Conquering Celaque

Spring season in Honduras for BECA volunteers signifies a number of things: spiking temperatures, long stretches of school with a limited number of breaks, and a surprisingly highly-celebrated holiday, Valentine’s Day. I will preface this blog entry by telling you that I spent Valentine’s Day making one of my most fondly remembered weekends this year, for reasons of which none involved the slightest romantic inclinations. Valentine’s Day in Honduras is celebrated between siblings, parents, spouses, romantic partners, and close friends. It is one of the few lucky days we BECA volunteers get off school during the spring stretch before Semana Santa and most of us hop on a bus for the three day weekend to explore different places nearby. This particular weekend myself and a small group of volunteers hopped on a bus directly after school and headed to Celaque mountain just outside of a small town named Gracias.
We spent the first night in Gracias, a nice colonial town about four hours from Cofradia which has very different feel altogether. It has restaurants, hotels, late night pizza, and a beautiful central park. After arriving equipped with a backpack stuffed with one sleeping bag, one extra shirt, a little rum, and enough peanut butter and beans to feed seven people, we went in search of a late dinner. A few blocks from the central park, we stumbled upon a small pizzeria that not only fed us, but provided us with games while we waited. I would like to note that I won the first game of pick-up sticks (although I can’t recall who won the second). It was a nice laid back evening spent with pizza, friends, and a few highly competitive rounds of pick-up sticks. We slept at a nice hostel for less than five dollars a head and I woke up the next morning brimming with excitement.
Getting to the base of the mountain proved an adventure in itself. You didn’t really want to walk from town to the dirt road that leads to the start of the trail and there weren’t any pickup trucks or regular taxis heading up there. So we took three different moto-taxis. It was the most dangerous and gut wrenching moto-taxi ride I have ever experienced. Picture a three wheeled vehicle the size of a golf cart attempting to climb a steep rocky mountain road complete with cliff-like edges and boulders the size of watermelons in your path. At multiple points we had to exit and push the moto ourselves to keep it from rolling backwards. This went on for about four miles as a band of Honduran mountain workers laughed, watching us with pick-axes as they hiked the road themselves on foot. Finally we called it quits and started the hike towards the visitor center.
The visitor center was brand new and really nice. After figuring out what route we were all taking, we began the first leg of our hike to the second camp about two-thirds up the mountain. The first leg of the height was relatively short but steep. It took us about five hours to make it to our camping spot. And in that time span we took turns singing Disney songs, 90’s classics, and reciting poetry verses. Gracias had been hot and humid and the sun was merciless on the hike up. But by the time we arrived at camp, it became clear we were going to be extremely cold that night. Due to our packing limitations (camping with only a school-sized backpack), none of us had very warm clothes, blankets, or gear. Not only that but we were covered in sweat and the ground was damp. You don’t think that Honduras can ever get cold while you’re getting crispy in the tropical sun day in and day out, but at those higher altitudes it can get surprisingly nippy.
After camp was made we ate granola and peanut butter sandwiches, spent an hour collecting pine needles to substitute for a mattress pad, and searched for usable firewood. I wasn’t in charge of the fire (and trust me, you don’t want me to be), but my companions did a fine job. Once the fire got started, we warmed up and made a delicious dinner of roasted onions with refried beans. At some points the fire went out (in which case scout master Mr. Reed blew into the fire sideways with his beard an inch from the flame) and it started raging again. The smoke was so bad at some points that we all had to vacate with burning eyes and coughs. As the night went on we read poetry from Robert Service, each took turns telling each other ten minutes speeches about our families and lives before BECA, and sang campfire songs. Miss Leah surprised us by somehow stuffing s’more supplies in her pack (they were delicious though not the same as marshmallows in the States). It was in essence a great wilderness and bonding experience. Eventually we all headed towards bed and that by far was the most terrible but memorable part of the whole experience. I think we each slept about two hours. It was bone chillingly freezing and we all shivered through the entire night. My tent ended up with one kid-sized sleeping bag, one huge fleece blanket, and one airplane blanket. A cuddle session commenced around 1 AM. The body heat made it only slightly more bearable.
Morning hit and we woke up weary and stiff. Luckily the fire had turned to coal so we warmed up some instant coffee. We filled up our water bottles in the mountain stream nearby (oddly good tasting water with a slight green tint) and headed to the summit. The walk to the summit was quick and steep. The path was wet from rain the night before and the air was foggy. As we neared the top the clouds cleared and you could see miles of Honduran forest. We were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by dozens of other peaks with no visible downward path. Here’s the thing, we were being led by Mr. Ryan who had done this hike last year. However, his perception of time and distance and also direction was somewhat warped by his prior experience. He spent quite a number of hours getting lost and sidetracked last time so it left us somewhat wary of exactly which way we were supposed to be going. We spent the next eight hours walking along peaks and different trails, up and down different regions of the mountain, and through completely different landscapes. Parts of the mountain were dense with tropical trees and mist and other parts were barren and scattered with pine trees. Each different area had rich differing colors and characteristics. It was like walking through six different mountains. It is the most beautiful hike I have ever been on.
The last few hours were completely downhill. It felt like it would never end. It continued and continued until we finally came out behind a private farm. We had climbed all the way over a mountain into someone’s backyard. The owner remembered Ryan from last year and offered to lead us to the nearest road. The road was all downhill. After three hours of already walking downhill our knees and ankles were killing us and the sun was beginning to set. On the road to the nearest town (San Manuel), we encountered three things. A women begging for money, a church-owning man who offered us a bed at his house, and two men on horses with a wooden table strapped to one. These encounters were quite odd after an eight-hour hike, a sleepless night, and growing dehydration. Walking into San Manuel was like walking into a Latino ghost town--there was no one anywhere. We stayed at the only hostel in town. It was equipped with bedframes for twenty but somehow only had three mattresses. The owner had to borrow mattresses from family members and sew an old one to provide us with enough. We still had Flor de Cana left but everyone was too tired to drink it.