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Parque Nacional Montana de Celaque
by Chris Humphrey

December/Diciembre 2000

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One of the premier parks in Honduras, Celaque boasts the country's highest mountain at 2,849 meters, as well as a magnificent cloud forest on the high plateau. This is the real forest primeval--towering trees covered with vines, ferns, and moss forming a dense canopy completely blocking out the sun, very little undergrowth between the trees, and everything dripping wet even when it's not raining. Celaque means "box of water" in Lenca; eleven major rivers begin on Celaque's flanks, which gives an idea of how wet it is.

Cover The park covers 266 square kilometers, with 159 square km in the core zone above 1,800 meters. Although treacherously steep on its flanks, Celaque levels off in a plateau at about 2,500 meters, which is where the true cloud forest begins. Up on the plateau you can spend hours or days admiring the astounding flora and quietly keeping an eye out for quetzals, trogons, toucans, hawks, or any of the other 150 bird species identified in the park, as well as for the rarer mountain mammals such as jaguars, armadillos, or tapir. An ever-popular goal for foreign visitors, quetzal sightings are commonplace on Celaque, particularly on the hillside leading up to the highest peak.

An added bonus to this natural wonderland is the well-developed trail leading to the peak, which passes a visitors' center and two encampments on the way. This makes Celaque accessible for the casual backpacker, who is after a good hike but doesn't want to hire a guide or try to navigate by compass and topographical map.

The Visitors' Center

The Celaque visitors' center, staffed by the affable guard Miguel, is a rustic yet cozy set-up some nine kilometers from Gracias at the base of the mountain. Several bunks are available for US$1 a night, in addition to the US$2 park entrance fee. Miguel's mother, a wonderful elderly lady, will cook meals upon request, and she will also on occasion whip up a few empanadas or sweet tamales for hikers to take with them on the trail. Miguel will act as a guide for US$15 a day, though it's not necessary for hiking up the trail to the peak since it's well marked. The visitors' center, at the edge of the forest next to the Rio Arcagual, is a very peaceful spot to relax, and plenty of easy day hiking is possible nearby, along the river. Bring a sleeping bag and candles or a flashlight. The kitchen has some utensils and is available for visitors to use. To get to the visitors' center from Gracias, either arrange a ride at Guancascos or at Hotel Erick for US$10 to the last gate blocking vehicles from entering the park, from which point the visitors' center is another half-hour's walk. Or you can start walking from Gracias and hope a pickup truck comes by. It's about a two-and-a-half-hour walk from Gracias to the center by the road, or a bit less by a trail leaving the road just outside Gracias, which follows along a stone wall and rejoins the dirt road to the visitors' center at Villa Verde.

On the Trail

The trail up Celaque follows the Rio Arcagual upstream from the visitors' center for a short while, ascends a steep hillside, then parallels the mountain. It continues upward at a less steep grade to Campamento Don Tomas at 2,050 meters, about a three-hour walk from the visitors' center, where you'll find a tin shack with three rudimentary bunks inside and an outhouse. The shack is sometimes locked, so it's best to check with Miguel beforehand. You might prefer to pitch a tent rather than use the cabin, though it can be relief to have a roof overhead if it's raining.

Beyond the first camp, the trail heads straight up a steep hillside. This is the hardest stretch of trail by far, and climbing it often entails clinging to roots and tree trunks to pull yourself up the invariably muddy path. Descending this stretch of trail is particularly treacherous. After two to three hours of difficult hiking, the trail reaches Campamento Naranjo, nothing more than a couple of flat tent sites and a fire pit on the plateau's edge, at 2,560 meters. As you wipe the sweat and mud off your face as you climb, take a look around at the plants and trees. By the time the trail reaches the plateau, you will have entered the cloud forest.

From Campamento Naranjo it's another two hours or so to the peak, but it goes up and down over gentle hills instead of straight up. Keep a close eye out for the plastic tags tied to tree branches--the lack of undergrowth in the tall, spacious forest makes it easy to lose track of the trail. The final ascent to the top of Cerro de las Minas is a half-hour of fairly steep uphill climbing, but go slow and listen for the quetzals and trogons that live there. The peak is marked by a wooden cross, and if the clouds haven't moved in you'll have superb views over the valleys to the east. From the visitors' center to the peak is six kilometers and about 1,500 meters in elevation gain. A trail branches off between the visitors' center and the first camp to a lookout point admiring a waterfall, which pours down the flanks of the mountain.

You could, theoretically, hike all the way from the visitors' center to the peak and back in a day, but it would be a brutal day and would leave no time for enjoying the cloud forest. A better plan for a short trip would be to spend the night in the shack at Campamento Don Tomas (bring sleeping bags), hike up to the plateau in the early morning, and either come back down to the camp or make it all the way out to the visitors' center that night. If you only want to go on a day hike, it is feasible to hike all the way up to Campamento Naranjo to see the cloud forest, then return to the visitors' center by the same afternoon, if you leave early enough. Be sure to leave the plateau not long after midday to ensure you get back to the visitors' center before dark. If you leave the trail, take good care to keep your bearings, as it's very easy to get lost on the plateau.

