Dominican Republic: life outside the playground

Virgin coastline, untamed rivers, mountainous terrain – there’s more to the Dominican Republic than indentikit resort hotels, says Sara Macefield in this article for London’s Telegraph.

Away from the tourist enclaves, the Dominican Republic boasts miles of wonderful beaches

“Holy Mother,” shrieked my normally unflappable guide as a truck laden with cabbages careered towards us on the wrong side of the winding Caribbean road. I held my breath as we swerved; trying to ignore the precipitous drop just inches away and steeled myself for the collision that, thankfully, never came as the truck managed to squeeze, Houdini-like, through a tiny gap.

In that split second, I realised why the tiny roadside chaplagoel we had visited earlier was such an essential stop for motorists: they wanted to light a candle and pray for a safe onward journey.

It seems drivers in the Dominican Republic are not noted for caution, and I reflected that this trip to the mountains could well become far more of an experience than I had anticipated.

Yet I was also determined to discover the “real” Dominican Republic, away from sprawling resorts of identikit hotels with their gargantuan swimming pools and innumerable buffet restaurants. For while it’s true that this image of a cheap and cheerful Caribbean playground is the one that most holidaymakers associate with the Dominican Republic, this is also a country that contains the highest mountain in the Caribbean, the 10,164ft Pico Duarte, and the lowest lake, Lago Enriquillo. It is a place of rugged mountainous terrain, untamed rivers and mile after mile of virgin coastline along the Samana Peninsula.

The Dominican Republic accounts for two thirds of the island of Hispaniola, with Haiti occupying the remainder. The European historical roots run deep, emanating from the island’s “discovery” in 1492 by Christopher Columbus,
who is reputedly buried in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital.

In the 16th century, Hispaniola became the hub of Spanish colonial ambitions throughout the Caribbean and beyond. Santo Domingo was founded in 1496 and strolling the beautifully preserved streets of the old Colonial City or “Zona Colonial” brings a real sense of history.There are numerous clues to its status as the first city of the New World, with crumbling remains of the first hospital along with the first monastery, both dating from the 16th century. Everywhere I turned in the maze of tiny streets, there were stone haciendas, hundreds of years old, many converted into characterful restaurants.

Casa de Cordón, for example, dating from 1502 and the oldest house in the Americas, is now a bank, while the 500-year-old home of a former governor is now an upscale hotel called the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando.

Ideally situated, this hotel is a few minutes’ walk from the Plaza de España, lined with restaurants on one side. Opposite is the Alcázar de Colón built by Columbus’s son, Diego, in the early 1500s and the centre of the Spanish court in the Americas. Visitors can take a guided tour to learn how the colonial aristocracy lived.

I opted to stroll the pedestrianised El Conde, Santo Domingo’s famous Art Deco shopping street; stopping for coffee in La Cafetera, little changed from its Thirties heyday, when it was the meeting place for Spanish republicans talking revolution.

On venturing farther into the Colonial City’s back streets I discovered “Little Haiti” – a rundown collection of scruffy streets with shabby shops and market stalls that bore eloquent witness to the poverty of many in the local Haitian community.

My desire to learn more about Haitian voodoo led to a local fixer introducing me to Maria, a witch doctor who invited me back to her cramped room to talk about her dark arts. I was more unnerved by the squalid living conditions and rancid atmosphere than anything else and felt mightily relieved to escape into the fresh air.

The following day, we made our way into the highest of the Dominican Republic’s three mountainous regions, the Central Mountain Range. Known as the Dominican Alps, this area is famous as the country’s “soft” adventure capital.

As the tortuously twisty road climbed thousands of feet above the tropical heat and humidity of the lowlands, the vegetation changed, with an abundance of pines and endemic palms better suited to the fresher temperatures more reminiscent of an British summer’s day.

The area around the town of Constanza, known as the Switzerland of the Caribbean, on the other hand, had a definite Alpine feel. It is the agricultural centre of the country, renowned for produce you wouldn’t expect to find in the Tropics, and I saw apples, pears and plump strawberries growing alongside lettuces, onions and carrots.

My attention was captured by the culinary offerings of roadside shacks, where whole pigs were roasting on spits. We stopped to feast on tender pork accompanied by baked plantain and roasted sweet potato, followed by fresh strawberries, which we washed in a clear mountain stream.

It felt a million miles from the manicured grounds of the popular holiday resorts. As I looked around, I could see only forested mountains stretching to the horizon.

My route took me to Jarabacoa, where daredevils throw themselves into white-knuckle activities, such as canyoning, treks to the summit of the Pico Duarte or riding trips to some of the area’s many waterfalls. The top attraction is the Rio Yaque del Norte, the longest river in the Caribbean, which draws visitors keen to ride the rapids on exhilarating white-water rafting trips.

On stopping at Rancho Baiguate, one of the adventure centres, I was soon paddling enthusiastically with other rafters towards our first set of rapids on an eight-mile adventure downstream. We plunged through furiously frothing waters, riding tempestuous rapids with novel nicknames such as Mother-in-Law, Mike Tyson Senior and, most worryingly, The Cemetery.

But I emerged unscathed to continue my journey to the north coast resort of Sosua. This was the last place I expected to find a Jewish wartime haven but tucked away between two hotels in a small garden was a pocket-sized wooden synagogue – a reminder of the Dominican Republic’s behaviour leading up to the Second World War, when the ruling dictator, Rafael Trujillo, offered refuge to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.

A small museum alongside tells the fascinating story of how, from 1938, the country opened its doors to Jewish refugees, promising to help between 50,000 and 100,000 of them start a new life.

Five thousand visas were issued, but only around 650 German and Austrian Jews arrived, settling in Sosua, where they were granted land and livestock. They established an agricultural co-operative that is still in operation, producing much of the island’s meat and dairy produce. These days, though, the town’s Jewish community is a shadow of its formal self, with just a few families remaining.

In a few days, I had seen a side of the Dominican Republic that few holidaymakers bother to leave their sunloungers to discover. A shame, as the “real” Dominican Republic is infinitely more interesting than the “fake” one.

For the original report go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/centralamericaandcaribbean/dominicanrepublic/9203323/Dominican-Republic-life-outside-the-playground.html

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