Location: Lempira, Honduras
Camping: Wild camping
People seen: None
Guidebook: Moon Honduras
Celaque National Park (Parque Nacional Montaña de Celaque) is home to Honduras’ highest peak, Cerro Las Minas. At a height of 2849 metres (9317 ft) the summit, also known as Pico Celaque, can be reached on a two or three day hike. Starting points include Gracias, on the mountain’s north eastern side, or one of the smaller towns on the south eastern flank. We stayed at Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos in Gracias, a beautiful and fairly priced hotel who were able to arrange a guide and transport to the mountain for us.
There are two general ways to approach Celaque: on a there-and-back trip from the park entrance near Gracias, or in a traverse from one of the villages on the south, across the mountain range, back to Gracias. We chose the latter.
Like several national parks in this part of the world, Celaque does not have a clearly delineated boundary, at least not on the ground. As we jumped out of the back of our pickup truck at one of the small villages of the south of the park, we walked along a series of dirt tracks, gradually climbing. The hamlet at our drop-off point was quickly left behind and the occasional houses became ever fewer until, at some, point, we were in the cloud forest for which the park is famous. No entrance gate (we would pay our park fee on the other side on the way out), no sign. Although we took a guide, this was probably the only time we would have needed him, as the trails in the rest of the park are very clear and there are few, if any, junctions or turn-offs.
There are several campsites on Celaque: from the park entrance going up the mountain, they are Campamento Don Tomas, El Naranjo, and El Quetzal. Don Tomas and El Naranjo had wooden lean-to shelters large enough to pitch tents on. To be honest, we found the facilities at these campsites had been so badly used and poorly maintained – fires started on the floors of the lean-to shelters, garbage left everywhere at Don Tomas, doors broken off the latrines – that we preferred to wild camp some metres away. None of the campsites in Celaque have water and despite the mountain being a major catchment area, there are no streams for most of the hike. In each campsite we managed to find small natural springs nearby (something else for which the guide was essential) but the water was never fast-flowing or crystal clear and we always made sure we ran it through the particle filter and the SteriPen before using it.
The steepness of the trail, the weight of our packs, and the relatively high altitude mean we found the going on this first day surprisingly hard, so rather than push on to El Quetzal campsite we decided to wild camp in the forest. The site had clearly been used for camping before but didn’t appear to have a name. During the night it rained briefly but intensely – a beautiful and soothing sound to fall asleep to.
Our hard work on the first day had definitely paid off somewhat, as we had little climbing left to do on the second day. Instead the path followed the ridge line through the park, occasional gaps in the dense forest offering spectacular views over the surrounding landscape. With the altitude and dense forest it was relatively cool during the day, even hiking with full packs. The sunlight that did filter through the trees made for some beautiful, atmospheric scenes.
Celaque is lauded for its biodiversity and although we did not see any larger animals, there were lots of smaller but equally interesting critters.
Shortly we came across El Quetzal campsite and were happy that we hadn’t missed anything by not camping here. About 2 and a half hours on from El Quetzal we hit the junction for the Cerro Las Minas peak – the highest point in Celaque, and in Honduras. This marked our entry into the most popular part of Celaque – the route up to the summit and, ahead of us, the route down to El Naranjo, Don Tomas, and the park gate. As we would be returning from the summit the same way we took this opportunity to dump our rucksacks and climb unhindered.
The climb to Cerro Las Minas is steep, through very wet cloud forest where everything is slippy and seemingly covered in slime. The environment reminded me of Yoda’s home on Dagobah. Under every stone and behind every tree it felt like there was a little hole where all kinds of creatures might be hiding – a truly diverse environment packed with life.
The summit is marked by a wooden sign, a viewpoint a few metres lower, and an Honduran flag flying from the tree overhead.
Returning from the summit and collecting our packs, we moved on, the path slowly descending until we reached the El Naranjo camp two hours later. This small campsite sits on the slope of a small hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding forest. We would have stayed here, but since it was still early we decided to continue down to Don Tomas campsite, so the final day’s walk would be shorter. This may have been a mistake. Within minutes the rainclouds started threatening and, going as quickly as we could down the steep mud slopes, I slipped, landed badly, and fractured my thumb (a fact I didn’t realise until a few days later when it was still blue/black/yellow).
Nevertheless, we eventually made it to the Don Tomas campsite where we spent the night in the wooden shelter, being in bed almost before it was dark.
The final day is a gentle half-day trek to the visitors’ centre. Several streams and rivers flow through the lower slopes of the Celaque mountain, forming numerous small waterfalls on the way. Because they supply drinking water to the surrounding area, swimming in the rivers in forbidden, but they make a pleasant accompaniment alongside the trail as it winds its way down to the park entrance.
On our way out we paid our ‘entrance’ fee ($3) at the visitor’s centre, before catching a tuck-tuck back into Gracias. Overall, Celaque is a strange park: beautiful and pristine in its cloud forests, with good trails and capable local guides. But the funding to maintain the park is clearly not present, the staffing is minimal, and the maintenance of the lower sections leaves a lot to be desired. At the moment the lower campsite at Don Tomas looks like it is used primarily for parties, with ridiculous amounts of rubbish lying around the surrounding forest. This is a shame because higher up the mountain the environment really is pristine, and with slightly improved infrastructure and maintenance the park could become much more popular with local and foreign outdoors enthusiasts – people who are also more likely to treat the place with the respect it deserves.