Not surprisingly, the majority of the country’s tourism industry centres on its endless supply of idyllic, palm-fringed beaches and crystalline-clear turquoise waters. Watersports range from swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, windsurfing and surfing to deep-sea fishing and whale watching.
Though many beaches are protected from powerful ocean currents by natural barriers, others have dangerous rip-tides and should be avoided by all but the strongest swimmers; also worth noting is that the waters off Santo Domingo are shark infested and should be eschewed by all. Inland, the island’s many rivers and lakes are perfect for whitewater rafting, canyoning and lake fishing. The country’s five separate mountain ranges are popular for mountain biking, horseriding and trekking. In the resorts you’ll also find golf courses, tennis courts and, in La Romana’s Casa de Campo, polo grounds.
Snorkelling and scuba diving
The vast majority of Dominican reefs have been damaged beyond repair by careless local fishing practices, notably the daily dropping of anchors by thousands of small vessels. The only area where you’ll still find a large system of intact coral reefs lies west of Puerto Plata, between La Isabela and Monte Cristi. By no coincidence, this is the most remote coastal region in the country and devilishly difficult to access for scuba diving and snorkelling. A number of tour operators, however, can take you out to parts of the reef.
Along the southern coast, the best snorkelling is in Bahía de Neiba, just east of Barahona, where you may spot manatees; at Isla Catalina, a small, heavily visited island near La Romana where the fish have been known to eat out of snorkellers’ hands; at Isla Saona, an enormous mangrove island with decent reefs, just east of Bayahibe; and at Parque Nacional La Caleta, just east of Santo Domingo, where the National Parks Department sank a retired treasure-hunting ship called the Hickory in 1984, which has since been calcified with new reef that is feeding ground for an array of sea creatures. Numerous private operators and most all-inclusive hotels offer trips to the reefs, wrecks and caves that dot the southeast coast, along with diving instruction.
Surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing
The north coast resort of Cabarete is known internationally as the windsurfing capital of the Americas and is the venue for the Cabarete Race Week and the Encuentra Classic, both major world competitions. There are a dozen different windsurfing clubs that offer equipment rental and high-quality tutoring, but the strength of the waves and wind makes it a daunting region for beginners. If you’re starting out, the scenic beach town Las Salinas along the southern coast has quietly become a centre for windsurfing as well, with milder conditions and a small windsurfing club that’s used mostly by wealthy Dominicans.
Perhaps more appealing for beginners, though, is the burgeoning sport of kiteboarding, which takes much less time to learn and is truly exhilarating – even beginners are often shot up in the air by their kites as they skate along the waves. See Cabarete for information on prices and operators. Once surfers have mastered Playa Cabarete’s waters, many experts often try their hand at Playa Encuentra several kilometres west, where the waves are titanic and conditions extreme.
Surfing is less organized and done mostly by locals, though there is now a surf camp in Cabarete. Other popular venues include Playa Encuentro near Cabarete, Playas Grande and Preciosa, just east of Río San Juan, and Playa Boba north of Nagua. Be aware, though, that these are challenging spots for the sport and most have no posted lifeguard or board hire; they should only be used by those with a good deal of experience.
Sailing, fishing and whale watching
The DR is a major port of call for Caribbean sailors, with especially good marinas in Luperón, Manzanillo and Samaná, where you’ll come across a network of dozens of fellow independent sea-travellers. Be warned, though, that the Puerto Turístico in Puerto Plata should be avoided at all costs, due to a high frequency of robberies and acts of sabotage. Nautical maps of the surrounding waters are hard to come by; your best bet is to pick one up at the marina in Luperón, though some of them will be a bit out of date. Day-sailors will find tour operators and independent boats in Puerto Plata, Cabarete, Luperón and Bayahibe that regularly take small groups of passengers on sailing day-trips; prices can run anywhere between RD$500 and RD$2000 for the day, depending on location and length of the excursion.
