With pristine beaches, cloud-forest treks and welcoming villages, it’s no surprise this Caribbean country is winning lots of admirers
It was a languid evening of rum drinking and dancing. Except… I was the only one not dancing. I was trying my best, believe me, but the end result came out as an unconvincing limb flail. The sun had long set over the town of Barahona and I’d found myself at a car wash, not the most obvious location for a night out. But in the Dominican Republic these places transform at night into vast open-air dance halls – all bright lights and intertwined couples. Oversized stacks of speakers are the name of the game, pumping out the latest bachata and merengue hits, the Caribbean nation’s music of choice.
“No, no, no. You have to move like this.” My new-found Dominican friend next to me refused to give up his impromptu training session, despite my wails of protest. Cuba may get all the press when it comes to music but it’s hard to think of a nation quite so enamoured as here. No colmado (a grocery store-cum-bar) is complete without the obligatory sound system, and everyone I met on my travels, from mountain villager to savvy urbanite, had a vast back-catalogue of song lyrics in their heads tackling those age-old Latino leitmotifs of love, won and lost.
The Dominican Republic is an incredibly diverse place, boasting the highest peak in the Caribbean, sparkling lagoons, exotic wildlife and pristine shores. Rather unfairly, though, it has a reputation for being a bit of a one-trick beach-holiday pony. But away from the all-inclusive resorts at Punta Cana in the east and Puerto Plata in the north, a more beguiling picture emerges – beginning with the charms of the capital, Santo Domingo, and its colonial centre.
The first city in the Americas, Santo Domingo was founded in 1496 by Bartholmew Columbus, brother of the better known Christopher. From here I picked up a 4x4 and headed out along the Avenida George Washington, the Caribbean Sea shimmering to my left. Despite the views, macabre events have taken place here: the country’s brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated on this stretch of tarmac back in 1961, releasing Dominicans from 30 years of tyranny.
I headed first for the southwestern nugget of the Dominican Republic, close to the border with Haiti. The southwest is the poorest part of the country, sprinkled with towns of small houses, street vendors and national lottery outlets known as bancas painted in fluorescent colours. It’s also a microcosm of everything the Dominican Republic has to offer. Amazingly, though, the area remains largely off the tourist radar and hasn’t seen the same infrastructure investment and construction as other places. This means the discerning traveller can have the virgin beaches and tranquil trekking trails virtually to oneself.
My first stop was the small community of Cachote, an example of the country’s tentative yet increasing engagement with eco-tourism. To get here I’d turned inland off Highway 44 – the coastal road – at La Cienaga, and headed up an unpaved track for 15km, rising to about 1,300m above sea level. The coast had been warm and humid, but the air cooled significantly as I climbed.
Cachote has a small guesthouse, three basic cabins and a communal dining area where meals revolve around the Dominican staples of yuca (a starchy root veg) and plantain. For visitors, this is a chance to see what rural life is all about. For the villagers, it’s an additional source of income beyond the pittance people make in agriculture.
In the evening, I sat outside with the campesinos under a star-filled sky, sharing life stories and divvying up a bottle of Dominican rum to stave off the post-sunset chill. Don Francisco is the elder of the village at 88 and bought the land here back in 1952 for a mere 100 pesos.
The next day was a fuzzy-headed early start in order to trek through Cachote’s impressive cloud forest while the air was still cool. My guide was Ramón Medina, at 32 one of the younger members of the village. A hazy mist hung low over the trees, soon to dissipate under a persuasive sun. The dense woodland is actually a secondary forest, the original having been cut down for fuel by villagers. Now a protected area, its ecological value is huge: five rivers have their source here and there are over 20 species of bird, including the elusive jilguero, a type of goldfinch with an other-worldly song that sounds, bizarrely, like a wind chime.
Returning to the coast, I was greeted by water of a ridiculously deep turquoise, the bays fringed by flowering bougainvillea. Back on Highway 44, I followed the road past the village of Enriquillo, round to the dusty frontier town of Pedernales. It’s a great base from which to explore Bahía de las Águilas, a drop-dead gorgeous beach only accessible by fishing boat.
