Panama’s premier rock climbing provider can be found in the town of Boquete: Explore Ya, the adventure tour spin-off of language school Habla Ya. We arrive at the Explore Ya office, almost adjacent to the mainstreet El Banco General, where we meet our guide. Anyone who sees this guy can immediately tell he’s a climber, even those who are utterly ignorant of rock climbing.
His name is Cesar. Cesar Augusto Melendez Castillo, to be exact. To simply call him a rock climber, however, would not do him justice. While he has been climbing professionally for 10 years, Cesar’s world-class talent crosses into acrobatics as well. He’s a “vertical artist” who performs across the country. To give you some idea of his skill, Cesar was recently contacted by Cirque du Soleil, home to some of the most renowned performers in the world. Cirque’s president wanted to buy one of his routines to use in ‘O,’ performed at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
We drive 15 minutes up the road to an eye-catching formation where long pylon-like rocks essentially stack on top of each other and jut out in hexagonal formations. The only other place I’ve seen this geological wonder is the Devil’s Postpile near Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes, California. With only a handful of trips to indoor rock walls between us, Luke and I scan the 65-foot face, trying to figure how we’ll fare on our first outdoor climbing experience.
Cesar takes a warm-up run first, beginning with a short meditation period. Then, without any rope or safety equipment, he makes the cliff look like a set of stairs. Seeming to spin and leap from hold to hold, he stops every once in a while to hang over the rock face and stretch out his arms. He finishes by gripping two ledges near the top and extending his body to be parallel with the ground, a human flag upwards of 40 feet in the air.
“Warm-up, huh?” Luke asks when he comes back down. Cesar laughs.
He climbs back up to prepare the safety rope, then it’s our turn. I go first with Cesar as my belay. He spots the “easy course” for us to get started. Up I go, doing my best to find the right holds and keep climbing, while trying even harder not to look down. I’m thankful for the rope that supports me no matter how badly I slip. Slowly but surely, I gain a little climbing confidence. Eventually I reach the top hook that signals I’ve completed the course. That warrants a shout on my end. Repelling down the rock face feels pretty rewarding after that.
Luke and I take on a number of the cliff’s courses, with Cesar guiding us through the proper holds and helping us through tough situations. Shout-out to Luke, who perched himself atop the cliff to capture Cesar and I on the way up.
And of course Cesar continued to show off intermittently, reminding us just how much we had to learn. Every time he changed the rope to a new course, passing cars took time to stop, park, and witness him in action.
While Luke and I may not have impressed any bystanders with our talent, we came out of the expedition with sharpened climbing skills and a newfound appreciation for the sport. With a number of walls to choose from, everyone from first-timers to resident experts can have an authentic adventure travel experience: the kind that challenges you to leave your comfort zone, and rewards you for doing so.