Honduras – Cerro Las Minas

Cerro Las Minas – 9,416ft

Eric and Matthew Gilbertson

Date: March 25, 2013

The Taxi Strike

honduras1“Quick! Get in the car!” Matthew yelled. We both sprinted back to the car, followed by a handful of Hondurans. We jumped inside, slammed and locked the doors, and quickly turned on the engine. The van in front of us was already rolling forward, and a kid on the side of the road was urgently motioning us to follow.

I gunned the engine, then slammed on the brakes inches behind the van. Up ahead a pickup truck full of heavily-armed Honduran military men with big assault rifles was approaching a wall of taxi rickshaws blocking the road into the small town of San Juan, in rural western Honduras. The taxis reluctantly opened a small gap just large enough for the military vehicle to pass through, but they obviously had no intention of keeping that gap open once the truck passed.

The military truck rolled forward through the wall of taxis, but before the taxis could close the gap another pickup truck squeezed through, and then a car. Everyone started honking their horns and yelling as the excitement built that we might actually clear the line that had been blocking our path all morning.

I carefully tailed the van in front of me, quickly accelerating then slamming on the brakes to stay as close as possible. But I wasn’t fast enough.

“Stop! Truck!” Matthew yelled. A big cargo truck had quickly nosed in front of me from the side, and I was forced to relinquish my spot in line. I could tell from the expression on the driver’s face that he would have no qualms with pushing my little car off the road.

By now we were at the line of taxis, and I could see them angrily trying to cut in front of the passing cars and close the gap yet again. The truck ahead of me barreled through, but it was moving too fast and a 6-ft gap opened up in front of me.

On the left I saw a green taxi start accelerating toward the gap, confident he would cut me off. I immediately stepped on the accelerator, with no intention of stopping. If a collision happened, I thought, so be it. We couldn’t afford to be stuck in San Juan any longer. We had a mountain to climb today.

Ocotal to Siguatepeque

Our journey to Cerro Las Minas, the highest mountain in Honduras, started Sunday afternoon in the small town of Ocotal, Nicaragua. We had just come off a successful climb of the land-mined Mogoton, the highest mountain in Nicaragua, and started driving out of town around 1pm. The roads in Nicaragua were surprisingly smooth, contrary to our previous Central American driving experiences, and we soon made it to the Honduran border crossing at El Paraiso.

Border crossings in Central America are a mixture of chaos, corruption, bureaucracy, and inefficiency, and it’s amazing any cars ever make it through. Add to this that nobody at the border speaks English, and I only know some rusty undergrad Spanish, and you can imagine the crossings wouldn’t be trivial.

Our first indication of the impending crossing was a stationary line of tractor trailor trucks lined up two deep on the side of the road. These guys must have the toughest time crossing borders: some drivers had even strung up hammocks under their trucks and gone to sleep. Matthew cut around the trucks in the oncoming lane and soon reached the front of the line.

We stopped at a gate across the road, and a man walked toward the car and handed us a piece of paper through the window. As he turned to walk away a second man, who we’ll call “the helper,” ran up to the car. Every border crossing has at least one of these “helpers,” basically some guy who waits until he sees a gringo drive up and try to cross. The helper will fill out forms for you, cut through lines to get your forms in first, direct you what to do next, tell you which cops need a little bribing to speed up the procedure, and try to rip you off for money at every turn in the process. They also make the crossing take less than an hour instead of three hours, so in the end are probably worth a little bit of money.

Everything following transpired in Spanish, but for clarity I’ll assume it’s in English.

“Park here, park here,” the helper said, motioning us where to go. We pulled off on the opposite side of the gate and got out. Two other Honduran guys noticed the gringos and swooped in as well.

“Give me your passports, I’ll bring them to the police office to fill out the paperwork,” the helper said, pointing to the paper we’d been handed.

honduras3“Ok, but I’m coming with you. I need to see those passports the whole time,” I responded. “How much is the Nicaraguan exit fee?”

