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Beyond the resorts: traveling the real and wild Dominican Republic (photos)

Rainforest-covered karst mountains with pristine mangroves beneath characterizes one of the most stunning protected areas in the Caribbean: Los Haitises National Park. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Rainforest-covered karst mountains with pristine mangroves beneath characterizes one of the most stunning protected areas in the Caribbean: Los Haitises National Park. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

For its stunning variety of ecosystems, the Dominican Republic is like a continent squished into half an island. Lowland rainforests, cloud forests, pine forests, dry forests, mangroves, savannah, coastal lagoons, salt lakes, a rift valley, karst land formations, four mountain ranges—including the highest mountain in the Caribbean—and not to mention some of the best beaches, snorkeling, and scuba diving in the hemisphere can all be reached within just a few hours drive of the capital, Santo Domingo. Yet, bizarrely, most tourists who visit the Dominican Republic never venture out of their all-inclusive resort, missing out on some of the most stunning landscapes—and accessible wildlife viewing—in the Caribbean.

Take Los Haitises National Park for example: driving through fields of sugarcane, palm oil plantations, rice paddies, small villages, and cattle ranches, one suddenly stumbles onto a resplendent land of sharply-toned karst mountains blanketed in rainforest. You wouldn’t be remiss in thinking you were in Southeast Asia. Entering the park starts with a boat ride through pristine white and red mangrove forests—as brightly-colored crabs scuttle away and shore birds watch unimpressed. Eventually the mangroves open out onto San Lorenzo Bay. Here, turkey vultures circle high above slowly eroding karst islands while pelicans and terns dive for lunch. One has a sense of being transported back to the day Columbus reached the island of Hispaniola—today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—on December 25th, 1492.

Beautiful Taino cave painting of a swimming whale. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

But while Columbus’ impact is unmistakable in much of the Dominican Republic—the explorer’s first permanent settlement was in the country—in Los Haitises it’s the earlier inhabitants of the island that have indeed left their mark. In caves hollowed out by millions of years of rainfall, the Taino people, who first arrived on the island around 650 AD, carved somber stone faces and deftly painted pictographs of the world around them: whales, water birds, fish, dogs, and native mammals. They also created images of deities that today look like aliens or malformed children and scenes of ingesting hallucinogenic substance during a ritual. The Taino did not live in these specific caves, but instead likely saw them as religious and spiritual sites. While Columbus efficiently exterminated the Taino through disease, slavery, and warfare, recent research has shown that a piece of them still survives: about 15 percent of Dominicans carry Taino genes.

Back outside the caves, one can hike straight into untouched rainforest. Over 700 plant species have been identified here, including 17 endemic to the region. In addition, 110 birds (including seabirds) are found in the park, making up about one-third of all birds found in the Dominican Republic. The park is also the only home of the Ridgway’s hawk (Buteo ridgwayi), one of the world’s most endangered birds and arguably the most endangered raptor. Listed as Critically Endangered there are only a couple hundred individuals left.

After boating around wildly-impressive karst cliffs, visiting painted caves, and hiking the rainforest, one can travel to Sabana de La Mar for “pescado con coco,” a meal found only in this region that consists of tiny fried fish—known as minuta—dipped in coconut sauce. But this is just another day on an island of wonders.


Stunning views are abundant along Pedernales Peninsula. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

The Dominican Republic is replete with wild places to visit, all within a few hours drive of Santo Domingo. In fact, the least visited region in the Dominican Republic is also arguably the most stunning: Pedernales Peninsula. This peninsula was actually its own island until colliding with Hispaniola, creating a whole region that is almost like the Dominican Republic in miniature due to its stunning mix of ecosystems in such a small geographic space. There’s the rain-and-pine forest mountains to the north, a completely bizarre dry and scrub forest (like a vegetated desert) across most of the plains, vast lagoons on the edge of the sea, and the least-developed and most jaw-dropping coastlines and beaches in the country.

Jaragua National Park and Bahoruco National Park: Together these two national parks on the Pedernales Penninsula are a part of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Jaragua to the south is home to a vast landscape of scraggly drylands with bizarre, thorny, uninviting vegetation that makes the area appear like you’re driving on another planet, until you run into a stray cow entering the parklands. Here, you can visit Oviedo Lagoon, a hypersaline lake (i.e. high in salt) that hosts a broad array of shore and seabirds, including flamingoes. Another trip can take you to the seven- kilometer-long Las Aguilas Beach, which is arguably the most remote and stunning beach in the country. There is absolutely no development on the beach—and plans to build resorts have been locally opposed to date—allowing you to swim in impossibly clear waters, watch seabirds, or scurry after hermit crabs in peace.

