Adventures in Paradise: Trek into the Dominican Republic

Trek into the Dominican Republic

by Ilona Kauremszky
Travel & More Magazine
fall/winter 2007

DR - Bathed in sun, sea and sand, the allure of the Dominican Republic (or DR as its playfully known) has long been luring vacationers to its enchanted tropical shores.

Sure the country that forms the eastern part of Hispaniola is the perfect place to lay down the beach towel. But it’s also home to the Caribbean’s tallest mountain, Pico Duarte, and the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, Santo Domingo. And with activities like world-class windsurfing in Cabarete and whale watching in Samana it’s as clear as the surrounding waters that the DR has even more to offer than meets the eye.

And I was determined to experience it.

Extremely Accommodating
I quickly discovered that one of the fastest growing ‘all-purpose’ regions is Punta Cana, located in the island’s southeast where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea converge. It’s a spectacle of gorgeous scenery and boasts some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Of course every adventure needs the proper (meaning decadent and pampering) launch pad. And I had one of the best: a one-week all-inclusive vacation at the Barceló Bavaro Palace Resort, part of the five-hotel Barceló Bavaro complex along lovely Bavaro Beach.

Fit for a queen with all the luxury amenities, pools, 14 restaurants, 16 bars, two discos, casino, tennis courts, golf course, exercise center, free merengue classes and nightly entertainment reminiscent of a Vegas chorus line, I figured a suite in this nearly 600-room luxury hotel would be the perfect antidote after day-tripping into the countryside for cultural explorations and wildlife experiences. In addition, the Barceló Palace recently debuted Dolphin Island, a Dolphin and Sea Lion encounter program located in front of my hotel. The floating manmade island made it simple to start my outdoor adventure here.

Want to swim with sharks and stingrays? Sail the high sea with Marinarium in a five-hour excursion that includes hotel pick-up, snorkel gear, marine life encounters, lunch and the signature cocktail, Coco Loco.

Fully equipped, we boarded a catamaran and sailed the warm turquoise waters to a nearby coral reef that houses an aquatic pen of nurse sharks and stingrays. Enroute schools of colourful angel fish, rock beauties and blue tang fish lured us ahead.

Diving over the watery fence like a playful seal, I made it inside this caged aquarium, opened my eyes and saw I wasn’t alone. Beneath me, on the ocean floor were some sleeping nurse sharks whose long gray girths were the length of two beach towels. In the next blink, camouflaged by its sandy surroundings, hovered two stingrays that were oblivious to our gaggling group as we nervously squealed, ogling these mighty rays from the surface.

The nurse sharks are local, nocturnal and prefer to dine on crustaceans and other small sea life. Lucky for me it didn’t think I was a squid on steroids!

Culture Vultures
These islanders are known for warm smiles and generosity so to get a dose of some DR charm, I booked a full-day trip with Bavaro Runners. Billed as “the” eco-cultural trip for the region, they do not disappoint. The Medrano’s, a husband and wife team, have been taking visitors into the countryside for 10 years. As of late their safari adventure company initiates local community programs such as a school outreach. Carlos and Fabiola, (she’s a Canadian expat,) welcomed us and encouraged the group to donate pens and school accessories.

For our wild adventure, we marked five stops on a map covering a 200 km radius that included tobacco production, a plantation, and an ancient Taino Indian cave at Boca de Manon. Our first stop was a sugarcane field outside Higuey in Oltra Bano. Our driver pulls out a machete, cuts a long bamboo-like shoot from the field, peels the hard skin to reveal a sponge-like layer and offers a round of samples.

Later, we roared along a winding road descending into lush valleys enroute to Maria’s House and Plantation where she welcomed us into her tin-roofed home styled as a simple country dwelling. “See the pod of the cacao and look at the pot of roasted cacao nuts and coffee,” explains Mimi, our guide, describing the local fruits of this family farm as he holds an eegwayro, a coconut shell laden with freshly roasted beans. In grand adios fashion, we toasted back a shot of Mama Juana, an island elixir of tree bark, honey, red wine and rum, and took in one of the national obsessions, a feather-flying cock fight.

