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
Stretched along the C-5 between the beach and lagoon that bear its name, CABARETE is a crowded international enclave that owes its existence almost entirely to windsurfing and kiteboarding. There was no town to speak of in 1984 when legendary windsurfer Jean Laporte discovered the area’s near-perfect windsurf conditions. The town quickly became a haven for sculpted surf bums debating the nuances of gear between death-defying feats, a scene that was augmented exponentially when kiteboarding became part of the mix in 2000 – it has now gone on to become the area’s dominant watersport. The multicultural cross-section of aficionados of the sports has attracted a growing community of people from across the globe, which has in turn attracted hotel chains and an assortment of adventure sports outfits. In fact, it’s hard for return visitors to believe how quickly Cabarete has blossomed. The website w www.activecabarete.com provides useful information and weblinks for the full range of the town’s outdoor activities.
Today “Cabarete” spans 4km of the highway, with no end to the expansion in sight. A spate of recently built all-inclusives has led to the growth of a more traditional brand of tourism, but the clients at these new hotels are generally younger, hipper and more interested in adventure sports than guests at more family-oriented complexes like Playa Dorada. And the open, accessible layout of the town prevents it from having the closed-off atmosphere of other Dominican tourist enclaves.
Mountain biking the El Choco road
The main attraction in the countryside surrounding Cabarete is the mountain-biking trail along the old El Choco road, which was once used to truck bananas from the countryside to the coast but is now little more than a dirt path. Iguana Mama’s (571-0908, www.iguanamama.com) half-day mountain-bike excursion down El Choco is a fairly challenging trip but a great way to experience the wonderful scenery, catching glimpses of rural life.
Surfing at Playa Encuentro
Playa Encuentro, 6km west of Cabarete on the C-5, is a haven of surf schools that run out of small wooden huts variously serving as offices, storerooms, repair workshops and/or snack bars. Lessons are generally around US$45 for a two-hour class, US$100–120 for a five-day camp but check whether board rental is included, and ask around for who has the best instructors and rates. Surfboard rental costs US$20–30/day, or US$110–150/week. The more established schools are:
Buena Ondat 829/877-0768, w www.cabarete-villas.com/cabarete-surfing/. Fairly new outfit providing lessons and rental that also organizes excursions to Playa Grande and Playa Preciosa. Transport to and from the beach is an extra US$5.
Cabarete Surf Campt 571-0733, w www.cabaretesurfcamp.com. The camp offers some of the cheapest rates and provides showers at the beach, transport to and from town (included in lesson prices) and offers weekly surf trips to other beaches. Their accommodation is at Ali’s Surf Camp by the lagoon.
Take Offt 963-7873, w www.321takeoff.com. Longstanding surf school that runs lessons for all standards. Also organizes the Master of the Ocean Triathlon every February (a competition involving surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding).
Windsurfing and kiteboarding
The conditions for windsurfing in Cabarete are so perfect that the whole bay could have been designed specifically with this in mind. The trade winds normally blow from the east, meaning that they sweep across the bay from right to left allowing easy passage both out to the offshore reefs and back to the beach. Downwind, the waters lap onto the amusingly named Bozo Beach, which will catch anybody unfortunate to have a mishap. The offshore reef provides plenty of surf for the experts who ride the waves, performing tricks and some spectacular jumps. The reef also shelters the inshore waters so that on all but the roughest of winter days the waters remain calm. The morning winds are little more than a gentle breeze and this, coupled with the flat water, makes the bay ideal for beginners, especially in summer when the surface can resemble a mirror. Then, as the temperature rises, the trade winds kick in big-time and the real show starts. Take some binoculars if you want to see the action out on the reef. Two kilometres west of Playa Cabarete, the white-sand Kite Beach has become a massive international hub for kiteboarding. In many ways similar to windsurfing, but using a much smaller, more manoeuvrable board and relying on a huge C-shaped kite to provide the power instead of a sail, kiteboarding requires less wind.
