Sendero Los Quetzales
The popular Sendero Los Quetzales trail through Parque Nacional Volcán Barú curves around the north side of Barú, linking Cerro Punta with Boquete to the east. Hiking it in either direction is far less challenging than a climb to the top of Barú, but it’s still a serious hike. Most people hike the trail from Cerro Punta.
If you plan to hike it from the Boquete side, logistics are a bit different; be sure to visit the Hiking Sendero Los Quetzales information in the Boquete section of this travel guide.
It’s not essential to have a guide, at least in this direction, but do not attempt it alone. Bring a first-aid kit. Do not hike the trail in shorts; it’s cool in the forest, and if it rains it gets downright cold. A walking stick can come in handy.
The Sendero Los Quetzales gives a taste of real wilderness but is well-defined enough it’s not technically difficult to walk. And, because of the rapid change in elevation, it offers a vivid lesson in life zones, starting with mossy cloud forest dotted with towering oaks and picture-postcard streams that quickly give way to palms, bamboo, and serpentine lianas and vines.
You’ll encounter some forest giants, but most of the forest is secondary growth. Despite its name, this trail is not the best place to see quetzals.
It’s a developed trail, with bridges and steps and the like, but it’s not being well maintained, so watch your step. There are lots of signs along the trail, though whoever put them up has a fanciful sense of distance; don’t pay much attention to them.
About a third of the way down, there’s a designated campsite with few facilities other than an open-sided wooden shelter and some rotting benches. The ground slopes at a pretty steep angle; campers who want to pitch a tent here are best off doing it in the relatively level shelter. A short walk behind this campsite leads to a couple of miradors (observation platforms), the second of which has a beautiful, expansive view down toward Boquete. The red-roofed building off in the distance is the little ranger station at the Boquete entrance to the trail.
It’s less grueling to hike the trail from Cerro Punta to Boquete than vice versa since it’s downhill most of the way, descending nearly a kilometer in altitude (though there is an uphill stretch at the end, just when you think you’re literally out of the woods).
The hike requires some planning since hikers end up far away from Cerro Punta, on the other side of the mountain. The bus ride back takes at least three hours, not including waiting time in David, where you have to switch buses. The best strategy is to leave early in the morning and either have someone meet you with a car at the end of the trail or plan to spend the night in Boquete.
Some who choose the latter option arrange to have their luggage shipped ahead to Boquete, usually through their hotel or guide, but be sure to nail down exactly when the luggage will arrive. Some tourists have had their luggage sent by couriers who only make the trip once a day, leaving them stranded without their belongings, waiting for their luggage to catch up with them.
So how long will the hike down take? This question trips up a lot of hikers, who end up with a much longer outing than they bargained for. It takes an average of five hours to get from El Respingo ranger station (near Cerro Punta) to the Alto Chiquero ranger station (near Boquete, sometimes known as La Roca), but that doesn’t take into account getting to and from the ranger stations.
El Respingo station is at the end of 5.5 kilometers of uphill road that branches off the main road that links Cerro Punta and Guadalupe. The turnoff is halfway between Cerro Punta and Guadalupe, or about 1.5 kilometers past the Hotel Cerro Punta. As you head toward Guadalupe, there’s a huge trail sign on the right just after a little bridge. Turn here and follow the road toward the Bajo Grande area. Note that the road soon turns brutal and drivers must have a four-wheel drive with high clearance.
If you want to walk to the station from the turnoff, add about two hours to the hiking estimate. You may want to opt instead for a taxi, which, unless the horribly rough road has been paved by the time you visit, will cost about US$30 from Cerro Punta to the station. Guests at Los Quetzales Lodge and Spa can get a ride to or from the El Respingo station for the same price, in a van that can carry up to 10 people. An alternative is to hire a taxi to take you to the end of the paved road (US$3) and then hike the rest of the way to the station, which cuts the two-hour walk in half.
Those with a vehicle can park near the station. Don’t leave anything of value in the car. Park entrance is US$5, US$1 to park, and US$5 more to either camp or use a bunk in the quite nice ranger station.
From the Alto Chiquero ranger station at the Boquete end it’s another 1.5-hour hike to get to the Bajo Mono loop road. From there you can catch one of the frequent buses to downtown Boquete for US$1.
Note: Finca Fernández, on the road to Sendero Los Quetzales, has long been famous as a prime place to see quetzals. Sadly, there have been so many reports of thefts from tourists’ cars here I can no longer recommend the finca as a safe place to visit. There are plenty of other places to see quetzals and plenty of other guides to find them for you.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition