Hiking off the Beaten Path, Costa Rica and Panama

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14525A, International


  • Hike in a stunning variety of landscapes
  • Climb Panama's highest mountain to view the Pacific and the Caribbean at the same time
  • Visit the incredible Panama Canal


  • All accommodations, meals, airport transfers, on-trip transportation, entrance fees, and gratuities
  • Knowledgeable local guides and talks by local environmentalists


DatesFeb 2–14, 2014
Price$3,145 (12–15)
$3,675 (or fewer)
StaffJim Balsitis

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Our hiking adventure will dazzle you with the diversity of flora and fauna in these two tiny countries that form the Central American isthmus. Days begin early here with a "dawn chorus" of howler monkeys and birds greeting the sunrise. In the warm tropical air, we’ll explore tropical rain forests and fog-shrouded cloud forests, then climb to the sub-alpine paramo. Butterflies, monkeys, sloths, and coatis (coatimundi) are among the wildlife we hope to see. If you are a hiker who loves nature, then this trip is for you!

In Costa Rica, we’ll travel along the Cordillera de Talamanca highlands to the edge of Chirripo National Park, and then onto a coastal nature reserve. Our hikes are in national parks and private reserves, and many of the trails are seldom visited, increasing our chances of seeing rare species such as the elusive resplendent quetzals.

From Costa Rica, we'll travel to Panama. Panama has an incredible natural beauty, rich in wildlife and diversity. Here, we will stay in the town of Boquete, known as "the Valley of the Flowers and Eternal Spring" due to its fertile volcanic soil and temperate spring-like climate. In this paradise of forests, waterfalls, and mountain scenery, we’ll explore Volcan Baru National Park for two days, including hiking up Panama’s highest peak. If the weather is clear we should be able to see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea at the same time! Our final destination is Panama City, where we'll spend a day touring the Old City and visiting the Panama Canal.


Please note: This trip starts and ends in different countries. Most participants will fly into San Jose, Costa Rica and then fly home from Panama City, Panama.

Day 1: Arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica, by early afternoon. Tonight we'll have a welcome dinner, orientation meeting, and introductions. We will stay in San Jose/Alajuela for three nights.

Day 2: Our bus will take us to Tapanti National Park, 23 miles from San Jose, where we will hike for up to four hours. The park is in the Pacific La Amistad Conservation Area, located on the edge of the Talamanca Range. Three new species of orchids were discovered recently in the park -- their only known habitat so far. After lunch we’ll then travel to Los Quetzales National Park, which is Costa Rica’s newest national park. This park is popular for its cloud forest and birds, since it's where the quetzal can be seen. We’ll end the day at the beautiful Savegre Lodge, where we will stay for the next two nights.

Day 3: Today we will travel to another part of Los Questzales NP. We’ll hike in the paramo and the oak forest in Cerro de la Muerte (mountain of death). The oak forest is found at the higher altitudes, and the aguacatillo tree, a relative of the avocado, covers significant portions of the park.

Day 4: Today we’ll take an early morning birdwalk to look for resplendent quetzals before eating a wonderful breakfast. Then we will travel the Baru area and hike to Nauyaca Falls. These are two incredible waterfalls that plunge into a deep swimming hole out in the forest. It is about a two-hour walk each way and we will stop at a local farm for snacks and lunch on the way. We will end the day at our accommodations at Hacienda Baru Private Reserve in Dominical. After dinner we will take a night hike with flashlights to see and hear nocturnal fauna.

Day 5: We will start the day with a natural history hike in Hacienda Baru. After lunch you will have the afternoon free to relax or take a zip line canopy tour (at your own expense). In the evening we’ll hear a presentation on Costa Rica environmental issues by Mr. Jack Ewing, founder of ASANA (Amigos de la Naturaleza), a local conservation organization.

Day 6: We will leave Hacienda Baru and take the bus to San Vito and visit the Wilson Botanical Garden, located at the Organization for Tropical Studies. We will take a natural history walk through the gardens, which are known as the most famous botanical gardens in Central America.

Day 7: Our travels take us to La Amistad Biosphere Reserve for an all-day hike on the Altamira Trail. La Amistad (meaning "friendship") is located along the Talamanca Range in Southern Costa Rica. The park is the largest in Central America and stretches into Panama as a sister park.

Day 8: This will be the longest travel day as we make our way to Panama, but we will break up the journey with frequent stops. Boquete, a beautiful small town nestled in a mountain valley, will be our home for the next three nights. The streets are lined with flowers that flourish in the constant spring-like climate, and the coffee grown here is considered the best in the country!

Day 9: Today we will travel to Volcan Baru National Park, the dominant feature of western Panama. The volcanic soil provides a rich environment for plant life and, consequently, an outstanding diversity of animals and birds. There are pumas here and we may see a "conejo pintada" a raccoon-like animal. We'll hike the outstanding Las Quetzales Trail, where quetzals are often spotted. The trail is about six miles, down the mountain, with fabulous views.

Day 10: After breakfast we’ll tour a local coffee plantation, have lunch in Boquete and then spend the afternoon discovering the delightful charms of Boquete. Alternately, the leader can arrange an exciting whitewater rafting excursion or a day of horseback riding (at your own expense).

Day 11: Today we'll set off for Panama City. We should arrive by late afternoon, with time for exploring before dinner. Panama City is a city of great ethnic diversity and architectural contrasts -- colonial neighborhoods with cobbled streets and scenic plazas, ruins of Spanish settlements, and modern skyscrapers.

Day 12: We will spend the morning touring colonial Panama City (Casco Viejo) to see the picturesque street life and magnificent buildings, some of which have been restored. We will visit the Panama Canal Museum, which presents the history of the railroad and canal in text, photos, and paintings, before visiting one of the canal's locks. This will be a spectacular way to end our trip

Day 13: The trip will end after breakfast.



Getting There

Please note: This trip starts and ends in different countries. Most participants will fly into San Jose, Costa Rica and then fly home from Panama City, Panama.

Accommodations and Food

We will be staying in hotels and lodges, double occupancy. Whenever possible, we will stay in eco-lodges that are run by locals. Accommodations will not be luxurious, but will be charming and comfortable, generally with beautiful gardens and outdoor restaurants. The food in both countries is tasty and simple, prepared using fresh, local ingredients.

Trip Difficulty

This moderately paced trip is suitable for people who are relatively fit, active hikers. We will be hiking on all but two days, alternating half-day hikes with all-day hikes.

Equipment and Clothing

A full equipment list will be sent to participants well before the trip.


Registered participants will be sent a suggested reading list, route diagrams, and information on lodgings.


Costa Rica and Panama have both made a commitment to preserve their natural lands and continue to allocate new protected areas. Costa Rica has successfully preserved over 26% of its lands as protected parks and reserves, ensuring the ongoing function of the various complex ecosystems and the survival of its fauna. But there is always encroachment in the form of hunting, poaching, and illegal harvesting on the periphery of the parks. We will discuss how this can change, using Costa Rica as an example with our guide.



For 22 years Jim Balsitis has led or assisted on many Sierra Club Outings in the United States and in Central and South America. In the last few years Jim has been to Peru and Machu Picchu three times, Costa Rica twice (once on a bicycle tour), and Panama. Jim notes, “Though Central and South American countries have many challenges, Costa Rica is a great example of a country acknowledging the importance of the environment and protecting their natural areas. The people are friendly, the food is great and the hiking is wonderful.” When not traveling, Jim enjoys living and working in Santa Barbara, CA.

Associate Leader:

Becky Wong

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