Schools and equipment rental
Cabarete Windsports Clubt 571-0784, w www.cabaretewindsportsclub.com. A small and friendly centre just in front of the Villa Taina, with which it is affiliated. The clientele is mainly German, but English, French and Italian are spoken as well. Very personalized and good for families, they’ll even take beginners onto a lagoon to start. US$150 for three sessions windsurfing (1.5–3hr depending on group size) on the water and US$230 for the same time kiteboarding; US$50 equipment rental.
Fanatict 571-0861, w www.fanatic-cabarete.com. Small, friendly operation that gives students a lot of personal attention and has a nice beach bar serving tasty cocktails. Lesson in surfing (3hr US$41), kiteboarding in small groups of 2–3 (2hr lesson US$83) or windsurfing (5hr over several days US$177). Spanish lessons also on offer.
Kite Clubt 571-9748, w www.kiteclubcabarete.com. Well-organized IKO-affiliated club, which also runs instructors’ courses, and has a lively club (membership from US$20/week) and café on the beach. A three-day beginner’s package (9 hours) costs US$382 (in a group of two).
Kitexcitet 571-9509, w www.kitexcite.com. One of the original kiteboard schools on Kite Beach, and part of the Kite Beach Hotel. German-run but staff who can teach in English, French, Spanish, Russian or Italian. US$280 for an 8hr beginner’s course, slightly more for a course using radio helmets to give instant feedback on your performance on the waves.
Laurel Eastman Kiteboard CenterApart-Hotel Caracol t 571-0564, w www.laureleastman.com. School founded by a legendary female kitesurfer who does the best job of training newbies, with four-day private courses for US$460 and four-day group lessons for US$425.
Vela/Spinout/Dare2Flyt 571-0805, w www.velacabarete.com. German-owned and the best-stocked of Cabarete’s windsurf centres with free daily clinics and a lively social scene at the adjoining bar. US$255 for a week’s kiteboarding equipment rental. Their Dare2Fly station on Kite Beach offers equipment rental and lessons daily. US$390 for a three-day introductory course with equipment.
DAJABÓN is the biggest of the border towns, and unsurprisingly holds the largest formal crossing and best regional market. The Spanish had a fort here from the mid-sixteenth century, but it was little more than a collection of small farms until 1794, when Touissant L’Ouverture slaughtered most of the locals and resettled the spot with Haitians (the river that flows along the border here has been called the Massacre ever since).
Dajabón is now firmly Dominican, but hundreds of Haitians pour into town on market days, typically held within the eight square blocks bordering the bridge (Mon–Fri 9am–4pm). Freelance Dominican entrepreneurs come from as far as Santo Domingo – buying bulk quantities of grain and produce from Dominican farmers, swapping them to the Haitians for clothing and household goods and then selling the Haitian wares to individual clothing and department stores in the major cities; many of the “designer” labels that you’ll find on the streets of Santo Domingo are actually Haitian counterfeits. The Haitians come across the “Friendship Bridge” at the western end of town – the women balancing huge bushels crammed with gym shoes on their heads while the men lift impossibly loaded wheelbarrows – and claim small patches of pavement for their impromptu shops.
The Haiti earthquake
In January 2010, measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale, the most powerful earthquake to hit Haiti in 200 years caused unprecedented devastation on the western side of Hispaniola, killing almost 300,000 people, injuring as many, and leaving an estimated 1.5 million homeless. The epicentre was located close to the capital, Port-au-Prince, reducing entire urban areas to rubble. The fact that 25 percent of Haiti’s civil service was wiped out in the disaster, combined with the country’s already fragile physical and social infrastructure, added to the usual panoply of problems that beleaguer large-scale relief efforts. Despite the Dominican Republic’s perennial acrimonious relations with its poorer neighbour, President Fernández garnered international plaudits for his immediate response to the earthquake, supplying medical services, volunteers and pledging vast sums of aid, including $40 million for a new university. He also championed the right of the Haitian government to maintain control of the aid efforts, while facilitating the arrival of supplies and relief personnel through the DR. Another positive outcome was that the disaster jolted the Dominican–Haitian Mixed Bilateral Commission out of its torpor as it met for the first time since 2000 to address issues of mutual concern. Though the anticipated mass influx of refugees across the border into the DR did not occur in the initial aftermath of the quake, over the last twelve months, around a million people are thought to have entered the country since a year on, despite sustained relief efforts, Haiti’s homeless remain in tented camps, with little prospect of improved living conditions, and, at the time of writing, escalating outbreaks of cholera adding to the misery. This increase in migration has already put a strain on the countries’ precarious new relationship as thousands of Haitians deemed to be in the DR illegally are being deported back over the border, on a scale unprecedented in recent years.
