I sit alone at night, 3500m above the ocean on top of a volcano. I’m famished. Freezing cold. Soaking wet. And my infected toe won’t stop throbbing. I can’t help but think, ‘Have I finally got myself into something I can’t get out of?’.
For seven hours I sweat and panted up the steep jagged paths to get here. Now I’m shivering in the pouring rain and trying desperately to get a fire lit. I’m dead tired with no edible food, and I’m almost out of water. Worst of all, I’m not sure if I can make it back down to warmth if I don’t get this fire going. All because I wanted some damn strawberries.
It started at a transformative hippie festival called Envision in Costa Rica. My friend Hugo was telling me a story about how he found the best strawberries in the world in a little town called Boquete, Panama. That’s all it takes when travelling. A piece of advice as simple as this to push you in a certain direction and change your life as a result. Two months after saying bye to Hugo, with 100 different adventures in between, I had finally made it to Boquete. Completely unaware of the mess I was about to get myself into, I charged into town.
I arrived during the night from Panama City after crashing with my aunt and uncle who were vacationing there at a posh 5 Star Resort*. Rolling into town on a local bus, I was glowing with positive energy. The freedom of being on my own again had me keen for a new adventure as Bassnector was not so gently massaging my eardrums. The only thing I knew about my destination was that it boasted the best strawberries in the world.
Getting off the bus it was surprisingly cold out, with a fresh piney smell in the air that reminded me of Christmas back home. It was a refreshing change after the thick sweaty heat from the melting sun that constantly blankets the city. Only stopping to reminisce for a moment I quickly found a quant backpackers hostel nearby. Soon after I was learning a new card game called Dutch Fever with some fellow travellers.
As we drank rum and played cards, a number of them were reliving last nights ‘Hike from Hell’. The hostel organizes a nightly hike up the nearby Volcan Baru, in which brave/foolish volunteers hike 23km up the 3.5km high volcano. It starts around 10pm so everyone can arrive to see the sunrise from the top before heading back. Even with all their complaining one thing was clear – it was worth it. That was all I needed to hear to forget the strawberries and for an idea to start forming.
The next morning I was up early asking around how I could get to the base of the volcano. I packed my things with plans to hike up during the day and spend the night there under the stars. Tent, Sleeping Bag, Water, Toilet Paper, Lighter, Food - Listo.
The hike was as gruelling as it was beautiful. Baru is ever evolving as you climb, keeping you guessing what will be around each new corner. It transitions seamlessly from quant hilly farmland, to thick cloudy forest and eventually to baron volcanic rock. The only people I ever saw were on the opposite way down looking like they had just gone a round with Mike Tyson. The majority of our winded conversations were nothing more than me being asked how much farther to the bottom.
More than three quarters of the way up I ran into my last bit of human companionship. A couple who had just been on the summit but unfortunately had nothing worthwhile to say. They complained about the cloudy view, the crappy hike and how disappointing it all was. This really brought me down into a negative frame of mind as I continued my march a little slower than before.
It’s amazing how much other people’s energy and actions can affect me and I never became more aware of it then that day. After increasingly negative thoughts barraged my mental, I realized how deeply they had affected me. I knew that I needed to do something to change this. I immediately threw on some of my favourite music and sat down. I took a minute to admire the beauty of the forest around me. I reflected on the awesome adventure I was having. In no time at all, and to my pleasant surprise I was in good spirits once again. Charging for the peak.
Until that day I had never been able to change my state of mind in such a direct, dramatic, and positive way. Just through the power of thought and a little help from my good friend music. Since that moment it has become an invaluable skill that I have used on countless occasions. Being aware that others are merely reflecting their own reality onto you and in turn focusing on positive thoughts, you can take control of the affect others can have on you. It takes practice and is far from perfect, but has helped me so much since this day. I digress.
The top of Volcan Baru is an absolutely surreal place and when cloudy, it borders on downright creepy. Completely fogged over I eventually found myself walking, lost, through an abandoned radio tower city. It kept me nervously wondering what lost-souls might be watching from inside the shadows of the derelict buildings. Like the classic idiot character that dies first in a horror flick, I started to explore some of the buildings. They were full of old electronics, garbage and even clothes scattered inside. Although I didn’t notice anyone, it was the type of place that kept me looking over my shoulder and eager to move on.
I eventually got back to some nature farther along the peak, out of sight of the city. I found a nice place to camp between some shrubs where I left my bag to keep exploring. Big mistake. I was about a ten minute walk from where I left my bag when it started to gently rain. Once I was back to my camping spot it was coming down hard. By the time my tent was setup everything was soaking wet including the firewood I collected. It was getting dark and cold by this point and I started to realize what a mess I had got myself into. Without a fire I was screwed. I needed to dry everything off. I needed to cook my food. Most of all I needed to warm up. But starting a fire is very difficult when all your wood is soaked and I was quickly burning through my roll of toilet paper while trying.
For over an hour I failed to get the tiniest possible sticks to catch under the cover of my tent. Finally my last square of toilet paper went up in flame resulting in nothing but smoke. I had nothing else to start a fire with. I was out of options and filled with doubt: How long before I get hypothermia at this temperature? Can I hike back down in this state? Will I be murdered if I stay in one of those scary buildings instead?
As I sat there shivering miserably an idea flicks on in my head like a lightbulb. One last bit of flammable material I had completely forgotten about. I take off my shoe and sock that protect the bunch of gauze neatly wrapped around my infected toe. Not the prettiest solution but I knew it at least was dry. I take extra care bunching the smallest driest sticks around it and give it a go. After a few seconds watching the gauze burn, what do I find out? It’s a miracle fire starter! The gauze somehow gets a few sticks lit. I slowly add more to the fire, praying not to ruin it. After a tense few minutes, I get it burning strong. I scream recklessly into the night sky as if I am the very caveman that first harnessed fire!! Victory.
Soon the fire is stoked, my clothes are drying, and I’m cooking sausages while the night sky starts to clear. I take a minute to walk around, admiring the night stars and full moon glowing above. I can see the distant lights of shimmering cities in every direction. I am reminded why I came up here in the first place. It is completely breathtaking, and in this moment, it is all just for me. I fall asleep with a smile on my face. My belly full. Warm beside my fire.
I wake the next morning thirty minutes before the sun peaks her radiant head over the horizon. Already she is painting her colours patiently across the sky and clouds. I understand how people could come up with the idea of a heaven above. I notice a group waiting at the top that must have hiked during the night.
I stay up there for the next 3 hours with them, admiring every bit of the landscape as the world around begins to wake up. The once terrifying radio centre now looks stunning: it reminds me of Cloud City from Star Wars. I can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean from where I stand. I am on top of the world. And yes, the strawberries I bought later that day were the best I’ve ever tasted.
Conor D Adventurer
P.S. If you ever end up conquering Volcan Baru, make sure you check out the local hot springs afterwards. They are just perfect to heal your sore legs.
*Funny side note - In my 1 year of travelling Central/South America, eating anything and everything, the only time I got sick from the food was at this 5 star resort.