History of Climbing in Panama

Gary Henning at Pitch 17, Alberta Canada
Watch 10 min Documentary video "Panama Rock Climbing"

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.

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.

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!

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.

Gary Burton Henning - Pioneer of climbing in Panama

Certain day, Cesar was practicing on a new route at Gunko when suddendly 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 relax...to not commit a suicide...

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.  This is the first time Panamanians knew about the sport and positively it became well accepted after, however Cesar is still considered crazy by some people because introducing a "suicide" sport in Panama.

In memory of such event, Cesar named that route as: "El camino de los locos" which in English translate 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. 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.
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 there were 14 separate lines at Gunko.
Cesar helping Gary to develop new routes at the right side of 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 (12d)

Now a days new crags are being still developed. "Paradiso" 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 once again, Gary and Cesar developed one last sector. Cesar named this area "The Legacy". 7 new lines complemented the existing ones. Legacy climbs are longer routes with levels featuring in between 5.10a and 5.12s. The climbs requires exceptional footwork as well as good technique. 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 2010, a National Television show filmed the moment when Cesar, after many months of training, finally completed one of the most difficult routes known as "The Fallen Angel" 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 travels the world climbing but also continues operating the Panama Rock Climbing Tours in Boquete. Every year, visitors from all over the world visit Panama to enjoy the climbs that this guys opened with love for their present and future generations.

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