Our training for the big Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu in October continues! Two weekends ago we not only gave ourselves a good hiking challenge but also ticked another one off the Boquete bucket list: a round-trip, overnight hike on the Los Quetzales Trail.
Whether you’re planning a trip to Boquete or you live here, hiking at least part of this stunning trail is an absolute must. The trail connects the Boquete side of Volcán Barú National Park with Cerro Punta, a beautiful highland farming area that is worth a visit on its own (we’ve blogged about Cerro Punta before, here and here).
The Los Quetzales Trail is truly one of the most scenic hikes in all of Panamá. It’s quite possible to catch a glimpse of the elusive Respendent Quetzal, the trail’s namesake and one of central America’s most celebrated birds, as well as many other colorful birds that are found in very few other places on the planet. Large troops of howler monkeys make their home there as well. On one memorable day hike previously, we had a family of howlers hanging out practically over our heads, high in the trees. It was spectacular!
Joined by our good friend Bill Crabbe, we started at the Boquete side at the Alto Chiquero ranger station. All visitors must sign in upon arrival because (reassuringly) the rangers keep close tabs on who is on the trail at any given time. The Alto Chiquero ranger called his counterpart at the El Respingo station on the Cerro Punto side, so we were expected when we hauled our tired, muddy selves into El Respingo six or so hours later.
The trail from the Boquete side is more challenging, with a steady gain in elevation from 1,800 to 2,470 meters. The distance from ranger station to ranger station is published at about 5.5 miles, although the running app on my phone recorded closer to 7, both days. The trail is well-marked with signs indicating the distance from one station to the other. But we started to get a little suspicious of these signs when we passed at least two that stated the same distance! “What?? It’s still 2km to El Respingo? That’s what the last sign said an hour ago!”
At about 3/4 of the way up, you will come to a side trail for the Mirador La Roca. It’s aptly named for the towering rock that you can actually see from the Boquete ranger station, if you squint hard enough. The Mirador is well worth the little extra hike to get to it, and the view is spectacular on a sunny, clear day. A lot of people make this their turnaround point if they’re doing a day hike.
Throughout the day we encountered copious mud (this being rainy season and all), several downed trees across the trail, and a section of stairs completely washed out by a massive landslide. We crossed the Caldera River several times, on bridges and once on foot over very slippery rocks. Somehow we were able to maneuver around every obstacle that Mother Nature threw at us, and we got lucky – no rain on either day. There are many sets of “stairs,” some of them very steep, and a few railings, most in need of some maintenance.
An hour or so after the mirador, we reached the El Respingo ranger station on the Cerro Punta side and received a warm welcome from Alex, the ranger who was expecting us. He told us there are few hikers on the trail this time of year, so he was probably happy to have a bit of conversation. (The rangers work seven days on and then take seven days off in these remote stations, so it probably gets a little lonely.) From there, we learned it was another three miles down the Bajo Grande road to our lodging for the night. But we got lucky and were able to hail a cab about a mile down, where the gravel road turns to pavement.
We had a great night’s stay at Las Orquídeas Bed & Breakfast in Guadalupe, the little town just up the road from Cerro Punta. Belgica (Beba), the new owner, has done a wonderful job at this quaint B&B. It’s very comfortable and quiet, with a beautiful creekside setting and lush tropical landscaping. After some much-savored cold beers (we had started dreaming of beer many, many muddy steps ago), we enjoyed a lovely dinner and a restful night’s sleep.
Next morning we awoke to a great breakfast and took a taxi back up the road to the point where the pavement ends, and we began our ascent back up to El Respingo. An hour or so later we arrived at the ranger station where Alex was waiting for us. Same drill as yesterday – we signed in and Alex called ahead to the Boquete side to inform them about the three gringos that were coming back down.
Going back is a bit easier because it’s a steady descent, at least until the very end when you encounter the steep uphill also known as the Loma de Las Lamentos, just before the Alto Chiquero ranger station. The downhills can be a knee buster, though, and those same steps we were cursing the day before were very slippery and muddy to navigate coming down. About five hours later, we arrived at Alto Chiquero and got a warm greeting and “felicidades” from the ranger, who hitched a ride with us back into Boquete. Apparently his job was done once the three muddy gringos emerged from the trail!
The two-day experience totaled almost 19 miles and 12 hours of walking (counting a trip into the town of Guadalupe for beer and wine). Not so bad for three old farts!
- The ranger station on the Boquete side is about a half-hour drive north from the center of town. Taxis are very familiar with the route.
- From the ranger station, you’ll hike on a gravel road for about 1.5 miles till you see the sign on your left, the true beginning of the Quetzal Trail. If you’re looking for a short hike, you can turn around here. There’s still plenty to see, and you’ll cross the roaring Caldera a couple of times.
- Bring plenty of water, first aid kit, snacks/lunch, and rain gear.
- Hiking poles are incredibly helpful, especially for navigating the steep steps both up and down.
- During rainy season, start early to avoid the rain and expect plenty of shoe-sucking mud. If you’d like a less soggy experience, hike the trail during the dry season – December through March.
- As we mentioned, another option for a day hike is to reach the Mirador la Roca and turn around, for a challenging 5-to-6-hour hike.
- A second choice for a (long) day hike is to take a bus to Guadalupe and hike one way back down to the Boquete side and arrange for a driver or taxi at the end. We did this last year with a group and hired a van to take us over and then pick us up.