Purple mountains all around us and over our heads. A sea of clouds beneath our feet. The world is mellow. Time is slumbering. The meaning of life has changed in the folds of these moments.
In the afternoon, after a day of hiking up and down El Mogote near Jarabacoa, we drive west to La Ciénega, a small mountain village in the heart of the Cordillera Central range, the greatest of the Dominican Republic’s mountain chains. The road is narrow and in bad condition, portions of the pavement are missing, a landslide slows us down, but it is passable and we arrive in La Ciénega before dark.
In the colmado, a small grocery store and bar where village people have gathered in the evening to drink beer, we ask for directions to the national park Armando Bermudez.
– You going to climb Pico Duarte?, a guy at the bar asks us.
Named after Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the Dominican Republic’s founding fathers, Pico Duarte is the highest peak in the entire Caribbean region with elevation of 3,087 meters. There is a well-maintained system of trails leading up to the summit, with trailheads at several locations all managed by the national park service. The easiest access is from the town of La Ciénega. The trail is 23.1 km (14.4 mi) to the summit, with a total elevation gain of about 2,000 meters and a shelter 5 km away from the summit. This is the most popular and shortest route which usually takes 2-3 days, other trails can take up to a week. The route is steep and can be muddy in places, but is not difficult. Hiking Pico Duarte is only possible between December and March when is the dry season. The rest of the year there are too many storms and rain. In April, we are already a bit late.
We are not sure if we want to climb Pico Duarte, we didn’t prepare any equipment for 2-3 days hike, plus we don’t know if we can afford it. Apart from the park permits all persons are required by the national park service to hire a local guide and mules; entering the park without a guide is not allowed. We heard the price for a guide and mules is about $100-$130 per person. We are 4 and cannot spend $400-$500 to climb a mountain.
Turns out the guy at the bar, a short chubby guy who speaks a very particular sort of fast unfinished Spanish as if his mouth is full of marbles and I cannot understand half the things he is saying, is one of about 60 official guides in the village and he agrees, after about an hour of bargaining, to lead us to Pico Duarte for a total of $100, two mules included, but we have to make the journey in two and not in three days, and we have to pay for the food. Deal. We spend an additional $25 to buy all necessary food products for the five of us for two days: rice, canned tomato paste, oil, chicken noodle soup, sugar, hot chocolate powder, bread, smoked pork meat, crackers and waffles. Our guide looks pleased with the provisioning. At the park’s entrance we also pay $10 for park permits for the four of us ($2.50 each) and we rent 4 decommissioned American Army sleeping bags for $15 at the park; we need good warm sleeping bags as it gets freezing cold in the mountains at night; the American Army ones are probably the best we can get. Thus the entire excursion costs us $150 including food and sleeping accommodations for two days and nights. Not bad at all.
That night we are accommodated at the park’s lodge at the trailhead, free of charge. We sleep tucked in our army sleeping bags in a small room with two metal bunk beds and occasional night-rats running on the roof beams. Not the most comfortable accommodation, but we are absolutely exhausted and our muscles hurt from hiking all day up El Mogote, so we sleep tight all night. It gets very cold. It rains for some time too that night. I am not sure hiking Pico Duarte immediately after hiking El Mogote and after months of just sitting in a boat at sea level is a great idea. Hope the kids will make it.
In the morning an invasion of people and cars and mules in the parking lot next to our lodge wakes us up at around 6 a.m. Turns out a group of over twenty hikers from Santo Domingo are going to the peak as well. They are all young people looking like professional athletes wearing special bright-colored hiking clothes and special bright-colored hiking shoes and special bright-colored hiking socks, brand new. They have special hiking sticks and special hiking hats and special hiking water-bottles. They don’t have special hiking backpacks, as a large herd of mules will lug their equipment up the mountain: clothes, food supplies, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, tons of stuff. We feel like some poor amateurs, with our unprofessional shoes and clothes all muddy from yesterday’s hike, and decommissioned American Army sleeping bags. We now doubt we will ever make it to the peak. Plus, our guide is late and the group of professional-looking hikers takes off about an hour before he shows up. Finally, our guide arrives with two frail sorry-looking mules, Pintero and Margarita. We load all our stuff on Margarita. Pintero is “the ambulance”, our guide explains, anyone who feels too tired to walk can hop on Pintero.