Many of the all-inclusive resorts feature daily deep-sea fishing tours that run around RD$1500 for the day per person, though you typically have to stay at the hotel in order to book them. Standard catches include sea bass, red snapper and kingfish, though you can get good game fish from tours along the southeast coast, including wahoo, porpoise and marlin. Along the northwest coast between Monte Cristi and Luperón, the remarkable reef makes for some tremendous fishing; expect to catch wahoo, king mackerel and dorado year-round, with lots of tuna between June and August, blue marlin from May to September, white marlin between August and October and sailfish from November to April. Away from the hotels, you’ll find good big-game fishing, especially for marlin, in southern coastal towns Boca de Yuma and Palmar de Ocóa. There’s little in the way of tourist infrastructure in these towns, so ask around at the hotels for a good boat captain and make sure he or she has a working radio and safety equipment. On the south coast, the best months for fishing are from June until early September and you should expect to catch blue and white marlin, dorado and barracuda. In October to January you can still catch abundant sailfish and wahoo. The best lake fishing is near remote inland town Cotuí, where the Lago Hatillo, a pretty reservoir surrounded by rolling hills, holds large quantities of lake bass. The easiest way to fish here is to get a recommendation from the owner of local hotel Rancho del Lago.
Every winter, over four thousand humpback whales from across the Atlantic come to the DR’s Bahía de Samaná and Silver Banks Sanctuary to mate, give birth and nurse infants. High season is January and February, with some early arrivals in December and a number of hangers-on in March. Whale-watching boats set out from the town of Samaná every day in high season and you’ll also find tour operators that feature week-long boat excursions to Silver Banks, during which you’ll have the opportunity to swim with the whales.
Mountain resort town Jarabacoa, deep in the heart of the Cordillera Central, is the centre for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Several tour operators with experienced guides run daily trips down the turbulent Río Yaque del Norte. Expect a moderately challenging trip with several tricky twists and turns and a couple of steep drops. You can also spend as long as a week kayaking through the Cordillera Central rivers on excursions from operators Rancho Baiguate and Iguana Mama. Jarabacoa, Cabarete and Las Terrenas also have terrific opportunities for cascading (descending a rock face on elastic cords) down various waterfalls as high as 75m, which when accompanied by experienced guides is far less dangerous than it sounds, but undeniably exhilarating.
The DR has five separate mountain ranges that afford almost infinite opportunities for mountain biking. Cabarete’s Iguana Mama is the one major mountain-bike tour outfit in the country, offering challenging day-trips into the Cordillera Septentrional and week-long mountain-bike and camping excursions from one side of the country to the other. They’re also the best place in the DR to go for bicycle rental, as they rent out several well-serviced Cannondales for US$30 per day. You’ll find bike clubs in Santo Domingo and Santiago that go on major mountain-bike excursions across the island on weekends. Be forewarned, though, that if you can’t keep up with their pace, they’ll have no qualms about leaving you behind; if you’re interested, ask first at Iguana Mama for a personal reference.
The best hiking can be found along the five separate trails that lead from disparate parts of the Cordillera Central to Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean. Hikes range from three to six days in length. The even more adventurous will instead want to take the rugged two-day trail from the Haitian border to Nalga del Maco, an enormous system of caverns that’s the most revered religious site in the country for devotees of Vodú. If you’re not up for a multi-day excursion, try one of the several great day-trip hiking trails near Puerto Plata, Monte Cristi, Jarabacoa and Constanza.
Horseriding excursions are also quite popular. In addition to the plethora of outfits that offer day-rides along the country’s many beaches, you’ll find good-quality operators in Cabarete, Punta Cana, Las Terrenas, Jarabacoa, San José de las Matas and Río San Juan.
Another tempting outdoor option available is caving in one of the numerous extensive systems throughout the island, many bearing vast collections of Taino rock art. Among the easiest to see are the coastal caves in Parque Nacional Los Haitises, accessible by boat tour, but the most rewarding of all are the series of Taino caves in Parque Nacional del Este near Bayahibe, where Taino art references to Christopher Columbus and the early Spaniards have been discovered. Other prime places for exploration include caves near San Cristóbal, Monción, Cabarete, Las Galeras, Boca de Yuma, Loma de Cabrera, Bánica and Hato Mayor. There aren’t a lot of organized caving tours, though; typically you’ll have to hook up with a local guide and do them on your own, so be sure to bring your own boots and a torch.
Though there are several small, nondescript golf courses spread across the island, three of them stand head and shoulders above the pack: the Pete Dye-designed Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo in La Romana and the excellent Robert Trent Jones courses at Playa Dorada and Playa Grande on the Silver Coast. All three have the majority of their holes set on spectacular open oceanfront and are occasionally used as tournament venues.