Tag: hiking in the caribbean

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 3

PART 3: KNOWING MY LIMITS ON PICO DUARTE

Map to the top (c) ABR 2016

After a night of inventing new ways to sleep in a bunk with zero support in the middle, and a breakfast of bread and cheese cubes, the events of the prior day’s harrowing driving adventure faded fast. I wasn’t enthused about the food we had been able to bring, but I did my best to fill up. The hike up the tallest mountain the Caribbean wasn’t going to be easy, not with the accelerated itinerary we had been forced to make.

We had one day to try for the top, and I wanted to shore up as much energy as I could.

(c) ABR 2016

Martin, my hiking partner, and I finished breakfast around 5, but we ended up waiting for our guide for nearly an hour before we could leave, because our illustrious mule had escaped in the night. Perhaps he sensed the coming hike and wasn’t all that excited about it. Luckily, we didn’t have much for the lovely animal to carry, just a jug of water and our two small day packs.

(c) ABR 2016

The first part of the Cienaga route, the main trail up Pico Duarte, is fairly flat. So, we had a nice warm-up as we followed the stream up the slope, pausing only to take pictures at the little wooden walkways that served as bridges. We moved as fast as we could, anticipating the long haul that was the come. The question about whether or not I could make it to the top hung over my head.

From Los Tablones, things started to get real. The trail became increasingly steep, with the steepest incline hitting us about halfway up between La Laguna and El Cruce. I kept repeating to myself “There is no way that this is only 0.5 kms!” as I struggled up the incline. The trails on this part of the mountain had carved deep canyons into the soft soil of Pico Duarte, some taller than me. The wear of people’s feet and the tropical weather seemed to be a hard force on this place. The trees here also took on an oddly swampy quality, with moss hanging down from the tall branches as the forest shifted from tropical to temperate and the air grew colder.

(c) ABR 2016

Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. We reached El Cruce, and judging by the map that’s at the top of its post, I was expecting to settle back into the same plod that carried us up from Los Tablones to La Laguna. It was tiring, but nothing that we couldn’t maintain.

(c) ABR 2016

This part of the trail was far more difficult than that ever-present map suggested, however. I don’t know if it was just that we were tired after our ascent, but those 3 km felt endless. I have to believe, even now, that whoever measured that segment was simply wrong. Maybe it was the same someone that measured the La Laguna-El Cruce segment. But it was here that the tropical forest finally fell away, leaving us in the fog, amid the temperate pines that seem so at-home on tall mountains.

(c) ABR 2016

As you may read if you look up Pico Duarte, there was a fire on the mountain in 2005 which wiped out vast swaths of the forest. For some, this made for a disappointing trip, but I found this part of the mountain (now partially regrown) to be really beautiful, despite the fact that I was exhausted. The little trees dotting fields of grasses among the tall survivors of the fire opened up a wide view of the mountainous inland. The views of the sunrise from there the next day were unbelievable.

(c) ABR 2016

Once we finally hit Aguita Fria, I cursed the sign. This was the high point before the camp where we would spend the night, and I knew right then that I wasn’t going to make the top. My feet were blistering in my boots, my legs were starting to feel weak, and my head just wasn’t in it. I knew how much further I had to go, and it just didn’t feel feasible, not with the entire hike back down the mountain waiting for me in the morning.

Bad Aguita Fria! (c) ABR 2016

So, I complained my way down to Comparticion camp, annoyed that we had to hike down after hiking up for so long. But the camp was a welcome sight. Several small, wooden cabins huddled around a fire pit. A little garden peeked out from behind a long building with a kitchen that housed wood-fed stoves. Mules relaxed in the fields that surrounded that little spot of human habitation, and when I finally dropped down to rest, a camp cat came to relax in the sun with me.

Our trusty mule (c) ABR 2016

Martin went on to the summit, although he didn’t return until the sun had nearly set. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to the top, but when he finally got back to camp, the look of exhaustion on his face let me know that I made the right decision. Pushing for the top would have been irresponsible of me, and I hike enough to know my limits.

Even without the summit under my belt, the whole experience was adventure enough, and that is still one of the hardest trails that I have ever hiked in a day.

