Bike and Hike to the Highpoint of the Caribbean C. P.Marsh
After the last two winters when I only got as far as my Mexican dentist opposite Yuma, Arizona, I was keen to go outside the US for more than 1-2 hours! The Dominican Republic interested me for several reasons, most notably because the volcano Pico Duarte at 10,120′ elevation is the highpoint of the Caribbean, but also for the pristine beaches, music, sun, the African heritage, and the capital, Santo Domingo being the oldest city in the New World.
However, I’d failed to renew my UK passport early enough, so I tended to editingchores in Astoria until it arrived. When it did, things happened quickly. I got a phone call on Wednesday from UPS, the passport arrived Thursday, I bought a one-way ticket on the internet Friday for $310, which seemed reasonable, packed over the weekend, drove to Portland Monday, and arrived at the airport at midnight. The plane left 6 am, and I landed in Santiago, the second city, 9.30 pm.
I found a room in the colonial quarter and enjoyed a long sleep on a hot night. The next day I took a quick stroll around the neighborhood, and by noon, had decided that it was too crowded and too noisy to interest me. Learning that the garage around the corner was the terminal for the minivans that ran the 30 miles south to La Vega–the closest city to the national park. I managed to organize myself by 1 pm and get my introduction to the standard group transport on the island…18 people jammed into the 5 rows of seats in a small Asian vehicle.
It was stop-and-go all the way, with me squeezed against the side and balancing my backpack on my knees. At the La Vega terminal, I easily transferred to another van that took the west road up into the highlands to Jarabacoa, gateway to the Cordillera Central. Up there it was cooler—about 80 instead of 90―and I found a quiet hotel―until the karaoke started under my window at 11 PM. So I demanded another room and was then able to sleep.
The next day I continued to be pestered by freelance travel agents out to make a big commission arranging trips to the park and Pico Duarte. As we haggled the price started at $300 and gradually dropped to $150, but this still seemed like a lot for two-day hike! So, I finally made my own inquiries and found a hotel on a backstreet where I slept well. The next morning I identified the place where the delivery service to the park made a stop. It turned out to be a pick-up truck loaded with sacks, crates with about ten passengers piled on top. I jumped on board.
The pick-up ground up some horrendously steep grades at walking pace, until we reached the village at the end of the blacktop road. The last 10 kilometers were dirt, which I regarded with a decided lack of enthusiasm, since I would have to bike this later if I was going to complete the sea-to-summit. At the end of the line, I jumped off in La Cienaga, a small community backed by a green valley filled with extensive vegetable gardens. A guy introduced himself as a guide, and said he charged $60-70 for a trip, including his mule. That was what I was hoping for, so I tagged along and he confidently led up a dirt road to the impressive park building at 3,300’.
He signed me in at the park office with the warden, who assured me I had a good guide―so what more can you do? There was a big outdoor sign with a diagram of the route; they are quite proud to be the highpoint of the Caribbean and have a definite system to keep visitors organized―you have to have a guide, who supplies a mule to carry the gear. This keeps some of the locals employed, and makes sure visitors don’t get lost.
We were the only group going up, and only passed one pair coming down, but there was a party of 20 getting ready when we returned–and that looked pretty chaotic. On the big weekend of the year, they said 1,000 people make the climb! I guess that keeps all the guides busy.
We carried on up the trail, because my guide lived a full hour up the hill on a farmstead opposite the park, across the creek via a rustic bridge. To call his place a cabin is too generous. It was a shack. But that is the way people make do here. I met his extended family and slept in a spare bed in a separate shack…until 5 AM when we loaded up the mule and began climbing.
It was a tough hike in dry forest, not helped by the guide taking his place behind me…and riding the mule! At first I found myself racing a bit to stay ahead of the mule, then the route turned steeply uphill and I settled in to a long slog. The trail had been worn into a canyon i n the dirt 10 feet deep in places. When we reached the first hilltop at about 9,000′ elevation, the forest had turned from green tropical to dry pine.
