Two hours have passed and we’re only halfway climbing up to El Mogote – halfway up a vertiginous, rocky trail leading to nearly 4,000 feet of altitude.
“Cuanto tiempo más?!” I ask David in between catching my breath, feeling my heart pumping and pressing against my chest after reaching the top of a hill I’d just crawled with my bare hands.
How much longer up to this peak?
“Una hora más.” One more hour.
David, a native of this central mountainous area of the DR and the nearby town of Jarabacoa, barely breaks a sweat. He’s scrolling for music on his phone while I stare down at the monstrous dirt hill we’d just conquered.
Crawling on all fours. Digging nail deep into the ground, in search of any piece of rock to pull my body up one inch at a time. No rope, no big boulders, nothing – only David’s hand, when I needed it.
I wanted to give up and turn back around. But that would be two hours back around.
“You know, El Mogote is actually more difficult than the hike to Pico Duarte,” David says to me in Spanish, a permanent grin etched on his face.
It was the Dominican way – to not reveal all of the information from the start, especially the important information. To let it out casually sometime later, while shrugging: “Tranquila. Eso no e’ na’!” Esto no es nada. Don’t worry, it’s nothing – no biggie.
I’d only picked one of the hardest mountain climbs in the DR, harder than the two-day expedition up to Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest peak, as my first mountain climbing experience. Eso no e’ na’.
What was an estimated three hour hike roundtrip to Jarabacoa’s iconic peak, according to mountain-native David, who was in flip flops and jeans, had already taken two and we weren’t even half way.
My sneakers take a beating – or rather, my big toes. The ground is riddled with rocks on the way up, and you pay with your feet if you’re not precise with your steps. My clumsy nature, the kind that often causes me to bump into sharp furniture corners at home, meant that my nails were taking a slow beating.
If people love to mountain climb, I thought, it must be because of the stunning views on the way up. That and the delightfully cool air. We had both and they were keeping me going.
I pause along the way to take in the vistas, because this is a Caribbean few get to see.
The Cordillera Central mountain range, one of five mountain ranges in the country, cuts through the heart of the Dominican Republic. It boasts the highest elevation at 10,105 feet with Pico Duarte, roof of the Caribbean.
Three hours pass and David insists we’re almost there. What would be there, at the top of El Mogote? A watch tower, he says, where we could look over the entire mountains and sky over Jarabacoa.
My stomach rumbles; no snacks in our backpacks. We walk past coffee trees. What were we thinking, bringing only water?
“We’re almost there,” David says. By now, I know the real meaning behind casi and it’s not “almost.”
But – eso no e’ na’.
David steps over to a bush and throws a couple of red-colored fruits into his mouth, before stretching a branch my way. Berries!
Red and black berries. They grow in the wild at these altitudes and they save my body from the brink of collapse.
Turning away from the berry trees, a huge hill lies ahead of us.
Tranquila, Lily. Eso’ no e’ na’. I repeat the words to myself.
When we eventually reach the mound and crawl up the last few steps, a clearing appears and a dog’s barking echoes.
“That’s the caretaker’s dog, he’s welcoming us to El Mogote.”
We reach a wide open green space with just a shack, a man and his dog, waggling his tail while running around us in a circle. But no one feels giddier than I – running across the plain, skipping like a child, my arms stretched out as if trying to hug the stunning mountainous scenery around us.
“Let’s go up here! The view is even better.”
David, still not breaking a sweat, shuffling in his flip flops, leads up the steps of the observation tower. The caretaker joins us. Standing there to catch my breath, I lose it again at the sight of peaks all around us, making a distant memory of every single pain I’d felt on the three and a half hours up to El Mogote.
After an hour up there, I don’t want it to end.
“Next time, you could do the afternoon hike. Camp overnight on El Mogote, and then you can see the sunrise up here.”
I try to imagine this spectacular view with yellow and red colors and find myself thinking – I could come back. The thought dies when we begin to make our way down the same long path and I slam my sneaker-wearing feet into rock-riddled earth again.
Back at the lodge, I brag about achieving my first mountain climb in the Caribbean and in the DR.
“Did you know it’s a more difficult hike than the one to Pico Duarte?” I ask.
I show off my two bruised black toes and shrug. Eso no e’ na’.
Have you visited the DR’s mountain towns?
For details on where to stay in Jarabacoa and hike mountains or hit other trails with David – who knows this area like the back of his hand – pick up the newly-released 2019 edition of Moon Dominican Republic.
Now in stores and available online in print and Kindle.