The “Dominican Alps” are home to the highest peak in the Caribbean. While Pico Duarte is not the Matterhorn of Switzerland, it does stand tall at 3,087 meters. Surprisingly, while the Matterhorn weighs in at 4,478 meters and was conquered for the first time in 1865, no attempts to climb Pico Duarte occurred until 1944.
Not so surprisingly, the peak used to be named Pico Trujillo, when the dictator predictably named it after himself during his tenure. But when he was assassinated, the peak was renamed for founding father Pablo Duarte.
This challenging climb has been made a little easier since the 1980s, when cutting of trails was begun in an effort to increase ecotourism. Currently, nearly 3,000 people hike Pico Duarte and the surrounding peaks every year.
Hiking Pico Duarte: Routes and Trails
When choosing a route to take to the top of Pico Duarte, consider how long you’ve got to spend and honestly ask yourself what sort of stamina or at what athletic level are you able to hike. There are five different routes with varying degrees of stamina needed.
The five routes differ in that the first two routes (La Ciénaga and Mata Grande) leave the Cibao Valley rising upward via the northern slope of the Cordillera Central within the Parque Nacional Armando Bermúdez. Trade winds in this area bring greater amounts of rain, and there are many natural freshwater sources for a large extent of the way. The latter three routes rise via the southern slope of the Cordillera Central within the Parque Nacional José del Carmen Ramírez, where rain is less prevalent, and therefore have a drier climate with fewer potable water sources.
La Ciénaga to Pico Duarte
This route starts in the small town of La Ciénaga just west of Jarabacoa. It is the most popular route to Pico Duarte because it is the shortest and easiest, at 23.1 kilometers one way. Hiring an independent guide is easier in La Ciénaga than in other launching points. The park guides recommend to reserve three days and two nights for this hike. Beginning a final ascent to the peak well before dawn will reward you with the astonishing sunrise while on top. This route’s vertical ascent is about 2,280 meters.
Getting to La Ciénaga from Jarabacoa is as easy as flagging down a público, a regular car (usually rather worn down) used as an inexpensive taxi. Or catch a guagua for about US$3.
Mata Grande to Pico Duarte
This is the second most difficult route and a popular alternative to the La Ciénaga route. It comes recommended as the most beautiful route of the five. It is a hike of 90 kilometers round-trip that takes three days and has a 3,800-meter ascent, leaving from Mata Grande near San José de las Matas. You’ll go over the second-highest peak, La Pelona, too, finally summiting Pico Duarte on the third day. Hiring mules and guides in Mata Grande is similar to in La Ciénaga; secure them two days ahead, and strongly consider hiring a pack mule (the guide may insist) and even a cook (US$10 per day). Your guide and/or cook can help you decide how much food to bring and what to buy.
If you are looking for a more challenging climb than the La Ciénaga one, this is a good choice. Making the trip with organized tours is possible and often easier on you, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. The trailhead at Mata Grande is located about 13 miles south east of San José de las Matas; take the marked turnoff at Pedregal toward Mata Grande, 15 kilometers down the road to the ranger station.
Sabaneta to Pico Duarte
Sabaneta to Pico Duarte (the Sabaneta just north of San Juan de la Maguana—not the one near Dajabón) is the most arduous of the direct routes and takes three days. The vertical ascent is 3,800, just like the Mata Grande trek, but 96 kilometers round-trip. There are two campsites along the way: Alto de la Rosa and Macutico, where you’ll stop on the first and second nights. Again, a guide is obligatory and pack mules are highly recommended. The positive aspect about this trek is that since it is the longest, there will be less overcrowding. Take the highway to Sabaneta north for 20 kilometers from San Juan de la Maguana.
Constanza to Pico Duarte
This route is 86 kilometers round-trip and has a 1,600-meter vertical ascent that takes 3–5 days to navigate depending on your ability level. Constanza is the easternmost departure point. On the first day of your hike via this route, you’ll see the impact that humans have had on the area as you will traverse farmland and small towns and onward into more densely vegetated areas on the second day that are recovering from previous human encroachment. The turnoff for Constanza is between La Vega and Bonao on the Carretera Duarte. The only tour company offering this route is Mountain Expedition out of Constanza; otherwise this is a very difficult route to navigate on your own.
Las Lagunas to Pico Duarte
This route is 72 kilometers round-trip and has a vertical ascent of 2,000 meters. It’s a six-day trip leaving from Las Lagunas outside of Padre Las Casas in the Azua Province. After about 20 kilometers, it unites with the Constanza route.