El Castillo is just a few houses scattered around a grid of tiny dirt roads on a steep hill. The village beach, Playa Isabela, attracts few visitors and is marked mainly by the small wooden boats moored just offshore and children fishing at the water’s edge. A kilometre out to sea from El Castillo is an intact, living coral reef – rare on this island – where you’ll see a healthy, multi coloured home to thousands of tropical fish and sea creatures. Rancho del Sol can arrange regular scuba and snorkelling trips, and can also take you to other remote reefs west of Punta Rucia.
MONTE CRISTI has the feel of the mythic Wild West, a dusty frontier town bearing the occasional tarnished remnant of its opulent past along wide, American-style boulevards that the sand incessantly tries to reclaim. Among the very oldest European cities in the New World, it was founded in 1501 and became one of the country’s most important ports in the eighteenth century, when it shipped out vast quantities of mahogany. The next century saw the port, like Puerto Plata to the east, benefit greatly from the tobacco boom, but its prosperity came to an abrupt end during the era of Trujillo, who shut down its shipping in retribution for local resistance to his rule. The town has never fully recovered, and the only industry of note comes from the large Morton saltpans – rectangular pools of the salty local water that are filled from a canal and then harvested by allowing the water to evaporate – just north and south of the city, which supply much of North America’s table salt.
Most people use Monte Cristi as a base from which to explore the local beaches and the Parque Nacional Monte Cristi. The latter protects a towering mesa named El Morro, an enormous river delta region with a wildlife-filled mangrove coast and a series of seven tiny sandy islets, encircled by coral, where sea turtles and migratory seabirds lay their eggs.
Carnival in Monte Cristi
Monte Cristi is somewhat infamous for its peculiarly violent Carnival celebrations. Each Sunday in February, the locals split into two groups: the Toros, who dress in stylized Carnival bull masks and bright cloth outfits decorated with mirrors, whistles and other miscellaneous bangles, and the unadorned Civilis. Both parties protect themselves by putting on four or five layers of clothing, including winter coats, then proceed to attack each other in the streets with bullwhips. Police measure the whips beforehand to ensure that they do not exceed a certain length, and combatants are not supposed to hit anyone in the face, though these safety measures don’t eliminate the danger. Onlookers are supposed to be safe from the proceedings, but with hundreds of people whizzing deadly weapons through the air, you’re better off watching the “festivities” from the first-floor balcony of the Hotel Chic restaurant, conveniently located at the centre of the action.
Parque Nacional La Isabela
Just off the main highway, before you reach El Castillo, is the entrance to Parque Nacional La Isabela (Mon–Sat 9am–5.30pm, closed Sun; RD$150), which takes up much of the village’s shoreline and preserves the ruins of La Isabela, the second oldest European town in the New World. Centred on the private home of Columbus himself, which is perched atop a prominent ocean bluff, the park also encompasses the excavated stone foundations of the town 199 and a small museum, though to see either you’ll need to hire a local guide from the main park office (RD$150 tip). Presumably there were far more extensive ruins up until 1960, when Trujillo bulldozed the site in order to turn it into a military fort to defend against sea invasion by insurgents linked to Cuba’s Fidel Castro. You’ll still see the remnants of two large warehouses, a sentry tower, a chapel, what some assert was a clinic and Columbus’s house, which retains a good portion of its walls intact. A number of skeletons have been unearthed from the chapel’s cemetery; one – a Spaniard who died of malaria – is rather unceremoniously on display in a box near the museum. The museum itself offers an account (in Spanish) of the cultures of both Spaniards and Tainos at the time of their first encounter. Better than the solemn recitations by the guide are the hundreds of excavated artefacts, including a pottery oven, a kiln and several containers that still held mercury (used to purify gold) when they were unearthed, along with smaller items such as a tiny sixteenth-century crucifix, unglazed Moorish-style pottery shards and several Taino religious icons. Just outside the building are small plots where local anthropologists grow samples of the agriculture practised by the Taino and the colonists.
