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dannygoesdiving This is a blog & photo journal of the trips that I (Danny) and Jo (wifey) have taken over the past few years.

Climbing the highest peak in the Caribbean

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC | Saturday, 25 July 2015 | Views [723]

We made it !

We made it !

'What do you want to do for your birthday this year?'. It was a casual question that ended up with us undertaking one of our most challenging trips !

Josies answer was 'somewhere green where we can do some walking'. The obvious choice was the Dominican Republic, one of our closest neighbouring islands, only 370 kilometers (230 miles) away and a mere 35 minute flight.  The contrast between the 2 islands could not be more extreme - Turks and Caicos is low lying, its highest point is a mere 161ft (49 m), the island is infertile but boasts some of the most amazing blue waters in the world. The Dominican Republic on the other has a highest point of 10,164 ft (3098 m), is lush and incredibly green and vibrant. 

The next question was where to go and what to do, then someone mentioned that you could climb to the summit of Pico Duarte, the highest peak in not just the DR but the whole all of the Caribbean islands (refer back to the highest point in the DR !). Well it seemed too good an opportunity to pass and so the decision was made - to climb the highest peak in the Caribbean, with no real preperation (we consider ourselves to be fit and healthy) during the hottest month of the year......how easy was this going to be.

We chose to use a company called 'Iguana Mama' to arrange the logistics for the trip and chose to undertake the 46 km (28.5 miles) hike over a more leisurely 3 days/2 nights. It is possible to arrange everything yourself but we had neither the language skills, equipment or time. Iguana Mama arranged the taxi, accomodation, english speaking guide, mules and mule driver, all equipment (sleeping bags etc) and food. Theoretically that means you only need to bring yourself and personal items. 

Landing in Santo Domingo we were met by our taxi driver who took us on the 45 minute drive to our hotel (Jarabacoa River Club). Upon check-in we were met by our guide for the upcoming 3 day hike and immediately a few alarm bells started quietly going off in the background. The first thing he told us was that he was getting married in a hour and that his bride would be coming along on the trek ! That aside his 'details of the hike' consisted of telling us that we would be picked up at 6AM and that we would walk for about 7-8 hours - now I love a concise briefing, however ........ 

The hotel itself was OK, it was an all inclusive and seemed to mainly caters for Dominicans, they had beer though so life was good. That evening the food options were very overcooked meat on the BBQ, chips and plantains.

Trek - Day 1:

We were at reception early the next morning and met promptly by our guide, getting into the taxi we said 'buenos dias' to his new wife (she spoke no English and made no effort to interact during the 3 days) and travelled the hour journey to our starting point. The views and the cool air were a tonic at such an early hour. Arriving at the park office we met out mule driver and his 4 mules (one for the mule driver, one for our gear, one for the bride and a spare mule incase anyone had an accident and needed to de bought back down), filled out some paperwork (name and country of origin) and acquired our permits.

At this point our guide points to a sign which indicates the start of the trail and tells us to head off as you can't get lost and that he'll catch up with us in 10 minutes. Well, we were keen to start so off we set.

La Cienaga de Manaboa - Los Tablones - La Cotorra (7.8km. 1110m - 1720m)

The air was still crisp at this hour of the morning and the tall canopy of the trees kept the rays of the early morning sun from bothering us. Walking along a wide, flat, hard earth packed path we made good progress. The Tablones river was our constant companion, we could hear it even as it appeared and disappeared depending on the thickness of the vegetation. Every now and again we caught glimpses of wooden homes, brightly coloured laundry and small holdings of crops. Reaching a ford we crosssed a rickerty looking bridge and shortly after reached the first official looking stopping point of Los Tablones, complete with office (closed), corral for mules (empty) and toilet facilities flushed by water pumped diectly from the river. At this point we hadn't seen another living sole and that included our mule party.

Deciding to continue on we soon entered a magical grove of wild canes which grew on either side of the path,  intertwining  together creating a natural tunnel of vegetation. We crossed several more streams before arriving at a stream which was signposted as being suitable for drinking. As we only had our individual canteens with us (still no mule party after over an hour) we happily filled then up and treated ourselves to cool, clear spring water - boy did it taste good.

The terrain was starting to change as we gained elevation, we found ourselves walking through and up a series of deep carved gulleys, under foot was loose soil and stones which made walking a little more challenging. The vegeation started to change too, smaller trees, ferns and generally less canopy cover.  We could now hear what sounded like our party behind us, turning a corner we reached our next stop point and waited for them to catch us up.  We had completed 7.8km, climbed an elevation of 610m and felt great.

