Hiking Pico Duarte in the Dominican Alps: Conquering the Tallest Mountain in the Caribbean
Hiking Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic is often overlooked by tourists who visit the island and are usually more interested in the tropical country’s more conventional attractions: white sand, crystal clear beaches, coconut palm trees, and pina coladas. And while we proudly have lots of those scenes scattered throughout our coastlines, they’re just a little piece of our very diverse topography. The Dominican Republic is also home to deserts, fertile valleys, dense rainforests, low-lying lakes, red rivers, open water caves, emerald blue waterfalls, and even tal mountainous regions such as the Dominican Alps. Moreover, our chilly, pine-green studded Dominican Alps are home to the tallest mountain in the Caribbean: El Pico Duarte.
For nature lovers interested in a more holistic experience of the Dominican Republic (in addition to its tropical appeal) consider a hiking tour trip to Pico Duarte. Being able to reach the top of Pico Duarte is a national sense of pride for many Dominicans, and we welcome you to join us on the special journey.
Where is Pico Duarte? What Are the Dominican Alps?
The Dominican Republic is home to a significant amount of mountain ranges. The most well-known is the Cordillera Central range which stretches across the “heart” of the Dominican Republic for hundreds of miles, extending into Haiti. Because of it’s cooler climate, green valleys, and mountainous tall peaks, the Cordillera Central is referred to as the Dominican Alps. Jose Armando Bermudez National Park is located in this range and is home to the prestigious and magnificent Pico Duarte, soaring at over 3,000 meters (10,000+ feet) in altitude.
Getting to Pico Duarte: How to Get There & Which Trail to Hike
According to locals, there are at least 5 known hiking routes that lead to Pico Duarte. The most popular one is La Ciénaga which usually takes 2-3 days and is about 23 kilometers of hiking. This is also the quickest and thus the most trotted trail.
To get to La Cienaga, you travel to the town of Manabao located 40 minutes from Jarabacoa. In Manabao there is an official park entrance (pictured above) where hikers begin the trail. Here you will also find the park’s office where you can hire local expert guides and rent hiking equipment.
This Cienaga route also gives you the fastest access to Valle de Tetero, a beautiful natural valley on the Yaque del Sur River. Many local Dominicans often skip Pico Duarte and instead go to Valle de Tetero to camp and relax. Valle de Tetero is on the way to Pico Duarte until a certain point (El Cruce at 1,500 meters high) where you stop advancing upwards in altitude and instead proceed horizontally for about 5 hours.
The other routes include Mata Grande, Sabaneta, Las Lagunas, and Los Corralitos. As of yet, no official information can definitively say with 100% accuracy how long these hikes are and what they compose of. There seem to be no government reports providing factual information. Most of it is word of mouth from local people. But they all seem to range from 40 to 108 kilometers and 3 to 7+ days hiking. These websites have differing numbers and information about the other four routes: RJM125, Accion Verde, and Kiskeya Alternative.
How to Prepare for Pico Duarte & What to Pack
The number one regret most Pico Duarte hikers expressed (during and after this hike) was wishing they had prepared better for. Do not slack off on this. Here are some important ways to prepare and pack:
Try to Physically Train/Prepare Your Body for Pico Duarte
If you don’t work out much, try to warm up your body for the hike. Here are some ways to work out before a big hike by REI. Remember to stretch in the mornings before each hiking day. In the evenings, give your legs massages at night before going to bed to lessen muscle soreness the next day. And remember to stay hydrated to further avoid leg cramping.
Pack the Right Hiking Gear for Pico Duarte
Investing in proper hiking gear for this trip is critical. I cannot stress this enough. Here is the bare minimum gear to pack for Pico Duarte:
- Hiking boots – The best investment I made was getting the right hiking boots for my particular feet.
- Wool socks – Perfect for absorbing moisture, letting your feet breath, but keeping you warm. This is also great for your feet to avoid getting blisters.
- Light backpack for you to have on the trail to carry your water, snacks, and phone (in addition to the backpack that goes on the mule which you will only access again at the camping site because the mules often take different routes)
- Hiking sticks/poles (CRITICAL!)
- Tent (unless your tour organizer provides it)
- Tarp (for rainy nights or you will wake up cold and wet)
- Sleeping bag
- Gloves (it gets cold)
- Hiking jacket
- Warm blanket or sleeping bag liner (it can get COLD)
- Support from the ground such as a mat (to provide coverage from the cold floor)
- Thermo for hot tea/coffee and water refilling
- Water cleaning tablets if you want. We drank from the springs and no one got sick.
Pack the Right Food to Bring for Pico Duarte
If you go with a tour group, your tour organizers should provide all the food you need for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Talk to them beforehand to make sure you guys are on the same page about every meal and what they’ll provide. But in addition to this, bring your own snacks such as nuts, dried fruits, and energy bars. Make sure you’ll get enough complex carbs, protein, and overall nutrition.