The beginning and end of La Isabela
Founded in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and some 1500 Spanish settlers under his command, La Isabela was strategically located on a defensible ocean bluff but far from fresh water and fertile soil, oversights that led to its abandonment in favour of Santo Domingo after only four years. Columbus intended that it would become the gold-bearing capital of Spain’s empire, organizing it according to the factoria system of Portugal’s colonies along the northwest coast of Africa; in these, a small group of entrepreneurial partners forced natives to hand over a valuable local commodity (in this case, gold), either as tribute or in exchange for European goods at a ridiculously low rate.
However, it soon became evident that there was not much gold to be had, and after yellow fever and malaria killed half of the original settlers, the rest became increasingly disgusted. Another sticking point was the tradition of Christian conquest in Spain, which allowed soldiers to enslave Moors on conquered lands. At first Columbus opposed transplanting slavery here, and as hardships mounted he demanded that colonists perform manual labour regardless of rank, alienating the petty nobility. After a failed coup attempt, several nobles stole one of his boats and set off for Spain to complain of the goings-on. In mid-1494, Columbus, perhaps realizing that he was in danger of losing the faith of his men, waged two military campaigns to capture Tainos, allotting slaves to his men in lieu of monthly wages. The Indians were to work the surrounding fields, though many were able to escape.
Two years later Columbus sailed to Spain to request more settlers, leaving his brother Bartolomé in charge of La Isabela. On his departure, a group of colonists led by Columbus’s personal servant Francisco Roldán revolted and went to settle in the outlying countryside. Bartolomé abandoned La Isabela in 1497 with his few remaining men for the site of Santo Domingo, where one Spaniard had found a large gold nugget. On Columbus’s return in 1498, his town lay abandoned; two years later, he was removed from command in Santo Domingo and sent back to Spain in disgrace.
PLAYA DORADA, just 3km east of Puerto Plata on the C-5 but truly a world away, is walled off from the outside universe; inside its confines are fourteen separate resorts, each an entity unto itself, with restaurants, discos, swimming pools, hot tubs and an array of sports facilities. Meandering between them is a Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course. Frequented by half a million package tourists per year, Playa Dorada is the perfect place to lie for a few days on a beach and be pampered, though those seeking more than a cruise ship on sand may find its alluring promotion campaign – like the city of gold after which it was named – a mirage.
The beach is the main draw, 2km of golden sand from which you’re treated to terrific views of Mount Isabela. The hotels offer a variety of activities that take up much of the space, including beach volleyball, spaghetti-eating contests, merengue lessons, parasailing and group aerobics. All of this plus the numerous local souvenir vendors and hair braiders, and touts flogging timeshare apartments makes for a frenetic scene, but there are still places reserved for tranquil sun worship. All in all, it’s basically a great big vacation gulag, but it’s nice enough that you may find yourself experiencing Stockholm Syndrome after a day or two. Various day-passes are available from most resorts, which entitle non-residents to use of their facilities.
