The Dominican Republic’s so-called SILVER COAST, 300km of mostly prime waterfront property on the country’s northern edge, hemmed in to the south by the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean. With a seemingly unending supply of great beaches, such a designation is no surprise, though away from the heavy traffic of the resort towns – mostly around Puerto Plata and parts east – you may be surprised by the coast’s unspoilt character and the diversity of its geography. The place has historical resonance as well, as the first shore that Columbus settled, though the Spanish colony later grew up around Santo Domingo on the island’s south coast.
Columbus envisioned the area as a shipping point for vast deposits of gold that proved to be a product of his imagination; popular belief is that the sobriquet originated a few decades later when armadas bearing Mexican silver skirted the fortified shore to protect themselves from the pirates of the old Cannibal Sea. The word “cannibal” is a corruption of “Caribbean”, after the Caribe Indians, who were reported practitioners of cannibalism. Indeed, sixteenth-century maps of the region invariably bore illustrations portraying natives roasting missionaries on spits.
A century after Columbus’s “discovery”, Cuba supplanted the north coast of the Dominican Republic as the favoured way-station for Spanish booty plundered from Mexico and Peru. The region soon after began to rely on contraband trade with the very pirates it once fought, and the major settlements were razed to the ground by the Spanish Crown in 1605 as a punishment. The Silver Coast’s last four centuries have proceeded much as the first did, with periods of short-lived prosperity followed by long decades of subsistence. You’ll see evidence of the occasional construction booms embedded in the major towns like geological strata.
Nowhere is this better seen than in Puerto Plata, a bustling, albeit slightly down at heel, city packed with atmospheric nineteenth-century architecture situated roughly halfway between the Samaná Peninsula and the Haitian border. Though it’s an interesting place to explore, most visitors tend to bypass it entirely in favour of the calmer, more upmarket and more neatly manicured pleasures of Playa Dorada to the east, the largest all-inclusive resort complex in the world, and, as such, home to a dizzying array of organized activities. Further east are more resort towns, linked by the coastal Carretera 5. Chief among them are Sosúa, a former sex-tourism centre that has (partly) cleaned up its image over recent years, with three separate beaches and an old Jewish quarter founded by World War II refugees, and Cabarete, the kiteboarding and windsurfing capital of the Americas, an internationally flavoured village erected over cattle pasture during the past twenty years. Even further east, things quieten down with no huge developments until you reach the Samaná Peninsula, although there are some interesting diversions along the way. The best of these is sleepy Río San Juan, a small town bordered by the thick mangrove swamps of Laguna Gri-Gri and a glorious 2km-long beach known as Playa Grande.
Just outside Puerto Plata, to the west, the villages of Costambar and Cofresí provide two low-key alternatives to Playa Dorada; the former is a small beachside settlement dominated by expat residences and Dominican holiday homes, the latter a former fishing village hosting a couple of resort complexes. Further west lie a series of remote pueblos where campesinos live in much the same way as they have for the last five centuries. Of interest here are La Isabela and El Castillo, the site of Columbus’s first permanent settlement, which sit behind an immaculate bay with the best snorkelling on the island; the remote beaches Playa Ensenada and Punta Rucia, as beautiful as any on the island; and at the far western end Monte Cristi, a remote, dusty border town flanked on both sides by a national park that protects a river delta, a collection of desert islands and a strip of cactus-laden mountain landscape.
South of Monte Cristi, most traffic heads for Dajabón, a trading post with an edgy frontier feel, which comes alive twice a week with a bustling market. From there a magnificent road corkscrews up into the Cordillera affording stellar views across the border into Haiti and along the northern Dominican coastal plain.
The C-5 makes getting around by car easy east of Puerto Plata as there are plenty of guaguas and públicos shuttling between Puerto Plata and Río San Juan, with onward connections to the Samaná Peninsula. The country’s major bus company, Caribe Tours, also links the region with the capital providing bus services from Santa Domingo to Sosúa via Puerto Plata and Santiago.
Travelling west of Puerto Plata is more of a challenge (but not impossible) if you don’t have a 4WD. From the Carretera Puerto Plata, which heads south towards Santiago, you’ll find a number of turn offs that lead successively to Guzmancito, Luperón, La Isabela and Punta Rucia, hellish pot-holed moonscapes for the most part, but slowly in the process of being paved. Guaguas run along each of these roads during the day. Beyond Punta Rucia are mule tracks; if you don’t have a motorcycle, you’ll have to head south to the Carretera Duarte, which stretches along the western Cibao Valley, to reach Monte Cristi. From there, a surprisingly good tarred road sweeps up into the mountains as far as Restauración, 60km due south. After that, you’ll need a 4WD as the road beyond is of variable quality and devoid of public transport.
Laguna Gri-Gri, cattle egret in Dominican Republic © Alta Oosthuizen/Shutterstock