THE DR on the DL
Words and pictures by Martin Schäfer
Most European visitors here gladly succumb to the wristbands and take up residence at one of the all-inclusive resorts on the East and North Coasts. There’s not much else happening tourism-wise, as stories of bitter poverty and unpredictable street life keep the nervous herds behind barriers.
Popular day trips to palmy paradise Isla Saona, the unspoilt hinterland of Parque Nacional del Este or the surf and nightlife paradise Cabarete notwithstanding, most are satisfied with cocktails, buffets and sunny overtime. Which is a shame, because the moment you leave the pre-fab bubble behind, a different, better world emerges.
Just ask Columbus. He came to shore in 1492, on sand that’s called Haïti nowadays, and fell in love almost instantly with ‘this beautiful island paradise, with its high-forested mountains and vast river valleys.’ He christened it Hispaniola and founded the first ever settlement of the New World at La Isabela. The indigenous Taíno indians welcomed Columbus with open arms and good faith that he would shame a year later by opening the door to colonization.
Cities like the passionate capital of Santo Domingo and the pulsating cigar paradise Santiago are the extensions of that international Dominican passion; behind every corner and facade smoulders a story and a dance in the hearts of people.
The Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo on the South Coast is clearly battered by the dynamic of mankind – seven invaders in five centuries doesn’t do wonders for your self image. Abandoned ruins, like the old convent Monasterio San Francisco and the former hospital San Nicolás de Bari may be protected by UNESCO under a world-heritage flag, but are mainly reminders of the empires that destroyed the grandeur of their predecessors with vulgar displays of power.
Whatever remained unharmed, is a testament to five centuries of pure resilience. Old-worldly additions like the Catedral Santa María la Menor, Diego’s palace Alcázar de Colón, and the oldest street in town, Calle de las Damas (1502), mean nothing compared to the smiles that seem etched into Dominican faces.
In Santiago at night, the softly dark sky covers a sultry-spectacular nightlife. For the young at heart gagá and reggaeton blast from dark, sweaty dancehalls, while older generations honour the merengue with hot-blooded cool. The merengue too was danced for the first time in the Cuidad Corazón, then still a signature move of the Cuban upa. The dance quickly came into its own, until the higher classes declared the offensive hip-swaying tripudio non grata.
Santiago and its immediate surrroundings kept on dancing merrily, and was from then on called the cradle of merengue. Duly noted by dictator Trujillo, who in the late Twenties used merengue-based election songs to become ridiculously popular.
The dance has become one with this island. Everybody can, may, must dance here. Wherever accordeon, guira and drum start playing, seeking hands of trusted or random partners intertwine and hips sway uncontrollably.
For the same reason, washing the car on Sundays turned into a national tradition; a weekly, irresistibly fun event, where booze and passion flow with abandon, to the point where a lot of car washes now have cheap by-the-hour hotels as neighbours. Life should be this simple sometimes.
Where Enriquillo defended one of the last Taíno bastions, the primeval spirit of the Dominican Republic roams freely, uncut with tourism and commercialism. The southwestern regions Pedernales, Barahona and Bahoruco share a whopping eight National Parks and Reserves, surrounded by an unspoiled and ecologically rich landscape of sundrenched woods, cacti, dusty red rock, rainforests, pebbled beaches and Bahia de las Aguillas, the finest white sandy stretch yours truly has ever felt between his toes.
Within, phenomena like Lake Enriquillo’s saltwater crocodiles or the petroglyphs of Las Caritas still draw very few foreigners. Amazingly so. Apart from a couple of surfers and free-spirited island hoppers, you’re alone with the locals here. Together you’ll watch the sea rise until it almost bursts, a towering, marbled undulating glacier that comes crashing down with foaming thunder, blue as the larimar that’s found in the mountains.
Behind it, the mighty inland rises up, featuring only a couple of viable roads, territory where only pioneers and indigenous people venture. A jungle, where you don’t have to meet anyone for days, but where you are never far from a warm-hearted “¡Hola!” There’s no need to be scared at all; the Dominicans here are a friendly, open and hospitable bunch. The only crime is that this heavenly place hasn’t been found by more people.
It’s here that the Dominicans are taking their first steps into the world of eco-tourism. Granted, it’s going to take several years before the carelessly polluting natives are convinced of its merits, but it’s a start. Tropical lodges like the breathtakingly situated Casa Bonita near Baharona promote sustainable tourism by cleverly using provisions to their advantage and playing to the natural need for the conservation of all this beauty.
It might still a far cry from Costa Rica, but the wheels are in motion. The owners have already taken the next step by including the electricity-deprived lodge Tarzan House in their package, a place deep in the jungle where you’re cut from all civilization.
More and more initiatives like this pop up everywhere, especially since the Dominican Republic is becoming a solid alternative to the other Caribbean islands that are starting to bore the richer clientele. Take the adventure tour along the 27 waterfalls of Damajagua, an hour from Puerto Plata, where thirty pesos in every hundred flow back into the community, paying for a bakery or public transport. Besides that, the whole battalion of guides consists of locals that know the area by heart.
In this hurricane-ravaged land, where almost half live under the poverty line, sustainable tourism is a gift worth clutching. Off its beaten beaches there’s a wealth of surprising discoveries, waiting for hopeful travellers willing to look beyond the end of their sunbeds.
Where other islands shrug and fall short because of their limited possibilities and one-trick natural environment, the fascinating other side of the Dominican Republic makes a world of difference. So, with some respect for carefree de-stressing in an air-conditioned, full-service habitat, getting wristbanded in the Dominican Republic is to play it too safe. You’ll feel relaxed, but none the wiser.
More images on Martin’s Flickr.
Martin was a guest of Casa Bonita, Bahoruco (www.casabonitadr.com)
Damajagua Waterfalls (www.27charcos.com)