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 Patosboth 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.
Established in 1504 by the future conqueror of Cuba Diego Velázquez, AZUA is among the oldest cities in the New World. In the early sixteenth century, Mexico conquistador Hernán Cortes served as its mayor, but despite this lofty history there’s nothing left of the original city, which was demolished by an earthquake in 1751. On top of that, Haitian armies occupied Azua multiple different times in the nineteenth century and, despite being repelled in the El Número mountain passes to the east, left the village virtually sacked. Although a celebration is held on 19 March every year to commemorate an 1844 battle that resulted in victory over the Haitians, the town’s Pueblo Viejo holds no colonial ruins, and Puerto Viejo – the old port – is merely an industrial site for the extraction of natural gas. If you are travelling between Lago Enriquillo and San Juan de la Managua, you will have to change guaguas here. Although most travellers rush through, Azua does boast a couple of decent beaches.
From Cabo Rojo the road devolves into dirt past a series of meagre Haitian beach shacks to the tiny seaside cave settlement known as Las Cuevas. Rancho Cueva (753-8058) is a shaded beachfront restaurant and bar that also runs boat trips (RD$2000 for return boat, up to six people) direct to Bahía de las Águilas, the crown jewel of beaches on the Jaragua peninsula, which is the easiest way to get out there. Even if you don’t want to head out that far the beach here is pretty magnificent itself, and away from the restaurant you’re unlikely to find a single other soul.
Bahía de las Águilas is spectacular, unspoiled and seemingly endless, in large part because it’s smack-bang in the middle of the most inaccessible national park in the country. As there’s very little shade it’s advisable to bring an umbrella or something comparable. Pure white sand with the consistency of flour rings the rocky karst landscape for over 20km, and even with the new boat service there are typically no more than ten people for each of those kilometres. There’s a small national park outpost 2km before the beach where you’re required to pay a RD$50 park entrance fee, and it’s possible to camp out here, although there are no facilities to speak of so bring your own food and supplies from Pedernales.
Just off the water is Isla Beata, a large uninhabited island that has a good variety of birdlife along it and some amazing beaches. There’s no way to get here on your own, but Eco-Tour Barahona does regular day-trips out here, and can be convinced to arrange overnight camping.
Thirty-five kilometres west of San Cristóbal, coastal BANÍ is relatively prosperous thanks to a nearby naval base and the saltpans that lie to the south of the city – an upswing that has spurred much population growth, if not exactly prettified the place. There are few diversions within town – the Parque Central is nice enough for people watching, and you can stop off at Botánica Chango on Duvergé and Carretera Las Calderas for a look at the wares used in the local folk religion. There’s also a unique fiesta patronal held from June 15 to 24 in honour of San Juan Bautista, with dozens of musicians performing a distinctive Afro-Latin music called sarandunga, which has heavy rhythmic influences from Senegal but is unique to Baní.
Founded by Haitian General Touissant L’Ouverture in 1802 as an alternate port to Santo Domingo and once the informal capital of Trujillo’s multimillion-dollar sugar industry, BARAHONA has fallen on hard times due to the low price of sugar globally and the transition in the US from sugar to corn syrup in all manner of sweetened products. Evidence of this downturn abounds in the uncared-for roads rutted to the point of near impassability. Nevertheless, the town itself is a convenient base and the Malecón boasts some good nightlife, to be enjoyed after a day’s exploring.
For most of the twentieth century, sugar was the crop around which the Dominican economy revolved. Though tourism recently replaced it as the top source of foreign currency, sugar plantations still exist all along the southern half of the island, their vast expanses of cane harvested by migrant Haitian labourers who live in meagre company barracks known as bateyes.
As early as the late nineteenth century, depressed sugar prices made Dominican labour too expensive for the sugar companies, and masses of migrant workers were imported from the British Antilles to fill the void. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, even this labour became too expensive, and formal agreements were reached that paid the Haitian government to recruit and export tens of thousands of cane cutters each year. The batey workers came from the poorest rural parts of Haiti, encouraged by the opportunity to save US$30–50 over the course of a season – in four or five years that would be enough to build a modest house and work a small subsistence farm back in their home country. Many, however, have come back empty-handed or, worse, never left at all.
The formal agreement has dissolved, and Haitians who cross into the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar fields do so aba fil (under the fence). Since the earthquake in 2010, thousands more Haitians have poured over the border in desperation for work, making the bateyes more crowded and wages even lower.
Batey life involves horribly substandard conditions. Manually cutting cane with machetes is backbreaking work, and the labourers are paid as little as RD$3 per tonne. They have to work at least fourteen hours a day in order to feed themselves, pay a baroque system of bribes to police officers and company officials and save a few pesos for the return to Haiti. Most bateyes have no bathrooms or running water, and workers must walk a kilometre or more for water and sleep five or six to a small room. Every year thousands of Haitians fail to earn enough for the journey home, and are forced to stay in the batey during the dead season, when there’s little work available. The inhuman conditions have led various international human rights groups to declare the situation tantamount to slavery, but there has been little in the way of reform to date.