The popularity of Playa Dorada has attracted some professional tour operators offering a variety of interesting day-trips. Outback Safari, Plaza Turisol, Avenida Luperón Km 2.5 (t 244-4886, w www.outbacksafari.com.do), is the best of the adventure jeep tour outfits, with a tour (US$79) that includes coffee with a local family, swimming in a clear Cordillera Septentrional stream and boogie-boarding on a less popular north-coast beach. There’s always a bit of rum flowing so expect it to become quite lively as the day wears on. There’s alcohol aplenty too on the various catamaran cruises that ply the coast, generally sailing to Sosúa and back, breaking for snorkelling and lunch in Sosúa bay. Best of the bunch is Tip Top (t 710-0503, w www.catamarandomrep.com; US$65), which sails out of Maimón, west of Puerto Plata, alternating excursions to Sosúa with trips to Luperón. Freestyle Catamarans provide the Playa Dorada hotels with a wilder booze-cruise snorkelling trip to Sosúa and back, including snorkelling, lunch and free drinks.
By far the best scuba-diving shop in town is Sea Pro Divers in Plaza Playa Dorada (t 320-2567, w www.seaprodivers.com); most of their local dives are around Sosúa. A two-tank day trip costs US$90 (including equipment rental and transport) whereas you can also sign up for an eight-dive package, spread out over several days for US$300. A popular recent addition to the tours on offer is the Yasika Adventure (Mon–Sat 8am–5pm; t 650-2323, w www.yasikaadventures.com; US$84, cash only) an exhilarating zipline ride, which has you whizzing between ten platforms above the forest canopy high up in the Cordillera Septentrional, close to the village of Yásica on the mountain road to Santiago. Note there’s a US$14 discount if you book directly with them, rather than via your hotel, and a US$5 supplement for pick-ups from Sosúa, Cabarete or Cofresí. A more leisurely way to see the countryside is to saddle up at Rancho Lorilar, the north coast’s largest stable, just below Mount Isabela. They offer highly professional horse riding in small groups with excellent guides: two hours for US$50, and a full-day tour for US$70 (US$10 extra for a private outing); the latter includes lunch and a refreshing dip in a lagoon. Prices include hotel transfer.
Also check out Iguana Mama, which operates out of Cabarete but offers mountain-bike trips and the like in the mountains south of here.
Playa El Pato, a small cove protected by a giant reef that turns it into a large natural swimming pool, is rather sparsely populated, at least much more so than Playa Ensenada, 1km further west, where Dominican families come to take advantage of the shallow waters. The western end of the 1km-long Playa Ensenada, where it meets the road, is quieter, with stunning white sand, gently lapping turquoise water and a few small boats bobbing just offshore with the mountains as a background. Turn right to the eastern end of the beach for a totally different cultural experience with radios blasting the sounds of bachata and a few shacks selling food and rum. The food’s usually excellent and the rum’s always cheap.
Just around the point from Playa Ensenada, Punta Rucia is arguably the most beautiful beach on the north coast, with more ivory sand and great mountain views. It attracts fewer people than Ensenada but has several informal local places to stop for lunch or a beer, some with live music. The small point that separates the two beaches is bordered by a thriving coral reef, which provides good snorkelling.
You’ll find much about Puerto Plata to enjoy, particularly its nightlife. Its core, the Old City, or Zona Colonial, borders the port to the east, a narrow grid of streets that was once the most stylish neighbourhood in the country. Around the original town sprawls a patchwork maze of industrial zones and concrete barrios known as the New City, formed over the past century with the growth of the town’s main industries apart from tourism, namely tobacco, sugar and rum. More relaxing than either the city or Playa Dorada is Costambar, a quiet gated maze of townhouses and condos just a short RD$50 motoconcho or taxi ride away from the Parque Central while a little further west you’ll find the huge and much-advertised Ocean World, an aquamarine park home to dolphins, seals, sharks and more, whose new marina is one of the largest in the Caribbean and a major stop on the cruise-ship circuit.
The city’s Fortaleza San Felipe is the only impressive vestige of colonial times in one of the oldest European settlements of the New World. More prominent, if not quite as atmospheric, are the scores of often rather dilapidated Victorian gingerbread mansions that make an outdoor museum of the Old City. Along the Atlantic Ocean is its famous Malecón, a 2km promenade best experienced on a weekend evening when its discos, outdoor bars and bonfire beach parties spring to life. Other sights of interest include the Museo de Ámbar, with an impressive display of prehistoric insects trapped in the translucent sap, and the cable-car ride to the summit of Mount Isabela de Torres, the flat-topped behemoth that lords over the city from the south.