I got glimpses of the peak at times but a long descent to the base camp and ranger station left me wiped out by noon. Still, it hadn’t been too hot, and now I avoided the heat and relaxed for three hours…until the guide reminded me it was either go now or wait until morning. I made myself a bowl of oatmeal and bananas, felt better, and we set off and pushed steadily up for another two hours. The summit kept receding, but finally we reached a saddle and a weather station.
The guide tied the mule and walked with me the last mile over some steeper patches. Fortunately, the clouds blew in to keep us cool.
Finally, the summit rocks stood out above the tree line, with a statue of Duarte, a flag and other plaques. The whole climb itself had taken 9 hours. We looked down on the clouds for a while and the whiteness of it made a striking contrast to the smog and heat down in the valleys. Descending, I was feeling beat, and the sun was setting. Since I had reached my goal un-assisted, I decided it was finally OK to let the guide walk and me ride! It was a bumpy ride, and I marveled how the mule never put a foot wrong.
This was a good move, because it was actually dark by the time we returned to camp. The guide now set about cooking the meat, onions and rice I had bought in the village. The only light in the giant kitchen building was our tiny wood fire, but we both ate several bowls before I wandered off to crash in the rustic new dormitory—doomed to collapse soon because there are no trusses on the roof beams! The night sky was so fabulous, I laid down outside for a while, then got into the sleeping bag I had bought all that way just for this one night.
We were back in action at 7 AM, only I seemed to be the one doing the walking again….but eventually I started dragging my feet and was invited to ride the mule! We traded off, but it still took almost as long going down as up. We arrived at the park HQ too late for the Sunday truck ride, so the warden let me sleep in the bunkhouse for free, which made a change. No lights again, so I was soon asleep.
I was woken up at 6 AM and caught the 6.30 truck down to the valley, still wondering if I could ever have any interest in biking back up. The next two van rides followed in quick succession and I was back at the hotel in Santiago. The next day I walked around the barrio and up to the fine monument to the revolution, had my hair cut super short, then assembled the bike Friday in the afternoon. I ventured out nervously onto the busy side roads until it was dark, and locked it away for the night.
Despite the warnings from the staff to ride the big tourist bus and stow the bike, I departed with no intention of finding the Caribe Tour bus station. Instead I headed roughly north out of town on a main road that gradually quieted down and passed a welcome sign prohibiting trucks and buses. (Signs don’t necessarily mean much here.) The road was actually two wide lanes, but it really felt like a back road and the two hours climbing in the granny gear was not a huge effort.
I stopped for a fruit break at several stalls. The traffic really was limited to a few pickups and motorbikes―heavy vehicles actually did stick to the new highway, so it was great route for me. Once over the top, the broken tarmac showed why it was quiet, as the few cars had to steer slowly around potholes. I felt this was a small price to pay for a great ride.
Halfway down the north slope, I saw the Caribbean, and felt quite pleased with my first effort. But there was more distance to cover on the busy coast road before I reached the resort of Sosua―apparently a popular place to retire on the north shore! So far so good, so I took a day off to visit the beach. That was as far as the tourists went, so the next three days I was alone with the typical Dominican traffic, motor bikes, scooters and moto whatevers.
But I have to tell you that I quickly lost patience with the whole absurd convention that this is somehow superior to walking, biking, even horseback. The moto bikes have commandeered the psyche of the populace, taken over all public spaces, and monopolize the roads it for their own ends—mostly to do with self-image since the owners really have little to do all day except look cool and wait to get hired by anyone going more than a block.
I mean I expect people to look on me a little strangely, but most people here have never seen a functioning bicycle–certainly not one you could ride more than a few blocks! You begin to appreciate the virtues of civic society when you find yourself dodging the constant attack and drone of the bikes which leave no room for pedestrians or conversation. I figure a good police dept would find SIX counts against a typical rider…can you figure what they are? I’ll give you a clue: riding with two passengers and a child is one. Oh yes, that yellow haze I could see from 10,000’, that is the two-stroke exhaust cloud that hangs over the island.
