Cerro del Aripo – 3,110ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: March 22, 2012
“There aren’t any rental cars left at all,” the woman at the Budget car rental counter said, looking around guiltily.
“But how can that be – I reserved one last week for this day?” I replied in disgust, producing a printout of the Budget car rental confirmation email I had received. That didn’t seem to faze her as she went back to talking on her cell phone. It was doubtful any taxi would take us up the rough La Laja road we needed to drive on to reach our goal – El Cerro del Aripo, the highest mountain in Trinidad and Tobago – and there certainly wouldn’t be any other cars on that lonely road to give us a ride. The clock was ticking too – we had given ourselves 24 hours on the ground to bag the summit, but that had already been reduced by three hours when fog delayed our connecting flight out of JFK. Any more delays could certainly jeopardize our chance of success, since we didn’t really know if there was a trail or not to the summit, and jungle bushwacking at night would take a very long time.
“Did she mean no rental cars anywhere, or just from Budget?” Matthew asked me. It wasn’t clear so we walked around a little and started talking to another lady.
“Yes, we have a Nissan hatchback for $400 a day,” she replied.
“Four hundred US dollars?!”
“No, Trinidad dollars. The conversion is six to one with US,” she replied.
Phew, that sounded more reasonable so I immediately accepted. After some standard paperwork she walked us out to the parking lot and showed us the car.
I had agreed to be the driver today and was already a little nervous. We had meticulously researched every mountain on this trip (six country highpoints in the carribean), with trip reports, driving directions, GPS tracks, and flight and car reservations, but had overlooked one small but important detail: Trinidad (and every other country we planned to visit as it turned out) follows a British driving system where cars drive on the left and the car steering wheel is on the right. I guess there was no way for me to actually prepare for this back in the US had I known in earlier, but it would still have been nice to know more than 20 minutes in advance.
Luckily I don’t drive very often, so you could say I started with a mostly clean slate and didn’t have any US-style driving habits ingrained too deeply in my mind.
We were each travelling ultralight – with only a carry-on backpack each – so we threw our gear in the back seat and I took the wheel. After a few confidence-building practice laps around the parking lot I felt brave enough to take on Trinidad’s roads, so at 10:45am we pulled out of the airport toward the town of Arima. The first step was to fill up the gas tank. Unlike in the US, in the Caribbean they give you a rental car with a basically empty fuel tank and you’re supposed to return it with the same amount of fuel that it started with. Also unlike the US, the gas stations in the Caribbean don’t post their fuel prices.
I found a nearby gas station and started filling up, with the goal of getting the tank half full so I could return it approximately empty. Half a tank is at least $20 US right? So 120TT dollars. I kept my eye on the pump gauge but after only 30TT it registered full! Gas was less than one USD per gallon here! I know Venezuela heavily subsidizes its gas prices, and since Trinidad is so close to Venezuela maybe they get subsidized too.
Our next step was the most critical one of the trip – getting to the correct trailhead/bushwacking start. There’s actually very little useful information online about routes up Cerro del Aripo, and I’m pretty sure after quite a few hours of research Matthew and I found absolutely everything. All of that had amounted to one sentence on mountain-forecast.com saying “start at the end of La Laja road,” and one reference in a Caribbean hiking guidebook saying the route started past the Aripo caves (which were on the other side of the mountain from La Laja road).
Through a friend of a friend I managed to contact a local hiking guide in Trinidad, but from our correspondence I could only guess he was trying to purposefully be unhelpful so that we would need to hire him as a guide. At one point I emailed him a planned route overlayed on a topo map of what I thought might be a way to the top, and asked if that was the route. His one-line response was “I would guess so”. That was less helpful than a simple yes or no!
Finally Matthew had a breakthrough and found this report from a local field biologist: http://ttfnc.org/photojournals/2011-1.pdf
It looked like we should drive along La Laja road until we saw a scenic waterfall, then walk east along a ridge to the summit, possibly bushwacking or following a trail. That information would have to be sufficient.
