The Caribbean’s Best Kept Secret

The Dominican Republic:

Text and Photography by Walt Stearns

Coming to the Dominican Republic was certainly the most unexpected treat of this year. Its topography is incredibly varied and its cultural diversity nothing short of astounding. For beach lovers, the Dominican Republic has more than 300 miles of golden sand beaches lined with coconut palms, where swimsuit tops are optional and secluded stretches are still as unspoiled as they were more than 100 years ago.

Owing to its size, it encompasses 30,000 square miles of the eastern two thirds of the island of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic is not an easy place to sum up in a few words. Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the Caribbean Sea on the south, it is a giant among the Caribbean’s collection of tiny islands.

Dominated by four parallel mountain ranges, the interior’s diversity encompasses verdant, rugged hillsides, lush rain forests, fertile farmlands of sugarcane, coffee, cocoa and fruit groves, and even small, cactus speckled deserts. Within the Dominican Alps’ central range is Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s tallest peak, soaring 10,700 feet above sea level. Part of the same range has served as an effective natural barrier, insulating the Dominican Republic from its beleaguered neighbor, Haiti.

The marine topography is equally varied. It ranges from colorful, low profile reef tracts with deep undercuts and caves to dramatic, towering pinnacles, cascading walls, and wrecks from numerous ages. Most of the DR’s southern coast is comprised of karstic rock. As a result, there are numerous freshwater caves similar to those found in north-central Florida and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. There is definitely more than meets the eye to the Dominican Republic.

Looking at the country now, it is easy to understand why Christopher Columbus proclaimed Hispaniola The most beautiful land that human eyes have seen, after he stepped ashore December 5, 1492. So enamored was he with it, he asked to be buried here; a request that was respectfully honored.

What Awaits the American Traveler

Lying slightly south of the Tropic of Cancer, the Dominican Republic has a climate that varies little. It is warm and balmy except during the two rainy seasons; one in late spring, the other in fall.

Finding plenty to do and the means to do it, is no problem here. However, deciding what and how much you want to to do once you get here, might be difficult.

This dilemma, of course, is further encouraged by the Dominican Republic’s substantial development of large modern, luxurious all-inclusive resorts, scattered up and down both coastlines. Most offer nearly all watersports (from boardsailers and sailboats to wave runners and scuba diving), meals, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, entertainment (live nightly performances are usually standard) and children’s daycare for incredibly low package rates. Couple this with the unusually low cost and affordable rates most airlines provide to the island and the Dominican Republic is perhaps one of the Caribbean’s best kept secrets. It has been known to European and Canadian travelers for some time but, surprisingly, is almost completely unknown in the U.S.

Owing to the scope and self-contained nature of the resorts, which typically cover several acres of their own private beachfront, going outside the grounds for anything is seldom necessary. This can be a pity, because beyond the gates is a countryside steeped in history, with charming people and cultures, as well as plenty of natural beauty.

In the nearby mountains of Puerto Plata, the national park and botanical gardens of Mt. Isabel de Torrers (accessible via a five minute cable car ride, second in size to the one in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) offers a breathtaking view of both the city and coastline. In addition to human tourists, from January through March large numbers of Humpback Whales visit the Dominican Republic’s Atlantic coast. Here, they bear their young and mate.

For sightseeing and retracing the steps of history, the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo, on the south coast, contains some of the richest monuments to the exploration and settlement of New World. Founded by Christopher Columbus brother Bartholomew in 1496, Santo Domingo was the first continuously inhabited colonial seat for the Spanish Empire, in existence until the end of the 16th century when Spain virtually abandoned it in favor of richer lands on the continent. During its short but prosperous period as the capital port of this vast new territory, the city was the site of several firsts: it had the first stone constructed cathedral, monastery, hospital, university and city hall in the new world.

After hours, the cities and towns come alive with nightclubs, bars and discos pulsating to modern music and Merengue, the national music and dance of this island, which reflects the beat of its large mix of Carib/Latin cultures. Seventy percent of the islands population are the result of extensive intermingling between Spanish and white European settlers and African slaves. Spanish is the official language but English is widely spoke and communication is facilitated by the friendly attitude of the country’s people.

The range of dive sites and conditions around the Dominican Republic are surprisingly good. In regions I visited on both the north and south coasts the reefs were both healthy and diverse. Outside Puerto Plata, a site called Runway presents a trio of 50 foot high, inverted bucket-shaped coral pinnacles standing side by side across a 65 foot deep sand bottom, with large stands of Elkhorn Corals capping their tops. Near the tip of the Samana Peninsula, where the 150 foot high cliffs of Cabo Cabron meet the sea, the same cliff contours continue downward in the form of steep, cascading coral covered slopes and mini walls (some with large caves) to depths of 140 feet.

On the south side of the country, besides partaking in a couple of freshwater cave dives (some of the easiest and most secure sites I have seen) and a few moderate depth (30 to 60 foot) reef dives, I also explored one of the five most colorful wrecks in the Caribbean. Placed on the bottom in 1986, the 135 foot, fully intact Hickory looks like a Hollywood movie set. Sitting on an even keel at 60 feet, the wreck is covered with numerous colorful corals and sponges, large schools of Blackbar Soldierfish, Glasseye Snappers, squirrelfish and Sergeant Majors; its large mast rises to within three feet of the surface.

Off both coasts I found underwater clarity averaging 80 feet and there was minimal current. While the diving is both beautiful and easy, this is not one of the fishiest places I have seen. However, because there is a lack of large fish, small reef beauties, such as Spotted Drums, seem to move about the corals with almost complete abandon. And, while diving around Saona Island, I was delighted by the sudden appearance of a Dwarf Manta Ray (Mobula hypostoma) with a wingspan of five feet. Although rare, things like this can happen. In most places, both single and two tank dives are made from outboard powered, 24 to 27 foot open skiffs. The ride to the sites vary from 10 to 45 minutes each way. Bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen.

Getting There

The Dominican Republic’s three major ports for tourism with air access are in metropolitan cities of Puerta Plata on the north coast (also called the Amber Coast) and Santo Domingo on the south coast, with Punta Cana International handling the islands far eastern tip. Among the three, travel to and from the Dominican Republic is simple, just a short distance (less than two hours from Miami, three and a half hours from New York) with numerous airlines (American Airlines, Pan Am and TWA, to name a few) providing direct, nonstop flights to the U.S. Before departure, you will need to purchase a Dominican Republic tourist card ($10 U.S.) at the ticket counter during check in. The only other requirements for U.S. citizens are a valid passport or an original birth certificate and a valid photo identification.