Climbing Mount Isabela
Climbing Mount Isabela de Torres is a challenge that some can’t resist. Iguana Mama (t 571-0908, w www.iguanamama.com), an adventure outfit based in Cabarete, runs twice-weekly (Mon & Fri) hiking excursions to the top that take off from Puerto Plata (US$88); you then take the cable car back down. If you want to make the trek on your own, there’s a well-marked path on the opposite side of the mountain, starting at the pueblo El Cupey. Head east on the C-5 to the junction of the Carretera Turística and turn right. Just beyond the intersection is a marked dirt road leading to the pueblo – an isolated outpost tucked between two mountains. It has few facilities, though a couple of local farmers rent out horses and guides for the ascent. The Isabela hike is an arduous 4hr trek up the 820m mountain through a canopy of rainforest; start early to maximise your chance of a clear view from the summit. If lucky you may catch sight of the endangered Hispaniola parrot or the red-tailed hawk. There’s also a small system of Taino caves with petroglyphs near the summit, an hour’s hike west off the main path. Look for a guide in El Cupey if you want to see them.
Another great hike from the town is the trail that leads away from Mount Isabela up to the Río Camú and La Cueva del Gallo, an underground river cave several hundred metres long that traverses the side of the mountain to the south of El Cupey. Just 3km from the pueblo, it’s a less rugged hike than the Isabela trek and can be done in half a day.
Isabela de Torres Cable Car
Puerto Plata’s crowning attraction is the suspended cable-car ride (daily 8.30am–5pm; adults RD$350, children under 10 RD$200; t 970-0501) that goes to the top of Mount Isabela de Torres. The entrance is at the far western end of town past the port, just off the Circunvalación Sur on Camino de los Dominguez, a RD$50 motoconcho- or US$15 taxi-ride away. It’s definitely not to be missed; the views of the city on this 25-minute trip to the top of the 800m peak are stupendous. At the summit a statue of Christ the Redeemer, a slightly downsized version of the Río de Janeiro landmark with its arms spread out over the city, crowns a manicured lawn. Also on the grounds are a botanical garden, a pricey café (Tues–Sun) and a souvenir shop. The mountain is now a protected national park, covered by rainforest on its far side and inhabited by 32 species of indigenous bird. Don’t wander too far beyond the area marked off for tourists, as Mount Isabela is in the process of splitting in two. The brown splotch along its face, visible from the city, is a landslide created by the split, and there are a number of deep fissures at the summit.
Puerto Plata expats
The worst questions you can ask an expat in Puerto Plata are often “Where are you from?” and “Why did you move here?” Milling among the tour operators, itinerant sailors, timeshare salesmen and retirees are a number of questionable characters, colourful in the extreme, many on the run from the law for tax evasion, insurance fraud and various other white-collar offences. The Caribbean adjuster for Lloyd’s of London claims that at any given time you’ll find some of Interpol’s most-wanted wandering the streets, and a British crew filming a documentary on English expats said that every time they turned on the camera inside one popular watering-hole, a half-dozen people ran for cover. The fugitives tend to attract a bewildering variety of law enforcement officials, including undercover FBI agents, Canadian Mounted Police, international spies and insurance detectives. It lends an eerie film-noir feel to the town, augmented by the narrow streets lined with slowly decaying nineteenth-century warehouses.
Puerto Plata festivals
Puerto Plata holds the usual Dominican festivals, a fiesta patronal – this one in honour of patron San Felipe on July 5, featuring large crowds drinking and dancing along the Malecón – and Carnival, in February, when hundreds of townspeople parade around in full regalia and thwack passers-by with inflated balloons. Perhaps better than either of these, however, is the renowned Merengue Festival – which typically sees parties right along the Malecón – usually held during the third week of October, though the exact timing varies slightly from year to year. A cultural festival, involving all sorts of music and dancing alongside art and craft exhibitions, takes place annually in the third week of June round the fort and central plaza.