Not a lot happens in Pedernales, yet there’s something about the place. Perhaps it’s the simple day-to-day rhythm of life, or the border town feel, where two ethnically and linguistically different nations – the Dominican Republic and Haiti – eye each other across a ramshackle frontier. Or maybe it’s wandering down to the malecón, the beachside promenade, in the evening and playing dominos with the locals.
The departure point for Bahía de las Águilas is about 30 minutes’ drive from Pedernales. Boats to the bay depart from Cuevas de las Águilas, a small beach with a lone restaurant and a cluster of fisherman huts set back from the sea. Visitors can pitch up with a tent, although there’s little by way of amenities. A few years ago, there was nothing here, the restaurant owner Santiago Rodríguez explained, but slowly the area is changing. In the future the fishermen huts will be available for rent, he added, but there’s no doubt the area remains wonderfully wild.
Santiago put on a serious spread for lunch: rice mixed with brown beans (moro), plantain fritters known as tostones and avocado – alongside the local catch. I tucked into succulent lobster grilled with garlic, but Santiago, with a wave of his hands, insisted on more food. “You have to try our house speciality. It’s our take on mofongo [a Dominican national dish]” he told me. “We call it bahíafongo.” Moments later an impressive mound of once-fried and mashed plantain arrived on a plate, hollowed out in the middle and stuffed with crab.
As you’d expect in a country renowned for its coastline, I visited some impressive beaches: from Punta Rucia in the northwest to Playa Rincón in the east, often hailed as the best spot in the country. But everything paled in comparison to Bahía de las Águilas. After a 10-minute boat ride from the restaurant, past a rocky inlet known as Lovers’ Cove (cue a wink from the fisherman at the motor) we arrived. Here was a genuine haven: a vast strip of sand, calm swimming-pool-clear water and just two other visitors at the other end of the beach. Swimming and reading were what life was all about here – until the fishermen returned to whisk me back to reality.
My plan now was to head north into the interior, but in order to do that I had to turn back on myself first, retracing the coast road back in the direction of Enriquillo. It gave me a chance to call in on the Laguna de Oviedo, an impressive saltwater lagoon that’s a major feeding ground for much of the country’s wildlife.
The only other people there on my visit were a group of local schoolchildren packed into the visitor centre watching an educational video. It is extraordinary that while the resorts are packed to the hilt, natural wonders like Oviedo remain virtually unknown. The park is just under 30 sq km and the milky-green water is dotted with some 24 little islands (known as cayos). Like many people working in tourism in the region, the staff at Oviedo, which sits within the Jaragua National Park, are former fisherman.
Fresh-faced guide Melvin González chatted passionately about the surrounding area as we bounced across the water in a boat. Oviedo’s major draw is the chance to see flamingos flying gracefully across the lagoon in search of sustenance. “Flamingos don’t actually start out pink,” Melvin said. “But over time they take on the colour of the food they eat, which includes camarones [shrimp]”.
Stopping off on one of the islands, a pair of rhinocerous iguanas emerged from among the cacti on cue, lazily chewing on leaves and seemingly unaware of our presence.
For all the laidback boat safaris and beach time, there’s also some serious trekking to be done in the Dominican Republic. Jarabacoa is a Mecca for adventurous types. Anything goes here, from canyoning down waterfalls and white water rafting on the nearby Yaque del Norte river to paragliding. But my aim was firmly fixed on conquering Pico Duarte, about 20km west, the tallest of the Caribbean’s mountains, towering over 3,000m above sea level.
With local mountain expert Danny by my side, I left my hotel in Jarabacoa before sunrise and jumped on the back of a truck for the 40-minute drive to La Ciénaga de Manabao, the best place to start the ascent. The trip to the peak is some 46km in two days and you need a modicum of fitness to do it. Salvage, however, comes in a back-up convoy of supplies on mules (in my case marshalled by the ever-smiling Roselio), meaning that you can hop on and enjoy the easy life if needed. My pride, though, was at stake.
