Cerro El Pital – 8,957ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: March 23, 2013
“Why have we not passed a single car in the last 20 minutes?” Matthew asked. “There were plenty of cars on the road before the sun set.”
“I remember reading it was dangerous to drive between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa at night, but I thought the rest of Honduras was safe,” I replied, starting to get a little worried. It was 10pm and we had just crossed the border from Guatemala into the southwestern corner of Honduras.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do now but keep driving,” Matthew said. “We have to get to Cerro El Pital tonight.”
Finally I saw a set of taillights ahead of me. It was a pickup truck moving very slowly, and we soon caught up. There was a lone man sitting in the truck bed dressed in camouflage and holding a large assault rifle. He looked nervous, glancing back and forth between us and the drivers. “POLICIA” was written in faded black letters on the rear door of the truck.
“We’re gonna stay right behind this truck as long as possible,” I said to Matthew. “Something’s not right around here when the only vehicle on the road besides us is a police truck with an armed guy in the back.”
“Yeah, even though he’s going slow, we’d better not pass,” Matthew replied.
We trailed the police truck for about 20 minutes, until we entered a deserted town near the El Salvador border and the truck turned off on a side road. We were then back on our own.
THE IMPOSSIBLE ITINERARY
We were in Central America for Spring Break with plans to climb six new country highpoints over the next week. It would be an aggressive and complicated schedule involving multiple flights, rental cars, taxis, mountain bikes, and sleepless nights to fit so much action into so little time, and planning had begun a full eight months earlier.
Our original plan was to complete this trip in the summer, and we hatched a plan to rent a car in some major city in Central America and simply drive between all the highpoints. Driving ourselves would be much faster than taking buses and taxis, and would allow us to compress six countries into just one week of vacation.
But some further research revealed it’s not quite as easy as driving a rental car between the US and Canada. In fact, we couldn’t find a single car rental website for any central American cities that allowed any cross-border travel! I dug a little deeper, and a lonely planet online forum suggested the Avis in Guatemala City might allow cross-border travel, and the Hertz in San Pedro Sula, Honduras might also.
Since the car rental websites prohibited cross-border travel, the only solution seemed to be to call the companies up on the phone. So I brushed up on my Spanish, fired up Skype, and started making some phone calls. The San Pedro Sula rental allowed travel only into Nicaragua, and the Gautemala City Avis allowed travel only into Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. We noted this information, but ultimately decided to postpone the trip.
Fast forward to the spring, and we started finalizing our plans to complete the trip during the last week of March. To complicate matters we learned that the Nicaragua Highpoint was covered in landmines and the only safe way up was to hire a local guide, Roberto Castellano [he’s literally the only person who knows the safe way up]. I found the guide’s email and phone number, and after a few communications settled on a date he was free and we could possibly make.
With this constraint, we figured out the only way we could hit all six countries (except Belize) in Central America would be this: Fly to Guatemala City and rent from Avis; drive through El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and back to Guatemala City; fly to Costa Rica and rent a car; fly to panama and hire a taxi; then fly back home. There was basically no margin for error, but the plan might just possibly work.
Our first flight left 6am on a Friday, and unfortunately I had an important robotics conference paper due that very day. I made my final revision to the paper at 3:30am Friday morning, clicked submit, then immediately jumped in a taxi for the airport.
We left the snows of Boston and that afternoon touched down in the heat of Guatemala City. The Avis rental agency at the airport confirmed that they did indeed allow cross-border travel, though it didn’t sound completely by the book or official. The only documentation they gave us permitting this travel was a printed piece of paper saying “Cross-border travel permitted to the following countries: _____.”
The agent merely wrote in pen “El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras” in the blank spot, and handed us the paper. We figured worst case we’d just bribe the border agents and get through anyways.
I got behind the wheel first, and was immediately thrust into the most chaotic driving I’ve ever experienced. It was like jumping into a cold river – there’s no slowly turning up the temperature, you just have to adjust to it quickly. Cars weaved in and out of each other with no regard for turn signals or traffic laws. Motorcycles zipped between the cars with inches to spare, and pedestrians darted across the road randomly.
