The west side of Volcán Barú looks like a pastoral paradise. As the road winds its way up the foggy mountains, it passes one tranquil farm after another. Soon there are neat quilts of green-and-brown farmland clinging at impossible angles to mountain slopes. Down in the valleys, race horses romp in vast pastures.
It’s all so picturesque it’s easy to overlook the fact that intensive farming is damaging this beautiful area. Erosion and pesticide overuse are serious problems. The developed land also borders two of Panama’s most spectacular parks, Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and Parque Internacional La Amistad, and in some cases encroaches on them. Illegal logging, farming, and even cattle ranching still take place in them.
Environmentalists have made some difference here, though, including stopping an ill-conceived plan a few years back to build a road right through the heart of one of the parks. Hiking through Parque Internacional La Amistad and the popular Sendero los Quetzales trail in Parque Nacional Volcán Barú are thus still among the great attractions of the area. Cerro Punta has the most accessible entry into Parque Internacional La Amistad, a park so important UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1990.
All the towns and tourist sights on the west side of Barú are linked by a single road that starts in the lowland town of Concepción and ends at Guadalupe, elevation 2,130 meters. The first town is Volcán, officially known as Hato de Volcán, which has most of the visitor services, but little else.
The road forks here. Straight leads to a little-used Costa Rican border crossing at Río Sereno. A right turn leads farther up the mountain toward Bambito, Cerro Punta, and Guadalupe. Bambito has hotels and a few places to eat, but the “town” itself is really just a few roadside stands. The vistas open up at little Cerro Punta and tiny Guadalupe just beyond it. You’re up in the clouds here, and you may feel you’ve found Shangri-la.
The town of Cerro Punta consists of little more than a small commercial strip in the middle of a heavily developed agricultural area. There are gas stations, a couple of dreary bars and pool halls, a few greasy-spoon restaurants, small grocery stores, and a launderette.
Getting to Cerro Punta
The lowland city of David is the bus and airline hub for the western highlands. It takes 6–7 hours by car to get from Panama City to David. From there it’s about a two-hour drive to Cerro Punta. If you’re driving from David, take the Interamericana west to Concepción, 26 kilometers away. Turn right and head uphill. After another 34 kilometers you’ll come to Volcán. Turn right at the fork to get to Bambito, Cerro Punta, and Guadalupe.
There may be no sign at the intersection except one pointing toward Hotel Bambito. Follow it. Bambito is the first place you’ll come to, about six kilometers north of Volcán. Cerro Punta is about another eight winding kilometers further up the mountain.
In all, Cerro Punta is about 74 kilometers from David, a distance that takes a little over two hours to cover by bus and a bit less by car. The village of Guadalupe is three kilometers farther uphill.
Bus fare from David is US$3 to Cerro Punta and Guadalupe. Look for the bus with “Cerro Punta” painted on the windshield; it stops at all the towns along the way. The Cerro Punta bus should go all the way to Guadalupe, but ask to make sure. If not, taxi fare from Cerro Punta to Guadalupe is US$1.
Buses bound for Cerro Punta leave David 5 a.m.–8 p.m.; David-bound buses leave Cerro Punta 4:45 a.m.–6:45 p.m. Buses run every 15 minutes. Those coming from Costa Rica can also catch the Cerro Punta bus at Concepción rather than go all the way to the David bus terminal. Taxis between David and Cerro Punta charge around US$35 one-way.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition