|Cesar Melendez free soloing (no ropes) - Click image to enlarge.|
Panama’s premiere rock climbing provider lies right here in Boquete: Explore Ya, the adventure tour spin-off from language school Habla Ya. We arrived at the Explore Ya office, almost right next to the Banco General on the main street through town, where we met our guide. Familiar with the sport or not, you see this guy and just know he’s a climber.
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 spans into acrobatics, making him a ‘vertical artist’ who puts on shows across the country. To put his skill in perspective, he was recently contacted by Cirque du Soleil, home to some of the most renowned performance shows 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 drove 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 wander 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 looked up the 65-foot face, eager to see how we’d fare on our first outdoor climbing experience.
Cesar took a warm-up run first, beginning with a short meditation period. Then, without any rope or safety equipment, he made the cliff look like a set of stairs. Seeming to spin and leap from hold to hold, he’d stop every once in a while to hang over the rock face and stretch out his arms. He finished by gripping onto two ledges near the top and extending his body to be parallel with the ground, becoming a human flag upwards of 40 feet in the air.
“Warm-up, huh?” Luke asked as he came down. Cesar laughed.
He climbed back up to set up the safety rope, then it was our turn. I went first, Cesar as my belay. He spotted the ‘easy course’ for us to get started. Up I went, doing my best to find the right holds and keep climbing, while trying even harder not to look down. I was thankful for the rope there to support me no matter how badly I slipped. Slowly but surely, though, you gain confidence. Eventually you reach the top hook, signaling that you’ve completed the course. That warranted a shout on my end. Repelling down the rock face feels pretty rewarding after that.
Luke and I took on a number of the cliff’s many courses, Cesar guiding us to find proper holds and get 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 put on shows intermittently, showing us just how much we had to learn every time he changed the rope to a new course. Passing cars took the 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 lessons learned and a newfound appreciation for the sport. With a number of walls to choose from, everyone from first-timers to resident experts will find an experience that suits their ability and expands their comfort zone.