Habitat for tens of thousands of tropical birds and protected as Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos, Lago Enriquillo is an enormous 42km-long salt-water lake and slightly larger than the island of Manhattan. At the southern base of the Sierra Neiba, the lake sits at the lowest point in the Caribbean, a full 46m below sea level.
You can get on the water with one of the boat tours (daily 7.30am, 8.30am and 1pm; 2hr 30min; RD$300–2000, depending on group size) that depart from the park entrance 4km east of La Descubierta, near the lake’s northwestern tip. You’ll be taken to an enormous bird sanctuary filled with flamingos and hundreds of other tropical birds, which collectively form an unforgettable multicoloured spectacle; also a hit are the American crocodiles that inhabit this part of the lake, though you should take one of the morning tours if you want to see them – guides get into the water and steer them past the boat for a closer view. From there it’s on to the arid, iguana-infested Isla Cabritos in the lake’s centre, a sandy island covered with cactus where the half-tame rhinoceros iguanas crowd around you in the hope of being fed.
At the end of the Carretera Las Calderas, the beautiful small town of Las Salinas consists of little more than a few dozen houses scattered about a white-sand beach, surrounded by sand dunes, saltpans and rolling hills. The beach here is sandy and pleasantly under-used, easily the best place to spend a day east of Barahona. It’s also a great place for windsurfing and the small resort Salinas High Wind Center, Puerto Hermosa 7 (w www.hotelsalinas.net), serves as an informal windsurfing club on weekends – though you’ll have to bring your own equipment. It caters mostly to wealthy Dominicans, and has garishly painted but modern and comfortable rooms with good water pressure, a rarity in these parts, and also a pool, bar and disco. The setting is beautiful, with placid Caribbean waters lapping a small private beach, and the patio restaurant serves the best seafood in the area; try the house speciality, lobster criolla (ask for two big lobsters instead of three little ones) or the lambí; you can expect to spend around US$20 for a meal here.
The downside is that there’s no service late at night and you’ll have to buy a phone card in the town centre to make calls. The hotel is also hard to reach on the phone, so you’re probably best off just turning up.
Outside the small hotel in Las Salinas, you won’t find many accommodation options in the immediate area. There is some public transport linking Las Salinas to Baní: you’ll find guaguas headed between the two every hour or so.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a charismatic faith healer named Liborio established a self-reliant commune in the mountains north of San Juan de la Maguana that attracted thousands of followers. Local peasants considered him a reincarnation of Jesus and worshipped him as such, though detractors maintained that he planned to march on Santo Domingo and set up a Voodoo theocracy with himself as high priest. He was branded a bandit by the American army during their occupation of the 1910s and 1920s; seeing his populist commune as a threat to their rule, they put a bounty on his head and sent out regular patrols to hunt him down. For six years he evaded capture by hiding out in the heart of the Cordillera Central with a handful of followers. When he was finally caught and murdered by American troops in 1922, rumours quickly spread through San Juan and Las Matas that Liborio had risen from the dead, and the soldiers had to dig up his corpse, drive it through the streets of San Juan in the back of a truck and display it in the Parque Central to prove otherwise.
The movement he founded, though, continued, with several local brujos claiming to have had direct spiritual contact with Liborio. In the early 1960s a group called Palma Sola, run by two peasant priests known as The Twins, set up a 1200-member utopian Liborista commune in the fields just west of Las Matas, by all accounts peaceful but deemed subversive enough by the government that on December 11, 1962, the military dropped napalm on them from airplanes – burning six hundred people to death and sending the rest scattering back to their villages. The fields outside Las Matas bear no marker to indicate that the commune members died here, but the Liboristas still dwell in the mountains around San Juan.
PARAÍSO, sandwiched between San Rafael and Los Patos, is the “big town” along this stretch where locals go for fiestas and weekend nightlife, and it’s also where you’ll need to go for ATMs, pharmacies and phone centres. But it still doesn’t boast much in the way of hotels and its restaurants are typical comedores. It does have a long strand of superb sandy beach that can get brutally hot at mid day due to the lack of shade. Along the western end of the strand stands the Hotel Paraíso (243-1080), a decent enough place to stay for the night, with a/c or fan, cable TV and a local-seafood restaurant. Alternately, you’ll also find tasty Dominican fare at Paola, Highway 44 at Nouel, with daily specials for RD$100 – and there are over a dozen different comedores and street vendors within town offering pulled beef and pork, fried chicarrones and the like. When you’re ready to head out of town, you’ll find that guaguas meet at the corner of Nouel and Enriquillo, departing every 20min or so east and west along the highway.
The dusty village of Pedernales is close to the beaches that lie along the western coast of Parque Nacional Jaragua’s flint-shaped peninsula, accessible via a well-marked turnoff 12km east of town. There is no public transport within the national park, so you’ll need your own transport to get to them. Three kilometres in, keep an eye out for Cabo Rojo, a beach near the bauxite plant that actually has quite lovely sand and is popular with local kids as well as pelicans.
