Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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Beyond the all-inclusives

In the Dominican Republic, adventure and history are waiting just outside the resort

I had no idea what lay beyond the precipice. I could hear a waterfall gushing in the canyon I was about to climb into, but an overhanging cliff blocked my view. This turned out to be a good thing — I might have balked if I'd seen the slippery, wet rock.

Below, a guide on firm ground was ready to brake the rope if I fell. He was screaming something impossible to decipher over the roar of the falls. It could have been "You're doing great!" or "You're about to be swept to your death by torrential waters!" I slipped, and in seconds was reminded that the harness really was secure. So I took a moment to hang out — literally — and take in the gorgeous view from this spot not far from Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Antilles.

Just one day earlier, my afternoon was like that of most tourists to the Dominican Republic. "Hanging out" meant the beach or the swim-up bar at our all-inclusive hotel. But the Dominican Republic is one of the most geographically diverse countries in the Caribbean, geographically as well as culturally. The goal of the group I travelled with was to see as much of what lies beyond the resorts as we could in a week — a mission, that turned out to be a little frantic but a lot of fun.

We started on the north shore, landing at Puerto Plata airport. The place for mountain lovers who don't have time for the three-hour bus ride to the deep interior of the country is Cabarete. This northern coastal town is about a 40-minute drive from the airport. Though the mountain range nearby may not be as spectacular as the one that includes Pico Duarte (which stands about one-third the size of Everest), these mountains are still indisputably beautiful.

This is the base of operations for the adventure company Iguana Mama. One of their most popular adventures is a five-hour mountain-bike excursion. Mostly downhill, it begins with breakfast at a local restaurant with a stunning view clear to Santiago (the second largest city in the country, a good couple of hours' drive away). Lunch is eaten with a local family, and the trip ends with a river swim.

We did a portion of this tour on our third morning in the country, and though we weren't far from resort culture — at least, geographically — we certainly felt worlds away. Pretty pink, blue and pale green cabinas lined the roads, while small groups of children gathered to high-five us.

Vigilant young bike guides stuck close by to offer tips on gear-shifting and Iguana Mama's owner, Joseba Egia, rode behind us in a jeep. Egia was ready to accommodate anyone who needed a rest and point out things of interest, like the names of towns or the local cockfighting coliseum.

You don't have to be a great biker for this tour, but if you don't like biking, Iguana Mama can also cater adventures — including hiking tours or even jeep tours — to any level or budget. If you are a cyclist, however, there's the Choco Loco, a notorious off-road challenge and, for the serious traveller, the company offers a 12-day cross-country bike trip.

Drifting in culture
Without the time or fitness level for that kind of outing, we bussed instead to Rancho Baiguate, a sister company that operates near Pico Duarte. We arrived around dusk at what turned out to be my summer-camp fantasy come to life. We dumped our luggage in simple, but large, airy rooms filled with evening breezes and the scent of pine and palm trees. After a dip in the pool, we headed to the open-air bar/dining room to chat up the bartender on the subject of reggaetón, a Puerto Rican hip hop that is currently ubiquitous in this country as well.

Dinner was a buffet of local favourites: rice, corn bread, delicious beans, fried chicken, plantain and coleslaw. It was simple but a welcome change from the rich hotel versions of European and North American standards.

First on the agenda the next morning was the canyon adventure that had me hanging alongside a hidden waterfall. Afterwards, we changed into wetsuits for a rafting trip down the Baiguate River. To get there, we first drove through Jarabacoa, the principal town in the area and, according to lore, home to the handsomest men in the country. If true, this would be saying a lot. With a population descended from the first European settlers, African slaves, refugees from neighbouring Haiti and a now-extinct Taino Indian tribe, there really doesn't seem to be such a thing as your average-looking Dominican. We, however, didn't see many people, beautiful or otherwise, as we paddled through a stunning river valley dotted with the occasional thatched hut. Despite dire-sounding advice about how to recover from a dunking — and how not to tip in the first place — the trip seemed far more exhilarating than dangerous.

Columbus' First City
To make the most of our cross-country itinerary, however, we were forced to skip the paragliding, horseback riding and hiking also offered here. By late afternoon we were on the bus again, heading for a cultural excursion in the country's capital, Santo Domingo.

