Hiking Gaital in Panama’s Anton Valley

Last year we did a rainforest hike on the slopes of the Tenorio Volcano in Costa Rica and although it was a well-traveled path, it was an amazing experience so when we decided to go to Panama this year (next door with similar terrain), another rainforest hike was definitely on the agenda. We knew that Costa Rica is famous for its eco-tours and so our expectations for Panama were tempered. Would we find ourselves disappointed?

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Our guide Josanel Sugasti

We met our guide Josanel at our hotel in Santa Clara on the Pacific coast at 7:45 on a beautiful sunny morning for a hike up Gaital Mountain and although his English was a work-in-progress, I had enough of a smattering of Spanish to make it work. Hailing from the valley himself, he was personable and eager to answer any of our questions about his country on the 45 minute drive up into the hills of the Anton Valley. We were ecstatic to discover that not only was Josanel a graduate of the University of Panama, majoring in Ecological Tourism, he was an avid advocate of ecological preservation. More than once that day he would harangue other hikers in Spanish who weren’t respecting the sanctity of the environment around them.

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The town of El Valle de Anton

We passed through the quaint town of El Valle de Anton and started up some of the roughest roads I’ve been on without the comfort of a jeep (we were in a small van) then in the middle of the rainforest…a giant chicken farm!! Later that morning when we reached the peak of Gaital, you could still hear the chickens!

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A chicken farm in the rainforest

We parked and started our hike down a wide trail, almost a glade and immediately we noticed a difference from Costa Rica, there was far more wildlife, countless birds and butterflies of all shapes and sizes with the grunting sounds of a peccary in the underbrush. We then turned onto a narrow, rising trail and began our ascent.

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Entrance to Gaital

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There had been recent rain so the mud was damp and slippery but there were enough  bamboo crosspieces on the trail to form a sort of staircase.

Jo (as he asked us to call him) was an incredible wealth of knowledge with an uncanny ability to notice things the layman (us) would never have seen.

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At one point he stopped and lifted a large leaf and on the underside was one of the most unusual caterpillars I had ever seen. How he knew it was there, I have no idea.

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He told us later that when he was a teenager and his friends wanted to go clubbing, he would gear up and head for the hills, literally. His idea of a date with his wife is a day long hike through the jungle (we never met her so I’m not sure how SHE felt about that).

My head spun with all the butterflies, insects and birds we saw, all dutifully identified by Jo. Various animal tracks on the path were noted but the sheer volume of what we saw was limited what I could remember without a pen and paper (I was hiking up a mountain!). Most of the larger animals are nocturnal so Jo informed us he also did night tours of this same hike with headlamps to guide the way. We’ll have to do that next visit!

The variety of flora was astounding, some of which reminded me of the triffids in John Wyndham’s classic novel. I noticed that every surface, whether stone, tree trunk or root seemed to be covered in other forms of plant life, seemingly playing benign host to each other. I mentioned to Jo that life seemed very symbiotic here and he replied thoughtfully that symbiotic was a good word to describe it.

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Finally we stepped out in a small clearing and realized we had crested the peak of Gaital at 1024 metres. Although it was misty, Jo told us that on a clear day one could see both the Caribbean (we couldn’t see)…

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…and the Pacific (we could see).

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In fact, during World War 2, the Americans set up an observation post on Gaital so they could keep an eye on both bodies of water. We looked down on the volcanic crater which formed the valley that the town was built in and in the far distance, we could see approximately where our hotel was. It was one of the most spectacular views I had ever had the pleasure of viewing and a part of me didn’t want to leave.

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We reluctantly began to make our way down (to the distant sound of chickens!) after which Jo took us into town for a ‘shopping trip’ (another upcoming blog post) and then a shorter hike to see the famous ‘square trees’ (a second upcoming post!) before whisking us back to our hotel in time for a late lunch.

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This was (almost) the highlight of the week (a THIRD post!) but we definitely enjoyed it more than our Costa Rica jaunt…and that was in great part due to our guide. If you are looking for someone who truly knows (and cares) about the rainforest, Jo comes highly recommended by us! He can be reached through his Facebook page or contact Nexus Tours and request him specifically.

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