Although Bahoruco and Jaragua are lumped together for World Heritage status, they are quite different. Bahoruco covers cloud and pine forest in the mountains just north of the Jaragua landscape. This is the best birding in the country, where nearly 50 species can be seen. Around the park, forest has become fragmented by agriculture, but the area boasts beautiful mountain rivers and dramatic changes in scenery.

Pedernales town: Pedernales is also the name of the main regional town and a great jumping off point to the various sites on the Peninsula. But, the town is a cultural experience unto itself: an invasion of motor bikes, Dominican “country” music (known as bachata), and an unmissable border with Haiti through which immigrants (sometimes illegally) pass.

Colors abound at the Haitian market in Pedernales. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

Many of the inhabitants farm in the surrounding countryside, and people here live quite far (even if not geographically) from the urban concerns of Santo Domingo. To get a real sense of the culture here, visit the town square around ten PM on a Saturday night: this is where locals come to drink, flirt, chat, and drive their motorbikes in endless rotations around the square.

Pedernales is also home to one of the border crossings from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. One of the most interesting cultural experiences in the town is the Haitian market held two days a week. The border opens for the morning allowing Haitians to come over and sell their wares, generally consisting of food stuffs and materials donated to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. At this open-air market, you’ll find everything from fresh fish to TVs to antibiotics to Santa hats on sale, and an interesting glimpse into how donations to Haiti have created a small-scale, albeit bizarre, market economy. Illegal immigration of Haitians into the Dominican Republic is a major political issue, and you’ll find Haitians have a lower social and political status in the country.

Other highlights: Every region of the Dominican Republic, however, has its jewels. If kayaking with manatees in a lagoon sounds like your idea of heaven (including kayaking through pristine mangroves) you can do this at Estero Hondo Marine Sanctuary in the northern part of the country. To see other—even larger—marine mammals travelers can view humpback whales from January-March along the Bay of Samaná, to the east. Alligators, flamingoes, and iguanas are the attractions at the lowest point in the Caribbean: Enriquillo Lake; or just a few hours away climb to the highest point in the Caribbean, Pico Durante, at 3,093 meters. One can also hike through cloud forests at the Ebano Verde Scientific Preserve or the Quita Espuela Scientific Preserve. Of course, great spots for snorkeling and scuba diving abound across the country.


Broad-billed tody (Todus subulatus), a species only found on Hispaniola. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

One of the great wonders of visiting an island is to get a first-hand look at the splendid variations wrought in evolution’s workshop. Brought either by wind or waves, wandering species that end up on islands become isolated from their ancestor. With time evolution hammers out new traits and characteristics until stranded animals and plants become so different from their relatives back home that they are considered distinct. Landing in such an evolutionary forge has even been shown to speed up the process of evolution—as if here the fire is hotter, the steel more malleable—since species must quickly adapt to new environments than the one they enjoyed before. These new species are then described as ‘endemic,’ i.e. found no-where else. For example all the world’s lemur species are endemic to one island, Madagascar. It’s no coincidence that Darwin’s travels in the Galapagos Islands helped him form and express the theory of evolution; on islands, evolution almost seems to be bragging.

Given their ability to fly—and therefore disperse easier than most species—birds are less likely to become endemic than, say, mammals or reptiles. However, the island of Hispaniola is home to a shocking 32 endemic birds. These include two iridescent species of tody (a type of bird only found in the Caribbean); the lovely Hispaniolan Trogon (Priotelus roseigaster); the Hispaniola parakeet (Aratinga chloroptera); a parrot known as the Hispaniola Amazon (Amazona ventralis); two cuckoos; the ashy-faced owl (Tyto glaucops); the world’s second smallest hummingbird, the Hispaniolan emerald (Chlorostilbon swainsonii); and the Critically Endangered Ridgway’s hawk.

In all over 300 birds have been identified in the Dominican Republic, from migrants to seabirds to endemics, making it one of the best birding countries in the region.

As stunning as the birds are—and this is often the focus of ecotourism—the island actually holds 4 times as many endemic herps, i.e. reptiles and amphibians. So far, researchers have described around 150 endemic reptiles and amphibians. In fact only about 5 percent of reptiles and 2 percent of amphibians in Hispaniola are found else-where. Some of Hispaniola’s herps are on the edge of extinction: the giant Hispaniolan galliwasp (Celestus warreni), the spiny giant frog (Eleutherodactylus nortoni), and the Hispaniolan robber frog (Eleutherodactylus leoni) are all listed as Critically Endangered.

