With charter flights pouring into the Dominican Republic at a cost no greater than that of a weekend break in Spain or France, one imagines this land to be little more than one big hotel complex catering to the two-week bronzers.
However for the intrepid traveller with a desire to take advantage of these cheap flights, there is a world within this tiny island that is a far cry from the tourist-impacted northern and eastern shores, a world that offers an ecological paradise not yet touched by the packaged-holiday resorts.
The southwest of the Dominican Republic is often seen by its fellow provinces as being the donkey’s rump of the island. It has seen little of the country’s booming development, as the money made in the north and east of the island rarely manages to trickle down through the stunningly arid landscape that separates this oasis of natural beauty from its richer neighbouring provinces. The Barahona district boasts one of the most modern airports in the Caribbean, but without the tourists it lies empty.
This lack of traveller interest does not mean that there is nothing to visit or do within the region. The road from Barahona down the coast runs parallel to the beach, uninterrupted for more than 200km (124 miles) arching up and down the lush dramatic landscape that crests the sky-blue Caribbean ocean. Small villages of colourful houses that spread the various valleys lead to empty beaches frequented only by fishermen and children playing truant, which on weekends come alive with Dominicans of all ages dancing to the hip swaying sounds of Merengue and cooking fresh fish on open fires.
Fancy a perfect beach?
Quemaito, a 10-minute drive from Barahona, is a beautifully quiet beach with calm turquoise waters accentuated by the brilliantly white round pebbles of the beach. Its shallow reefs make for excellent snorkelling and its two food shacks grill freshly caught fish for lunch.
Further on down the road lies the small fishing village of Baoruco, the sole home of the semi-precious Larimar gem, whose breathtaking colour resembles the waters that lap its shores. Walking along the empty beach you are bound to find handfuls of the stone that wash down from the forested mountains that crest the village.
Next stop along is the most thriving beach of them all, San Rafael, with its long stretch of pebble beach crested by the forested mountains that arch strikingly up to the sky. On weekends the fresh water pools at the waters edge, that are fed by the waterfall rushing down the mountain side, play host to Dominicans young and old. Here you can drink rum, eat fish and dance to bachata at the pool-side shacks or just follow the waterfall up to its source and enjoy the awesome views at the top.
The subsequent beach in this line is Los Patos another small fishing village with a large fresh water river that meets the sea. Along its banks are scores of little shacks serving up the mornings catch with plantains and rice. Like San Rafael this small stretch of shore comes alive on weekends with bathers from as far away as Santo Domingo.
How about some animal & bird life?
It is not just the soul-wrenchingly picturesque shores, with their small coconut-bark thatch huts, that make this part of the island the most attractive. The hills that stretch back all the way from the coast into Haiti are seething with life. The Dominican Republic has a greater variety of flora than any of its neighbouring Caribbean islands, with more than a 100 different species of hibiscus alone. A walk into these mountains from any one of the villages along the coast and you will be blessed with spectacular views, hidden communities, all manner of fruit trees, refreshing streams to swim in and the occasional load laden donkey.
True coffee lovers should take a trip up to Polo nestled in the peaks far behind San Rafael, although to reach it one must take the road to Cabral on the Santo Domingo-Barahona road. Here, reputedly, some of the world’s best coffee is grown in the milder climate of this small rural community where there are more donkeys than cars.
On the way up stop off at Polo Magnetico, a small stretch of road where round objects, wheels of your car included, seem to role up the hill. This optical illusion confounds both the eye and the stomach.
In this part of the country the people are the friendliest on the island. Even if someone glares at you, grace them with a beaming smile and the stare will crack into a broad welcoming grin. Speak in Spanish and it’s a fair bet you will be invited home for dinner to meet the family.
Morals permitting, a description would also be apt of Lake Enriquillo with its flamingos, crocodiles and dachshund-sized iguanas, the colourful and dubiously aromatic Haitian markets, and the pounding discos… but then if all were to be detailed here, then this hidden gem would no longer remain the Caribbean paradise that it is.
Finally, my tip for home-cooked Dominican food: catch a 10-minute motorbike taxi (motoconcho) from Barahona to the village of La Hoya. At the entrance to the village there is a small light-green coconut-bark house on the banks of an ox-bow lake where the proprietor, Daisy, serves up the best true Dominican food to be found in the whole region. The setting of this comedor truly compliments the food of this little family establishment.
Planning a trip? Check out Viator’s list of Dominican Republic things to do & sightseeing, from Dominican Republic airport trannsfers and sightseeing cruises. Or maybe you fancy tours in Puerto Plata or things to do in Punta Cana. OK ok, what you’re really interested in is a good ol’ Dominican Republic tour. We’ve got that too. here are more trip planning tips for the Dominican Republic and Dominican Republic travel reviews over on Viator.com. If you need a place to stay, check out Dominican Republic Hotels on Planetware.com.