more than two miles. It wasn’t. We kept on, my friend from Israel kept on as well, and I was struggling a bit, but he seemed to be struggling more so I felt like I was doing fine. Around 3.5km Israel quit. The hike was becoming more vertical as we went on, there were no more pieces of flat land, and he had a bad knee so he decided it was safest for him to turn around and go back into town.
As we made our way closer to the top it got colder and colder, I was waiting for our quick breaks as much as I was dreading them because I longed for the relief, but knew the second I stopped moving I would start shivering in my sweaty shirt. With every step came the thoughts, “I hate this” “This is terrible” “Why must I always choose to do things the hard way, why do I hear of these difficult things and think it’s a good idea? It is not a good idea.” “my feet hurt, is that a blister? I’ve been wearing these boots for weeks!” “Are we halfway yet? Who decided America shouldn’t use the metric system?” “ok, 6 km, 6 out of how many again?” “Why is it so hard to breathe? Why am I so light headed?” At one point we stopped to eat, I ate an apple, and some almonds, and drank a significant amount of water as the 7 of us sat in a circle and talked about where we all were from. I didn’t say much, my mind was cluttered with the fear of my muscles getting too tired from sitting, and the realization of how cold it had become.
We kept walking and I was experiencing increasing symptoms of what I now know was altitude sickness. Altitude sickness, a strange concept I had heard of once as a 12-year-old on a family vacation in Colorado though I had never experienced it. In the beginning of the hike I started to become more aware of different parts of my body, like the unsteady ankle I sprained terribly in high school, and the feeling of each foot pounding the ground with its steps, things that in the beginning I thought were cool and interesting, but now were just another part of my inner monologue of self-loathing. I was so miserable, and I felt so dumb for being so miserable, no one else seemed as miserable, they all seemed like expert volcano climbers that had been there a million times, I was just a 22-year-old girl from Florida without the ability to accept that she may be unprepared for some of the things she wishes to do. I wished my group would leave me to suffer in solitude. Even through all this, I never once thought I might not make it, I just thought it better be worth it when I did. I wished they would leave me to hike as slow as I wanted and to take a nap if I wanted because it was like 4 am and I was so light headed all I wanted to do was lay down. That’s when it happened, the one thing I definitely did not see coming.
There was a French couple on the hike and the husband had lagged behind with me a bit and he eventually told me I should not go on. How could he say such a thing?! I had as much of a right to hike the volcano as anybody else! He went on to tell me he was an experienced climber, and I was not, he had seen a lot of people get hurt hiking before, and he was afraid I would get hurt. I told him that I would be fine, they could go ahead without me and I would take my time, be careful, and meet them at the top. He still said no. He told me that if I didn’t get hurt by the time I reached the top I probably would on the way down and he wouldn’t leave me alone because it could be hours before anyone found me, he would rather hike me down to the bottom and miss the rest of it himself than let me finish it or go back down alone. I was appreciative that he was so concerned for my safety, and also frustrated because I spent the last four or five hours telling myself I wouldn’t quit despite my being miserable, but I agreed and the three of us turned around.
I can’t say I wasn’t looking forward to the relief of going downhill, that is until we started to go down and I realized it was just as bad as up, but in a different way. The hike was so steep, what on the way there had been going straight up was now straight down and my knees were not happy. My knees hurt and my toes were pressing against the front of my boots, I could not believe the way down was also so miserable, but I walked on reminding myself that it would take about half the time to get down than it did to go up. Though it was shorter, it felt like an eternity longer. I talked to the couple walking down with me, sometimes they would speak to each other in French, and we spent time in silence where my mind wandered to various things. I spent a considerable amount of time imagining Frodo Baggins and his quest to bring the ring to Mordor to be destroyed. I imagined the scene with the giant spiders and thought about the ways I would respond if that situation were happening until I came to the conclusion that I would just let them kill me because then I could get out of the rest of this hike.
The sun began to rise. We had about 3 km left, and it was around the time we should have been reaching the top, and just then it began to rain. I was annoyed at the rain, I was already cold and I had to take off my backpack to get my waterproof jacket, but then I realized everyone else was at the top, and they were missing the sunrise. The French couple and I talked about how much that sucked for them, but how happy we were we didn’t get all the way up there to be met with disappointment. The skies cleared as we were reaching the end of the hike and back to having small stretches of flat land and clearings in the trees that offered immaculate views of the sun rising over the mountains, I looked in awe and thought, “You are so beautiful, but I hate you so much.” I was amazed and still over it. I couldn’t believe it when we reached the welcome sign indicating the beginning of the hike, and then we walked on the pavement towards the city until a taxi drove past and picked us up. I have never been so happy to get into a taxi in my life, and I’m sure my mom was just as happy to hear that I had not hitchhiked.
At the end of this I felt as though I would never hike again, I thought I had learned my lesson, no more hiking for Beck What the Heck, I would stick to beaches and islands. WRONG. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but somehow, even after all of that, I only want to continue hiking, continue improving, and eventually return to complete the hike. My boots have officially been broken in and I’m ready for the next trail.