The Santo Domingo valley stretches east from the capital along the Caribbean coast all the way to the Mona Passage, the body of water separating the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico, encompassing vast tracts of sugar cane along the way, once practically the nation’s sole source of hard currency. North of these fields roll the verdant high hills of the Cordillera Oriental – really a final spur of the Cordillera Central – which themselves terminate at the bowl-shaped swamp basin of Parque Nacional Los Haitises. This sizeable region is the Dominican Republic’s southeast, known primarily for its popular Punta Cana resort zone, a 45km strip of idyllic, uninterrupted sand lined with all-inclusive hotels that are far less expensive than what you’ll find around most of the Caribbean. While these beaches may be a bit remote for extensive day-tripping and countryside exploration, they do make perfect spots for utterly relaxing holidays. And the upgrading of the region’s roads – which has seen much of the coastal highway widened, and the start of a new highway through to Punta Cana – means that the whole area is becoming ever more accessible.
Aside from the large resort area, the southeast is fairly poor, rural and somewhat bereft of must-see sights – with the notable exception of the two national parks that help frame the region. One of these, Parque Nacional del Este, protruding into the Caribbean at the southeastern tip of the Dominican Republic, more or less continues the theme of great beachfront, especially along the remarkable nature reserve on Isla Saona. Nearby, you can visit three cave systems – Peñon Gordo, Del Puente, José and Padre Nuestro – though the extensive Taino rock art that these caves hold is mostly off-limits to tourists. Not far to the west, the pretty seaside village Bayahibe, the latest centre of all-inclusive construction, is the best base from which to visit the park’s various points of interest. At the northwestern edge of the region, the mangrove swamps of Parque Nacional Los Haitises, on the Bahía de Samaná, hide several Taino caves visited on boat trips organized from towns both in the southeast and on the Samaná Peninsula.
La Romana and San Pedro de Macorís, which lie on Highway 3 between Santo Domingo and Parque Nacional del Este, serve as urban exceptions to the backwater feel of much of the region. These two mid-sized towns, which both flourished during the glory era of the sugar industry, have enjoyed contrasting fortunes in recent years. La Romana has grown into a relaxing and prosperous place, having benefited quite a bit from Gulf & Western’s investment in local industry and capitalizing on some resort build-up – notably in the vast Casa de Campo complex just east of town. San Pedro, on the other hand, is still struggling economically despite its widespread reputation for turning out numerous baseball professionals – such as home-run king Sammy Sosa – from its poverty-stricken slums.
It’s not entirely surprising that the southeast, save for a few choice spots, seems slightly left behind – at least when its rocky history is considered. Shortly after arriving in Santo Domingo, governor Nicolás de Ovando waged a particularly brutal campaign of Taino extermination in these parts, and the newly cleared land was quickly settled in 1502 by explorers Ponce de León and Juan Esquivel, who established sugar estates and cattle ranches in the area, while at the same time setting up slave-capturing outposts in Puerto Rico and Jamaica. The one notable relic of the era is Casa Ponce de León, the fortified keep of the famous conquistador near the village of Boca de Yuma. In the late sixteenth century, though, the area was abandoned and became home to roaming herds of wild cattle left by the Spanish estates. When the devastaciones forcibly moved north-coast settlers into Monte Plata and Bayaguana in 1605, the colonists resorted to hunting the cattle for their livelihood, setting up tanneries and ranches to export leather and beef via Santo Domingo. The rancher ethos is still very present, particularly during the many fiestas patronales, which feature long processions of cowboys and livestock parading through the countryside and city streets. This ranching system promoted a less egalitarian economic system than the prosperous family farms of the Cibao Valley, and during the chaotic nineteenth century the Southeast produced most of the caudillos – political strongmen who imposed their will on the country by force of arms – who recruited private armies and battled each other for supremacy.
Even as the caudillos fought for national power, their economic clout at home was being undermined by the burgeoning sugar industry. In the 1860s, Cuban financiers, who had fled a revolution in which their plantations had been burned and their slaves freed, began large-scale sugar production in the eastern Santo Domingo valley; sugar quickly became the country’s principal commodity. Former fishing villages San Pedro de Macorís and La Romana were built up into bustling port cities during the Dance of Millions, when American corporations pushed the Cubans out and prices increased tenfold due to World War I, though the global depression of the 1930s wiped out much of the region’s prosperity. The revival, spurred on by the construction of the many lavish all-inclusives along the eastern coast, did not really take hold until fairly recently as more and more of the glorious pristine coastline is gobbled up by large-scale tourist developments.