Mogoton – 6,913ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: March 24, 2013
“See this marker here?” Roberto asked, pointing to a stick poked in the ground with a yellow “Campo Minado” ribbon tied to the top. “This is where a landmine was removed from the ground.”
We were hiking through the jungle on the Honduras-Nicaragua border on the slopes of Cerro Mogoton, the tallest mountain in Nicaragua.
“Are there still landmines in the jungle?” I asked.
“We cleared most of them on the Nicaragua side, but we aren’t certain we got them all.” Roberto replied. “That’s why you need to walk exactly where I walk.”
Cerro El Pital to Honduras
Matthew and I were in Central America for the week trying to climb the country highpoints of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. By Saturday morning we had successfully climbed Cerro El Pital in El Salvador, and started driving southeast towards Nicaragua.
Cerro Mogoton in Nicaragua would definitely be considered the crux of the mountains on our agenda. It’s not particularly tall, or remote, or physically difficult to climb, or even difficult to approach. The problem is that Cerro Mogoton is land-mined.
Back in the 1980’s, the Honduras-Nicaragua border was land-mined by the Sandinistas, and the mines were never removed after the conflict. Now nobody knows exactly where the landmines are, and the jungle border is likely still very dangerous. Unfortunately Mogoton, the tallest mountain in Nicaragua, is directly on the border, and thus directly in the danger zone.
Matthew and I are ok with bushwacking through the jungle, hiking long distances, ice climbing, rock climbing, crossing glaciers, night hiking, or trespassing to climb a mountain that needs to be climbed, but crossing land-mined ground is beyond our danger threshold. It sounds a little like crossing a glacier in which you don’t know where a crevasse is that you could fall into, except on a glacier you have a rope to prevent you from falling into the crevasse. On Mogoton a rope wouldn’t provide any protection from land-mines.
However, through Jonathan Wunrow’s “High Points – A Climber’s Guide to Central America” book, we found that there is a local coffee plantation owner – Roberto Castellano – who lives in the nearby town of Ocotal and has actually helped clear landmines from the jungles around Mogoton and knows a safe way to the summit. He had guided people to the summit before, and agreed to guide us up as well.
We started driving Saturday morning at 8am from near the summit of Cerro El Pital in El Salvador. Our Google driving directions predicted a six-hour drive to Ocotal, Nicaragua, so we figured we would get there by mid afternoon, with plenty of time to meet up with Roberto and make arrangements for the climb the next day. At this stage in the trip we hadn’t yet discovered that the more accurate driving time estimate is to double the Google maps estimate.
We descended steeply from El Pital and took Calle 4N towards San Salvador. The road was amazingly smooth and straight, and there were no tractor-trailer trucks to pass. We soon reached the outskirts of San Salvador, and merged with the Pan American Highway, which luckily bypassed the city. Here the highway was four-lane divided, just like the interstates in the US. It was amazing to be able to pass any slow car or truck, without worrying about oncoming traffic. We had learned in Guatemala that not all roads offer such easy opportunities to pass.
From San Salvador we continued southeast past San Vincente and San Miguel, before reaching the Honduras border at Goascoran. Somehow we had managed to squeak through the previous two border crossings on Friday with minimal hassle, but now it was time for us to experience the chaos and corruption of an authentic Central American border crossing.
Matthew slowed down at the border crossing as a uniformed police officer approached the car and handed us a piece of paper. The officer then immediately walked away without saying word, but right behind him a “helper” approached the car. These “helpers” are locals that, for a fee, will help gringos figure out which paperwork they need to fill out, cut in line to hand in the paperwork directly to the officers, and tell the gringos which police officers need a little bribing to make the process smoother.
“Follow me, follow me. Park here, park here,” the helper guy said, motioning for us to follow. We parked the car and got out to figure out what to do next.
“Take this form to the police officer on the other side of the building,” the helper said. “You need your car documents.”
“Ok, we’ll follow you,” I replied. Luckily he spoke good English. We took all our valuables out of the car, locked the doors, and proceeded to the police station. Here we waited in line for a few minutes, handed the officer our documents, and he gave us a piece of paper with an official stamp. Next, we went to the other side of the building to a customs window, but were daunted to see a line of 30 people waiting in front.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” the helper told us. “My friend save a place in line for you.”
Another man at the front of the line waved to us with a smile, and told us to take his place. Somehow we were able to cut right to the front and nobody cared. We handed the passports to the customs agent who gave us stamps and some other document.
