Southwest

The far southwest of the Republic is a dry zone with typical dry-forest vegetation. It also contains some of the country's most spectacular coastline and several national parks. It is a mountainous area with great views and scary
roads and the closer you get to the Haitian border the poorer and more deforested the country becomes. Tourism is not big business here yet, although there are some fascinating places to visit, such as Lago Enriquillo, a saltwater lake below sea level and three times saltier than the sea, or the mines for larimar, a pale blue semi-precious stone used in jewellery. The towns and villages are unremarkable and unpretentious but give a fascinating insight into rural and provincial life in the Republic.

San Cristóbal and around

The birthplace of the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, San Cristóbal is 25 km west of Santo Domingo. Most of the sites of interest are related to his involvement with the town. He was on his way to San Cristóbal to visit a mistress when he was gunned down. Both of Trujillo's homes are now in ruins but can be visited. The Casa de Caoba was looted and stripped bare after the dictator's death, but still gives an idea of the building's former opulence, when it was lined with mahogany. Take the turning off the dual carriageway from Santo Domingo signed to La Toma de San Cristóbal, bypassing the city. Turn right after the purple PLD office and then stop just after the water tank on your left. The 1-km road up to the house is on your left, but a sturdy 4WD is required - it is better to walk. A caretaker will let you in and show you around for a tip. The Palacio del Cerro was another luxury residence on top of a hill with a tremendous view. The Palacio is run down, although there are more decorative features than at the Casa de Caoba, including a grand marble staircase, a gold and silver mosaic-tiled bathroom and a heliport on the roof. From the Parque Central follow the Baní road, Av Luperón, and turn left at the Isla petrol station. The house is guarded by the military, for a tip someone will show you around.

The caves at
El Pomier
 protected by the
Reserva Antropológica de las Cuevas de Borbón
, are some 15 km north out of town (buses from Parque Central) on the road to La Toma de San Cristóbal. The caves are of enormous archaeological value, considered to be as important for the Caribbean Basin as Egypt's pyramids are for the Middle East. The reserve comprises over 6000 pictographs and some 500 petroglyphs. Espeleogrupo de Santo Domingo is working to restore and protect the caves and their drawings with the help of local and foreign volunteers (see www.responsibletravel.com or www.4tdomrep.com). Cave One has been fitted with special lights and ramps, giving access to all. On the local saint's day festival (6-10 June) religious ceremonies take place around the caves, with a mix of supposedly Taíno ritual and African-influenced stick and drum festivals.

South of San Cristóbal, the beaches at
Palenque
,
Nigua
and
Najayo
(
públicos
leave regularly from San Cristóbal's Parque Central) are mostly of grey sand. On a hill overlooking Najayo beach are the ruins of Trujillo's beach house. These beaches are popular as excursions from Santo Domingo and at weekends and holidays can be packed. Lots of beach bars serve finger-licking fried fish and local food, washed down with ice cold beer. The music can be overbearing at times with personal sound systems competing against each other on the beach. At Palenque the dark sand beach is deserted at the far end and you don't have to walk far to get away from the crowds. Good swimming at Palenque, rougher at Najayo but there is an artificial wave breaker.

Baní and Las Salinas

From San Cristóbal the road runs west through sugar cane country to Baní. Baní is the birthplace of Máximo Gómez, the 19th-century fighter for the liberation of Cuba. The Casa de Máximo Gómez is a museum with a mural in his memory, set in a shady plaza within walking distance of the main Parque Duarte, the centre of the town and a pleasant spot. The small house is at the back of a pretty park marked by a bust of the hero at the entrance and flags flying at either side. There is a great deal on his biography, as well as general history of the period, photos and old documents, but no personal belongings.