“Twelve dollars per person. Don’t worry, I’m an official worker,” another man said, holding up a little ID badge. I didn’t trust him, though. He could have easily forged that badge.

“Give me your drivers license and car registration and I’ll fill out the car documents,” another man said. “You drive up to the next line.”

“No,” Matthew responded. “I need the license to drive the car. I’ll drive there and fill it out myself.” (I translated this into Spanish for the Nicaraguan guys).

Matthew drove ahead to the next spot the people had pointed out, and I followed the man with the passports.

“No problem, we’ll take care of it,” he kept saying.

“No,” I replied. “I need to always see the passports.”
I waited around at the police station while the helpers filled out the Nicaraguan exit paperwork, and Matthew drove up to some sort of car registration office. It was all very mysterious what needed to happen, but for some reason the helper guys needed to make copies of all the documents in the car and submit them to some office for a small fee. Then we needed to fill out customs declaration forms to enter Honduras (which the helper guys rapidly filled out – apparently they assumed we had nothing to declare). The helpers cut around everyone in the customs line and walked directly into the office to hand the forms to the workers.

For some reason nobody in line seemed upset. They must have been thinking ‘oh, more gringos. They always get the special treatment, for a price.’

“Wait a minute,” I said to Matthew, “that helper guy on the Nicaragua side never gave me my change for the exit fee. He’s probably disappeared by now counting his earnings.”

“Don’t worry,” Matthew replied, “I just exchanged twenty dollars for Honduran Limpiras with that change lady over there, and turns out she gave me the limpiras but forgot to take my dollars. Ha, look at that big smile on her face counting all her money! They ripped us off, and we get to rip them off.”

Our customs forms got cleared and then we had to submit some sort of car paperwork in another random office. We had been waiting around for a while and by now the change lady was starting to get suspicious. She walked over to Matthew with an angry scowl on her face.

“Where’s my money?” she asked, furious. “I changed you 400 Limpira for 20 US dollars, but I don’t have any 20 dollar bills in my stack.”

“I don’t know, I only have Limpiras,” Matthew replied, showing her the money. Matthew was determined to get some payback for us getting ripped off at the border.

“I’m going to call the police!” she yelled angrily. She kept repeating the word police, and eventually Matthew got scared and just handed her the Limpiras back. We definitely didn’t want to get the police involved, because then we’d probably either get in trouble, or have to pay a big bribe, or at the very least get delayed even more.

Finally the last of the paperwork was finished and handed back to us.

“Finished!” the helpers said. “Now what about a tip?”

“Ok here’s 200 Limpira,” I said, handing him the equivalent of 10 USD. I figured it was totally worth that amount to have these guys guide us through the process.

“And for me?” the official guy asked.

“No, I already paid your friend. You guys can split that,” I replied. An official worker shouldn’t need paid a tip anyways. He walked away dejectedly back to the Nicaraguan side.

With that we jumped in the car, and cruised down the road into Honduras.

The Honduras roads were in noticeably worse shape than those in Nicaragua. Yardstick-deep potholes hid behind every turn, and every once in a while we’d encounter the infamous “fallas.” In the US a “falla” would be called “a section of road that has fallen off a cliff on the side reducing the road to one lane.” However, in Honduras this is so common that a yellow sign with “falla” is merely placed before the section of road. Sometimes, there is no sign warning of the upcoming falla, and instead a big rock is placed in the lane just before the dropoff. Thus, it is important to drive slowly and stay super alert.

I took over the wheel soon after the border, and carefully drove north to Danli, then west to Tegucigalpa. We were concerned that driving through Tegucigalpa would be total choas, but amazingly we found a bypass around the town, and weren’t slowed down at all. Even more surprising, on the west side of the city the road changed into a four-lane divided highway! The road was brand new, smooth, and of the same quality as a standard American interstate. We had never dreamed such a road existed in Honduras, and later learned that it was in fact funded by the US and was intended to connect Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula on the north coast.