To get to the Las Lagunas liftoff spot, you’ll leave San Juan de la Maguana, traveling east along the Carretera Sánchez; turn left (north) at the sign for the Cruce de las Yayas and go nine kilometers to Padre Las Casas. Take a left at the town’s main intersection and travel about 100 meters farther to the ranger station. No tour companies offer this trek, so you will need to hire a guide and mules here.
Organized Tours and Guides
There are tour companies that provide worry-free packages of treks to Pico Duarte, or you can wing it on your own by hiring a guide at the park entrances. The advantage of booking through a tour company is that everything will be taken care of: where you’ll sleep, what you’ll eat, transportation to the launch point. It is a convenient solution for those who don’t have time to plan prior to arrival or are not experienced multiday hikers. If you’ve never done it before, there is a lot you could forget, so it is best to leave the details to the professionals so you can concentrate on just having fun.
Rancho Baiguate (Jarabacoa, Carretera a Constanza, tel. 809/574-6890) has treks in 3- to 5-day packages that vary in price depending on how many people are in the group. Call or email to reserve your spot and get a price quote. Prices start at US$255.
Although located in Cabarete, Iguana Mama (Cabarete, tel. 809/571-0908, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) is one of the best trekking companies in the country. For US$450, they’ll do all the prep, and you’ll just enjoy yourself for three days and two nights riding mules, spotting rare birds, traversing rivers and creeks, and of course, hiking to the top of the highest peak in the Caribbean.
Mountain Expedition (tel.829/801-7199 or 809/674-1596, firstname.lastname@example.org) is a company based in Constanza that will arrange for lots of different mountain excursions, whether on foot, horseback, or four-wheeler. As far as trekking to Pico Duarte goes, this is the only outfitter that will take you from Constanza, preferably in February (when the heavy rain season is usually done). It’s a threeday trip (prices start at US$150).
If you would rather be independent of a tour company, the national park fee is RD$100 per person. Guides typically cost around US$10– 20 per day and can be found by asking at the park entrances’ ranger stations. You can’t be completely independent, though; hiring a guide is mandatory. The parks require that for overnight hikes, there is at least one guide for every three trekkers. Most guides take along a mule to carry their equipment, but it is generally a good idea to hire additional mules to assist in carrying your own loads; they cost about US$10 per day. Something else to consider when contemplating the necessity of renting a mule—many hikers find that partway through their journey to the summit, the road gets a little too rough, and that they are not as physically up to the challenge as they thought they were. In cases like these—not all that uncommon, actually—people find that spending part of the journey on the back of a mule is a welcome relief. Have your hands free for photo taking! For a mule to ride (RD$350/day) or to carry your packs (RD$300/day) you’ll need to contact Alex Corona of the Ecotour Department (tel. 809/604-4862) to make reservations.
Custom dictates that you buy all provisions for the whole journey, for yourself and the guides, and tip them at the end. In making arrangements for your trek independently, it is best to find the guide a couple of days in advance so that preparations can be made with adequate time. They will help you figure out how much food to buy, too. You’ll need to bring bottled water or some sort of purification system. Just remember to pack out what you take in. Guides are usually willing to tailor trips to your needs and desires (although the cost will vary accordingly).
Don’t Forget Your Camera: What to Take on Your Hike to Pico Duarte
Many hikers prepare for so long about the logistics of how to get to the top of the mountain that they lose sight of what to put (or what not to put) in their packs. Here are some suggestions from head to toe and beyond.
Head: Hat, sunglasses, and eyeglasses (or contacts).
Body: Two to three inner layer shirts, one pullover long sleeve sweatshirt type (middle layer), swimsuit, underwear, and one waterproof rain jacket.
Hands: You may want to consider gloves. It can get very cold at night.
Legs: One pair of shorts, one pair of pants.
Feet: Hiking boots or good walking shoes. But, for the sake of your feet and your mood, don’t take shoes that you haven’t broken in yet. These should be well-worn shoes. Extra laces might be a good idea. If you don’t use them someone will. Take three pairs of socks. Bring sandals for around camp.
Equipment and Gear: Binoculars, camera, sunblock, bug repellent, personal water bottle, bandana, medium-sized towel, flashlight or headlamp, personal first aid kit, toiletries, hand sanitizer, pocketknife, sleeping bag, and mat.
Other: Prescription medication, a smaller pack (e.g., a fanny pack) if you are having a mule carry your larger bag. Remember to pack the garbage out that you have brought in and leave no footprint behind.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Dominican Republic.