The Río Damajagua waterfalls
Just outside the town of Imbert, around 15km southwest of Puerto Plata, you can visit and climb (and sometimes even slide down) a stunning series of waterfalls along the high, early course of the Río Damajagua (daily 8.00am–3pm; RD$280–$490, including guide; w www.27charcos.com). The 27 natural, boulder-strewn cascades snake down the side of a mountain wilderness, the water crashing down at breakneck speed. It’s a wet, challenging and extremely rewarding hike up, with a great hilltop view at the end. If not part of an organized tour – most of the operators in Puerto Plata, Sosúa and Cabarete offer the trip – pack your swimsuit and make sure you’re wearing robust footwear before heading southwest from Puerto Plata along the C-5 until you see the Damajagua sign 3km south of the Imbert Texaco station. From here a road leads east for 500m to a visitor centre where you pay the admission fee, meet your guide and pick up the life-jackets and mandatory safety helmets. From here, it’s a 20min hike to the falls. Each individual cascade has its own feature. Some have pools for swimming or ladders for climbing up, while others have natural chutes waiting to be slid down. The climbs can be pretty steep and the flow of water fierce at times, particularly after heavy rains, and you should exercise extreme caution at all times. Children under 8 eight are only allowed to tackle the first cascade.
The visitor centre, which has an attached restaurant, is a sign of the site’s growing popularity and importance to the local tourist industry. Now designated a national monument, the falls have become an almost obligatory stop-off for the region’s all-inclusive tour operators. The revenue generated has allowed the authorities to upgrade the paths linking the falls, several of which have been turned into nature trails. The surrounding community has also benefited with a percentage of each admission fee set aside for local development projects.
You can easily do the cascades as a day-trip from Puerto Plata – take one of the frequent Javilla Tours buses to Imbert then hop on the back of a motoconcho; alternatively a taxi will set you back US$60, including wait time.
Río San Juan
The small, friendly fishing village of RÍO SAN JUAN, 5km east of La Yagua, borders a large mangrove lagoon, Laguna Gri-Gri, as well as being in reach of several great beaches, including Playa Caletón, Playa Grande and Playa Preciosa. Although development has taken place around the village over the past decade, it has remained little changed; its tree-lined streets, easy-going atmosphere and simple reliance on boat building, fishing and dairy farming come as a welcome change from the resort bustle to the west.
Río San Juan’s main attraction is Laguna Gri-Gri, at the northernmost end of Duarte, and it comes as a wonderful surprise, a magnificent mangrove reserve traversed by organized boat tours that you can arrange and board from a small quay at the road’s end (589-2277). The 2hr tours, which cost RD$1200 per person (for 3 to 6; thereafter, RD$200 per person) head out of the lagoon through the mangroves; go early in the morning if you want to catch more of the birdlife. The boat then enters nearby Cueva de la Golondrina (Swallow’s Cave) to admire the stalactites and stalagmites, before heading along the coast to Playa Caletón, where you get to swim. You can also arrange to go snorkelling or fishing for an extra sum. To see the lagoon’s birdlife on foot, walk east from the Hotel Bahía Blanca to the peninsular bird sanctuary that the tour skirts, which is at its most active just before dusk when hundreds of egrets return to roost. Alternatively take the dirt footpath to the left of the tours office.
Campo Tours is the lone tour operator in town, but you’ll find better-quality tours, and operators, down the road in Cabarete.
The area’s most spectacular beach is Playa Grande, a gorgeous and gently sloping stretch of golden sand lapped by deceptively tranquil-looking green-blue waters and overlooked by swaying palms and cliffs. It’s become increasingly popular in recent years, forming a stage on many local tour operators’ itineraries, and the parking area is now home to several shack restaurants as well as vendor stalls selling souvenirs and rum drinks from coconuts. The cliffs to the west are topped by the Playa Grande golf course – neatly symbolizing encroaching development along this coast – while those to the east protect the pristine Playa Preciosa, which, should you manage to negotiate the steep climb down, you will probably have to yourself. Be warned, both beaches are renowned for ferocious rip-tides, so take extra special care when swimming. Playa Grande often has a lifeguard (at its western end); Playa Preciosa does not.