I started driving to Arima as Matthew navigated with our fancy new GPS. We had bought a new one specifically for this trip because there were no GPS topo maps available for the Caribbean, but with this new GPS we could load satellite images taken from online for navigation. Unfortunately those didn’t tell us which roads were one-way, and it took quite a while to navigate through Arima. Finally we found the Arima-Blanchisseuse road and headed north. Thick jungle started replacing houses and we started feeling like we were truly a long way from Boston.
“Turn here, this must be La Laja road,” Matthew pointed out. The road was completely unmarked and I don’t know how we’d have found it without a GPS or a guide. Up to this point the roads had been in decent shape, with only a few potholes here and there, but this road was really rough. There were branches and potholes all over the place, and I had to drive pretty carefully since our car only had about 6 inches of clearance. We kept climbing higher and higher, passing a couple shacks but mostly pure jungle. We soon crested a ridge and started descending down into the Guanapo Valley.
Now came the critical decision – from google maps (the only map source we had), La Laja road extended all the way down to the bottom of the valley. However, a small side road apparently cut north along the top of the ridge. Would we follow the mountain-forecast.com route description to drive to the end of La Laja road? Or go with the field ecologist and take the side road?
It seemed safest to trust the ecologist, so we soon turned left on a little dirt road. We caught glimpses through the trees across the Guanapo valley to what looked like had to be Cerro del Aripo. On this road we got our first glimpse of jungle wildlife too, when a big monitor lizard darted across the road.
We were both keeping our eyes peeled for any sort of waterfall, because this would be our only confirmation that we should start hiking. About a mile in we crossed a small bridge and indeed saw a waterfall, but it didn’t quite match the picture in the ecologist’s report. We debated back and forth whether this could be the same one. Maybe it’s changed over the years from a big flood or something?
The road kept going along the ridge, and we decided as long as it kept this elevation we should keep driving just in case. Soon I rounded a turn and the road got really steep. My wheels started spinning, so I backed up and tried again with no luck.
“Looks like we’re walking from here,” Matthew said.
I carefully backed the car up and pulled as far off the side as I could. It was 12:30pm and we had 5.5 hours of daylight left.
Outside the car it felt and looked surprisingly like a July day in Kentucky – temperature in the 80s, humid, with very similar vegetation. And there was mercifully no mosquito welcoming committee!
We started up the road with a few liters of water, rain jackets, and a little bit of food. Just past the steep hill, after no more than 5 minutes of walking we saw another waterfall, and this one matched the picture exactly! Finally, we had physical confirmation that all our driving had been in the right direction. The road split here and we took the uphill direction, now following a GPS track Matthew had guessed at from satellite imagery. We passed a few “No Trespassing” signs and “Please Don’t Pick the Fruit” signs as we walked past a few shacks and banana trees. Soon the road entered the woods and turned into 4WD territory, and then to a mere hiking path. It was pretty well-maintained with no blowdowns, so must actually be used occasionally.
We crested a ridge and the trail continued down the other side, but another faint herd-path looked like it continued east along the top of the ridge. This had to be the ecologist’s route, and it was consistent with what we’d plotted on the GPS so we took it.
This path certainly saw less traffic than the previous one, but was easy enough to follow because it always stayed on the top of the ridge. We hiked at a pretty fast pace, knowing we were still a mile or two line-of-sight from the summit and not sure if this path would fizzle out into a bushwack or not.
Around 2pm we hit a small clearing with a 1ft-by-1ft concrete block in the middle with the number “98” written on a small piece of metal. We searched around and the trail had indeed disappeared. Could this be the top?
“This looks like the summit picture from the ecologist’s report, but according to the GPS there’s another local maximum 0.5-mile south on the ridge that might be taller,” Matthew noted.
I looked at the GPS map and the point we were on and the one south were both enclosed in a 940m contour, but the one south had a larger area enclosed in the contour and thus had a good chance of being taller. However, obviously everyone who took the path we’d taken must have thought our current location was the summit, since the path ended here and there was an official marker here.