Matthew booted up our GPS and directed me through town, and somehow I managed to avoid any collisions and safely made it onto the four-lane Carretera Jacobo Arbenz Guzman heading northeast out of town. The driving was briefly as easy as driving on an interstate highway in the US, but it didn’t last long. We soon turned off this main road near Zacapa, and headed south on a two-lane road.
It was night by now, and multiple factors combined to make this section especially difficult. The road was heavily-trafficked by large tractor-trailor trucks, which went extremely slowly up the winding hills. The road had enough blind turns that it was very difficult to safely pass the trucks, and the road had so many potholes that even if I started to pass, I might have to slam on the brakes and abort the pass due to a gapping hole in the road ahead.
We stopped at a grocery store just south of Zacapa and loaded up on food for the trip. We’d brought some snack foods from the US, but were hoping to supplement it with some authentic Guatemalan food. The store didn’t have much, but we did manage to buy some tortillas, queso (cheese), and jamon (ham).
Matthew took over driving around 9:30pm, and we soon reached the Honduras border. It wasn’t extremely obvious how we were supposed to proceed. There were no other cars around for us to follow, and no gates, just an overhang and an office. We drove up, and stopped next to a security guard. In hindsight we could have just kept driving, but we got out of the car and walked inside, and some official people stamped our passports and collected a small fee from us.
On the Honduras side the roads were eerily deserted, in sharp contrast to all of our driving earlier in the day in Guatemala. We eventually caught up to a lone police truck with a heavily-armed officer in the back, but when the truck turned off we were back on our own.
“Good thing we’re almost to the El Salvador border,” Matthew said. “I think it’s safe to drive at night over there.”
We soon cruised up to the border and, just like before, it was deserted. We parked and walked around, but couldn’t find a single person to stamp our passport or take our fees. I’m not sure why we kept looking. Maybe we were concerned that at the next border they would be looking for an entry stamp and we might get in trouble without it. Eventually a security guard ambled around the corner, and said we might find a border agent a few hundred feet back up the road.
I walked over, and sure enough, one lone agent was sitting in a small booth next to the road. He must have left to go to the bathroom when we passed by earlier. Matthew and I gave him our passports, and he wrote down the passport numbers in a tattered old notebook, then took a small fee and waived us by. We didn’t realize it at the time, but these two border crossings would turn out to be the only easy ones of the whole trip, requiring no bribes or helpers and taking only ten minutes instead of over an hour.
Safely in El Salvador we finally started seeing other cars on the road again. We drove into San Ignacio and then turned left following signs for Cerro El Pital. The mountain was [conveniently for us] right on the border with Honduras, and is actually a popular-enough hiking and camping destination to earn its own sign on the main road.
We drove up the steep windy road into the mountains until we reached a small village. From here the road turned to dirt, and was a bit tricky for our 2wd car. A few times I had to get out and remove some large rocks from the road, and once Matthew had to back up and try a section a second time at higher speed to avoid spinning out the tires. We managed to get to the end of the road around 11pm, and threw our sleeping bags and tent into our backpacks for the short hike to the summit.
The summit of Cerro El Pital is topped with a big radio tower and a 4wd access road, so the hiking was short and easy. After 15 minutes of walking we finally reached the roof of El Salvador. It wasn’t terribly scenic: a fence ringed a beat-up concrete building next to the radio tower, and barbed wire marked the Honduras border right next to the summit stones. There was also no view for us because it was nearly midnight. But none of that mattered to us. The summit of El Salvador counted just as much as the summit of the US for the country highpoints, and we’d just checked another one off the list.
We snapped some victory shots, then hiked a short ways down into the woods and pitched our tent for the night. The next morning we climbed back up to the peak to get some daylight pictures, then walked back down to our car. We cruised easily back down the road and started heading for our next objective – Mogoton, the landmined highpoint of Nicaragua.