Río San Juan scuba diving
Río San Juan offers some of the best dive spots on the north coast, including: Crab Canyon, a 26m dive through underwater stone arches; Natural Pool, a 15m dive along a great coral reef and into a large cave that looks like a church sanctuary; and Seven Hills, a trip that goes 30m down an underwater mountain and makes you feel as if you were flying. Northern Coast Divers in Sosúa runs dive trips to Río San Juan.
Common on beaches with high surf, rip-tides are dangerous ocean conveyor belts that funnel the water being smashed against the coast back to sea. Surfers and windsurfers actually find them desirable, as they pull you effortlessly out to the big waves, but they can pose a life-threatening problem for less experienced swimmers; indeed, at Playa Grande, a couple of people die each year in the tides. If you’re not a strong swimmer, it’s best to keep off beaches with high, crashing surf altogether. You can sometimes – but not always – identify rip-tides by sight as ribbons of sea that don’t have any large waves travelling across their surface. At times they’ll also have a different colour from the rest of the water. If you’re caught in a rip-tide, do not attempt to swim against the powerful current. Instead, swim to the right or the left – and not directly back to the shore – until you are out of its grip.
Set along a sheltered horseshoe inlet impressed into the eastern end of Bahía de Sosúa, the large resort town of SOSÚA has a bit of a bumpy history, now somewhat hard to detect as few visitors make it past the inviting beaches. It was created in the late nineteenth century by the United Fruit Company, which used it as a port for their extensive banana plantations along today’s El Choco Road. In 1916, following a pattern that would be repeated throughout the Americas in the twentieth century, United Fruit abruptly abandoned their operations in the Dominican Republic, and Sosúa lay mostly derelict until the early 1940s, when Trujillo provided refuge for several hundred Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany, who settled just east of Playa Sosúa and created the barrio known as El Batey. Here, they formed a successful dairy cooperative – Productos Sosúa – which operates to this day.
The first stirrings of tourism came in the 1970s as wealthy Dominicans and retiring foreigners began building winter beach homes in the area. The explosion of sex tourism in the 1980s brought on the real boom, however, as young Dominican women from the outlying rural districts supported families back home by catering to the desires of tens of thousands of travellers. Large-scale hotel development ensued, and much of the traditional fishing and agriculture was abandoned. The wealthy retirees petitioned against this unsavoury atmosphere and, in 1996, finally convinced the government to act; over the course of a year, the national police closed every bar in Sosúa. With its controversial lifeblood squeezed dry, the local economy promptly collapsed, leaving an abundance of empty hotels and restaurants. Slowly but surely the town has risen from its ashes, helped in no small part by low prices but also because it really is a pleasant little town with a great beach. Nonetheless, although no longer the town’s main attraction, the sex trade is still much more noticeable here than in any other Dominican resort along this stretch.
Diving from Sosúa
Sosúa is the best place on the north coast for diving and home to one of the best diving outfits on the island, Northern Coast Divers, Pedro Clisante 8 (t 571-1028, w www.northerncoastdiving.com). The multilingual staff run daily boat trips to several local hotspots, including the Airport Wall, a 33m wall dive with tunnels, and the Canyon, two walls formed by the splitting of the reef only 2m apart. They also head further afield to the mangroves of Río San Juan and the Caverns of Cabrera (otherwise known as El Lago Dudú). The further away from Sosúa you go the better, since the local area has been sadly stripped of its reefs and there are few signs of nearby sea life. First-time dives start from US$60, with PADI Open Water courses from US$325. The shop can also arrange snorkelling trips as well as pick-ups from nearby resorts and now have affordable self-catering apartments (see Mary Rose). Merlin Dive Centre (t 571-2963, w phuket-diving-thailand.net/) and Big Blue Swiss Dive Centre (t 571-2916, w www.big-blue-diving-sosua.com), both on the beach road, also enjoy good reputations.