(c) ABR 2016

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 2

PART 2: GETTING LOST AND DRIVING ON DIRT ROADS

One of the nicer dirt roads on the way to Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

I don’t remember what clued us into the fact that we were driving the wrong way, but it had been an hour since we had seen the last sign for… anything, and we wanted to play it safe. After all, both my travel partner, Martin, and I were keen on making it to the top of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. Getting lost in the forests at its base would make that hard and we didn’t have time to waste. With just two days to make our attempt (most people take at least three full days), a failure that morning meant the entire thing was off.

Our powerful little rental car, Tina (c) ABR 2016

Luckily, Martin was fluent in Spanish, making turning around to ask for directions fruitful. Some people eating at a streetside restaurant pointed us down a road being re-paved when we told them the name of the town we were trying to reach.

“But you can’t go that way now,” one man remarked, gesturing at the heavy machinery blocking the way. I felt my heart sink. “There’s another road, but we’ll send someone with you, because it’s small and hard to find.” Another man put down his hard-earned lunch and dropped his conversations to hop on his motorcycle. We followed him back into town, and turned onto… a dirt road.

The good part of the dirt road; that little red dot is the guy leading us to town (c) ABR 2016

Let’s pause here to discuss dirt roads. Some dirt roads are no problem for almost any vehicle. Some dirt roads are fine for my Acura which can barely handle pot-holes on the freeway. Some dirt roads might as well be paved, because they are nice and flat and their only downside is all the dust you kick up driving on them.

This was not one of those dirt roads.

But there wasn’t much of a choice at that point. A kind man had stopped mid-lunch to guide us, and neither of us felt like we could turn back now. So, we followed that motor bike, on a road where divots and holes slowly grew where water ran and pooled into them when it rained. Then, up a steep hill that crested so sharply that I thought we might just balance out on the top and have to stay there.  Onward our guide took us through construction sites, literally weaving our way between massive digging machines as they worked, and along roads with deep mud.

The road down into the construction zone (c) ABR 2016

Finally we followed him through a little town with no sign to clue us in to its name, up an embankment, and into the dirt parking lot of Armando Bermudez National Park. Tina had lived up to her name as far as I was concerned. I was proud of her and me for making it to that point. Now, we just had to find the man that our friend had told us about, who would help us set up our trip and make it to the summit…

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 1

PART 1: AS LONG AS THERE AREN’T DIRT ROADS

Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

I lived in the Dominican Republic for the summer of 2016; there for my PhD field season to study one of the world’s most unique whale watching destinations. It was my first time really living on my own in another country (and perhaps my last), and between bouts of anxiety about bus rides and car accidents, I was primed to explore.

Near my home in Santo Domingo (c) ABR 2016

Hiking Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Dominican Republic and the whole of the Caribbean, was on my bucketlist from day one. Having little experience with hiking in the tropics, I was thirsty for some new adventure, and interested in the ecological rainbow that was no doubt present as one worked their way up from the rainforest at the mountain’s base, to its sparsely forested top.

There was just one problem, most of the tours to the top of Pico Duarte cost between $300-$500,far outside of my budget as a graduate student. It seemed like the mountain was out of my reach, until my growing desire to plod up its slopes led me to ask my Dominican advisor if he had any ideas about making the trip happen.

Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

“How are you driving on mountain roads?” He asked. I wasn’t concerned. I made a hobby out of driving up the Catalinas outside of Tucson during my undergrad, I spent a summer driving up and down the snaking roads of Mt. Graham, and I had just returned from a road trip through the Scottish highlands.

“If there aren’t dirt roads,” I replied. “I will be fine.” My vehicle for the summer was a small Nissan Versa Note, which I had duly named ‘Tina’ after my favorite character in Bob’s Burgers.

Tina’s preferred habitat (c) ABR 2016

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just be careful about driving on the winding roads. Honk at the corners, go slow.” Ah yes, driving in the Dominican Republic is notorious. Did you know that? The World Atlas rates the DR as the #1 country for car accident deaths in the world. After driving there for a summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if it just happens to be related to  the motorcycles that are EVERYWHERE, or the fact that people casually drive drunk. Defensive driving is a 100% must in the Dominican Republic, and most people advise against you driving there at all. So, I got where he was coming from.

Where I was inspired to seek this adventure (c) ABR 2016

I was fairly confident that I could handle it. It was just those pesky dirty roads that little Tina wasn’t equipped to deal with.