Of course, I could also go on about every cafe playing their favorite salsa too loud for concentration, but at least when I am riding by it passes fairly quickly. In town, the bars play it so loudly that I am serious when I say half the country has hearing loss. It hurt my ears from 30 yards! And not one hint of live music, not even a bongo player. I guess you have to be in the capital, or New York for that.
So I may be getting a little too sensitive, but I got fitter mentally and physically on the outbound ride to be ready to loop back on the south side of the coast range to La Vega via back roads. I was pleased that only took two days on back roads. This time I found a hotel in La Vega and left all my gear in my room when I embarked on the “off the chart” climb back up to the park gates. I was saved by the remarkable fact that the sky was overcast all day, so I didn’t dry out. But I was still in the saddle for 6 hours, from which you might deduce that my interest was flagging, what with the several miles of brutal dirt and the 20 inch wheels.
And on top of that, the up and down nature of the road inevitably meant there was also plenty of climbing on the way down! That seemed like the final challenge before the long last descent, but there was more: the tropical downpour that nearly blinded me as I raced back in La Vega. So yes, I achieved a notable Sea to Summit, but I was too beat to care, and the next day it was back to the challenge of continuing the tour, so I can’t say I enjoyed any satisfaction from tying the hike and bike together…perhaps until I got home and started writing.
The next project was to ride the van back to Santiago, grab the suitcase (in which the bike travels) in the hotel closet, and come straight back. I managed that, then started out another novel trip: to move my suitcase and my bike across the country. I needed to walk a mile, so set the suitcase on the cross bar, looped some stringt around to loosely secure it, keeping the suitcase balanced quite nicely. Then I realized it was too big for the sidewalk. I had to walk in the narrow street for several blocks, trying unsuccessfully not to obstruct traffic….eventually the streets grew wider and I relaxed, appreciating that since all the load was on bike wheels, it was still less strain than rolling the suitcase over the cobblestones!
I walked about a mile in La Vega, I had previously checked that the bus to the capital would be full size, otherwise I would have nowhere to stow my gear. I noticed at the ticket office that everyone had to yell at the sales lady where they wanted to go, as the salsa blasting from the speakers was so loud it drowned out all conversation. I think she must be a lip reader!
So, after nearly three weeks travel, I reached the capital Santo Domingo, on the south side of the island, with its colonial streets and squares, some dating to the early 1500s. Latin American countries have done really well with keeping many of their oldest urban areas alive, car-free and attractive, offering a refuge from the manic traffic in the rest of the city. Here particularly, while riding in a taxi, I became aware that there are none of those annoying speed signs or limits, no traffic cops, in fact no rules at all. It’s every man for himself. Some traffic lights work, some don’t…why worry, the natives just blow the horn at every one all the time.
I did enjoy many strolls in the old city, as far as Chinatown, where I found a small carnival parade and a Chinese New Year street-fair. I also ended up going to the same restaurant many times for real Chinese food with vegetables that were absent from the local cuisine that consists mainly of rice, yucca and chicken. From the castle walls of the old city, I saw a cruise ship in the harbor, Club Med’s big motor sailing ship, and the truck ferry to Puerto Rico.
A few days later, I was riding up a small hill to see the finish of the country’s big international bike race. Outside the yacht club, a guy jumped off a moto, chased after me in busy traffic and ripped the camera pouch that was hidden under my shirt off my belt. His partner raced the bike so hard to make their getaway that he skidded across the street and crashed on the first corner. It must have hurt, but the thieves scrambled to their feet re-mounted before I could catch up and raced off down the sidewalk scattering pedestrians.
Frustrated, I quit chasing and watched them disappear with my photos of the summit. And what would I have done anyway if I’d caught them? It was a cheap camera, it was gone, and that incident was my reminder that it was definitely time for me to buy that return ticket to Portland.