Panama Rock Climbing

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This mini doc/promotional video chronicles the life of the first Panamanian professional rock climber, Cesar Augusto Melendez Castillo. 

Panama's first professional rock climber on ESPN

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*** History of climbing in Panama 1995 - 2005 by Pedro G. Mendez Carvajal ***

Panama is a country blessed with a tremendous amount of natural beauty and diversity. Unfortunately (at least for climbers) it also has a huge amount of rainfall during the winter season every year. Many formations of rock outcroppings go undiscovered because the rock is hidden beneath forest of low growing trees and dense underbrush, fed by an almost constant source of water. - Continue reading bellow...

GUNKO - Columns of basalt originated during volcanic eruption of Baru.
First sport routes established in Boquete.
JA WAKTA Waterfall - The first waterfall rappelling service in the area.
CANGILONES - More than 50 Deep water solo routes established in the canyon since 2005 

In May of 2004, Gary Henning arrived in Boquete, Panama. Looking for investment property, he travelled extensively throughout the region, constantly surprised by the beauty of the area. After a few weeks of searching he discovered the property he wanted. Perhaps even more exciting to him was the discovery of the many beautiful rock formations within very short distances from the town of Boquete.

Gary Burton Henning - Pioneer of climbing in Panama
Only minutes out of downtown Boquete lie 4 fantastic crags (rock formations suitable for climbing). The Rock is bullet hard basalt with few natural crack lines. The first crag Gary developed is known as Gunko. A very aesthetic looking formation where horizontal columns have been pushed into a curvature resulting in one half of the crag having a completely different nature from the other. Gunko is gently overhanging with many positive incuts and great feet. The climbs are relatively short (13 to 20 meters) and require you to "read the rock", or you will get pumped very quickly!

Cesar Melendez - first Panamanian climber
Shortly after bolting the first few routes, Gary sought out a climbing partner. Enter Cesar Augusto Melendez Castillo ,( Brimming with enthusiasm and blessed with loads of talent, Cesar took off like a rocket! After the first day he was hooked and became an ever present fixture at the rock. Cesar would help clean the rocks, move boulders, belay patiently for hours on end, and was instrumental in recruiting more climbing partners. For months, Cesar learned the art of leading, setting anchors, safe belaying techniques and all the other necessary aspects of safe climbing. His goal was to be able to turn climbing into a small part time business that would preserve the beauty of the setting but safely allowed for it to be enjoyed by many.

Certain day, Cesar was practicing on a new route at Gunko when suddently one old woman walking around  noticed him up there in the rocks. She looked the scene with lot of surprise but also horror. The worried  lady opened her small purse and made a phone call with her mobile. Within 15 minutes the area was full of Police officers and Fire brigade. A loud sound coming from a megaphone spoke to Cesar asking him to calm down, to not commit a suicide...

People watching while Police takes Cesar 
A lot of people gathered in front of the wall to see Cesar who rappelled down the route and kindly explained everyone that he was not trying to kill himself, instead he was practicing a sport called Rock climbing and that anyone could try it too. Cesar was taken to the Police main office and interrogated for his actions.

Next day, newspapers and magazines all over the country published the event. A TV show interviewed Cesar and for the first time Panamanians knew about the sport, gear, its safety and positively the sport became more  accepted after, however, Cesar is still considered crazy by some people because introducing a "suicide" sport in Panama.

Interview with Cesar at Devys Panama TV Show
In memory of such event, Cesar named that route as "El camino de los locos" which in English translates to  "The path of the crazies".
Cesar standing at the bottom of early Gunko

Having previously been a website designer and Spanish instructor at Habla Ya Language School, Cesar extended an invitation to the school for its students to experience climbing. The first and original Boquete climbing school was born. Few Eco tourism companies took note of the potential for increased tourism and they contacted Cesar to be included on his tours. Cesar was on his way to becoming a businessman doing something he loved and making the first steps to inspire an entire country to try rock climbing.
First Rock climbing tours at GUNKO

When Gary left to return to California for work, Cesar continued to climb and recruit partners. Soon there was a small cadre of locals that, under the direction and encouragement of Cesar, formed a company aimed at preserving the rock and hopefully generating a small income. "Panama Rock Climbing" had been created. The company organized tours and introduced climbing to Boquete locals, transplant, and visitors alike. Within a few short months, climbing in Panama was born.