So, he gave me directions to a small, small village at the base of the mountain, and told me the name of a man that my hiking buddy and I were to look for there…

Everything You Need to Know About Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Dominica

During my trip to Dominica, I visited the Morne Trois Pitons National Park (MTP) on several occasions, and I would have liked to have spent even more time there. The park has several main attractions- the Freshwater Lake, the Boiling Lake, the Valley of Desolation, the Emerald Pools, and Trafalgar Falls, among other things. There are things to do there for both the casual traveller, and the adventurous hiker, as it offered beautiful stops close the road, and more secluded areas down miles of trails.

My initial visit to Morne Trois Pitons National Park was on my first full day in Dominica, and it was a place that I have not been able to stop dreaming about since. Still tired from our day and a half of traveling, my dad and I opted for a relaxing tour of the park in which we drove from site to site, and our longest hike was probably half a mile long. The road up through the park from Dominica’s capital was steep and narrow, complete with sharp, blind turns, but it was well maintained and there seemed to be better signage here than anywhere else that I had seen, which hinted at the park’s importance to Dominica’s tourism.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

Freshwater Lake (c) ABR

The Freshwater Lake

Many tourists, in fact, come to the island on a cruise ship, jump on a tour bus at the dock, and then spend the day seeing some of the most beautiful places that the island, and perhaps the world, has to offer. Oddly, however, less cruise passengers took this opportunity than I would have thought.

The first place that we visited in Morne Trois Pitons National Park was the Freshwater Lake, which is the largest of Dominica’s four freshwater lakes, and the second deepest- according to the UNESCO World Heritage website. When we got there, the area was deserted. There was a small museum and ticketing booth along the shore of the lake that no one had opened that day, suggesting that few visitors were expected. It made me a little sad to think that no one was out there to appreciate the beauty of this place, but it was nice to have the chance to drink in the lush landscape and enjoy the crisp air in peace. The lake itself was surrounded by intense, green forests and the steep mountains that characterize Dominica’s interior, and there were some short trails that weaved their way down to the lake’s edge. If this place had been in Arizona, the water would have been dotted with kayakers, and I would have enjoyed exploring Freshwater more, but we didn’t linger there long. We stayed just long enough to take a few pictures, regard the shuttered visitor center with some disappointment, and watch a few of the montane clouds drift over the tops of the mountains on the cool, tropical winds of the lake’s high elevation.

Ti Tou Gorge

After stopping at the lake, we drove down to Ti Tou Gorge (which I don’t think is technically part of the National Park). Here, we took a short hike up along a creek to a lean-to where there were several people selling souvenirs and snacks, along with a group of guides that were bringing people up through the gorge.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

Ti Tou Gorge (c) ABR

As I would later find out, Ti Tou Gorge sits at the trailhead that leads to the Boiling Lake. Due to the fact that I was unwilling to get wet and cold in order to explore the gorge itself, I used the bottom of the trail to explore the upper edge of the formation, which was something like a massive crack in the stony ground of the forest. Looking down from the edge, I could make out several waterfalls and enjoy the sounds of the creek as it rushed through the narrow spaces below. For those who are less bothered by cold water, it was possible to pay a guide to take you into the gorge and up to one of those waterfalls.

Trafalgar Falls

Our last stop in the park during that first day was Trafalgar falls. Here the visitor center was open, and we were required to purchase our week-long national park ticket before we took the short trail down to the falls. For those visitors uninterested or unable to do some scrambling, there was a nice outlook point complete with benches for resting. The falls were off in the distance here, but I couldn’t imagine anything more pleasant than resting in the shade close to those waterfalls, surrounded by the living rainforest of Dominica. Not opposed to some scrambling myself, my father and I hiked down from the viewing point where we followed the trail between some massive boulders, and across a warm, volcanic stream. On the other side of the murky, volcanic waters the forest opened up to a sunny hill of grey boulders, which were crowned by the twin Trafalgar falls. We climbed up far enough to get a clear view of the falls, and we could have worked our way further up to the base of either, if we had had the time. It was a somewhat difficult area to explore, however, due to the sheer size of the boulders here.