There’s no doubt that the trek is hard work on the ascent, a steady climb with occasional flatter sections. But it’s a challenge tempered by dazzling scenery, starting with flat woodland flanked by tayota plants – a squash with pear-shaped fruit – and evolving into a mixture of luscious undergrowth, vast pine woods and grasslands.
The advantage of walking in winter (December to March) is the cooler temperatures that make the trek less arduous. The path, though, can often be muddy – a mixture of rains and constant tread – which is all part of the adventure. Danny, an old hand, paced his way onwards and upwards as I lagged behind. A few hours in and my trousers and hiking boots were covered in a healthy coat of Dominica’s finest mud; Danny, meanwhile, was carefully picking out the tiniest traces from the soles of his trainers.
The original plan was to walk to base camp La Compartición – where there are basic cooking facilities and wooden huts to sleep – about 5km from the top. Normally you get up at about four in the morning the next day to complete the final hurdle for sunrise, then spend the rest of the day descending. We arrived early on the first day and decide to plough on. With energy levels momentarily flagging, I resorted to the mule for a few kilometres before will-power (and damaged pride) got me to the top on foot.
At the peak a Dominican flag and a bust of Juan Pablo Duarte, the country’s founding father, awaited me. It was an eerie experience being so high, watching the wind whip puffy clouds across the sky, before we made our way back to the camp as dusk sets in. The evening was spent around a campfire, resting tired limbs and marvelling at the brightness of the moon, before collapsing into bed by 9pm. The next morning I wolfed down what was probably the heartiest breakfast of my life – pork with boiled potatoes and plantain, alongside strong coffee, cooked up by Roselio – before beginning the descent.
As I trekked back to civilisation I mulled over which of my many Dominican experiences had left the biggest impression: the mountains, the coastline, the history, the food, the people, the non-stop music or the rum. In truth, it proved impossible to distil everything I’d seen and heard into one moment. But on a cold winter’s day, when it’s dark and miserable outside, I know I’ll be pining for just one more plunge into those turquoise waters or another chance to see the sunrise at altitude. And who knows, maybe next time I’ll be brave enough to try the whitewater rafting.
If you’re visiting between January and March, a trip to the Samaná peninsula in the northeast (easily accessible via one of the country’s newer roads from Santo Domingo) is a must. Humpback whales return to these warmer waters every winter to breed, meaning a chance to see them up close is virtually guaranteed.
Boat trips get pretty full with tourists but try the Whale Samaná, a three/four-hour trip run by American Kim Beddall. Kim’s an expert who has been visiting the area since 1984 and the on-board, multilingual staff are marine biologists. A highly educational tour (with incredible stats, eg: baby humpbacks drinking 200 litres of milk a day), on my visit I saw a whale ‘breaching’ (jumping completely out of the water) from a distance – often to get rid of the tonne of parasites they carry. I also saw a mother and baby playing in the water, the latter smacking its fin down on the water as it came up to breath. It’s also worth a stop-off in nearby Sánchez for a slice of fisherman life.
If you’re in Santo Domingo on a Sunday evening, head to the San Francisco ruins (in the old town) for an outdoor concert of old-school music – mostly son and bolero – from bang-on-the-money crooners Grupo Bonyé. Marvel at couples twirling around a makeshift stage and have a go yourself.
The annual Carnaval in La Vega (Sundays in February), not far from Jarabacoa, is also not to be missed and the painted costumes and colourful masks are stunning. Watch out for the vejiga – a rubber ball on a string that processions swing at the crowd. It hurts.
Ramón Medina, guide, 32, Cachote
“When visitors arrive, it’s the villagers who receive them. Visitors get to know how we live and our quality of life improves as a result.”
Paul Temple, bar/restaurant owner, 61, Constanza
“The central cordillera has seemingly limitless vistas to adore. The area is blessed with a sub-tropical climate that’s surprisingly cool, unique in the Caribbean.”
Melvin Marte, artisan, 33, La Vega
“We have 14 different mask workshops in town – we work between May and February. La Vega is one of the best street Carnavals in the world.”
The author was hosted by the Dominican Republic Tourist Board on a self-drive itinerary