The easiest excursion into the mountains from Santiago is SAN JOSÉ DE LAS MATAS, a sleepy hill-station looking out over the northern Cordillera Central, here packed with palm trees and coffee plantations. In part it’s so quiet because the town has the country’s highest per capita rate of immigration to the US; many of those who stay at home are supported by relatives in New York. San José is a great starting-off point for several day-hikes and an arduous five-day round-trip trail to Pico Duarte, and is particularly interesting during the fiesta patronal – held during the first week of August – when hundreds of relatives return from the States for the festivities, and during Christmas, when there’s a candlelit procession on horseback at night.
There’s little to do within town but take a leisurely walk and admire the views; for one such lookout, take the dirt path behind the post office, on 30 de Marzo, to a cliff-top park with a good vantage point over the neighbouring mountains. Most viewpoints and natural swimming holes lie several kilometres outside San José, with the best balneario – La Toma del Río Antonsape – at Mata Grande, the starting point for the Pico Duarte trek.