“I didn’t come all this way to climb the second-tallest mountain in Trinidad and Tobago,” I proclaimed. “Let’s go climb that other one just to be sure.”
Matthew reluctantly agreed, and we plunged into the jungle. If anyone reading this tries to repeat our route, definitely bring a machete. Every tree has a million little vines hanging tautly down from its branches to the ground, and each vine acts like a magnet toward your legs. The worst part about the vines is that you can’t just power your way forward and break them – they’re just too strong. With a machete we could have sliced our way through everything but as it was we had to carefully detangle ourselves each time we encountered the vines.
Another piece of equipment you should bring – Kevlar gloves. Most of the trees are covered in ferocious thorns, so every time we tripped on the vines and flailed our hands out to catch something, we’d get impaled by the dang thorn trees.
Somehow we managed to plow forward, making slow but steady progress. The previous summit had registered 942m on our GPS and at one point Matthew noted a reading of 944m.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re not on solid ground, though. There’s 2m of roots and branches below you.”
That was another difficulty – solid ground was often hard to find with all the roots and plants. We pushed farther south along the ridge, though, until it felt like we were starting to descend again. Matthew whipped out the GPS and checked again.
“948 meters! This is the real roof of Trinidad!” he exclaimed.
Were we the first ones to actually reach the top of Cerro del Aripo? At least we knew that ecologist didn’t quite make it, and probably most other people settle for the second tallest point also.
We snapped some victory shots, collected some victory rocks, and started the long bushwack back. You’d think it would be easier on the return journey, but it seemed like the vines and thorn trees had just gotten more ferocious. Finally after half an hour we staggered back into the clearing at the false summit. We snapped a few pictures here just in case, and then continued west along the trail.
Somehow we lost the trail two or three times on the way back, but managed to re-find it each time. We soon reached the well-maintained trail, and then popped back out at the fruit farms.
“Shh,” Matthew said, turning around. I heard the person too, probably a farmer picking fruit. We trod as quietly as we could, remembering the “No Trespassing” sign at the bottom. Luckily the farmer didn’t see us, and we soon made it back to the car. It was 5:30pm, and we had 11.5 hours left before our flight to enjoy in Trinidad. We decided to best way to enjoy those hours would be sleeping. Our previous flights had been Boston to JFK 8pm to 9pm, then JFK to Trinidad 4:30am to 9am, with almost no sleep in between. We had a pretty ambitious schedule planned for the next four days as well (at least one new country each day), and this might be our only chance for a full night’s sleep.
We wouldn’t dare stoop to the level of paying to sleep, though. I took the wheel and we started driving back down La Laja Road until we thought we were pretty close to the main road. Then we found a nice wide part to pull off on, with a little farmer’s path leading into the woods. I brought a tarp and Matthew brought a bug net and we rigged up a nice little shelter using sticks and paracord. We slept well from 7pm to 2:30am, then got back in the car and drove the 1.5 hours back to the airport.
As usually happens when we rent cars, we’d done something to the car that we hoped the rental agency wouldn’t notice. Usually we just scratch the underside from the car bottoming out (which the rental person never notices), but this time I’d accidentally ripped up the underside of the front bumper pretty badly when I was backing down the steep dirt road. It was actually ripped enough to be audibly dragging on the road when I drove. Before the rental person came to inspect it, though, we’d carefully tucked the ripped part under the car so that it would only be visible if you lay down on your back to look underneath the car.
Perhaps it was also a wise choice for us to return the car at 4am when the rental inspector was the most tired. He came over and seemed to inspect every inch of the car super carefully, but miraculously he didn’t notice the broken bumper. He handed us our receipt, and we thankfully walked back to the airport to start the next country of our journey – Grenada.
Please email us if you want the full GPS track of our route to Cerro del Aripo:
matthewg at alum.mit.edu
egilbert at alum.mit.edu