Summits on El Pital and Las Minas

On the summit of Cerro El Pital, high point of El Salvador

Over the last two days I have hiked both the high point of El Salvador, Cerro El Pital (2790m) and of Honduras, Cerro Las Minas (2849m). Both peaks are in or near the Trifinio region (border of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras). To get there, I left my bicycle in Aguilares (El Salvador) and then had to do a lot of bus riding. Those bus rides are often the more adventurous part of the peaks in Central America – and they are not always safe (I’ll write a separate post about that soon.)

Cerro El Pital, El Salvador:

This country high point is probably the easiest to get to of all the Panamerican Peaks: The mountain has an antenna on its top and a regular road leading to a saddle not far from the top, as well as a 4-wheel drive track all the way to the top. There is also a camp ground just below the top, from which it takes only 10 minutes or so to reach the top. So this high point is not a mountaineering challenge at all.

Nice camping area near El Pital summit

The marker on the summit marks the border between El Salvador and Honduras. You can stand with one foot in each country, even though nowadays you have to be willing to straddle a barbed wire fence…

Standing with one foot in El Salvador (on highest point) and one foot in Honduras

I was lucky as I hitched a ride on the last 5.5 km section from the main road to the summit with a jeep convoy of some engineers doing hydro-geological development projects. This is a joint venture between Germany and El Salvador, so I got a detailed explanation in German from one of the project members!
After my brief visit to El Pital I continued the bus ride to the border, where I entered Honduras after just a few minutes of paperwork and without any problems. (I often have to explain to people and border officials, when they inspect my Austrian passport, that Austria is not Australia!)

Cerro Las Minas, Honduras:

I reached Santa Rosa de Copan after another 2.5 hr bus ride from the border. By now it was almost 7pm and there was no more bus to the valley of Gracias, so I had to stay in Santa Rosa for the night. In Honduras the currency is called Limpira, and you always get a bundle of paper for any significant amount (they have no coins).

In the morning I took the first bus to Gracias, where I arrived at 7:15am. From there it’s annother 10km or so to the entrance of the Parque National Montana de Celaque. The most convenient way to get there is by Tuc-Tuc. I arranged for a round-trip transport and paid 1/3 at the beginning, giving the driver a good incentive to show up in the afternoon to pick me back up.

My Tuc-Tuc taxi to and from the park entrance
The trail begins at the park entrance at 1400m, Las Minas is the highest point at 2849m. That wouldn’t be too bad, except the normal trail already has a lot of up-&-downhill, so you’re looking at about 2000m elevation gain. For a single day hike this is quite ambitious. I had barely 8 hrs, but I was going to make a run for it. The trail starts up through amazing cloud forest, very similar to what we had seen at Chirripo in Costa Rica.

Steep trail leading up to Cerro Las Minas, high point of Honduras

I was really excited about the steep trail which followed a ridgeline and was at times a bit exposed. While you had to watch your step you also got some brief glimpses of the surrounding valleys – most of the time you were just completely surrounded by forest and couldn’t see anything.
After climbing almost 1000m I topped out on a highpoint of the ridge, with steep drops all around. This path wasn’t leading to Las Minas after all! What to do? I continued down 100m to a saddle, and the only path from there continued down. I followed that path for another 150m or so, just to make sure there wasn’t a connection to another path nearby, but it seemed to lead all the way back down again. I couldn’t believe it! I ran back up to the saddle and searched for another path towards the main summit. I scrambled through the dense forest, but without a path this is both very tiring, slow and dangerous. If you slipped and fell, nobody would find you off the path. Also, you can easily get lost. After 50m or so I gave up; just retracing back to the saddle was quite tricky already. I had no choice but to go down, which made me believe that I would run out of time (and energy) to reach the summit today.

Ascent through dense cloud forest in Celaque National Park up to Cerro Las Minas

About 300m below the ridgetop the trail intersected with the normal route. Even though I had done almost 500m extra and lost about 1.5 hr I now had a chance again; my summit bid was still on. I continued hiking very fast on the steep trail, reaching my limit. Every hour I stopped briefly for 5 min or so to drink and eat a chocolate bar, but the mosquitoes were so relentless that you wouldn’t want to rest any longer. After about 5 hr I reached the top of Las Minas.

Las Minas summit covered completely by forest

Sicne the top is completely covered in forest you can hardly see anything, much less a panoramic view, which was a bit disappointing. There is only a small wooden board and a country flag nailed to a tree.

Only partial views from the summit of Cerro Las Minas

After about 10 min I started downhill again. I now had only 2.5 hrs to get down to the park entrance. The trail is often quite steep, which allows you to descend fast – if you’re surefooted and comfortable running downhill fast. However, there were also plenty of ascents to negotiate, down and up little creeks and waterfalls, past some camping areas, etc. Most people do this mountain in two days and camp up here. After 7h 45min I reached the park entrance again and we immediately started with the Tuc-Tuc back down so I could catch the last bus at 5pm back to Santa Rosa. If this sounds like a hectic schedule, it was! We arrived in Gracias with 10 min to spare, so the driver showed me the fortress. I gave him a good tip and was soon sitting on the bus back to Santa Rosa, where I had dinner and stayed for the night again.

My Tuc-Tuc driver and I at the fortress in Gracias, Honduras

2 summits in 2 days, 5 summits in little more than a month. Now I have 8 (of 16) peaks. There are only 2 summits left in Central America (Nicaragua, Panama) – after that it’s all in South America.

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