Whilst the north, east and south of the country are known for their beautiful sandy beaches, it is well worth making your way to the south west corner of the Dominican Republic. It is one of the country’s best kept secrets and home to the biggest national parks. The area is totally underexploited, untamed and bursting with natural beauty. Leaving the capital, Santo Domingo by highway two, it is approximately three hours by car to Barahona, the biggest city in the south west. The south west is one of the most diverse areas in the country, being part mountain range, part desert, part coastline. The geography is awe inspiring, with the mountains literally descending directly into the ocean. It was one of the first areas occupied by the Spanish, and for centuries was occupied by Haitians who founded the City of Barahona in 1802.
From Barahona, take Highway 44, described as one of the most scenic and spectacular coastal roads in the Caribbean. Whilst staying on the road will take you to Pedernales and the border crossing into Haiti, well before then, after 23 miles, you will arrive at the little village of Los Patos, meaning The Ducks. There you will find the shortest river in the world which starts where the coast road crosses it and ends after only 200 yards in the beautiful Caribbean Ocean.
The beach is not sand, but smooth pebbles and it is safer to bathe in the crystal clear and refreshingly chilly river water than the sea. To experience true local flavor, go at the weekend when it is full of Dominicans enjoying themselves. Along the side of the river, right next to the beach are several shacks selling drinks and freshly cooked sea food. There is no better way to spend the day than swimming in the river, walking along the pebbled beach and enjoying some of the best fish in the country all washed down with the local Presidente beer.
The highest mountain range in the Dominican Republic – indeed in the whole Caribbean – is known as the Cordilla Central and there you can find the highest peak in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte which rises to 3,098 metres or 10,164 feet.
The beginning of the hike is near Constanza, the highest town the country, although there are several companies who will arrange everything for you from other parts of the country. It is essential to have a guide, and these come together with one or two donkeys. One donkey is for the equipment and the other is for the guide to ride. The tourists walk apparently. The trails are well organised, with charts and maps showing you where you are and how long it would take the average person to walk the distance. The whole route is divided into sections. The total hike is 48 kilometres – 24 there and 24 back and people complete it in anything from 2 to 4 days. Be warned, the walking is not easy.
There is overnight accommodation in a hut which is comfortable although basic, and the guide prepares food. On arrival at the top you can see a statue of Juan Pablo Duarte who was one of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic and widely considered to be the architect of the country and its independence from Haitian rule in 1844.
Dajabon lies in the north west of the Dominican Republic, on the border with Haiti. Twice a week a market is held there where the Haitian vendors cross the border to sell to Dominican merchants and vice versa. The market will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no denying it will be an experience you will never forget.
The market is currently held on Mondays and Fridays, although the days often change so it is worth checking before you go.
The market is totally mind blowing and enormous, part outside and then there is a massive blue building with stalls inside, upstairs and down. It is hot, very crowded, dusty and crazy. People rush everywhere. Women with bags and containers on their heads yelling what they are selling. Men rushing hither and thither with wheelbarrows, empty and full. There are clothes, shoes, bags, electrical goods, food of all descriptions, household goods, cleaning materials, and all at good prices. People come from all over the Dominican Republic to buy things there to then sell in their shops.
People are eating, sleeping, lying on piles of rugs, sheets, and blankets. It is an experience you will never forget. You should also be warned that there are pickpockets so be careful with your wallet.
On the way back you will be stopped by several military check points. This is nothing to be concerned about as they are looking for illegal Haitians, illegal weapons and illegal drugs. As it is the main northern route into and from Haiti there are far more checkpoints on this road than in the rest of the country.
Punta Cana in the east of the country is home to one of the major airports and most of the all-inclusive hotels. Nearby, there is sugar cane as far as the eye can see in all directions, as you pass through several Haitian bateys (settlements). The fields are full of workers, stripped to the waist, bodies glistening with sweat, cutting the cane with their machetes in the same way it has been done for centuries. Teams of oxen pull wooden carts laden with cane to be loaded onto the rusty old train carriages and taken off to the mill for processing. It is a fabulous drive and experience.
Taking Highway 1 out of Santiago towards the North West, you will pass through the town of Esperanza, meaning Hope, and then arrive in the pretty town of Mao, also known as Valverde and famous for its beautifully preserved Victorian wooden architecture. Leaving Mao and the rice fields behind you turn right for Moncion on the main road to Santiago Rodriguez and after around 11 kilometres turn left and climb the foothills of the central mountain range with spectacular views on all sides. You drive past the pretty park and church on your left and then turn right and immediately left to head to the dam. It is the tallest dam in the Caribbean and the third artificial lake in the country. The area around the dam is perfectly preserved and replanted and since its inception in 2001 one of the objectives was to develop ecotourism in the region, although there is still no apparent major tourist activity. The dam provides water to all of the surrounding area and is a spectacular sight. Sometimes they are people canoeing, boating and jet skiing on the water.
Leaving Moncion you drive back down through Los Pinos and Cacique which were major Taino Indian settlements. The area is famous for its cassava (yuca) plants from which they make cassava bread, a staple food of the Taino Indians, and there are little stalls selling it all along the roadside.