The guagua thunders at breakneck speed through swathes of jungle. Twenty of us are squeezed into this battered minibus, which is one of the best and cheapest means of transport in the Dominican Republic. Through the limbs of the passengers crammed inside, I catch thrilling glimpses of beautiful lush scenery flashing past as the landscapes grow gradually wilder.
The Dominican Republic is renowned for good-value resorts, golf courses and nightlife, but this stunning country, which shares Hispaniola island with Haiti, also has rugged scenery and some very remote spots that are almost untouched by tourism. After spending a week exploring the famous resorts and beaches along Bavaro and Punta Cana, I’m heading for Santa Cruz de Barahona in the south, where I’ve been told there are far fewer tourists and unique scenery, and wildlife. Squeezing out of the guagua at Barahona a few hours later, I stretch my legs as I walk around this small town at the foot of the Baoruco Mountains, whose streets, lined with laid-back cafes, lead down to the lively port.
Founded in 1802 by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a Haitian general, as a center of sugar production, Barahona was a wealthy town until the 1960s, when sugar prices collapsed. Surrounded by sugar plantations and overlooking the Caribbean’s turquoise waters in Neiba Bay, Barahona is much poorer now, although glimmers of past grandeur can be seen in the historic buildings with crumbled facades dotted all over town. Barahona is also the gateway to three of The Dominican Republic’s national parks and the ‘Lake District’.
I’m a bit nervous of driving on the region’s potholed roads, but I give in to the temptation of those winding coastal roads and hire a 4WD vehicle after studying the map. From Barahona, after a traditional breakfast — a delicious, strong cup of the local-grown Barahona coffee served with mashed plantains-and-onion dish mangú, and a large platter of queso frito (deep-fried cheese) — I drive along the rugged and stunningly picturesque coast towards the Jarague National park, which is one of the region’s three UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
By lunchtime, however, I’ve stopped so many times to admire the twinkling waters of the Caribbean below or marvel at the lush tangle of vegetation covering the
slopes above, that I’ve only driven as far as San Rafael. Far below me, the beach stretches out in a golden crescent against a perfect azure sea. I grab my swim gear and spend an hour splashing in the rainforest waterfalls that tumble onto San Rafael Beach, then sit at a plastic table beneath a bright colored parasol and enjoy a plate of locrio, the local meat and rice dish that’s served with yucca or plantains.
After lunch, I drive on along the coast to the Laguna de Oviedo, passing the tiny fishing village of Enriquillo, where fishermen cast their nets in wide arcs to
catch grouper and dorado. Situated on the edge of the Parque National Jaraqua and separated from the ocean by an 800-meter-wide strip of sand, this salt lagoon dotted with cays and surrounded by mangrove forests is a paradise for the local wildlife. Ahead of me, a flock of flamingos flap their salmon-pink wings in a burst of Caribbean color — the brightness of this spectacle enhanced by the lake’s waters, which are tinted murky green by limestone sediments. The Laguna de Oviedo is also home to the rare rhinoceros iguana, so I take a boat to the cay where they live and am lucky enough to spot several of these large, greeny-brown lizards with boney noses.
Arriving at Pedernales that evening, I check into my hotel. Next morning, I can’t resist making the hot, dusty walk across the border to Anse-à-Pitres, a tiny Haitian town, where I have a satisfying beaker of Haiti’s own Prestige beer, and a dish of legume, the hot and hearty local vegetable stew flavored with crab meat.
Up early the next day, I head for Bahia de las Aguilas (Eagles bay), said to have one of the remotest and most paradisiacal beaches in the Jaragua National park, if not the entire Caribbean.
Driving towards playa Las Cuevas, just a few miles out of Pedernales, the landscape changes dramatically: instead of lush forests and palm trees, there are vast arid landscapes studded with cacti, and big green lizards scuttling across my path. I hop into a small boat, which twists and spins its tortuous way past tall rocky outcrops where sea pelicans perch like long-nosed judges, to a near-deserted beach covered in soft, white sand dotted with thousands of seashells.
Donning my snorkeling gear, I slide into the mirror-clear sea. Immediately, I’m surrounded by an explosion of color: just below me, starfish walk on pointed feet near angry-looking, white-spotted Caribbean lobsters, while vivid blue and yellow queen angelfish, and black-and-orange spotted butterfly fish flutter around my head. After an afternoon swimming and lazing on one of the world’s most perfect beaches, I make the last leg of my trip to Lago Enriquillo. This vast, 42-mile-long saltwater lake, which was once part of a channel that united the Bay of Neiba and Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, is a wonderland of strange and rare flora surrounding the island of Isla Cabritos.
Before taking the boat to visit, I stop off to see Las Caritas. When Christopher Columbus arrived on Hispaniola in 1492, Taino Indians inhabited these cliffs and they carved Las Caritas (‘the faces’) and other petroglyphs into the soft, porous rocks. Through strange landscapes of leafless trees, the boat glides to Isla Cabritos past flocks of flamingos, and logs that turn out to be endangered American crocodiles who float just beneath the surface, peering up at us out of their greenish, marbled eyes. Isla Cabritos is a tiny, sandy, cactus-covered island inhabited by Ricord’s iguana and the rhinoceros iguana. Both types of rare lizard rush up to us as the boat docks, hoping to be fed. After the intense heat of Lago Enriquillo, I head for La Azufrada, a large natural pool near La Descubierta, whose sulfur-rich waters are said to make you feel younger. I’m not sure if it’s the water, or my mesmerizing trip, but I certainly feel rejuvenated after spending a week in the Dominican Republic.