We cruised out of the city at 60mph, faster than we’d gone the whole trip. We passed through Tamara, Zambrano, and Comoayagua before it started getting dark. Now, if we had been in the US we would have continued driving through the night to the trailhead in Gracias, but in Honduras it’s not exactly a wise idea to drive at night. That’s when the bad guys come out. We’d heard that people dressed as police officers would setup “checkpoints” at random locations along the road at night. Cars would stop because the checkpoints look official, but the fake officers might rob the drivers, or worse.

We started getting a little nervous outside of Comayagua around 6:30pm when, mysteriously, there were no cars on the road. Then around a corner climbing a hill we caught up to two tractor trailer trucks crawling up really slowly. Between them was a small car also going up very slowly. Why didn’t the car just pass? There was a passing lane on the hill. Could the car be staying in between for protection?

At that point we decided it was an excellent idea to quit driving for the day. We soon reached the town of Siguatepeque and found a cheap hotel to spend the night in.

Siguatepeque to San Juan

We waited til first light at 6:30am, when the bad guys would theoretically be off the roads, and then cruised out of Siguatepeque heading west towards Gracias. By now the roads were back to standard Honduran pothole quality, and we had to take our time winding up and down the mountains. We soon reached the small town of La Esperanza around 8am, and then the road truly deteriorated. When we had researched the driving directions the previous week, google maps for some reason would not route us on the direct road between La Esperanza and Gracias, even though there appeared to be a road on the map. Now we figured out why.

The road turned to rough gravel and dirt, with large rocks sticking out that we occasionally scraped with the bottom of the car. In some stretches the road changed to steep dusty moguls, and I had to strike a delicate balance of speed: if I went to slow, I wouldn’t have enough momentum to make it up the hills before spinning the tires, but if I went to fast I might not be able to avoid the bumps and ruts in the road and may bottom out. We continued on this road for half an hour, before cresting a hill and seeing a pristine paved road in front of us.

“If we have to carry the car to that pavement I’ll do it,” Matthew said. “We aren’t driving back over what we’ve already managed to drive through.”

This pavement signified, hopefully, that the road would be smooth the rest of the way to Gracias. It was looking like we might actually get a chance to climb to the roof of Honduras today after all.

San Juan to Gracias

Our hopes were dashed, though, when we arrived at a line of cars stopped in the middle of the road just outside the small town of San Juan. The driver of a van in front of us walked back to our car and started explaining the situation, but all I could understand was that the road would be closed for a long time.

“Habla Ingles?” he asked eventually.

“Si, si!” I responded.

He went back to his van and his son – a college-aged kid named Junior – hopped out and walked over.

“There’s a taxi strike in this little town, and the taxis have blocked off the road and won’t let anyone pass until they get their demands,” he said in perfect English.

“Any idea how long that will be?” I asked. “Any chance we could just pay them a little money and they let us through?” That had worked for the police officers yesterday, I was thinking, so maybe it’d work here too.

Junior went up to talk to the taxi drivers, and came back with bad news. “They said they’ll only move for a million dollars! And they’re not even considering moving for at least the next six hours.”

This was indeed bad news. Matthew and my schedule was tight enough that we *had* to climb Cerro Las Minas today in order to have time for our next mountain and to make our flight out of Guatemala in time. We started thinking about how to get around the blockade. The nearest detour road would involve driving all the way back to Sigautapeque and around to the north – probably adding 10 hours of driving. That wouldn’t help. Surely there was some random dirt road around?

We started talking to other people waiting around, and one guy said there were indeed some back roads around the town, but that they were much worse than the road from La Esparanza. Our car had just barely made it through that road, so anything worse was not an option. A bus behind us started emptying and all the passengers walked through the blockade. On the other side another bus emptied and the passengers walked toward and boarded the bus on our side. That was clever – the buses didn’t need to cross, only the passengers. Each bus then turned around and went in opposite directions.