Newspaper articles were written about Cesar and his tours, television reports were shown, a steady stream of interviews followed, thrusting Cesar into the spotlight of being "the" climber in Panama.

In 2006, with Gary back for an extended stay, extensive cleaning of the right side of Gunko gradually revealed a beautiful formation with climbs reaching 18 meters in height. At almost 20 meters in width, this new addition doubled the numbers of climb available.

The right side of Gunko is made up of horizontal bands of volcanic basalt stacked on top of one another. The climbing requires good balance, strong core strength, along with the ability to hold sloping crimps and smooth pinches. An addition of 10 new routes ranging up to 5.11d opened up a new world of difficulty for the boys and their clients. After a year of work, Gary, Cesar, and his friends had 14 separate lines at Gunko.

Gary then started to develop a less visible crag just up the road. He cleaned and bolted 7 new lines which once again raised the bar in difficulty. Naming the crag "MANA" the first climb bolted is known as "Camino al Cielo" or "Stairway to Heaven" due to the unique stairway approach. This beautiful climb is currently one of the hardest climbs in Panama at 5.12c!

The climbs at Mana range from 11b to 12d and it is an exceptionally difficult crag with extreme body tension and great footwork required. The technical difficulty at this crag is fantastic and visiting climbers are always surprised at the grades. For the locals, this place was where they could start pushing their limits. Cesar was the first of the Boquete climbers to climb 12a and then in a fantastic effort, Cesar send the hardest line Stairway to Heaven (12c/d)

Now a days new crags are being still developed. "Paradiso", "Pandora", for example. The goal is to maintain the high quality of the climbing and start to push the difficulty grade.
Marcos (up) and Rene both belaying at the new area

A year later Gary visited Panama and  developed one last sector  named "The Legacy". 7 new lines complemented the existing ones. Legacy climbs are longer routes with levels featuring in between 5.10a and hard 5.12s. The climbs requires exceptional footwork as well as good technique and force. Approaching to the route can be achieved by crossing the Caldera River.
Cesar climbing at the difficult "Legacy" sector

After Gary returned to California, Cesar started the hard task of climbing the routes in Legacy sector. In 2010, a National Television show filmed the moment when Cesar, after couple months of training, finally completed one of the most difficult routes in the country known as "El Camino del Angel caido" 5.12d The footage presented Cesar as "the best climber in Panama"  with 27 years old.
Cesar interviewed by National Television of Panama

Now a day Cesar is sponsored climber and travel to different locations in the world in search of his dreams, also continues operating the Panama Rock Climbing Tours with his friends in Boquete. Every year, visitors from all over the world visit Panama to enjoy the climbs this guys opened with love for their present and future generations.

However, the development of climbing routes keep costing thousands of dollars. The maintenance costs continue to be very expensive and time consuming because of the lack of resources and the toll the rainy season takes on the routes.

Cesar continues to encourage people
across the country to try new activities such rock climbing

Your support is greatly appreciated in Panama, try a climbing tour, donate gear if possible. It all keep helping us to keep developing rock climbing in Panama.

When acquiring a guided tour or course  you will not only experience a fun  adventure but also contribute developing new routes, new areas, maintain existent routes, keep areas open  and much more. Thanks for reading.

Panama Rock Climbing tours.
2015 - The Boquete Climbing Tower - The first artificial climbing wall in Boquete, Panama. More information here
2016 - Portable walls - Boquete Climbing Tours, deep water solo and Boulder. A mobile wall suitable to rent on different public or private events and festivals. More information here

NEW! Castle climbing in Boquete. Come check this new climbing wall at one of the most spectacular attractions in Boquete, Panama: Bambuda Castle! Suitable for all levels, top rope climbing, boulder, courses. Lot of fun!
Want to try? Check it out here 

Also read History of climbing in Panama 1995 - 2005 by Pedro G. Mendez Carvajal