The coast west of Santo Domingo grows more beautiful the further out you go. While you may find the cities immediately west of the capital to be sprawling and none too attractive, the majestic beauty of the mountainous coastal road between Barahona and the Haitian border is simply jawdropping. Thanks to the lack of mass tourism, you’ll find the area particularly unspoiled and suitable for independent exploration. Further inland, the diverse range of landscapes and natural attractions are collectively famous for the rich birdlife they hold, from a salt-water lake set in the desert to expanses of wild, seemingly endless cloud forest.
Once the focus of Trujillo’s personal sugar empire, the area is now better known as one of the country’s poorest regions as a result of its over-dependence on the crop, its economy collapsing when sugar prices took a nosedive back in the 1960s. It is nonetheless rich in heritage: north of San Cristóbal, the caves of El Pomier hold some excellent Taino rock art, while the town of San Juan de la Maguana, north of Azua, is famed for its religious festivals.
To the west of the capital, the countryside devolves into arid semi-desert, punctuated by large, industrial cities of interest only for their own nearby beaches. These cities – notably San Cristóbal, Baní and Azua – have tried to emulate the success of the Dominican Republic’s other major sugar zone, the southeast, by courting all-inclusive hotel developers to the many superb beaches that run from San Cristóbal all the way to the border, but these efforts have thus far been unsuccessful.
Most travellers choose to instead head to the region’s nominal centre Barahona, an old sugar-processing capital that has seen better days, thanks to the sporadic operations of its mill; inland from Barahona, and from the whole coast really, vast tracts of sugar cane take over.
Southwest of the Barahona along the coast, you’ll find several inviting rural fishing villages between the Caribbean Sea and the southern peaks of the Sierra Bahoruco, the island’s second largest range, covered with rainforest and boasting steep slopes that drop off abruptly at the coast. Paraíso – a pleasant town with a long sandy beach – is one of the prime spots along this stretch, while San Rafael and Los Patos both have rainforest waterfalls tumbling down from the mountains, forming freshwater pools before meeting the sea.
At the flint-shaped peninsula taken up by Parque Nacional Jaragua, in the far southwestern part of the country, the mountains retreat a bit and lush greenery evaporates into stark desert. Obscured from view on the peninsula’s sharp edge lies the beautiful Bahía de las Águilas, 20km of protected beach wilderness with no development or human inhabitants that makes for an idyllic retreat, if a little tricky to get to. The government has made sporadic efforts to colonize this area too with tourism infrastructure, but perhaps due to its remoteness there has been little impact economically or environmentally. Environmentalists are lobbying hard in the Congress to stop any large-scale development and the good news is that, instead, a new crop of small, eco-friendly tourism operations have sprouted in the past few years, both along the coast and in the densely forested mountains to the north.
On the other side of the mountains to the north, you’ll come to Lago Enriquillo, one of the country’s premier natural attractions, a vast lake the size of Manhattan teeming with birdlife and crocodiles along its eastern tip.
The Carretera Sánchez that stretches west from Santo Domingo to Azua, where it becomes Highway 44 and continues all the way to the border, is well paved and fairly easy to navigate, though west of Barahona you should watch out for some tricky turns atop high cliffs. Be prepared also for the highway to end abruptly at the major towns, only picking up again at the other side. Off the main highway you’ll usually have to make do with rough dirt roads, though paved avenues lead from the Carretera to San José de Ocóa, Cabral, Las Salinas and Palenque. Public transport is simple between Santo Domingo and Barahona, with guaguas running in a steady stream between towns in daylight hours, at least hourly in the overnight hours. The guaguas thin out between Barahona and Paraíso, and only run every two hours or so between Paraíso and the border. Along the Haitian border itself the terrain is rough and the roads are poor-to-nonexistent, with no public transport to speak of.