We paid the helpers $10 and said goodbye to El Salvador. We drove away and began the next stage of the crossing – entering Honduras. This time a police officer stopped us and asked to see our car documents. The helper jogged over next to the car and stood by intently. The officer kept studying the documents carefully for five minutes, and then said something to the helper I didn’t hear.
“The officer says you don’t have the right documents and he can’t let you through,” the helper told us. “But, I think if you slip him $40 he’ll let you pass.”
“This is ridiculous,” Matthew said. “We have so many documents one of them has to be the one he’s looking for.”
“I think the point is he wants money no matter if we have the right documents or not,” I replied. “We can either argue with him and spend the rest of the day here, or pay him the money and move on.”
We were about to fork over the $40 to the police officer, but the helper rushed back over to the car and motioned for me to put the cash away. “Wait, wait, it’s OK,” he whispered urgently, “you’ll pay him later.”
We were a little confused about what to do next, but the police officer mysteriously waved us through. Now we could officially start the process of entering Honduras. The helper got a friend to cut to the front of the immigration line with our passports and get the official stamps, then we went to some other building to make copies of all our documents and submit them to some other random building. “You’ve got to be put into the system,” he said. At the end of the procedure we gave the helpers $20 to split, and after an hour were finally through the border and driving in Honduras. If we’d had to figure everything out on our own, I’m sure we would have been there an extra two or three hours.
Goascoran to Ocotal (Nicaragua)
The roads in Honduras were noticeably worse than El Salvador, with deep potholes every few hundred feet. Luckily the roads were generally flat and straight, so passing large slow-moving trucks was not a big problem.
We drove along the Pan American Highway through San Lorenzo and Choluteca, and reached the Nicaragua border and El Espino just at dusk. As usual, a policeman came and handed us a form, but this time there was no helper behind him. Perhaps the helpers had all left at dusk.
We were actually the only ones at the border, so we drove to the customs booth, filled out the form, and handed it to the officer. We then paid him $3 each, got the stamps on our passports, and walked back to the car.
“Can it really be this easy?” Matthew asked as we walked away.
“There’s got to be more to the crossing than this,” I replied. “That was almost as smooth as a US-Canada crossing.”
We continued driving down the road, and then a man with a gas mask on waved our car to stop. It turned out he needed to spray our tires with some chemicals before it was allowed to enter Nicaragua, and we needed to pay him a fee to do it. We handed over $5 for the car, got it sprayed, and kept driving. Next we passed a building that said “Tourismo” on the front, but the lights were off and nobody was around. We kept driving, thinking we had made it through the border, but were stopped at one final checkpoint.
A woman walked over to the car and asked for some type of document. Matthew handed her everything we had, but she couldn’t find the one she was looking for.
“You need to go back to the Nicaragua customs booth and get this document,” she said sternly to us (in Spanish). In hindsight, if we had slipped her some money to let us through, we would have saved an extra hour of hassle, bribery, and beauracracy. But alas, we weren’t bold enough to offer her money and turned around to go get the document. This time a helper appeared and started guiding us through the process. He woke up the people in the customs booth, and we got our passports stamped, paid some fees, got our vehicle documents copied, handed them in to some other person who gave us some other documents and charged us some other fees. We thought we were done as we triumphantly walked back to the car, but a police officer had noticed us two gringos and decided to come get and piece of the action.
Even though our car had already been inspected by another officer, this policeman insisted on inspecting it again. He had a fiber-optic camera that he inserted under the hood, in the fuel tank and under the seats. He seemed to be inspecting extremely thoroughly, but he never once opened up our backpacks. It looked like he was just putting on a show. If we’d really wanted to smuggle something, we could have left it in a plastic bag on the passenger seat and he wouldn’t even have noticed it.
Apparently satisfied with his inspection, he asked us for some final random document. I handed over the fistful of papers we’d accumulated. He picked out one in particular, and said it was missing an official Nicaragua stamp signifying that our rental car was allowed to drive in Nicaragua.
“Where do we get the stamp?” I asked. “We already have the document from the rental agency giving us permission to drive in Nicaragua. What more do we need?” (all conversations were in Spanish).
“I need to call up Interpol and the police station in Managua to verify that you are allowed in, but they just closed. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning,” he replied.
I translated for Matthew. “That’s bull*$&%,” Matthew replied. “We have every document we need. This stupid officer just saw two gringos passing through and wants a piece of the pie.” (I didn’t translate that to the officer.)
“I think the officer will let you through if you give him some money,” the helper whispered to me.
“Ok, how much does he need?” I whispered back in frustration.
“Twenty dollars should do it,” he replied.