The Boiling Lake

The grandest adventure of Morne Trois Pitons National Park (at least that is widely advertised to tourists) is the trek to Boiling Lake. As I mentioned above, the trailhead for this volcanic attraction is at Ti Tou Gorge, where the trail begins a slow decent up into the tropical rainforest and continues on for about 7 miles, one way.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

Trafalgar Falls (c) ABR

Due to the length of the trail, it generally takes about 8 hours to go to the lake and come back, and it is necessary to start the hike early. The first section of the trail, which climbs up and down the mountains, crosses the Breakfast River, and then descends into the Valley of Desolation is well maintained, and consistently lined with logs, which serve as steps for the nearly constantly incline (in one direction or another) of the journey. Once the trail drops down into the Valley of Desolation, however, it becomes hard to follow, and it weaves between steaming volcanic vents, which can be very dangerous. So, guides are needed for this journey for safety reasons, but they also provide good information and stories along the trail, and any money spent on a guide is good support for local people.

Desolation Valley

Much of the trek through the forest towards the lake looked much the same to me, although I enjoyed listening to songs of Dominica’s native birds, and learning about some of medicinal uses for the plants that we were passing along the way. The first major stop on the trail is the Breakfast River, which the trail crosses right over. We only stopped long enough for a short snack, and then began the long climb from the river up to the highest point of the trail. The steep climb was intense, but we were rewarded for our efforts by the cool air at the top of the mountain, and some spectacular views of the landscape of the island’s interior.

After this point, the trail arched down the mountain, and then all but disappeared into the multicolored, volcanic soil of Desolation Valley. Our guide led us safely down the this very steep (and slippery in the rain) part of the trail, and I found that both hands and feet needed to be firmly planted on the smooth surface of the cliff to avoid slipping. It was a somewhat frightening climb down, in my opinion, but our guide did a very good job getting us safely into the valley.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

The Valley of Desolation (c) ABR

Trekking Home

Once down from the cliff, we had to pick our way through a nearly lifeless valley dotted with steaming pools of grey mud. Many of these were hot enough to cause serious burns, but the guides knew of places were visitors could scoop up the mineral mud to coat parts of their skin in. I didn’t partake in this activity, but rumor had it, the mud was very good for the skin.

About a half-mile or a mile from the edge of the valley, and after following the trail along a creek, up and down a few more small cliffs, and through more of the desolate, volcanic landscape that makes up the valley, we tiredly made our way into the steamy mist that surrounds the Boiling Lake. We perched along a cliff there for lunch, where we could regard the natural feature that had drawn us through the forest for miles. It was an almost unbelievable sight- the flat grey form of the lake was constantly disturbed by bubbles. All my understanding of the world told me that these bubbles must be caused by air escaping up through the water, but in fact, the lake is so hot that it is actively boiling (as its name suggests). The cloud of steam that surrounds the pool of hot water is a testament to its heat, as are the stories that tell of guides lowering eggs into the water in little baskets, and then drawing them back up to the cliff, fully cooked.

After enjoying the lake for some time, and resting our exhausted bodies, it came time to return, all the way back where were had come from.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

The Boiling Lake (c) ABR

On the way, there were hot pools to enjoy and relax in, and then we had to brave the cliffs and mountains again to return home. It was well worth the trip, but perhaps one of the most difficult hikes that I have ever done.

Emerald Pool

Finally, on my dad’s last day on the island, we visited the Emerald Pool. This particular part of the park is easily accessible from one of the roads that run up from Roseau to the Melville Hall airport, and it is a good place to stop at before bidding the island farewell. There was a surprisingly large parking lot here, ringed by a large visitor center as well as venders selling souvenirs and socializing in the shade. Past the visitor’s center is a short loop trail, which guides travellers through the forest and down to the calm, brilliantly blue pool for which this area is named. The pool itself sits at the bottom of a rocky cliff, and is fed by a slender waterfall. The forest is mostly kept at bay by the rocky soil of the beach, but a few tall and twisted trees are perched along the edge of the pool- making for pleasant places to rest and enjoy the almost otherworldly beauty of the Emerald Pool. On the returning leg of the loop trail, there is one spot where visitors can look out at the forest and see the ocean on the other side of the island. For those visitors looking for a quick stop, the Emerald Pool is easy to pass through in a half an hour or so, but it is also a place where one could spend the afternoon, picnicking, swimming in the pool, and appreciating the hospitality of the Dominican landscape.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

The Emerald Pool (c) ABR

If you are looking into visiting Dominica, be sure to read our guide!

FOR MORE INFO!
MTP UNESCO Page
MTP Discover Dominica Page
MTP Tripadvisor Page

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