Our guide appeared (riding the spare mule), along with his new bride, the mule driver and most importantly the mule carrying our bags and all the supplies. The guide made no effort to engage us in conversation, answering our questions before reverting back to Spanish to converse with the other two - they spoke no english, but then again we spoke little spanish so that was fine, but I thought the guide should have made a little effort. When Josie asked him if he would be walking with us on any part of the hike he said he wouldn't as he had blisters from a previous tour and had done the hike many times ! With hindsight I think the problem was the word 'guide' and the expectations that that brings with it. The word 'organiser' (although that was not the best as you shall find out) or 'translator' may have been more apt and led to far less expectations.

Now don't get me wrong, it was actually really nice to be able to do the walk ourselves, safe in the knowledge that logistical support and provisions were there, as I said its just about expectations.

Shouldering our packs we got ready to continue on with our guide saying he would catch up with us at the next stop, where we would also have lunch.

La Cotorra - La Laguna (2.8km. 1720m - 1980m)

The trail now seemed to follow the ridgeline and was a mixture of more deep gulleys to scramble up and then open areas which provided breathtaking views of the valley. We soon reached our lunch stop, we had gained a further elevation of 160m and covered over half of the days hike, with 10.6km completed from 18.1km - it was fair to say that we were feeling confident. Lunch consisted of 2 soft rolls with a single processed cheese slice (and a processed ham slice for me) and 2 small packets of biscuits. Not great but welcome none the less. We chilled for half an hour before getting set to continue. It was at this point that our guide stated that the next 3.5km were the most challenging of the hike - boy was that ever an understatement !

La Laguna - El Cruce (0.5km. 1980m - 2180m)

Now maths is not my strong point but even my brain started to work out that gaining an elevation of 200m over a distance of 500m means  it is likely to be quite steep ! Oh yes - it was steep, the footing was loose and the sun was beating down on us. That half a kilometer was harder than the previous 10km, and that was just the start ! I would love to tell you what the terrain was like and what the vegetation was like and how the views were, but honestly I haven't got the faintest idea. It was simply enough to put one foot in front of the other.

El Cruce - Aguita Fria (3km. 2180m - 2650m)

Up, up, up we went. It was steep, the footings were loose, the vegetation cover was minimal and the sun was beating down on us. It was here that we met up with the a handful of people working there way down Pico Duarte. As they stumbled and slid there way down they kept repeating the same phrase ' path of regret'. It turned out that this was the name given to this stretch of the climb. Just when we thought we couldn't put one foot infront of the other we reached the top. Both the breeze and stunning views were a welcome relief from the last arduous couple of hours. We simply sat on a grassy bank and got our breath back. At this point our mule team caught up with us and declared they were going on ahead to set everything up for our arrival. Hello and goodbye.

Aguita Fria - La Comparticion (4km. 2650m - 2450m)

The final 2 hour push before reaching base camp ! The first part of the section continued to climb before dropping steeply down in to the valley. At every bend or vantage point the path seemed to go on forever, then in the distance we saw a few huts dotted amongst a pine forest. With our final reserve of energy we reached the camp and simply dropped to the ground, both elated and exhausted. Lying on the ground and staring up at the blue sky and towering pine trees we tried to decide whose fault it was that we decided to carry out this hike :)

La Comparticion - base camp

Once rested we set about exploring our home for the next 2 nights, There was a cabin for the staff who stay here on a 2 week rotation, a large shared cabin for sleeping, a cabin for cooking in and bathroom/showers which run of stream water. Now for the reality.... the bathroom/showers were locked up as a lack of water at this time of year meant they were out of order - the toilet was a tin shed with a toilet sized hole cut into a bench which simply dropped into an open pit. I've seen and used worse and at least the cool air meant there was no real smell. Showers were at the bottom of a ravine and was actually a pipe of stream water running into a bucket, with a gallon water bottle for use as a scoop. I opted to stay smelly, Josie stripped down and braved it and claimed it was invigorating !  The sleeping accomodation was a sleeping bag on a wooden floor, funnily enough you could rent thin matresses off of the staff stationed  there for a few dollars. We would just be sharing the room with the newly weds !  The kitchen was a series of stone hearths with a grill over the top - cooking was all done over a fire that was lit in the hearth. All very rustic and all more than adequate for our needs.

We sorted our gear and generally chilled until dinner - chicken, rice and beans, orange tang and a packet of biscuits - all of which we devoured.  It was still light but we were exhausted so climbed into our sleeping bags (at only about 7PM) and slept.