We begin walking into the foothills of the mountain entering the evergreen world of the tropical rainforest. Palms, giant ferns, and bamboo trees. A creek runs parallel to the trail. The air feels fresh.
The trail is divided into 8 portions. The first one, 4 kilometers, is the easiest with only about 170 meters elevation gain walking on soft earth. The second and the third one, 4 km and 3 km, are not bad either, with a total of about 600 meters elevation gain up to La Laguna, walking inside what looks like a dry riverbed. From La Laguna begins the hard part to station number 4 and 5, El Cruce and Aguita Fria.
Our guide calls this portion of the trail El Repentimiento, The Repent, for people and mules repent and regret coming here. We now climb a steep narrow path covered with loose rocks. It is very physically challenging, tiring, and dangerous, at 2,600 meters above sea level.
Here the fauna and climate have changed completely. Tall pines begin to appear at the side of the road. We enter a pine forest with understory of shrubs and areas of treeless meadows of tussock-like pajones. The air is cool and humid, it might rain. We now walk inside clouds.
There are a few fresh water springs labeled „Potable“ along the trail where we fill our bottles with delicious mountain spring water. We stop to rest and have lunch and we continue. Maya, Viktor and me take turns riding Pintero, Ivo walks all the way carrying a big backpack. I figured that it is best for the poor mule if one of us is riding him instead of our guide who is a lot heavier than us and every time nobody is in need on “an ambulance” he hops on top.
Riding the mule is almost as difficult and painful as walking up the trail. The animal jumps up and down the path, accelerates, and trips over rocks. Pretty soon your butt starts to hurt badly from the saddle and your legs and knees from trying to squeeze, balance and hold on to the mule. But at least your hearth gets a chance to rest from the heavy workout when climbing at high altitude.
We arrive at Le Comparticion, last base before the summit, 4 o’clock in the afternoon after 8 hours of hiking and riding Pintero, just before a thin rain begins to fall. It gets cold. Some of the hikers from the Santo Domingo group are already here gathered around a small fire outside the hut. They all look pretty tired, but still have enough energy to make jokes; we join in and we even make a new friend, his name is Maurice. The ones who haven’t arrived yet are those we passed on the way up, exhausted, all beaten-up and unhappy. They arrive, wet from the rain, later in the evening, some late in the night. And everybody cheers when they come!
We place our sleeping bags in one of the corners of the long wooden shelter near the fireplace. Inside is almost as cold as outside. The Santo Domingo hikers quickly take up all the rest of the space with their inflatable mattresses.
Our guide prepares the supper for the five of us over a fire stove in the building next to the sleeping hut: tomato rice with smoked meat all baked in a big pot. Tastiest meal ever. We feast on that while the Santo Domingo crowd nibble on healthy energy bars and crackers.
And then we die. We crawl inside our decommissioned American Army „body-bags“, and we curl on the floor. We envy all those people around us mounted on top of comfortable inflatable mattresses with clean shiny sleeping bags and pillows, who even took “showers” in the opposite corner of the hut before going to bed, organizing small shower rooms. The whole cabin smells of shampoo. That night the rats are nowhere to be found probably terrified by so much cleanliness and the smell of perfumes. We sleep to the rhythmical pro-logic surround sounds of people snoring and we wake up every time a girl with a flashlight gets up to go out and pee.
The next morning we wake up 5 a.m. It is still completely dark and unbelievably cold outside, below freezing. We put on all our warm clothes, long pants, jackets and hats, and we eat bread and drink the hot chocolate our guide has made over the fire stove, with extra sugar. The summit is only 5 km away and the hike should not be too difficult but we need to get up there and then walk all the way down to Cienaga in one day. This time we start before everyone else, the Santo Domingo group has to deal with inflatable mattresses, take morning showers, and figure out something for breakfast. We just roll up our second-hand “body-bags” and off we go holding flashlights.
About half an hour later, the sun begins its slow rise from the east. First everything around us becomes purple and mysterious. Then, at 3,000 meters, the most beautiful moment in our lives. Golden shafts of sunlight like cathedral light coming from under a sea of thick orange and pink clouds, slanting down the black pines, illuminating them as if they catch on fire, everything still, and the mists rising to meet the sky, grass and pine needles bathed in dew, and all the way around and below us the grand secret mountains covered in frost, slumbering.
Pretty soon we reach the summit. Nothing stands higher than us now in all of the Caribbean islands.