This first post from the Dominican Republic is coming from it’s highest point, and the tallest peak in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte. So named after arguably the Dominican’s most famous founding father Juan Pablo Duarte (the mountain was previously named after it’s slightly less popular former leader Rafael Trujillo who selflessly named the mountain after himself, and the capital city, and seemingly most other things.)
I have set myself a loose task of climbing the highest peak of every country as I continue my journey, which here in the Caribbean is not too challenging. Both Jamaica and Cuba are both rather low in elevation, once I arrive in Mexico it starts to get interesting and in South America we are into the realms of full-on mountaineering, but thankfully I have some time to practice before then.
I had arrived in the Capital Santo Domingo just two days before setting out for the mountain having spent my first few days in the laid back village of El Macao, just north of the airport I flew into at Punta Cana. Punta Cana is the sort of place you arrive if you book an exotic holiday through Thomas Cook and spend most of them within the walls of a tourist complex which while luxurious, bears no resemblance to the country outside of the those walls, and really could be anywhere in the world with blue skies. El Macao on the other hand is quite the opposite, I had landed directly into the rural backwaters of Republica Dominicana and the change of pace from London took some time to adjust to. Nonetheless I found a lovely little hostel and a nice bunch of people to while away a few days on the beach and settle into the new surroundings.
The first few days of travelling can be hard – questioning if the decision you have taken is the correct one, which one of my loved ones do I miss most, why is this dog licking my ankle, all of these things go through your head. So meeting new people and getting out and enjoying your new reality is important. Part of the reason I was climbing Pico Duarte so early was because I had met a great group of people in Santo Domingo and they were planning on climbing the mountain in the coming days. I had planned to stay in the capital for a while and look for some work, sort out the rucksack and carry out general life administration but the opportunity to climb with a good bunch was too good to turn down. So we headed to the town of Jarabacoa where we found a lovely little house that split between the six of us was a steal, and for me it was nice to have a whole house to relax in rather than occupying space in a common area somewhere.
We spent some time discussing our options amongst ourselves and with a local guide who assured us we would not be allowed to enter the national park without a guide – as I had heard the trail was an easy one to follow I was hoping to go without a guide, in the end as some of the group were in need of a tent and sleeping bag we though it best to hire a guide and rent the gear from them. So the next morning we set off at 6am and drove for around an hour to the trail head and entrance to the national park at La Cienaga, there we had a breakfast fit for kings comprised of eggs, mangu (mashed plaintain similar to mash potato but better) yucca roots and coffee so sweet that it could really only be Dominican. Here we met our somewhat unorthodox guide Tigua – who would become known for screaming MULO MULO! whenever the feeling caught him. As we were going all official we were given nice little green wristbands to confirm we were with a guide and off we went. The first few hours were relatively flat going over wooden bridges and through bamboo forests buzzing with mosquitoes.
There are cabins roughly every 4-5km with most having access to spring water giving us a chance to fill up the bottles. Still below 2500m and in the middle of the day, it was respite indeed to find shade away from the glare of the Caribbean sun, eat our eggs and peanut butter sandwiches (not together) and take the load off for a few minutes. Which was wise because the hardest part of the climb was shortly upon us “el arrepentimiento” or “the regret” for those like me still learning Spanish. In all honesty this really wasn’t too bad but as it was (maybe) the steepest part of the climb, I can understand why the locals wanted to introduce some theatre. As the altitude increased the terrain started to open up and there were some beautiful views on offer, the sort of views you only really appreciate on the way down. After around 6 hours on the go we arrived at base camp and our spot for the night La Comparticion. I really loved this place, nestled on the side of the mountain between soaring pines and decked out with a few large wooden halls and cooking areas it’s the sort of place you want to arrive at after a long days climb. I had carried my tent and sleeping bag and everything else with me so as I set up the tent the other guys started cooking and we spent the evening playing cards and sitting around the fire.
We set off at 4am the next day to rise to a fantastic array of stars, I couldn’t remember which setting on my camera takes long exposure so you’ll just have to take my word for it. A few of the guys were suffering injuries from the previous day so we were down to four points of light zig-zagging our way up the mountain, climbing to the sounds of Desmond Dekker. I always think climbing in the dark is more difficult and for me this was the toughest part of the hike, after two hours and a considerable drop in temperature we reached the top just before the clouds descended and climbed up to be face to face with Juan Pablo Duarte glowing in the morning sun. Watching another day dawn on the country he helped build. We found a small spot to huddle together and eat a meagre breakfast of bread, more peanut butter and cake before agreeing to head down and thaw out our bones. In fact it was so cold with the wind chill that I was glad I brought my waterproof over trousers which while making me look like a complete moron, probably gave me a few extra seconds of comfort before the cold seeped in.
The terrain coming down was tough for me, easy to roll ankles on especially in my boots which were not fit for purpose. Arriving back to the sanctuary of La Comparticion was a relief and I took the opportunity to steal a few minutes sleep before the long descent back to La Cienaga. I could have easily stayed in La Comparticion for another day just relaxing, playing frisbee and enjoying being in the mountains, and if you have the time I would recommend doing so. As we had planned to do the trip in two days, once packed up we started the long climb down, in the end it took a full day of walking to make it back – around 8 hours, but you tend to pick up on more of the scenery on the way down and appreciate the landscape you walking in.
For someone who has some experience trekking this is not a challenging walk, for me the biggest challenge was dealing with my poorly chosen footwear – I have worn out my old pair across Asia and my spray painted Timberland boots I usually reserve for festivals will be finding themselves in a box on a freighter bound for the UK in the next few days. Any covered shoes will do, some of the guys I was with walked it in trainers and at times I was longing for my trusty converse instead of my festival boots. For anyone debating on doing the trek solo or with a guide, without wanting to press readers one way or another I will just outline the following:
A guide is mandatory but is absolutely possible to do it without if you are experienced, what the outcome of doing this would be if discovered – I don’t know.
There are regular water sources for the majority of the walk up to the base camp, from there to the summit is around two hours up and there is no water.
The guide cost us $65 per person, which if you need gear to rent and equipment to be carried then works out well enough – I recommend dealing with a local guide or fixer directly and not through a tour operator, this way (as much as possible) your money is going to the right places.
At a push the climb to La Comparticion could be done in 5 hours, it’s 2 hours to summit and from the top a total of 8-9 hours down.
Now we head back to the coast to spend a few days on the north side of the island around Sosua and Cabarete, for some well earned days of rest around the pool and on the beach.