Monday, March 14, 2011

Three Four-Wheel Drives Not to Miss

The pessimist might see an unpaved, muddy road winding along precipices and think “no way.”  A true traveler says, “yet another adventure.”  The Dominican Republic is full of bumpy, rural roads that pass by thundering rivers, unbridled vegetation and local color.  With nerves of steel, an eye for beauty and an all-terrain vehicle, the intrepid vacationer is ready to see the DR’s natural hideaways beyond bland resort walls. Here are three scenic routes that will satisfy anyone’s lust for the road less traveled.  Just be sure to bring extra gasoline, a spare tire, extra food and water, a flashlight and a two-way radio. 

La Horma, San José de Ocoa
1. Ocoa-Constanza Scenic Highway 

Traversing the Cordillera Central, this rocky dirt road meanders down from Constanza’s high valley perch, wanders among the conifers of the Valle Nuevo national park, and then finally steers through the agricultural villages of the La Horma to eventually reach the town of San José de Ocoa.

The entire trip is approximately 78 km, but hurricane season in the DR occasionally gives the route an unplanned face-lift, carving out sides of mountains and making deeper cuts into the already curvy road.

The views range from the arid, grassy plains outside Ocoa, changing into the green hills speckled with brightly painted wooden homes of La Horma to the lofty, pine-covered peaks of Valle Nuevo and Constanza. Natural wonders like the Antilles’ tallest waterfall (1680m or 5512ft), Aguas Blancas, and perpetually fog-covered ridges punctuate the route, adding to the majestic feel of this exciting mountain ride.

2. Biosphere Reserve Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo (La Placa & El Aguacate Trails)

Pines of the Sierra de Bahoruco
This highway running along the Dominican-Haitian border is a naturalist’s utopia. Accessible through the mountaintop savannah of Puerto Escondido, the highway teeters along the Sierra de Bahorucodown into Jaragua National Park until finally reaching Pedernales, the coastal border town known for the spectacular turquoise waters and contrasting cactus-covered terrain of Bahia de las Aguilas.

Just outside of Puerto Escondido after passing numerous rows of avocado trees is the entrance to La Placa, a 3 km hiking trail where the great majority of endemic and resident birds can be seen and heard. Early mornings around 5-7am and then again in the evening at 4-6pm are the best times to hear the birdsong, when thirty different species come to socialize and search for food. Spanish moss hangs from the low-growing trees that envelop the trail. Creamsicle-colored butterflies flutter from tree to tree, especially the cañafistol, which shoots off vibrant yellow blooms. A visitor’s cabin and camping sites here allow for easy access to an early morning trek or departure.  Don’t forget bug repellant and binoculars! 

Daisy-Covered Mountains past La Placa
Continuing on past La Placa, the road worsens significantly leading to El Aguacate, a border stronghold from the Trujillo era.  Sections of the road consist of large rocks and when it rains, the road becomes impassable.  Only the highly skilled all-terrain driver should attempt the trail.  El Aguacate is the convergence point of the Sierra de Barohuco and Charco Azul, a protected area covering approximately 280 square kilometers.  It is also the site of a Haitian-Dominican produce market on Tuesdays and Fridays.  The name of the settlement, meaning avocado in Spanish, comes from the acres of trees brimming with this buttery green fruit grown in the region.  

Sierra de Bahoruco at Sunset
Ascending from El Aguacate, the climate and vegetation changes from humid to coniferous forest covered with ferns and lichen.  The air is cool and infused with the smell of pine.  The road continues along the Dominican–Haitian border, offering vantage points of the dramatic differences in forest coverage between the two countries. On Haiti’s side, the hills are a bedraggled brown, completely stripped of vegetation, while the Dominican side remains lush and dense thanks to protective and reforestation measures over the past several decades.  The Ministry of Environment’s maintains a post at El Zapoten to prevent deforestation and partners with Haitian workers  to reforest the area and improve awareness.

The next sign of civilization is at Loma de Toro, where a tower offers a jaw-dropping view of the Caribbean’s largest saltwater lake, Lago Enriquillo, to the east and Haiti to the west, as well as the surrounding mountains of thick piney forest.  The tower is only accessible by foot, so leave the car at the base of the short trail, which is adorned with agave and wild orchids.  

Field of Taro Plants in Los Arroyos
Continuing by vehicle down towards Los Arroyos are the first houses after hours of driving.  The road continues to be in astoundingly poor conditions, despite it being a major transit route for agricultural products from the area.  As the road nears Pedernales, it will pass over Río Bonito and by multiple cascading pools, perfect for a cool dip.   

In order to reach the entrance of the Biosphere Reserve Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo, enter through the community of Puerto Escondido, accessible via the town of Duvergé.  Passing through Duvergé from the south (Barahona), turn left on Calle Nuestra Señora del Carmen and continue straight until the hydroelectric    plant.  Turn left at the sign for Embalse las Damas and drive about 30 minutes until the mountains open up into the plateau of Puerto Escondido.

3. La Carretera Turística

Cable Car Overlooking Puerto Plata
This “touristic highway” is anything but touristy, snaking its way through the lush and vertiginous Cordillera Septentrional - and often devoid of cars. Though it runs from Santiago to the coast near Puerto Plata, it is a far cry from the much busier paved highway with eighteen-wheelers barreling by on the four-lane road to the north coast. Instead, try this carretera that climbs and dips, pothole-strewn, through mountainside rural communities. It is a more direct route between the two cities, at about half the distance, but because of its hilly terrain and poor condition, could take twice as long to traverse.

Beyond being a beautiful drive, the road hosts a number of small attractions. Many of these cluster around the village of La Cumbre ("the summit"), situated high atop this gorgeous set of tumbling hills. Be on the lookout for a small outlet run by elderly ladies. These women create intricately weaved straw hats, bags and other accessories. The hilltop area is home to several amber mines, which is why there are a number of stands selling amber (ambar, in Spanish) goods. Because they come directly from the source, handmade amber jewelry here is much cheaper here than at any tourist shop in the capital, and the workers can gain a higher share of proceeds.

The Mirabal Sisters
It was also just past La Cumbre on this road where the Mirabal sisters took their last, fateful journey. In 2008, the municipal and national governments inaugurated a monument to the assassinated sisters – as well as their driver – in the place where, 48 years prior, the foursome were apprehended and killed by members of Trujillo’s forces. There are plans to convert the area around the monument into an ecological reserve. For a break from the drive, stop at Rancho La Cumbre, a restaurant serving typical Dominican fare with stunning views of the Cibao valley from its deck and terrace (Open every day, 10:00am - 11:00pm. 656-1651).

The highway leaves Santiago as Av. Bartolomé Colón, then narrows and begins its ascent. Its other outlet is at the community of Monte Llano on the north coast, five kilometers east of Puerto Plata.