What’s the most popular destination in the Caribbean? The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Cuba–despite the U.S. embargo–are all contenders. But it’s actually the Dominican Republic that holds the top spot. And most of its 4.5 million visitors flock to all-inclusive resorts like those in Punta Cana. So you might have to ditch the crowds and the wrist bracelets to get a real sense of the Caribbean’s second largest nation.
The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Most people stick to the popular eastern beaches; few venture to the border of Hispaniola’s two countries. The three-hour drive from Santo Domingo is a real deterrent. But those who make the trek southwest to Barahona are rewarded with undeveloped golden sand, lush green mountains, and fresh local coffee. “The Pearl of the South” is located within the Dominican Republic’s wealthiest district. The city has Victorian houses and a green central park. Plus plenty of protected areas to explore nearby and crisp, fresh air.
Spend your days exploring the lagoons, the caves, and the petroglyphs of Jaragua National Park. Go bird watching in Oviedo Lagoon. You’ll see flamingos, pelicans, and royal herons–plus Ricord’s iguanas–in the mangrove swamps. Visit Lake Enriquillo, the largest lake in the Caribbean. Keep an eye out for American crocodiles, though. Find the perfect piece of larimar to set in silver when you return home. The white-foam, semi-precious stone, which has shades of blue, turquoise, gray, and green in it, is only mined here. And find large patches of empty sand on one of the area’s beautiful beaches: Los Patos, San Rafael, or El Quemaito.
At the end of each day, retreat into the Baoruco Mountain Range. You probably expected a beach resort. Don’t worry, you’ll still have an ocean view from–well, everywhere–at Casa Bonita. Cabanas have sea and mountain views, and palmwood furniture. The open-air dining room and lounge is surrounded by coconut, peach,and papaya trees. If it feels like you’re visiting the vacation home of a wealthy friend, you kind of are. Casa Bonita was a private family weekend retreat before being turned into a chic, minimal hotel.
Glide from platform to platform through the trees on a canopy tour. Have a massage in–yes, in–the river, as leaves and seeds fall around you. Followed by a glass of wine by the candlelit jacuzzi. Try area specialities for dinner. Baked goat cheese, conch fritters, sancocho de la doña (a traditional Dominican soup), and coconut jalao (a dessert made with honey, coconut, and ginger). And relax on a lounge chair while stargazing with a basil mojito. No wrist band needed.