If you want to spend a bit more time in the cloud forest, the best option is to bring a tent and sleep a couple of nights at the upper camp, Campamento Naranjo. Whatever your plans for Celaque, remember it's often cold and always wet, so come prepared with proper clothing, including stiff boots, waterproof jacket, and a warm change of clothes kept in a plastic bag. Both campsites are next to running water. Many visitors drink the water untreated, as there is no human habitation above, but the cautious will want to treat the water first.

The Cohdefor office in Gracias sells photocopies of the relevant section of the Gracias topographical map, with the trail and camps marked, for US 30 cents. This is much more useful than the actual topo itself, which does not show the trail. A map is not really necessary if you're just planning to hike up the main trail, but it does give an idea of the lay of the land and is not bad to have just in case. The topographical maps covering the entire park are: Gracias 2459 I, La Campa 2459 II, San Marcos de Ocotepeque 2459 III, and Corquin 2459 IV. Camping gear is available for rent at Restaurante Guancascos.

For more information on Celaque, you could contact Proyecto Celaque, a major project funded partly by the German government to help protect the park and work with the area's inhabitants. The officials there are very knowledgeable on guides, possible climbing routes, and potential new visitors' centers planned for El Naranjo and El Paraiso. The central office of Proyecto Celaque is in Santa Rosa de Copan, tel. and fax 662-1459, email:celaque@hondutel.hn.

Celaque Summit: The Hard Way

For some people, the idea of getting to a cloud forest in Honduras simply by hiking up a well-marked trail is altogether too easy. Never fear--there are more adventurous routes to the peak. Before venturing off into the woods, however, beware: The terrain on Celaque is extremely rugged, confusing, and often blanketed with fog. Even locals who live within the boundaries of the park have been known to get lost. In 1996, one El Cedro resident wandered around the plateau for three days, hungry and half-frozen, before he eventually struck the Gracias trail and was helped out by a passing group of foreign hikers.

Apart from the clear trail up the Gracias side (which locals call "the gringo trail," el sendero gringo), the most common route begins in Belen Gualcho, reached via bus or truck from Santa Rosa de Copan. From Belen Gualcho, it's a several-hour hike up to the lovely village of Chimis Montaña, set on a hilltop at about 2,000 meters on the west side of the plateau. From Chimis, it would take another two to four hours to hike up to the Celaque plateau. There, if your guide knows what he's doing, you will meet up with the Gracias trail near the peak. Juan Alberto Martinez and Jose Alonso de Dios both guide visitors for US$10 a day. Both can sometimes be found in Belen, but more often at their homes in El Paraiso, an aldea about 20 minutes' walk from Belen. You could also hike up to the fairly well-beaten path from Belen to Chimis on your own, and find a guide there willing to take you up to the Gracias trail.

Another option is to go by road from Gracias to San Manuel Colohete, and from there hike up five or six hours to the village of El Cedro, where Julian Vazquez is one local who definitely knows the route to "El Castillo," as Cerro de las Minas is known. From El Cedro, it's a brutal three- or four-hour hike (at Julian's pace) straight up through thick forest to the Gracias trail, which you reach shortly before the final ascent to the peak.

Before leading one wayward guidebook author from El Cedro to the peak, Julian's last guiding venture was taking up a group of U.S. Marines, who must have seemed like aliens from outer space when they landed their chopper on the local soccer field. Evidently they were looking for a thrill after all those slow days at the airbase outside Comayagua. According to Julian, they kept up with him a lot better than the woefully out-of-shape travel writer.

A third fairly well-established back route up Celaque starts in El Naranjo, an aldea about 30 minutes' walk from San Manuel Colohete up the mountain. Guides Hilario Mateo and Fucio Martinez will happily take hikers up to the top of Celaque and down the far side to Gracias, or via El Cedro to Belen Gualcho, for US$10 a day. Currently no lodging is available in El Naranjo, but you could easily pitch a tent or spend the night in San Manuel.

Guides usually charge US$7-10. If you take a trip across the mountain, also expect to cover transportation costs for the guide back to his home. Guides tend to be more expensive from the Gracias side, where they are more accustomed to dealing with tourists. One recommended guide is Candido Melgar, who lives in Villa Verde, near the road to the visitors' center. Although he is reputed to be an excellent guide who can arrange multi-day trips across to Belen Gualcho or elsewhere, his prices have been increasing vertiginously. At last report he was asking US$75 for a two-day trip to Belen from Gracias, though he will likely come down with negotiation.

The villages around Celaque are desperately poor, so any small gifts of food, pens, flashlights, or other useful items (please, not candy!) are greatly appreciated. Although visitors are extremely rare on this side of the mountain, locals are friendly and hospitable.

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PLANETA.COM GUIDES

g Honduras 2.0: Conversation with Chris Humphrey
g Eco Travels in Honduras
g Exploring the Mundo Maya

 

 

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