Climbing Cerro Mogotón

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The peak Cerro Mogotón shrouded in clouds as we descended.

The subtitle of this post could be, “Or, the post that makes our mothers revoke our parenting license.”  That’s a joke, of course, though during our hike Kristen and I both turned to each other more than once to comment about experiences in high places with our parents when we were kids. Suffice it to say, as with so much of life in Nicaragua, standards for things like trails are different than in the U.S.  Though maintained by the national government the trail to the peak of Mogotón was among the most challenging we’ve ever hiked.  This was in part due to the fact that our guide did not alert us in advance that having muck boots would be preferable to the hiking shoes and sneakers we came in.  But it was a unique adventure in a cloud forest environment that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced here.  And there is actually a connection to the broader issues of sustainability in Nicaragua, which I’ll get to in a minute.

When we were here last, Mogotón was still mostly off-limits to tourists.  The area around the mountain was in the final phases of being de-mined, and there were still occasional reports of “exploding cows”.  The mountain bestrides the Nicaraguan-Honduran border and the entire frontier between the two countries was heavily mined during the Contra War in the 1980s, as I already noted a couple of months ago.  But the government wants to promote tourism in this part of the country and has made a concerted effort to finish the de-mining process.  Most people we’ve spoken with (including the folks at the government tourism office in Ocotal) have said that this process is, indeed, complete.  Our guide yesterday seemed less sure.  In any case, we told the boys not to stray from the path.

The hike began at the Finca Santa Teresa, a coffee plantation carved out of the Segovian pine forests northwest of Ocotal.  Silvio, the proprietor, is trying to supplement his coffee operation with some ecotourism, offering guided hikes to the peak.  The first part of the hike passed along logging roads.  I was under the impression that cutting the ocote pines was prohibited, or at least restricted, but that appears not to be the case.

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Logging the 19th century way–oxen were being used to haul the timber from the forest.

As with all logging operations the extraction of giant trees from a fragile landscape leaves great gashes in the land.  There was much evidence of serious erosion and landslides, not to mention the roads themselves, gullied and mucky beyond belief after last week’s heavy rain in the region.  We tried not to get our shoes too muddy or wet at this point, not having any idea how utterly futile this was.

After we left the logging road we began a hike/scramble up the mountain itself, following a creek filled with giant boulders and fallen trees.  It was challenging, but mostly because of the danger of slipping and banging a knee.  Eventually we veered away from the ravine and began climbing a VERY steep slope, leaving the pine forests behind.  There had been a very modest effort to create steps in places, but mostly we just twisted our way up the mountain, occasionally using the ropes affixed between trees for assistance.

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Looking into the forest canopy from below.

And then we emerged into the cloud forest, a primeval landscape of giant oaks, laurels, and wax myrtles, all dripping with moisture and heavy with all types of epiphytes (bromeliads, orchids, ferns, and lichens).  At one point our guide heard monkeys (there are howler monkeys all through these forests), but we did not and never saw any.  Quetzals also nest on the slopes of Mogotón, but they are difficult to see at any time.  We were content simply to take in the mystical trees and other plants.  Until, that is, we had simply to watch every step we took because the trail became an ankle-deep mudpath.  If it’s not a good time, it’s a good story, we kept telling the boys as we slogged along, and by and large they were good sports about it all, even as they both fell numerous times.  There were no insects molesting us, which was something in our favor.  It did get increasingly chilly as we ascended, and being wet and muddy only intensified the chill.

But we made it to the top and thereby earned, in between the clouds that swept over the peak, fantastic views of both Nicaragua and Honduras.  The summit is just under 7,000 ft., the highest point in Nicaragua–the first time any of us have been atop the highest point of a country.

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Isaiah peering at the summit marker, which is also right on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border.

The descent through the cloud forest was, if anything, more challenging than the climb since going downhill in mud is tough even with the most appropriate footwear for the task.  But we made it, finishing the entire circuit of the trail in 5 1/2 hours, less time, we were told, than most people.  The end of the descent took us through coffee plantations, now spreading throughout these pine forests of Nueva Segovia.  They would qualify as “shade grown” coffee, but that doesn’t preclude a lot of deforestation to create the growing areas.  Coffee is, moreover, a monoculture, often replacing far more diverse ecosystems regardless of the methods of production.

And the coffee is only there because the logging was there first.  The roads were put it–or began to be put it–50 years ago when the first pillaging of these forests began as Somoza sold off the natural patrimony of the country.  The coffee and the logging existing side by side with the efforts to develop ecotourism in Nicaragua are emblematic of the challenges the country faces as it tries to shift from the export commodity economy that has defined it for decades to something more like what exists in Costa Rica.  That’s the dream of some, at least.  Most people, however, are just trying to survive.  And that struggle is bound to get harder as the climate continues to change, potentially affecting both the commodities and the possibilities for tourism.

We’ll try to post a couple more blogs in our final week here, followed by some reflections upon our return!  In the meantime, a few more photos of the hike:

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Caution, landslide–and indeed there was a massive one falling away from the trail.
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The cloud forest primeval.
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One foot in Nicaragua, one in Honduras.


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