We devoted the next day to exploring La Zona Colonial, the city's impressive, nicely maintained and surprisingly under-visited heritage area. As the place where Christopher Columbus first settled, Santo Domingo boasts the first cathedral, the first university and the first hospital in the Americas.

Friendly guides were easy to find, but where were the camera-wielding crowds that should be gawking at what is essentially the first colonized city in the Americas? Obviously, they were too busy sipping slushy piûa coladas at the nearest tourist enclave in La Romana. There's nothing wrong with that, but given what you'll find in this historic city, it's certainly worth the effort to come, and not just for the sense of history and inspired architecture. Santo Domingo offers some great food and a cosmopolitan, if eccentric, nightlife for those looking for more than the standard merengue lesson.

In the evening, we made our way to the Hotel Occidental El Embajador. A free piano bar makes this a popular early evening hangout, but we stayed on for dinner. Just weeks before our arrival, the hotel had been the set for Feast of the Goat, a film starring Isabella Rossellini that takes place during the regime of Raphael Trujillo, the country's notorious mid-20th-century dictator.

Ironically, given Trujillo's legendary brutality towards women, we learned that today the executive staff of El Embajador is composed almost entirely of women. It shows in the hotel's pink-hued, Jackie Kennedy glamour. Our meal, drawn from a menu of sophisticated adaptations of Dominican cuisine, was delicious. Afterwards we were joined by a pair of cigar-wielding, hilarious (even when arrogant) Parisian diplomats, who'd heard about our table of Montrealers. About the only thing missing from our slightly surreal, but consistently entertaining, evening was Jerry Lewis clowning around in English, French and Spanish, with Dean Martin by his side.

Baseball Diamonds in the Rough
As we hit the end of our week, we still wanted to visit Bayahibe's Laguna Beach, which has very recently become a certified Blue Flag beach, along with only eight others throughout the Caribbean. Founded in France, Blue Flag is an ecological organization with a mission to set high-quality eco-tourism standards for beaches.

On the way between Santo Domingo and La Romana, we made a brief stop in San Pedro de Macoris. This industrial port would certainly not by any standards be called touristy or eco-friendly. The city is visibly impoverished — a routine sight in San Pedro is a family of five packed onto one motorcycle. In just about every vacant lot available, however, you will find a happier, healthier sight: kids playing serious baseball.

The hometown of the legendary Samy Sosa and numerous other major league players, San Pedro is the most famous baseball town in the Dominican. It became clear why many of these players hold out so fiercely in negotiations: their salary often supports many people back home. The Tetelo Vargas Stadium is the place to catch rising stars playing real games, but local kids seem genuinely thrilled with any audience who'll watch them bat a ball made of socks.

Treasure Island
If the north shore of the island is for mountain lovers, the south side is the place for the serious beachcomber. Having spent the previous evening swimming by sunset at the pristine beach of Bayahibe, we set out the next morning for gorgeous Saona Island accompanied by archaeologist Adolfo Lopez.

This island, exactly at the border of the Atlantic and Caribbean, is popular for day trips because of the numerous unspoiled white beaches that create the illusion of a deserted paradise. The truth is that about 400 villagers live here, catering to the tourists who visit. Because it's considered a national heritage site, hotels will probably always be prohibited from building here. According to Lopez, odds are extremely favourable that the island will become a protected UNESCO heritage site within the next couple of years.

Saona was home to the indigenous Taino people until they were slaughtered by early Spanish settlers. The island went on to become a pirate haven during the 17th and 18th centuries, and during the Trujillo era it served as a home for political prisoners. Its history as an ancient settlement, left relatively untouched by European civilization, has made it an important archaeological site as well, though much of the island remains unexplored.

Subterranean lakes, shipwrecks dating from the 15th and 16th centuries and caves that are the area's richest source of cave art guarantee the island will remain attractive for archaeologists as well as travellers. One of the greatest disappointments of the trip was being unable to visit the caves. One of our trip advisors failed to mention that we would need proper, full-length clothing to protect us from the jungle and bugs.

We were forced instead to spend our last hours lazing on white sand beaches and swimming virtually alone in turquoise water. However, with the Dominican Republic only a four-hour plane trip from Montreal — and the knowledge that there's still so much we haven't seen — there's a good chance we'll make it back someday.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.