SAN CRISTÓBAL, Trujillo’s home town, enjoyed its heyday during his rule and was the beneficiary of an enormous cathedral and two palatial presidential residences. The cathedral still stands – though there’s little reason to visit it – but the mansions are now in ruins, and the cramped, asphalt city qualifies as one of the country’s least appealing. That said, it is well situated for exploring some fascinating nearby sights, namely the La Toma balneario and El Pomier caves to the north, and it is close enough to Santo Domingo – just 30km west of the capital – to make it a day-trip.
El Pomier (daily 9.30am–5pm; RD$50 for park entrance, plus RD$500 for a guide; bring your own torch and wear boots) lies 10km north of the Casa Caoba fork and protects the most extensive collection of cave pictographs in the Caribbean – some as many as 2000 years old – though this claim to notoriety draws strangely few visitors. There are three major sets of caves, the other two being Borbón and Santa María; El Pomier is the only one open to the public.
Upon arrival, you’ll be assigned a park guide (Spanish only) who will take you to the first of three enormous, easily accessible chambers, two of which hold a variety of Taino pictographs. In addition to scattered depictions of various birds and animals (which were once used for religious rituals) there are a number of interesting geological formations and one cave filled with thousands of bats. If you want to see the best petroglyphs, though, you’re in for a bit of an adventure, including rappelling down some steep cave walls. Domingo Abreu (682-1577, email@example.com) runs regular trips to El Pomier from Santo Domingo for independent tourists and is the best person to contact if you want to go to the more spectacular, but somewhat inaccessible, caves.
Transport to El Pomier is via RD$10 pick-up trucks stationed at the north end of the San Cristóbal town market on Calle Juanto María and Francisco Peynado. They don’t take off until the entire truck fills up, so you may want to travel instead via RD$50 motoconcho, which you can also pick up at the market.
Tucked away in the mountains along the Río Nizao, the mountain hamlet of SAN JOSÉ DE OCÓA, 27km north of the Carretera Sánchez along Highway 41, attracts weekenders from across the country (though few foreign visitors), mainly in the summer months when temperatures in the valley below can be sweltering. Most are here to visit the river balneario and take advantage of the lovely, sometimes rugged, mountain landscape that surrounds the town.
Five kilometres beyond Baoruco, the pueblo San Rafael holds an enticing beach, if one with a strong, crashing surf, crowded with Dominicans on weekends but only moderately populated the rest of the week. Fortunately, a waterfall thrums down the nearby mountains and forms a natural swimming pool at the beach entrance, with an unobtrusive artificial barrier walling it in so that water slowly pours over the edge into the sea. The area around here is a popular camping spot, complete with public shower and bathroom facilities, and some shacks nearby sell excellent grilled lobster and fresh fish. You can hike along the river’s cascades into the mountains, or head up a turnoff just west of the beach, with panoramic views atop a high cape. From the beach you can also climb up a series of small cascades that are a popular local bathing spot.
Another stunning beach lies 5km further west along the coast beyond Paraíso in Los Patos, where the ocean is joined again by a river descending from the mountains to form a freshwater swimming pool. The beach, surrounded by dense mangroves, is pretty lively throughout the week, with vendors lining the sand to take care of most visitors’ culinary and souvenir needs.
The best way to experience the pristine wilderness of the Sierra Bahoruco mountain range is along the border from the north, via the gravel track that begins at Duvergé, 80km north of Pedernales. Protected by the government as Parque Nacional Bahoruco, the mountain range contains a variety of ecosystems, including a vast stretch of pine forest that rivals the Cordillera Central in scope, large swaths of virgin rainforest and thirsty limestone desert in the foothills. While there are no nearby hotels to speak of, there are a couple of organized campsites in the park, and it’s also possible to do a day-trip from Pedernales.
The ascent from Duvergé to Puerto Escondido, a village of shacks perched atop the mountain14km along the way, is easily the bleakest stretch of country, parched mountainside bereft of vegetation, but as the road veers sharply west from here the ecology gradually transforms into rainforest mixed with ferns and pine. After 25km you’ll reach El Aguacate, a small military outpost on the border. From here the road leads steeply upward to Loma del Torro, the mountain range’s highest point at 2368m, and primary-growth rainforest – dotted with orchids and wild strawberries – begins, with clouds passing below the road and several spots with spectacular views of Lago Enriquillo.
Five kilometres south of Aguacate is the potato market. Very much worth a stop, the market is held daily in a series of tents in the middle of the wilderness where locals from both sides of the border swap Haitian potatoes for clothing and Haitian gourdes. Locals play poker beneath the central tent and cook beans over a campfire, while their mules graze nearby.
A few kilometres further south you’ll come across Hoyo de Pelempito, a 250m-deep canyon covered with virgin pine and inhabited with a variety of birdlife. The government has recently built a viewing platform here, and there are half a dozen great hiking trails in this area, especially for birders.
Getting to Hoyo de Pelempito and the national park involves either renting a car or getting Villa Barrancoli to pick you up, but there are guaguas every 30min to and from Duvergé via Azua, Barahona and Jimaní.