Climbing Pico Duarte
My journey by both hoof and foot
There is an Old West Indian Saying:
“Canoes Without Good Bottoms Shouldn't Go to Sea.”
People without good bottoms shouldn't try ascending Pico Duarte, either. I spend far more time riding a mule up the Caribbean's highest mountain than I ever expected.
A lot of hikers do. But the bruise to my pride is nothing compared to those on my hindquarters, which only thick layers of moleskin are able to assuage.
I realize I am in bad company when I meet my fellow hikers: a young, amazingly fit couple who are members of the Norwegian armed forces and a marathon cyclist from the Virgin Islands. Being burdened with a few more decades of living than they, I suspect I will be rear guard.
At 3090 meters, Pico Duarte is the Caribbean's tallest mountain. It is part of the chain of mountains known as the Cordillera Central, or the “Dominican Alps,” and located in the Bermudez National Park.
Regardless of how athletic your hiking companions, the climb is an arduous one. According to park officials, of the many thousands who attempt to summit Pico Duarte every year, only about one thousand succeed. Two hundred of these are tourists, the rest Dominicans.
To get to the very top, you have to leave behind the mules and hoof it yourself over the last stretch, an effort beyond a lot of people who can't handle the altitude.
We register at the park office at La Cienaga and arrange for a park guide and pack mules. Then we make the first leg of the hike, a 1-hour, very gradual 4km walk to Los Tablones, one of two shelters on the trail.
The second shelter is considerably farther along, 14km from the first and just 5km from the summit of Pico Duarte. These uneven distances makes the first day's hike a breeze, the second a real bitch if you're spending only two nights on the trail as we are.
Near sunset, as we sit in the smoke of our campfire to avoid the thick clouds of mosquitoes and prepare to eat, the pack mules of another, much larger group start pouring into our tiny camp.
We rush back to the cabin to claim the best sleeping area, a room with a closed door. All 16 of them are welcome to sleep in the dining room. The next day, we depart early to claim the prime spot at the next shelter.