Of the two roads west out of Baní, take the one to Las Calderas naval base for
Las Salinas
. There is no problem in going through the base (photography is not allowed); after it, turn left onto an unmade road for 3 km to the fishing village of Las Salinas, passing the sand dunes of the
Bahía de Calderas
, now a national monument and an inlet on the Bahía de Ocoa, shallow, with some mangroves and good windsurfing and fishing. The dunes, the largest in the Caribbean, can be reached from the road, but there are no facilities and little shade. The views are spectacular, however.

Barahona

Barahona is a comparatively young town, founded in 1802 by the Haitian leader, Toussaint Louverture, when he was briefly in control of the whole of Hispaniola. Its economy initially rested on the export to Europe of precious woods, for example mahogany. In the 20th century the sugar industry took over. The large sugar mill at the northern end of town is surrounded by the shanty town district of Batey Central and is currently closed pending privatization negotiations. The main attractions of this rather run-down grid-system town revolve around the seafront Malecón where most hotels and restaurants are to be found. The Parque Central, five blocks up, is the commercial hub of the town and a pleasant spot to sit (although tourists are liable to be pestered). The small, public beach at Barahona frequently has stinging jelly fish. It is also filthy, as is the sea, and theft is common. The best beach near town is called El Cayoand is reached by passing the sugar mill and surrounding slums and doubling back on to the sandy peninsula with palms.

Beaches south of Barahona

Those with a car can visit remote beaches from Barahona (public transport is limited to públicos). The coast road south of Barahona, runs through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Republic, mountains on one side, the sea on the other, leading to Pedernales on the Haitian border (146 km). All along the southern coast are many white-sand beaches with some of the best snorkelling in the Republic. The first place is the pebble beach of El Quemaito, where the river comes out of the beach, the cold freshwater mixing with the warm sea; offshore is a reef.

At the end of the village of
Las Filipinas
, about 14 km from Barahona, turn right on to a dirt road. Inland about 15 km into the hills along a very poor track (4WD essential, especially after rain, ask directions at the nearby
colmado)
are the open-cast mines where the semi-precious mineral, larimar, is dug. The primitive mines are worth a visit but they will be closed if it rains as the mines flood. Miners or local boys will sell you fragments of stone, usually in jars of water to enhance the colour, for US$5-10, depending on size and colour. When dry, larimar is a paler blue.

Back on the main road, you pass through
Baoruco
and
La Ciénaga
(small stony beaches and rough tides). The road comes right down to the sea before
San Rafael
natural springs (about 40 minutes from Barahona) where a river runs out onto a stony beach. The forest grows to the edge of the beach. Where the road crosses the river is a
pensión
with a free cold water swimming hole,
balneario
, behind it (the swimming hole is safer than the sea as enormous waves surge onto the beach). At weekends it gets very crowded. There are normally a number of stalls selling drinks and fried fish. It is also possible to climb up the mountain alongside the river, which has small waterfalls and pools. At
El Paraíso
, a medium-sized town 31 km from Barahona, are a popular beach, Texaco station and many
colmados
,
cafeterías
and bars.

At
Los Patos
another river flows into the sea to form a cool bathing place; a great place to spend the day at a weekend to watch Dominicans at play, with excellent swimming and lots of family groups.
Restaurante Los Patos
has a small pool and good seafood.
La Chorrea
is a man-made pool from a natural spring about 5 minutes' drive up a dirt road on the right-hand side. There are cool, freshwater lagoons behind several of the other beaches on this stretch of coast.
Laguna Limón
is a flamingo reserve. Roads are dangerous at night and impassable without 4WD after rain.

Enriquillo
, 54 km south of Barahona, is the last place for fuel until Pedernales, 80 km away, but no unleaded is available. After Enriquillo the road turns inland up to Oviedo and then skirts the Parque Nacional Jaragua as it runs a further 60 km to Pedernales.
Oviedo
, with the atmosphere of a desert settlement, has no hotels or decent restaurants and is one of the hottest places in the country.

