How Three Hikers Became Separated

The reason my hiking partner Lienke and I stayed a couple of extra days in Boquete was to hike a pair of stellar trails together. The day after drifting up the Pipeline Trail, we took a short, $.70 minibus ride to the start of the lush Área El Pianista (The Pianist Area).

El Pianista boasts stunning, wide-open views.  Surrounded by rivers, waterfalls, dense forest and mountainous backdrops, this Boquete trail gives a sweet sensation for the visually allured.

Upon starting the trail we witnessed two young schoolchildren whizzing across a short bridge crossing a low river. They appeared almost oblivious to us as they’re used to seeing gringo-looking types in their tiny, idyllic neighborhood.

Meandering along and taking in the stunning scenery, we came across a local man toting a machete and a bag of green vegetables.  I don’t recall the name in Spanish, nor could I identify the English name of this delicious and freshly-picked green veggie that he had me taste. 

The amiable man, who genuinely appeared to enjoy meeting foreigners in his animistic world, said while jokingly flexing his biceps and chest:

This is packed with iron.  Eating it will keep you strong.”

He also said that we wouldn’t be able to hike much farther as the trail was flooded.  At least that’s how I interpreted his Panamanian-mountain Spanish dialect.

We kept walking and admiring the trail when we came across a Canadian girl and avid hiker of the earth.  Her name’s Vanessa, and she was returning from a hike, but she’d only made it to a green cabin in the distance, where a sign stated:  Private Property.

We stood and talked  when a native Boquete guide and a few tourists were returning from a long hike to what was apparently the end of the trail at the top of a mountain. They’d started at 7:30am.  It was now 12 noon.  Lienke and I had delayed our desired early morning starting time to avoid the rain.

The jovial guide suggested that it isn’t safe going without a knowledgeable local.  We figured that this was his bread and butter, so of course he was going to say that.  He honestly told us that just before the first river crossing is a small path to the left.  This is what Vanessa, like us, had no idea about.  She joined us in the hopes of making it to the end of the trail, somewhere around what may be the top. 

Upon switching to the trail on the left, we began an ascent.  The terrain had completely changed as we were now in a dense, green forest and hiking upward.

The path got steep and muddy when Lienke decided it was time to turn back.  She’d thought that the slippery descent could be dangerous.

Hailing from the Canadian Rockies, the intrepid Vanessa  was on a mission.  She wanted to make it to the top.   Personally, I love steep hikes, but not when I have to walk down muddy, earthen stairs afterward.

If I’d understood our gregarious and garrulous hostel owner Pancho Palacios correctly, then the trail didn’t end.  I thought  we’d walk as long as we wanted to until we felt like turning back.  So, Lienke and I had planned to hike until we felt like making our way back.

I was caught, as one side of me wanted to keep going with Vanessa.  Lienke turned back, and said she had no problem waiting at a landmark that we’d passed a bit below.

Vanessa and I then marched upward along wet and precipitous earth.  After an amazing leg workout, something equivalent to moving quickly up multiple staircases of a building, we came to a more level area of the path.

Over and over it looked as if we’d come to an opening, to a spot with a spectacular view.  We walked and walked while up ahead it looked the same.  The mountain forest’s density appeared endless.

I wanted to keep going, but my gut feeling told me that the sludgy path was endless.  Finally, I decided to turn back.   

Part of my intuition stemmed from what my friend Señor Palacios had said about the path never ending.  Vanessa was determined to keep going.  I told her that I really hoped I’d have a chance to hear how the rest of her trek went.

I easily ventured in the opposite direction until I came to the steep descent.

Going up made my legs feel strong.  I enjoyed the invigorating cardio.

Going down I could only think of being safe, of not slipping and taking a potentially tragic fall.  I grabbed wet marshy trees to break my fall. My new $80 shoes kept sinking into the muddy earth.  The bottom of my pants became one with the wet dirt. I thought:  There were three of us hiking together.  It’s really best not to hike alone, just in case something were to happen.  Now, the three of us are alone.  This is nuts.

I plopped myself down, around trees and rocks and endless mud, doing pretty well to not slip and take a spill,  I then met back up with Lienke.

While finishing the hike, both of us wondered if the courageous Canuck would make her way to an ending. Our last words while I turned back and she kept going, were:

What’s the name of your blog?”

It’s earthdrifter.com.  If I write something about this hike and you read it, leave a comment telling how the rest of it went.”

10 Responses to How Three Hikers Became Separated

  1. Lisette says:

    I came accross your blog on the Internet.
    Please visit the webpage of the missing girls and contact their relatives to share your holiday pictures. There could be a lead on one of the pictures. Tourists who were in that area back then are requested for sharing info at their webpage Website http://www.findlisannekris.com/en/ and facebook page kris en Lisanne. I just read on the news that the girls most likely went crossing a river. Their back pack was found in the river 8 km north of Boquete. See the internet for more details. I just want to help. Maybe your info can add up to solving the puzzle. The girls are still missing.

    • Mike says:

      LISETTE: Thanks for sending me the web page. I will share it where I can.

    • Eric says:

      Still looking for clues Lisette,good work.
      Especialy I would like to see foto,s from the turnoff and know in which direccion it goes.
      Do you have any details of where somebody can make mistakes on the trail?
      Was the continental devide clear to see or can somebody easely get trapped in the thought they are stiil on the pacific side while they are at the Atlantic side?
      Thx already for your cooperation. Eric van der Vegt

      • Mike says:

        ERIC: I will find a way to send you the 36 photos that I have from the day I did the trek. Unfortunately, I don’t think any are from the turnoff. They are all from before the turnoff. There are more than likely many areas where mistakes could be made. To see the continental divide you’d need clear skies that I think are rare there.

        • Lisette says:

          Dear Mike,

          Thanks for your help sharing pictures with investigators. It is still not clear what has happened to the girls. You might now know that they haven’t survived. As a mum of two my own, I was struck by the girls missing, although I don’t know them myself. As an experienced hiker myself, this story is still bothering me. It is still not clear what has happened and very little has been found of the girls. So the investigation still goes on, I read. They might have encountered other trouble than a hiking accident.

          • Mike says:

            LISSETTE: I agree. Considering there were two of them, one should have been able to go and get help, so perhaps they did encounter other trouble. As peaceful as it seemed there to me, I realize that anything can happen anywhere and that there are good and unfortunately bad people everywhere.

  2. alison brundage says:

    4/5/2014
    As we speak there is a search on foot, horseback and helicopter for 2 missing gals from Holland. They left their Boquete home hostal almost a week ago and have not returned. The thinking is that the Pianista Trail was where they went. Signs are indicating that today as per Sinaproc ( Panama Search and Rescue/Civil Defense) There are posters everywhere and some sighting were made that do help. Lost a/o injured on a mountain trail can turn a vacation into a nightmare. lets pray they are found soon.

  3. earthdrifter says:

    I ran into Vanessa. It turned out that she kept walking until she had to turn back to return by nightfall. It was true what the person who suggested the hike to me (the Boquete native and charismatic hostel owner Pancho Palacios of Hostal Palacios) said: The trail doesn’t end, you keep walking until you feel like turning back.

  4. Mamma says:

    I hope you heard from Vanessa again. I’m glad you made it down safely.

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