It was absurd. No one fathoms encountering such a thing after the 13k hike up 12,000 ft to the summit of Panama's largest peak, the dormant volcano Barú. Just as I could not have guessed what waited for us at the top, I did not anticipate the setback at the bottom, which would find me lying in a ditch by the side of the road.
I met Mariaclara the evening of my arrival at my hostel on Boquete, Panama. She was a New Yorker in her twenties looking for a man, but not as you're imagining. She planned to do a midnight hike up Barú, and for safety's sake, was hoping to find a fellow to accompany her.
A trek up Panama's Barú Volcano begins at midnight in order to catch the magical moment that happens with the morning sunrise. It is one of the only places in the world where you can glimpse both the Caribbean and Pacific. These two seas rarely tango, and despite planning on getting a good night's sleep, it was not difficult to convince me to climb a volcano instead. We grabbed a cab, which drove us the twenty some clicks from Boquete to the base of the volcano.
A Dark Chill in the Tropics
Barú sits just south of the Continental Divide. With temperatures dipping down to freezing, there's a chilly bite at the top one rarely finds in Panama. I donned every scrap of warm-ish clothes I was carrying, but being prepared for Central American weather, these proved a poor protection.
Every sort of imaginable jungle green surrounds the rocky trail to the top. But by night you see only as far as your flashlight is powerful and it's best to keep your eyes on the rock-strewn trail trying to trip you at every bend.
At the start of our ascent we overtook an Italian on the trail. Mariaclara surprised me by busting out fluent Italian. The Italian man explained to us that Barú's last verifiable eruption was in 500AD, but an earthquake in 2006 raised fears that the ground might have shifted enough to give magma a pathway back to the surface. He seemed to be trying to frighten us. This was early 2008, and since the mountain had not blown its top yet, we felt our odds of amazing sunrise view were 100%, while the odds of death by volcano pretty nil. A much different sort of scare waited for us at the top.
As the trail led upward, the atmosphere thinned and temperature dropped and the weight of missing our bedtimes increased. We pressed on, not wanting to miss the sunrise we strained for.
The Serial Killer At The Top
One step at a time, we realized one by one that it was colder than we had thought it would be. Our rest stops became more frequent, but shorter in duration due to the chill. Onwards, upwards, past the clouds to the top of the world we continued. We arrived just as the first hints of horizon were glowing in the distance.
With nothing left to climb to keep us warm, we were frozen and then coming towards us was . . . we did not believe our eyes. Ghostface from the movie Scream, knife in hand, approached us with the determination of the serial killer he played on the screen.
I had to be seeing things—lack of sleep mixing with exhaustion and thin atmosphere meddling with my mind. But the others saw him too. Had we climbed this far to be part of some bizarre murder scene? I did a quick stock of our surroundings and picked up a large rock. I throw like a girl and if Little League had taught me anything, it was that I was not a threat to a hell-bent guy with a knife.
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