Published: 18th September 2005
They were the colour of the sun. Or, rather, the colours: dancing in the steamy heat next to a deserted waterfall, they seemed to have soaked up its every tone and mood — the pale lemon of morning, the fierce yellow-white of midday, the livid burnt orange of sunset, all picked out against the green vegetation. Like little pairs of magically animated flower petals, they flirted and flitted in an intricate ballet. It’s worth coming to the Dominican Republic just for the butterflies.
What most people come here for, of course, is the sun itself — sun, and not much else. The “Dom Rep” has one of the largest concentrations of all-inclusive beach hotels on earth, and many visitors never set foot outside them. Which is ironic, because hotels aren’t what this place does best. Service is poor, hotel food average — but step out into the city streets, or strike out to see the extraordinary landscapes and unique animals of the interior, and this exuberant country comes alive in a blaze of colour.
It’s the street life that hits you first. Every town we visited was bursting with energy. It’s Saturday night in Jarabacoa, a small town high in the mountains of the Cordillera Central. By day, you can go white-water rafting from here — or, if you’re brave enough, scale the 500ft waterfalls by rope — but as darkness falls, the place explodes into a sassy street party. Music pounds from boom boxes in the boots of cars as battered 4WDs and motor scooters shove and cruise through the small central square.
Girls in jeans and halterneck tops sip the ubiquitous Presidente beer, served ice cold, and the men and boys check them out as they sway to the music, charged up by the frenetic atmosphere. A wasp-yellow car accelerates as if to hit someone, then brakes abruptly, but on the whole this is an oddly innocent occasion, full more of enthusiasm than danger. Through shutters, I see a wedding party, with little bridesmaids in white twirling round and round. Most people here are locals and have known each other all their lives. Later, from 1 or 2am, the discotheques start up and the merengue rhythms, fast-paced, with a repetitive thump, mix with techno music and rap.
In the bars and streets of Santo Domingo, I danced my own merengue. (It’s named after the sweet — you move your hips as if creating a swirling confection.) The capital has all the vibrancy of Jarabacoa, but history, too, on display in the colonial district: this was the first European city established in the Americas, the beginning of it all, named after the Dominican friars who came here, and the launch pad for the conquistadors who travelled out to conquer the rest.
The friars are long gone. These days, it’s voodoo, the official religion of Haiti, the troubled nation next door that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Its beliefs and practices are widespread here, too. Buy voodoo books and spells in the extraordinary market, the Mercado Modelo, or visit the cemetery of Maximo Gomez on a Monday afternoon and have a witch doctor, hugely fat, with red blusher like a clown, mutter incantations among the broken tombs, blow cigar smoke down your back and shake magic cloths over you, to chase away bad and usher in good. Even the next day, after I’d washed and washed, a friend still said, “You smell of witch doctors.”
In the northern town of Puerto Plata, where I stayed nearby at the beautiful Sosua Bay Hotel, a street vendor held up a coconut with one hand, and with the other smote the sides off with a cleaver before expertly slicing off the top, leaving just a little hole so I could tip back the coconut and drink the cool milk in the hot sun. Next, the executioner halved the coconut with his cleaver and sliced off a piece of the shell for me to use as a spoon. The soft flesh inside was the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.
A cable car takes locals and a few tourists up above the dense green of royal and coconut palms to a botanical garden. Again, voodoo reared its head: a magician in a battered top hat entertained us as we waited for the car. Cards disappeared, coins spilt from his mouth.
And at the top, in gardens rampant with oversized jasmine and speckled hens running wild, a different sort of magic: those extraordinary butterflies. A zoologist friend had quickly descended into superlatives when I had told him that I was going to the Dominican Republic. “It’s an extraordinary country,” he had said.
“Waterfalls, rainforests, desert, mangrove swamps, the highest peak in the Caribbean. Stunning butterflies and orchids. Plus the salt lake, where there are crocodiles, and iguanas you can’t find anywhere else in the world.” The lake sounded too good to miss, but it’s not easy to reach: a good five hours to the southwest of the capital, near the border with Haiti. On the way, we stopped at roadside stalls for sugar-cane juice, crispy corn cake, sumptuous mangoes, fresh cashews and exquisite coconut desserts: a shifting gastronomical feast.