Unfortunately it wouldn’t help us at all to walk through the blockade. Our rental car eventually needed to get back to Guatemala. Then we saw a funny event unfold. The farmer in the house next to the blockade quietly walked over, opened a gate next to the road, and motioned for a nearby truck to approach. The pickup truck drove through the gate, across the farmer’s field, exited on a gate on the other side, and connected with a road into town. He’d made it past the blockade! Soon another truck followed. But the taxi drivers caught on and immediately ran over to the gate and stood in front, arms folded across their chests.

Now it seemed our only option was to wait out the strike. We couldn’t drive around, couldn’t pay them off, and couldn’t walk through. It looked like, at best, we would be hiking Cerro Las Minas completely in the dark tonight, and at worst have to skip it all together.

After an hour of waiting around the tides turned in our favor and a government SUV and pickup truck full of Honduran Military men drove up to the blockade. I squeezed in behind the pickup truck and narrowly passed through the blockade to the other side. A white truck behind me managed to squeeze through as well, before the taxis pushed back across the road again. In total four vehicles had managed to run the blockade, and luckily ours was one of them. Probably twenty or thirty more vehicles were still stuck on the other side, and the same number were waiting in frustration on the new side now.

“Whooooo!” everyone yelled victoriously as we pulled off to the side of the road, safely past the blockade. Everyone in the van in front of us jumped out and we exchanged high fives and handshakes. We then quickly jumped back in our vehicles and sped out of town, not wanting to risk the taxi drivers or police finding some way to delay us even further.

The road was potholed as usual, but we didn’t mind driving slowly, since we were moving infinitely faster than everyone else still waiting behind the taxi blockade. Just when we were within sight of the town of Gracias, where our trailhead would start, we encountered yet another delay. A policeman standing in the road waved us down and approached the car.

“Documentos, passaportes,” he said sternly.

I handed him the passports and all the documents in the car. We actually had quite a few random official documents from the border crossings and the rental agency, and surely one of those would be the one he was looking for. He carefully scrutinized everything, but didn’t see the document he was looking for.

He asked again for some specific document with a certain stamp on it, but I told him those were the only ones we had. He walked over to a more senior officer, and they both came over to talk to us. The senior officer tried to explain what document he needed, and I again explained that I had already handed over everything we had.

“Great,” Matthew said to me as the police officers were consulting each other outside. “They probably just want a bribe and have made up some fictitious document we’re supposed to have that doesn’t actually exist.”

“We’ll I’m willing to part with twenty bucks at this point if it gets us to the mountain,” I responded.

These police officers were surprisingly honest, though. The senior officer walked back to the car, explained that next time at the border we need to be sure to get the xyz documento with the qxy stamp on it, and that this time he’d be nice and let us through.

With great relief I took back all the documents and passports and drove out of the checkpoint. I had been certain he would want a bribe.

Finally, at 11am we reached the town of Gracias and turned off on a small unmarked side road to Celaque National Park. Matthew had acquired the GPS waypoints of the road to the trailhead, and expertly navigated us up the back roads. As usual Honduras surprised us with how rough they can let roads get. This road had obviously not been maintained in decades, and was extremely rocky and rutted out. I narrowly managed to drive the car without scraping the under carriage. Eventually, at 11:30am we reached a point where it looked like the car could make it not farther.

We happened to be near some houses, and the owner said we could park in his driveway overnight for 100 Limpira. We gladly agreed to pay for the peace of mind that our car would be safe, and by noon we were hiking up the road by foot with overnight gear in our packs.

honduras4The road actually improved shortly beyond the house, after it crossed the national park border, but we stuck with our decision to park the car farther back and continued walking. This decision would turn out to be critical later in the day.

After half an hour we reached the end of the road and the beginning of the trail. There was an impressive stone building at the trailhead and a ranger there to collect fees and give us a trail map. The latest information we had read about the park, from 2009, had made it sound like there was no infrastructure, the trails were unmaintained, and there were no rangers. It was completely different now, with official buildings at the start, all kinds of signs and well-maintained trails, and a hiker log-book that showed people visiting every day from all over the world.