For lunch, a ranch situated along Playa Del Macao welcomed our safari group as we dined beneath a massive cana hut, fueling up on Chicken Creole, yucca fritters, rice, beans, barbequed pork, and mangu, a local delicacy of mashed plantains, grilled onions and ham bits, finished with pudding batata, a sweet potato and coconut pudding dessert.

Later, we visited an on-site zoo on our way to the corral. I became fast friends with Carmelano, a mature caramel brown horse. We trotted along the silky white shoreline, passing by royal palm trees in our secluded paradise. This quiet oasis offered a time to absorb the sheer island beauty.

Colonial Keepers
You cannot visit the DR and miss the capital of Santo Domingo. So prepare for a 3.5-hour bus ride and get ready to sightsee, shop and do lunch.

The colonial zone, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains some of the finest examples of early Spanish colonial architecture. Walk through the oldest gate in the New World, view the first shopping center of the Americas at Atarazana, ascend an open staircase to the square, Plaza de la Hispanidad, and visit Columbus’ house, the Alcazar de Colon now a museum.

Constructed for Columbus’ son and daughter-in-law, Diego and Maria of Toledo, this 16th century Moorish fortress overlooks the slow moving Ozama River. Spend an hour here and discover the museum displays rare antiques including the sepulchers of the then governor, Diego, and his wife.

On the outskirts, a visit to four caves with freshwater sinkholes called “Los Tres Ojos” concluded the sightseeing day trip.

Over the hills and far away
For this day excursion known as “Isla Saona and Altos de Chavon,” vacationers get a taste of an isolated island and a visit to a medieval-like village overlooking the Rio de Chavon.

Swimsuits packed we arrived to Altos de Chavon, a Spanish-style village, part of the Casa de Campo luxury resort for photo-ops of the famous river and of the peculiar architecture that screams ancient Europe. Created in the seventies, visitors can walk to a chapel, fountain, restaurants, boutiques and an amphitheatre reminiscent of Roman times. Folk dancers regularly perform at the 7,000 seat open-air theatre that has hosted Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias and Alicia Keys.

Our next stop was Bayahibe, a small fishing village that sits at the entrance of the National Park Este. It’s here where we jumped into our speed boat and departed like James Bond, riding white-capped waves, bolting past Isla Catalina to arrive to the isle known as Adamanay by the Tainos Indians.

The Tainos have left pictographs one can view in the protected park but on this journey it was all about sun, sand and surf. Isla Saona while void of these Taino remnants, the island flourishes in indigenous flora and fauna. Iguanas and the endangered solenodon are known to dart through the thick jungle as bottlenose dolphins dance in the surf.

Critter Watch
Sure the Dominican Republic is void of big fat anacondas and other perilous constrictors but take a 20-minute free shuttle to Manati Park and discover the 80,000 sq. metre nature park is home to 150 species of exotic flora and fauna including the mighty albino Burmese python from Indonesia.

You can easily spend a half-day exploring the park which is packed with crocodiles, flamingos, parrots and other tropical species. Daily shows feature dolphins, Andalusian horses, tropical birds as well as Taino re-enactments. Visitors can swim with the dolphins, hold iguanas and test their nerve with a python photo-op.

“Hey let’s take your picture with the snake,” offers Claudio, the park manager. “No thanks,” I shrug satisfied with my assorted menagerie minglings I had earlier with a white cockatoo smoocher and leathery lizard I coddled. “It’ll only be a minute,” he reaffirmed. Caving-in I agree and as fast as a NY-minute the snake handler throws the butterscotch python around my shoulders. Gulp. I get my picture snapped and add the experience to my growing bar story collection.


photo: Stephen Smith

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