I was backpacking in Panama over Christmas in 2018, and planned to climb Volcán Barú. At 3,474m, it is the highest peak in the country and one of the only places on earth from where you can see the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans at the same time. It is an active volcano, but last erupted around 1550.
I set off before sunrise. It was a little chilly, so I had pulled on tights under my trekking trousers. I intended to reach the top by midday, then return before dark to get a lift to my hostel.
I’ve always felt safe travelling as a solo woman, which I’ve done since my 20s. I love the freedom. When I got to the base of the volcano at 7am, the ranger was reluctant to let me go alone, but relented because an American couple were behind me.
The first part of the climb was beautiful. It was not dry or barren as you might imagine a volcano might be – there were trees and vegetation all around, and a dirt road for the farmers who work around there. I walked for an hour and had reached a fair height. The views were impressive, so I stopped to take a photograph. Suddenly I heard ferocious barking behind me.
I turned and saw two dogs running aggressively towards me. I expected them to stop, but they didn’t. As they got closer, I could see that they were black dobermans. Their teeth looked sharp, and they looked angry. There was nowhere for me to run.
I tried to keep calm, but my heart was racing. I’d never been bitten by a dog, and I couldn’t help but fear what would happen. They stopped a dozen feet from where I stood and kept barking. I knew they could move fast, so I didn’t want to try to outrun them.
I kept walking, saying, “Good dog, calm down,” as evenly as possible. But I was terrified. Then one dashed up and sunk his teeth into my leg below the knee. I was shocked. He held on for a few seconds.
I tried to stay calm, but he came back and bit me again. The pain took my breath away as I felt his fangs in my flesh. I considered bending down to get a rock to fight him off, but was nervous in case he went for my neck or the other one launched at me. I was thinking I might not get out of this alive.
I tried to keep walking, and he finally let go. Then he was behind me, growling menacingly. I’ll never forget that sound. I kept going, my body shaking, until after about 15 minutes I was out of their sight. The path got narrower and the forest became dense. Every time I heard a noise, I jumped: I knew pumas lived up the volcano.
When I thought it was safe, I stopped. I rolled up my trousers and saw blood. The leggings had acted as a bit of a barrier but there were fang marks on the left side of my knee, seeping blood. I managed to stop the bleeding and cleaned up as best I could with tissues from my bag.
I couldn’t walk up the volcano, but I couldn’t go back down either because I’d have to pass them again. I imagined being stuck by myself all night. My phone had no reception. I was really scared. I heard rustling and froze. The noise got louder until a pickup truck appeared, driven by an old farmer.
He was confused and couldn’t speak English. I knew some Spanish, but couldn’t remember it in my panic. He had a dog in the back, so I pointed to it, and to my leg. He looked incredulous, but I must have been as white as a sheet, so he told me to get in. The relief was unbelievable.
Suddenly we saw the dogs in the road where I’d left them, barking. As we drove past they jumped up at the truck, with the farmer’s dog barking furiously. A few minutes later, we saw the American couple. They’d seen the dogs, and turned straight back. They assumed I’d passed before the dogs got there. They got in the truck, too.
When we reached the gate, the farmer told the ranger what had happened. I’ll never be able to express what he did for me. He saved my life.
Looking back, I think the dogs were territorial and perhaps they had been mistreated. I still have the scar from the bite, and it’s fair to say I’ll never attempt that volcano again. But it has not put me off volcanoes altogether – it will take more than a dog to diminish my love of travel.
As told to Sophie Haydock
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