We paid the ranger 100 limpira each for the park entrance fee (about $5), and signed in the log book. Interestingly, we found a sign-in from a Norwegian climber Petter Kragset from back in late January. Back in the fall we had given Petter some information about accessing the highpoint of the country of Antigua and Barbuda (Mt Obama), and learned that he was planning to climb all the Caribbean and Central America country highpoints over the winter. We were also trying to climb all these highpoints, in fact all 23 country highpoints of North America, and it had sounded like Petter might beat us to it. This sign-in was evidence that he had at least visited Central America, and we indeed had some catching up to do.

Finally, at 1pm we reached the stage of the journey that matched us against the mountain. No potholed roads, no corrupt border crossing police, no taxi blockades, no checkpoints, no badguys at night, just us and the trail up to the summit. It seemed so easy at this point. We just had to stroll up 7,000ft, tag the summit, and stroll back.

honduras6We started hiking up the trail, winding over rivers and up switchbacks through the jungle. There were shiny new trail signs every kilometer telling us our elevation, a map, and description of what there was to see in the jungle. We were astounded by how much the park had apparently improved in the four years since our last information about it. We passed by a group of Hondurans and a German walking, down, and then two Americans hiking down.

After several hours we reached Campamento Don Tomas, the campsite we had told the ranger we planned to spend the night. We took a quick snack break and stashed our overnight gear in the woods. It didn’t need to come all the way to the summit with us.

honduras5We then continued hiking up the trail. As we climbed the foliage changed from jungle to more open forest, and the temperature seemed to get a little cooler. The trail steepened noticeably, and it appeared that this was an older trail, and lower on the mountain the trail had recently been rerouted to be less steep.

We took a short break at the next campsite, El Naranjo, and then made it to the summit by 5pm. In all my research I hadn’t quite bothered to remember how high the mountain actually was. I thought it was around 7,000ft or so, but it was actually well over 9,000ft! There was a small clearing in the trees to the west, and we got views of impressive thunder clouds rolling in. This would have been an awesome place to camp, and indeed we saw a fire ring at the top and a flat place where people probably slept. We had now successfully climbed the highpoints of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, and still had Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama on the agenda for the rest of the week.

honduras2After about half an hour we started back down, reaching our gear at Campamento Don Tomas by around 6:30pm. The campsite was crowded now with five tents and people milling about the fire. We considered our options. We really needed to be to the Tajumulco trailhead in Gautemala by tomorrow at sunset to avoid driving at night. We’d heard that driving at night in Guatemala was even more dangerous than in Honduras. The driving time according to Google Maps was 8 hours, but based on previous experience we figured doubling Google’s estimate is more appropriate in Central America. Thus, we had to get in 16 hours of driving tomorrow before sunset. If we camped here, we’d have to get up at 2am to hike down to the car in time. Or, we could just hike down tonight and sleep somewhere in town and sleep later in the morning.

We weren’t really tired enough to sleep yet at 6:30pm, so we packed up our bags and continued hiking down. By 7:30pm we were back at the trailhead and reached the car by 8pm. By this time the gate to the park was closed and locked, and had we driven our car the whole way to the trailhead we would have been stuck until morning. It was thus very lucky that we had decided to park just outside the gate.

The people in the house where our car was parked were astounded that we had already summitted Cerro Las Minas. Most hikers apparently take two days, or at least one very long day. We had somehow managed to do it in 7 hours.

I got behind the wheel and we drove back down the super-rough road into Gracias. After asking around for hotels and balking at the price of one fancy hotel we finally found a reasonable place for $30 a night. Usually we like to stealth camp, but this time we calculated we could get more total sleep by staying in town, and thought $15 per person was worth the extra sleep.

By 9:30pm we were fast asleep in Gracias, resting up for our next mountain – Volcan Tajumulco, the roof of Guatemala.

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