Like many Caribbean countries, the Dominican Republic is also known for its iguanas, which, pound for pound, are some of the largest endemic animals on the island. The country is home to two endemics: the rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta) and Ricord’s iguana (Cyclura ricordi). Although, the rhinoceros iguana is one of the most popular iguanas in the pet trade it is listed as Vulnerable. Meanwhile Ricord’s iguana is considered Critically Endangered and is noted for its bright red eyes.

Little-known in the Dominican Republic and abroad, the Hispaniola solenodon is one of strangest and oldest mammals on Earth. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

There are only two—count them TWO—terrestrial mammals native to Hispaniola. There used to be many more (including two primates, three shrew-like animals, seven ground sloths, and ten rodents one of which was a bear-sized giant), but they have all vanished forever from Hispaniola. The arrival of the Taino people brought on one wave of mammalian extinctions, as the indigenous people instantly became the island’s top hunters. Then the invasion of the Spaniards, who brought with them rats and dogs, finished off the rest. Today, only the hutia and the solenodon survive, though both are considered Endangered.

The Hispaniola hutia (Plagiodontia aedium) is a tree-dwelling rodent that looks something like an arboreal guinea pig and has relatives across many other Caribbean islands. As odd as a tree-climbing guinea pig may be, few animals in the world are stranger than the Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus). This shrew-like animal is one of the world’s oldest mammals going back some 76 million years, where it scuttled beneath the feet of dinosaurs. There are only two species representing the entire family of solenodons in the world—another species is found in Cuba and is considered nearly extinct. Aside from being older than the Tyrannosaurus Rex, solenodons are the only mammals in the world to spit venom from their teeth like a snake.

As for bats, around 19 species are known on the island, however this is one area where little research has been conducted, and it’s likely there’s much to learn about Hispaniola’s bats.


Hermit crab in Pedernales Peninsula. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Unless you have considerable practice navigating unpredictable driving conditions, speak Spanish, and are already an expert about Dominican wildlife, the best way to see the country and its wildlife is to book an eco-tour.

We spent a portion of our trip traveling with an eco-tourism company called Explora! Ecotour. Headed by Oly and Manny, a young couple with a deep passion for their country and the environment, Explora! is really the next generation of eco-tourism for the Dominican Republic. Explora! doesn’t just take you to see some beautiful sites, but educates candidly about environmental issues in the country. The group also focuses on making tourism work for local economies, for example lunches are done at local restaurants that have been picked out especially, highlighting the best in local cuisine as well as giving back to the local community.

Unidentified anole lizard in Los Haitises National Park. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

Having grown up partly in the U.S. both Oly and Manny speak impeccable English, and they are passionate not only about showing foreign tourists their country, but also run numerous local trips for Dominicans who may not realize the astounding biodiversity of their country. Explora! has a huge number of tours available (over 25 as of now) many of them far off the beaten path, including Los Haitses and a number of places on the Pedernales Peninsula. I would highly recommend Explora! for any traveler to the Dominican Republic.

Another option, especially for hard-core birders, is Tody Tours. Run by ex-pat, Kate Wallace, Tody Tours will focus on making sure you see as many endemic birds as possible. Wallace is a local legend for her conservation work and advocacy. She also blazed the trail for ecotourism in the country.

A final tour company that came recommended to me was Ecotour Barhaona, which does a number of multi-day hiking trips among other excursions.

For the truly elusive and rare—the hutia, solenodon, and ridgway’s hawk—special trips would need to be set up.

Getting off the beaten path in a country like the Dominican Republic makes one reconsider whatever preconceptions you had about the Caribbean, a region of wild diversity and cultural surprises. The Caribbean is not just about beaches and piña coladas; it doesn’t just cater to American and European tourists. Instead, it’s a region of stunning variety and constant surprises; a place both wonderful animals and passionate people call home.

Royal terns squabble in Los Haitises National Park. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

Cloud forest at the Ebano Verde Scientific Preserve. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Unidentified mini jumping spider in the cloud forest of the Ebano Verde Scientific Preserve. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

The Dominican Republic has the Caribbean’s largest extent of mangroves, many of them in good condition. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

The Hispaniolan emerald (Chlorostilbon swainsonii), the world’s second smallest hummingbird. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

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