I angrily got out my wallet and handed the officer a twenty dollar bill. He took the bill, quickly stuck it in his pocket, looked around, and then walked into a building with one of the car documents. Thirty seconds later, he returned with a little stamp on the document, and said we could go.
“Are we finished?” I asked the helper.
“Yes, finished!” he replied. “Now how about some money for me?”
“Ok here’s ten dollars,” I said, handing him the bill. “Gracias.”
We got back in the car, drove back to the checkpoint, and the woman accepted our new handful of documents and let us through. We were starting to accumulate so many random documents that we could have stapled them together into a novel. By now it was 7pm and we were way later than anticipated. I had told Roberto we’d be in Ocotal in the afternoon, and hoped he would still be awake by the time we got there.
We arrived in Ocotal by 8pm and I immediately called Roberto. We had stopped next to the Mirador Hotel, and he said he would come meet us. Meanwhile, I decided to step inside and see how expensive this hotel was, to determine if we should stealth camp or not tonight. It looked very nice, but we were concerned it might be too expensive.
“It’s $14 per night,” the clerk told me.
“OK, so for two of us that’s $28 then?” I asked. That was way cheaper than we expected.
“No, it’s $14 for the room total,” he replied.
I immediately accepted. That’s the same price we’d pay to stay at a USFS campground in the US, so it was totally worth that to sleep in a hotel in Nicaragua.
Shortly later, a truck pulled up to the Hotel and three guys walked in. One was our guide Roberto, and the other two, Joel and Fernando, were climbers from El Salvador also looking to climb Mogoton.
I apologized for being so late, and explained how we didn’t realize the travel time would be so long on the roads and the border crossings. Roberto was super nice and understanding, and said Joel and Fernando also coincidentally wanted to climb Mogoton this week so he combined our trips. The plan was to get picked up the next morning at 4:30am and try to get up and down the mountain before the afternoon heat.
Matthew and I had an excellent Chicken Fajita dinner for $3 at the restaurant next door, and then quickly went to sleep.
We were both up at 4:15am and waiting outside by 4:30am. We waited for a while and finally at 5am Roberto drove by in his truck.
“I’m sorry, the other guys are still sleeping,” he said. “They should be awake by the time we get back.”
We hopped in the back of the truck and drove across town to Roberto’s house, where Joel and Fernando had spent the night. Everyone was awake now and we loaded into the back of the truck. Surprisingly, Joel and Fernando were also trying to climb all the country highpoints of Central America, though not on quite the compressed schedule Matthew and I had to work with. In fact, Fernando was trying to climb each highpoint twice! He’d already done Mogoton, so this was his second time around.
Riding in the back of the truck was super fun and brought back memories of Kentucky, when we’d occasionally ride in the back of pickup trucks. Unfortunately it’s illegal in the US, as far as I know, but in Central America it’s a common form of transportation, and you’ll see up to ten people in the back of a truck sometimes.
Roberto drove us east of town on NIC 29, then turned north on a dirt road into the mountains. The sun was just rising as we drove past small farms, and then up into the forests. Occasionally we had to drive through creeks in the truck, and up extremely steep dirt roads that our 2wd low-clearance car would have had no chance on.
After an hour we pulled into a small coffee finca where two guys were processing coffee beans in a big pool of water. We all hopped out and Roberto went over to talk to the farmers. After a few words were exchanged we all put on our packs and started hiking behind Roberto. Initially we kept walking up a road through the coffee plantation.
“Over there in those bushes I discovered a landmine a few years ago,” Roberto noted, pointing to the bushes next to the road. It was a stark reminder of why we hired a guide like Roberto who knew the safe way up the mountain.
Eventually we left the coffee plantation and re-entered the forest. The road became extremely steep here, and Roberto said a truck had recently fallen off the side and they’d needed a winch to rescue it. Maybe that was why he wanted to walk this stretch of road and leave his truck safely at the base.
The road ended at the top of the steep hill, where a small wooden hut was perched. A woman walked out and happily greeted Roberto, and we all sat on benches outside for a break. It looked like this woman had a small farm of banana trees on the side of the slope, or maybe she just lived off the land by herself. Fernando and Roberto each had a machete, which they took out and sharpened on a stone outside the woman’s house.
We soon waved goodbye to the woman and started descending into the woods down to a small stream. It makes sense that the safest place to walk in landmine territory would be on the rocks of a streambed, and this is exactly where Roberto took us. Roberto was hiking in rubber boots, so he could walk right in the middle of the stream, while the rest of us rock-hopped on the edges, careful to not step on the ground.
