|NATIONAL PARKS QUICKLINKS|
Backpacker Magazine –
Find culture, scenery, and solitude at the top of a tropical island.
A scrum of taxi drivers accosts my wife and me as we step off the bus in Jarabacoa. This is the town nearest Pico Duarte, which, at 10,128 feet, is not only the high point of the Dominican Republic, but of the whole Caribbean. Before we know it, we’re sitting next to our packs in the bed of a 1978 Datsun rust box for the 15-mile drive to the Parque Nacionale José Armando Bermúdez. Sure, we could have sipped mojitos by the sea like every other tourist, but we wanted a unique experience. Our taxi driver, a real conservationist, turns off the engine and coasts the downhills, restarting by popping the clutch. We have found unique.
Five routes approach Pico Duarte, one of four 10,000-plus-foot peaks in the Dominican Republic’s Cordillera Central range. We want the most direct: 14.5 miles up an unnamed trail. But first, we need a guide. Our driver steers us down a side road to the shack of a man named Pablo. Pablo speaks no English. My Spanish is limited to montaña, playa, cerveza, and, for emergencies, “Donde está el bano?” Using gestures and drawing pictures on a scrap of paper to communicate, we agree on an itinerary—leave today, no mules. We set off, hiking 3 miles through a valley where workers cultivate coffee beans and color-filled clotheslines flap outside tin shacks. Then we make a steep ascent to our camp, a small ranger cabin called Los Tablones. Pablo points to a concrete floor—our bed for the night. We spread our summer bags and mats (packed from home) and boil water on wood coals for our backpacker meals. (Pablo had offered to cook, but how do you communicate “My wife has celiac disease” using drawings and gestures?)
Day two’s hike starts in a misty jungle. The trail slices through a wall of dense parrot trees and the spiky leaves of sierra palms. As we climb, the fog gives way to sunshine, and the forest stirs with chirping birds and animals moving just out of sight. At mile 7, after 5,000 vertical feet, we reach a junction with a sharp, .3-mile descent to Aguita Fria, our final water source. Pablo waits for us among grasses and pines while we drop down, feeling the humidity increase with each step.
Most guided groups camp 2.5 miles past Aguita Fria at La Compartición, make a summit push (another 2.5 miles) the following morning, and then ride mules all the way to the trailhead. We have other plans: We need to catch a bus tomorrow morning. Again, relying on drawings and gestures, we agree to head to the summit now. The trail leads across a grassy saddle and then we’re pushing toward the top. The trail becomes rockier, the steps grow bigger as we ascend the final switchbacks. We don’t see another soul. The sky is overcast, but the ridgelines of the Cordilleras make impressive views across vast and cloud-filled valleys.
On a clear day, you can see the sea from the summit: The mass of land that is the Dominican Republic drops into nothing like it’s the edge of the world. We “settle” for views of the Cordilleras, a maze of ridgelines weaving away from where we’re standing. We can see blue sky, but the clouds hug the highest points as if to add appropriate mystique around the bronze bust depicting the stern face of Juan Pablo Duarte, the Dominican founding father and the mountain’s namesake.
Of course, the beach is down there, too. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be relaxing, toes in the sand, in less than 24 hours. And having seen the Caribbean from its high point, I’m betting beachside Mai Tais will taste that much sweeter.
Do it Rancho Baiguate, Jarabacoa, D.R. (ranchobaiguate.com); Iguana Mama, Cabarete, D.R. (iguanamama.com) Guide Independent guides cost about $9/day; a mule is $8/day. Food, provided and prepared by the guide, costs $30/3 days. Note: Most independent guides aren’t wealthy and charge very little; tip generously. Info Parque Nacionale José Armando Bermúdez (admission $3/person; medioambiente.gov.do)