Trek Day 2:

We awoke somewhat refreshed (although the thin matress on a wooden fllor wasn't the most comforable of experiences). It was chilly at this height and it was refreshing to breath in the cold morning air. We had coffee and breakfast (2 potatos and 4 slices of salami for me, 2 potatos and a very greasey fried egg for Josie), then got prepared for the hike to the sumit. Our guide stated that we wasn't going to join us and that the mule driver would accompany us (no english spoken). His reason was so that he could prepare lunch, the reality was more likely that he wanted to stay with his new wife - now I can understand this, but again what is the actual role of the 'guide' ?


La Comparticion - Pico Duarte (5km. 2450m - 3087m)

The climb to the sumit took about 2 hours and was thoroughly enjoyable. We managed to communicate with our 'replacement guide' through a combination of the small ammount of spanish I knew, asking the normal questions about family and home - infact he asked us more and engaged with us more than our suposed guide. He also taught me a few new words - a combination of pointing to things and asking 'Que dice en Espanol' worked wonders !

The trail started thorough a pine forest, following the ridgeline we had some awesome views, passing through a small marshland/meadow with some stunning blue flowers we continued to climb the ridge until reaching an open meadow and the final stopping point. Off to our right was the second highest peak in the caribbean (La Palona at 3070m) and right infront of us was the sumit of Pico Duarte.

The trail wound its ways way through sparse pines before ending with a series of huge rocks and boulders; climbing those last few boulders we stood on the roof of the Caribbean. Taking in a full 360 degrees panorama of  truly magnificent views and best of all we had it all to ourselves. We just sat in silence taking it all in and enjoying the moment. My endearing memory was just enjoying breathing in the cold morning air, something so simple and yet so rewarding.

After about 15 minutes we slowly climbed down from the boulders and began the 2 hour hike back down to the base.

Josie braved another mountain stream shower, we ate (chicken and rice) and spent the rest of the afternoon sunning ourselves on the mountainside, reading and sending happy thoughts to our aching feet :)

Another meal (pasta and canned fish) and then we lit a fire in the accomodation hut and snuggled up in sleeping bags marvelling at how we needed a fire to keep warm in the caribbean in July.  The smoke kept blowing back down the chimney, slowly filling the room with smoke and Josie awoke in the night barely able to see due to the thick smog. Jumping up she opened opposite shutters to allow a through breeze and with our lives saved returned to her sleeping bag :)

Trek Day 3:

We were up early as we wanted to cover the first 4km climb before it got too hot and had two wonderful suprises to start the day. Firstly there was no coffee as we had run out - not sure how that happened and we only had one cup each the previous morning. Secondly being presented with breakfast (2 potatos and 4 slices of salami for me, and 2 potatos and a greasy egg for Josie) we were told to make sure we ate it all as there was no more food ! Honestly - an 18 km physically demanding hike ahead of us and a couple of potatos was meant to sustain us for the whole journey. There are not many things that stun me, but that was one of them !

Choosing to save a potato each for the day (honestly you had to laugh) we left our party behind and headed out. It was verging on chilly which was welcome and with the sun still low in the sky we covered the first 4km in the shadow of the ridgeline. The views were breathtaking as we looked over the valley below and at the mountain ranges in the distance.  It felt like a completely different hike, on the way up this was our last stretch and to be honest at that point we had neither the energy nor inclination to look around, now it was difficult not to keep stopping and looking around.

We reached Aguita Fria with no real problems, it was still cool and being barely 9am the sun was not yet in a punishing mood. heading down the 'path of regret' was marginally easier than coming up it, due to its steepness and looseness underfoot you really had to concentrate on each step to prevent you loosing your footing. I had known it was a tough climb but you got a much better perspective of just how steep it was looking down upon it.

We ate our potatoes (!) at exactly the same place where we had eaten lunch on the way up and whilst resting were joined by a group of  teenages making the climb with some older group leaders. We had a good chat with them, certainly didn't mention what was coming up for them, especially as one of them was already talking about having had enough of walking and wanting to continue on a mule.

The last few hours ticked by, familar sights started to appear (place where you could drink the stream water, rickerty bridges etc). The last stretch of 4km was a case of mind over body as by now we really were starting to feel the strain - a blister here, an aching joint there. Then, behold we were crossing the bridge and waiting on the otherside of the road was the same taxi driver.

Being dropped off at the hotel, the last words from our guide was to tell us that he could have done the whole tour far cheaper if we had come to him direct as opposed to through the company he worked for and to give us his telephone number to pass on to anyone we know who wanted to climb Pico Duarte. Needless to say I cannot recall the precise location of said piece of paper.

We showered (bliss), ate real food (sheer joy) and chilled on our balcony as our limbs slowly stopped screaming and crying in protest at their cruel and unusual experience.

Next day we flew back home to be warmly welcomed by our dogs.

An amazing, although physically and mentally challenging walk that I would strongly recommend to anyone, although maybe with a different guide !


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