We continued up the streambed for a mile or so, before stopping for another break on a big rock slab. Roberto passed around a bag full of some type of small fruit that tasted really good, and I passed around a bag of cookies.
“We’re making good time,” Roberto said. “We should be to the top in two or three hours. Now we leave the streambed.”
Up to this point I would have been ok following this route without a guide, but once we left the streambed I knew it was imperative that we follow someone who knew the safe route. Roberto went in front with his machete and we followed closely behind in single file. Roberto said he’d climbed this route 37 times over the past four years, and it showed since the route was worn down to almost look like a trail. Soon we came upon a yellow ribbon tied to a tree next to the route. Roberto unfurled the ribbon to display the words “Campo Minado – Peligro” (Land Mines – Danger).
We snapped pictures next to the ribbon, and smiled knowing that we would be safe despite the danger around us. We continued up deeper into the jungle, waiting every once in a while for everyone to catch up. It was important that we didn’t lose sight of each other.
Eventually we gained a ridge and saw a small concrete marker that said “Honduras/Nicaragua.” This was the official country border.
“You guys are in Honduras now, and didn’t even need to show your passports!” Roberto said.
We continued walking along the ridge behind Roberto, catching occasional glimpses through the trees to the valleys and farms below. By 9:30am we came upon a particularly large concrete marker, and we had reached the summit of Mogoton, the highest point in Nicaragua.
Matthew immediately climbed on top of the marker and started taking pictures. Fernando and Joel soon arrived and we all exchanged high-fives and fist pumps. Joel had brought a huge El Salvador flag that he takes to his summits, and we all got in a picture together.
It felt like lunch time, since we’d woken up so early, and Roberto distributed an amazing selection of homemade tortilla chips, frijoles, and queso. All I had was some granola, but I tried to pass that around too. A few mosquitoes started to bother us, but Roberto assured us we were lucky to be here now, during the dry season, and that the bugs are horrendous in the wet season. Matthew and I hadn’t realized it, but we hit Central America at the perfect time. The dry season lasts November to April, and May to October is much wetter, with many more bugs. Today was nice and sunny though, and the mosquitoes didn’t bother us much at all.
“Do you guys want to take a different way down?” Roberto asked, as we were finishing up eating.
“Certainly!” we all responded. It’s always funner hiking in a loop, as long as each way is clear of landmines.
Roberto led the way farther along the ridge along a faint path, then dropped down the side of the mountain. He pointed out several wooden structures that the military had used as a camp when they were clearing the area of landmines. Every once in a while we would see a stick jutting out of the ground with a yellow ribbon on it, and Roberto said these marked places where landmines were removed. They were all right next to the path we were walking on, and further highlighted the risk of traveling without a guide in this jungle.
We continued along ridges with occasional views out into the farms of Ocotal, and then reached the edge of a coffee plantation. Here we hiked along a barbed-wire fence, and soon met up with a dirt road leading back down into the valley. Several workers were picking coffee beans on the side of the hill and we stopped to talk to them briefly.
Roberto started jogging down the road with a big smile, perhaps because he was happy to be off the mountain and back on safe land. We jogged behind him, and soon arrived back at the truck. The coffee processing building was busy now, with two more trucks parked and more workers. We washed off with a hose near the building, and then hopped in the back of the truck. Roberto gave us another fun ride down the mountain, and we saw quite a few Nicaraguans up in the forest swimming in the streams to avoid the midday heat.
Unfortunately Matthew and I had forgotten to bring sunscreen, and we got roasted in the back of the truck. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’ll be okay when there’s a strong breeze blowing by cooling you off (like in the back of the truck), but the breeze does not, in fact, prevent sunburn at all, as we found out.
By 12:30pm we arrived back in Ocotal and dropped Joel and Fernando off at Roberto’s house, then drove back to the Hotel to drop me and Matthew off. Roberto brought out a guest book for us to sign, and we saw he’d had a few Norwegian guests he’d guided up Mogoton back in January. It turned out I recognized one of the names as a climber I’d emailed back and forth with in the fall about climbing one of the Caribbean country highpoints.
Roberto charged us each $60 for the climb, which seemed totally reasonable for his one-of-a-kind knowledge to get us safely up and down the mountain. We gladly paid him for the climb, with a generous tip, and waved goodbye. We were already starting to plan our next move: driving to Honduras to climb Cerro Las Minas (a mountain without landmines, despite the name).
[Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) if you’d like the GPS/GPX track of the route up Cerro Mogoton]