Pack Emergency Medication and Supplements
In addition to things you personally require, just in case, pack the following medication: altitude sickness medicine, common cold medicine, antihistamines, asthma pump, muscle relaxers, blood thinners, painkillers, melatonin for sleep, anti-diarrhea medicine, antibiotics, and vitamins. Here are some more ideas.
Pay for the right Pico Duarte tour guides and enough mules.
Read the following section below for full details.
Pico Duarte Tours & Guides
There are several tour organizers ready to help you hike Pico Duarte, however, they are mostly contracted by third-party organizers who take a big cut from what you’re paying.
Be Careful Who You Choose
We went up Pico Duarte with a lady who goes by Suriel, who charged us a tiny price and offered us the world. And well… she didn’t deliver. We basically got what we paid for. She lied to us constantly, didn’t know the route so she couldn’t give us much trail information to prepare for, and she skipped our breakfast, lunch and on the second day tried to skip dinner! This a big no-no, especially for a such a physically demanding experience. We ended up having to scold and reprimand her during the trip. Turned out that she didn’t bring enough food and she was severely underpaying the local camp guides! Not OK. Make sure you communicate all your expectations with your tour guide.
Custom Tailored + Local
Due to the high demand from travelers requesting my assistance from this article, I’ve begun working in collaboration with the local park-permitted guides to provide a Pico Duarte hiking tour package starting at $300.00/per person including:
- Park-mandated camp guide
- All of your meals (including hearty Dominican meals such as sancocho, asopao, and mangu)
- English/Spanish translations
- A detailed itinerary of the trip so you have clarity
- A detailed packing list
- Cargo/emergency mule(s)
- Equipment rentals such as tents and sleeping bags
- FREE camping accomodation at the park base the night before
You just show up and the guides will take care of the rest. Through this method, the local guides are paid fair wages.
Avoid the “Gringo” Packages
The $500/per person tour packages on the internet basically hire these same local guides to do all the work but pay them a sliver (less than $20 a day). And there is no such thing as a “VIP” experience up the mountain. That’s also a tourist-aimed marketing scheme. I met the “VIP” travelers, they hiked, ate, and slept the same way everyone else did.
Pay For the Get Extra Mules
Your tour guide must provide you with mules in your tour package. MULES are a MUST. They saved our behinds in ways I can’t express. Have enough mules to carry your things and extra mules to ride, in case you are hit with exhaustion which is almost inevitable during this very LONG hike.
Communicate Your Needs Ahead of Time!
Make sure you communicate the exact itinerary and your sleeping/meal expectations. Like everywhere else, different countries have a different culture of communication and expectations. So when it comes to business, do not assume that they will predict what you consider your “basic” needs. For food, you must communicate exactly what type of food you expect and when ahead of time. This is pivotal!
The Trail Experience: What to Expect When Hiking Pico Duarte for 3 days
The following information that I am providing is GOLD. I couldn’t find this timeline anywhere and the uncertainty of time sense/distance length was frustrating for us at times. So save/write the following information down for when you’re hiking Pico Duarte! A lot of the information online and in person about the distance is contradicting, so I’m going by what the signs I saw on the actual trail in 2018 said.
HIKING DAY 1
We spend the night in Santiago and at the crack of dawn drove to Manabao. It was so dark and foggy as we drove through a cliff that at times many of us screamed during the drive. We arrived at the hiking base sleep-deprived and already exhausted. I strongly suggest hikers spend the night in Jarabacoa (or in the camp base) to get a full night’s sleep. Jarabacoa is also a cute mountain town with lots to do!
Upon arriving at Manabao, travelers will meet their guides, fill their water bottles from the natural spring all around the base, use the bathrooms, and pack their belongings onto the mules which are sent ahead. From here we began our 3-day round-trip journey to Pico Duarte, passing the following marked “stops” along the way:
Manabao/Cienaga base offices to Los Tablones is 4.2km.
The hike begins smoothly with beautiful river streams along the way. The hardest part is a little bit of mud here and there. We almost thought “this is a piece of cake!” that’s until we hit…
Alto la Cottora
Los Tablones to Alto de la Cotorra is 3.8 km.
Here is where the stair master fun begins. But only briefly. The trail is mostly flat even though we were slowly hiking upwards in altitude. The real challenge of this hike was how long it took to get to each breakpoint. On this first day, we hiked for 10 hours. Imagine walking up a mountain for 10 hours with little break time? And now imagine every break you take is extra time you’re adding how long it will take you to finish.
The first day is the longest and the hardest. But it’s literally almost all downhill from there. Make sure you get proper sleep and a good breakfast for this day. For less experienced hikers, you might want to split this hike into 4 days so that you can divide the first day in half.
Alto la Cotorra to La Laguna is 1.7 km.This was the first real stopping point with a wooden but wall-less cabin where many gathered to take their medicine and eat lunch/snacks. Here hikers can refill their water bottles by the spring-water hose (pictured above). By this point, we’d hiked 9.6 kilometers. No one could tell us how much time or distance was left. They just knew that we were barely halfway there. This is the point where we knew we’d gotten ourselves into something that was starting to feel endless. So I caved and asked to take a break on a mule. By seeing me, the skinniest person hopping on a mule others decided it wasn’t a shameful admission and joined. I don’t know why people think skinny equals fit.