Pedernales

Pedernales is the most westerly town of the Republic, on the Haitian border. This is a major crossing point for migrant Haitian workers who come over to work in the sugar cane plantations and in construction. There is no immigration office so in theory only Haitians may enter Haiti here. However, this prohibition is frequently flouted, as border guards are willing to turn a blind eye in return for a small sum. It is advised, however, that you make yourself known at the Anse-à-Pitres police station on the Haitian side and that you return within a few hours. If there is a change of personnel at the border station, you may find yourself paying another 'tip'. There is no road link, but the crossing can be done on foot if the stream that divides the countries is not too high, or you can hire a motoconcho. Every Friday there is an informal market in the no man's land at the border crossing, where Haitians sell cheap counterfeit clothing brands, smuggled spirits and a vast array of plastic kitchenware.

Parque Nacional Jaragua

Parque Nacional Jaragua is the largest of the Dominican Republic's national parks. This area of subtropical dry forest and inhospitable prickly scrub also contains a marine zone, in which lie the uninhabited islands of Beata and Alto Velo. The vegetation is largely cactus and other desert plants, but there are also mahogany, frangipani and extensive mangroves. Of particular interest is the Laguna Oviedo at the eastern end of the park, which is easily accessible from Oviedo. Here there are the country's largest population of flamingos as well as herons, terns, spoonbills and frigate birds. Animals include the Ricord iguana, the rhinoceros iguana and several species of bat. The lagoon is reached via the National Park office just outside Oviedo where an entrance permit must be bought. Turn right on a rough track after the office to reach a hut, where the park official, Señor Blanco, offers a highly recommended boat trip around the lake. He is a knowledgeable guide (Spanish only), who will point out birds and iguanas and will take visitors to inspect a couple of Taíno cave sites with pictograms.

Also in the national park is
Bahía las Aguilas
, one of the most pristine and virginal beaches in the country. The government is threatening to develop this protected area, so you are recommended to visit before the all-inclusive hotels move in. From Oviedo, continue on Route 44 towards Pedernales. At the intersection of Cabo Rojo, head south towards the Ideal Dominicana, and then on an unpaved road along the coast heading east to the small fishing community called La Cueva. Resourceful members of the community have actually converted the caves into homes.

Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos

Near the Haitian border, is the 200 sq km Lago Enriquillo, whose waters, 30 m below sea level, are three times saltier than the sea. Once linked to the bay of Port-au-Prince and the Bahía de Neiba, the lake was cut off from the sea by tectonic movements some million years ago and the surrounding beaches and the islands are rich in ancient seashells and coral fragments. Wildlife includes about 500 American crocodiles, iguanas and flamingos. Three islands in the lake, together with the lake and surrounding shoreline, make up the Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos. There are usually one or two boats waiting to take parties over, which leave when full. Isla Cabritos is a flat expanse of parched sand, with cactus and other desert vegetation. It is extremely hot and oppressive around midday (temperatures have been known to rise to 50°C) and visitors are recommended to arrive as early as possible and to take water and precautions against sunburn. This barren island is home to the rhinoceros iguana and the Ricord iguana, both of which have become quite tame, even aggressive, and approach boat parties in search of treats. The two smaller islands are Barbarita and La Islita.

Jimaní

Jimaní, at the western end of the lake (not on the shore), is about 2 km from the Haitian border. The space in between is a no man's land of rocky terrain crossed by an extremely hot road, which fortunately has a constant coming and going of guaguas and motoconchos. Jimaní is an authorized crossing point for foreigners in general (as is Dajabón) and it is possible to leave the Dominican Republic here and cross into Haiti . Customs officers in Jimaní are not above taking items from your luggage. The immigration office closes at 1800 (or before). There is a semi-permanent market in the no man's land, in which Haitian merchants display vast quantities of mostly shoddy and/or counterfeit goods, Barbancourt rum and perfumes. Jimaní itself is a spread-out town of single-storey housing which swelters in temperatures of up to 50°C.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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