Along the Larimar coast, named after the pale-blue stone mined only here, we passed shack after shack on the beach, each looking like the set for a Bacardi commercial, until we arrived at the little fishing village of Baoruco. Here baby chickens and gaggles of beautiful children played on the beach while their parents sorted out pebbles to sell.
Everyone smiles and greets you ... and when you look at the scraps of larimar they have to offer, nobody hassles you to buy. A purposeful parade of pigs struts along by the edge of the ocean as the sun goes down. Nearby, a colossal mother pig rummages by a pile of black pebbles and a little girl in pigtails shows me a chick in a bucket while her sister swings in a hammock.
From Baoruco, it is still a couple of hours to the salt lake of Enriquillo, where the trees stir with iguanas who watch us with professorial and discriminating detachment. These rhinoceros iguanas have spikes over their noses, and this is the only place in the world where they can be found.
The boatmen were sitting under a tree, out of the blazing heat. The salt lake was flat and still as we climbed into the little white boat, feeling at the very end of the world. At first, the motor speeds us exhilaratingly across the water towards the island of Cabritos, in the centre. The engine stops, one of the men climbs out, and he walks in the water, pulling the boat slowly along — then we see them, the bumpy heads of crocodiles and their dark tails.
The boatman pulls us closer and closer to the island, and we realise they are everywhere, menacing shapes in the still water. Behind them, on the island, glorious dark-pink roseate spoonbills roost in the dry trees; further on, flamingos delicately lift into the sky when the boatman claps his hands. And it’s all ours. On the 93 square miles of lake, there’s nobody else. Tourism just has not reached this astoundingly lovely part of the country.
On the island, we couldn’t find the red-eyed iguanas we’d come to see. They were all hiding from the intense midday sun. I didn’t mind. It was something to come back for.
On the way back to Santo Domingo, we passed ravishing bay after ravishing bay along the Larimar coast. It all felt as if we were in a different country from the guests at those insular all-inclusives. Which, in a way, we were. Go to the real Dominican Republic now, before they find it.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson was a guest of the Dominican Republic tourist office and Odyssey Worldwide.
Getting there: there are direct winter charters to Punta Cana, La Romana and Puerto Plata from Gatwick and Manchester. Charter Flight Centre (0845 045 0153, www.charterflights.co.uk) has returns from £269. Or try Airtours (0870 238 7788, www.airtours.co.uk), or Flightline (0800 541541, www.flightline.co.uk).
Where to stay: overlooking the bay is the Sosua Bay Hotel (00 1 809-571 4000, www.starzresorts.com), where doubles start at £159, all-inclusive. In Jarabacoa, the hotel Pinar Dorado (574 2820, www.ranchobaiguate.com) has doubles from about £35; from there, you can go rafting or canyoning through spectacular rivers and waterfalls. In Baoruco, try the Casa Bonita (540 5908, www.casabonitadr.com), which has palm-roofed cabins overlooking the ocean and village; from £60, B&B.
Getting around: even long bus journeys cost just a few pounds. Holiday Autos (0870 400 4461, www.holidayautos.co.uk) has a week’s inclusive car rental from £225. Or try National (0870 536 5365, www.nationalcar.co.uk) or Thrifty (01494 751600, www.thrifty.co.uk).
Tour operators: with Odyssey Worldwide (0870 999 0215, www.odysseyworldwide.co.uk), seven nights at the Sosua Bay start at £595pp, all-inclusive, with flights from Gatwick (£10pp extra from Manchester) and transfers. Or try Kuoni (01306 747733, www.kuoni.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0870 750 5711, www.thomascook.co.uk) or Thomson (0870 165 0079, www.thomson.co.uk).
When to go: the two high seasons are July and August, then December-February. The hurricane season spans August and September.
Further information: call the Dominican Republic tourist board on 020 7242 7778 or visit www.dominicanembassy.org.uk.