La Laguna to El Cruce is 0.6km.
El Cruce is where hikers interested in Valle de Tetero will veer off from. From this point on I would get on and off the mule to switch it up and take breaks or share it with others. And then the mule would get dangerously close to a cliff and we would all hilariously find the energy to start walking again.
El Cruce to Aguita Fria is 3 km.Here in Aguita Fria is where you can really start to see a whole different topography and ambiance. It’s a beautiful mountain valley with olive-green pastures, skinny pine trees, and a cold river stream that runs through the area giving it its name. The area is imbued with foggy clouds and tall patches of grass that make it all look almost eerie.
This flatter patch of land is also where helicopters can land in the case of emergencies.
Descanso Alto de la Vela (2,680 mts)
Aguita Fria to Descanso Alto de la Vela is 2.0 km.
On this cliff-side walk, the trail is littered with palm-sized rocks. It’s only a 2.7 kilometers hike but the uneven ground can slow you down, especially if you have weaker ankles. However, this path also offers some of the most scenic mountain views of the entire hike.
Aguita Fria to Comparticion is 4km.
This is the official camping site where all hikers come together from the same Manabao/Cienaga trail. Here you’ll find a large and shared cabin for sleeping and camping fire “stoves.” At the bottom beyond some bushes is a river where campers can bath. However, the water is freezing ice cold– which some argued would be good for muscle soreness. I think it definitely helped my muscles but at the cost of waking up the next day with a sore throat and runny nose. I would avoid the cold water and just use wet wipes or a wet rag with warmed water to “bath” yourself.
At night we all ate homemade asopao (Dominican stew), shared some wine, and were so exhausted we fell asleep pretty early.
HIKING DAY 2
Waking up to the second day of hiking.The next morning, we were woken up by the screeches of our tour guide rushing us like a wailing banshee. I limped out of my tent, my muscles extremely sore, to see the sunrise over the mountains. Even the muscles on my arms hurt from using the hiking poles. But after moving around I was able to continue going. I couldn’t believe how adaptable the human body can be! We had some oatmeal and did some stretching before starting the last leg of our hike up the rest of the mountain approximately 5 hours to Pico Duarte.
Valle de Lilis (2,950 mts)
Comparticion to Valle de Lilis is 3.8km.This is the first stop on the last leg up to Pico Duarte and the coldest. I saw some travelers from other 7+ day long trails popping out of the woods and converging with us here. The area from here on up is covered with pine trees and other plants normally found in North America or other chillier regions around the world. By a fireplace, I saw a girl shaking from what seemed like hypothermia. She was covered with aluminium/plastic foil with a doctor hugging her for warmth and had to be sent back down. Other folks much younger and older than us seemed fine and full of stamina. As it began to drizzle, we took out our umbrellas sat there munching on snacks, hydrating, and waiting for the others before finally reaching…
!! Pico Duarte !! (3,087 mts)
Valles de Lilis to Pico Duarte is 1.2-1.8 km.
Reaching the top of this mountain was emotional for us. The only experienced hiker was Carolina (far right). The rest of us rarely hike or go camping so for us to reach the top filled us with an almost out-of-this-world sense of accomplishment. The views from above (first featured image credit to trekearth) were completed covered in a cloud so we were not able to see the mountain views. The irony is that all my life I’ve wanted to physically walk into and above a cloud. So when I got to the top and had nothing to see but white clouds; I couldn’t help but smile!
Up here we saw some pretty unique plants that I’d never seen before like the one pictured below. If you love plant biology and studying nature, bring a local biologist or nature-specialist with you for a more informational guided hike!
We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the campsite in La Comparticion meeting other travelers and sharing stories. The following night was extremely cold. Some of us even woke up with head colds because on top of the cold climate, it was also wet and rainy. It is critical that you pack for the cold and possibly rainy weather.
HIKING DAY 3
We ended up leaving our inefficient tour guide and took one the guides and two mules down with us. This was my favorite day of the hike because it was peaceful at our own pace. Another thing you should ensure with your guides is that you communicate time milestones and pace otherwise you may either feel rushed or like you’re always waiting for others. We hiked/rode down from La Comparticion to Manabao this day and it was a piece of cake compared to the first day. The weather was also sunnier and warmer.
From Manabao our guide linked us with his friend who drove us back to Jarabacoa.
Final Thoughts on Pico Duarte
Reaching the top of Pico Duarte was a special and long-time goal of mine. As someone with an autoimmune disease where my body is constantly limiting itself, I wanted to be able to feel and prove to myself that I could do this, even if it required some personalized adjustments. I pushed my limits (carefully and without hurting myself) in gratifying ways while strengthening my endurance and finding out more about myself, my body, and one of my ancestral lands. I look back at the hike with pride and sense of accomplishment.
Would I do it again? Yes, but with the right tour guides!