Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mountain Dreaming: Hoyo del Pino

Hoyo del Pino
Seventeen kilometers uphill from Bonao into the pine forests of the Cordillera Central is the small valley village of Hoyo del Pino. In 2004, community members founded a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of the area around a tributary of the Yuna River. 

The recently completed Río Blanco Ecotourism Complex provides a peek into the wilderness and coffee farms around the village. The center offers hiking treks guided by local experts, birding tours of endemic and migratory species, and visits to mountain-cold swimming holes. Other attractions include one of the highest waterfalls in the country, coffee production demonstrations and tasting, and a stop at a bamboo artisan’s workshop. The complex’s restaurant, Rancho Don José, serves up locally grown and sourced Dominican favorites. Proceeds go to ecosystem preservation efforts and improving economic opportunities for local families around the project area. 

La Estancia del Río

La Estancia del Río offers ten double bedrooms with private bathrooms and hot water at RD$1300 a night per person (includes breakfast, lunch and dinner). For large groups, the collective lodge is ideal with 70 bunk beds and shared hot-water bathrooms. Staying with a host family is the most economical (and adventurous) option, providing guests with a glimpse into the local way of life. Reservations are strongly recommended.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mountain Dreaming: Constanza

Golden fields in the valley of Constanza
The craggy peaks of the Cordillera Central cascade down into this town, highest populated mountain valley in the Dominican Republic at 1,300 meters (4,264 feet) above sea level. Arriving in town on the back of a pickup truck, descending on the winding road out of the hills and into the city, might herald one of the best views in the country on public transportation.

Because of the chilly temperatures that drop as low as 5˚C (41˚F) in the winter, local farmers are able to grow crops unusual for the island such as roses, apples, garlic, and strawberries.

Greenhouse with tropical flowers for export
Perfect for the outdoor enthusiast, Constanza boasts challenging hikes, natural attractions, and adventure sports. The paths through the Ébano Verde Scientific Reserve are cool and lush, often blanketed by thick fog in the morning. On hot days in the valley, locals and visitors head to the tallest waterfall in the Antilles, Aguas Blancas. Farther into the Cordillera Central is the Valle Nuevo Scientific Reserve, perfect for pitching a tent and hiking through the pine forests. Across the city of Constanza are relics of distinct ethnic enclaves, once part of Trujillo’s campaign to both “whiten the race,” and also introduce diverse agricultural techniques to the region. The four enclaves include La Colonia Japonesa, Húngara, Kennedy, and Española. While the Hungarians of Colonia Húngara and the Americans of Colonia Kennedy are long gone, descendents of the Japanese and Spanish settlers still maintain strong identities.

Farm to table is not just a fad, it's a way of life in Constanza.

Where to Eat

Aguas Blancas Restaurant

Aguas Blancas has a monopoly on Constanza-style gourmet, combining local products to make exquisite dishes like cream of celery root soup or guinea hen al vino for probably the tastiest food in town. A must try are Doña Emilia Caceres’ inventive desserts, such as the carrot or passion fruit flan. Behind the restaurant, there is a small, plain hotel, in case delicious food must be within shouting distance. RD$120-350; 10am-10pm; 54 C/ Rufino Espinoso; 539-1561

Esquisiteces Dilenia

Locals relaxing in park after the midday meal
Specializing in oven-roasted lamb and dulce de fresa (strawberry sweets), this restaurant is oozing with rustic charm from its exposed pine walls to its cabin-inspired furniture and locally grown flowers adorning every table. RD$200-360; 10am-10pm; 7 C/ Gaston F. Deligne, by Banco Popular; 539-2213

Where to Sleep  

Alto Cerro

With options for all budgets, including luxurious villas, standard hotel rooms, and camping spaces, this resort situated on the mountainside is far enough from the center of town to enjoy the peace and fresh air of the high mountain valley. Each villa feels like an alpine cabin, boasting a balcony to enjoy one of the best views of the Constanza surroundings. On-site activities and amenities include an exotic garden, fire pit, barbecues, zip line, soccer field, basketball court, gym, spa, and horseback riding. US$20-43; 2km on the highway to La Vega, across from the airport; 539-1553/1429; reservas@altocerro.com; www.altocerro.com

What to Do

Aguas Blancas

View from top of Ébano Verde 
This cascading set of waterfalls is located at an altitude of 1680 meters (5512 feet) above sea level, is the highest in the Caribbean basin, and according to the locals, the coldest on the island, with an average temperature hovering at 10°C. The first section drops 53 meters (174 feet) in height and the second, 38 meters (125 feet). Located near the small village of El Convento, 14 kilometers on the road into Valle Nuevo

La Pirámide y el Monumento a Francisco Caamaño Deñó

Located in Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo, this tall stone structure marks the geographical center of Hispaniola. Built by Trujillo, the pyramid is the probably last thing the unsuspecting traveler would imagine in this remote park.

Lichen at Ébano Verde
On the other side of the highway is the monument to Francisco Caamaño Deñó, hero of the 1965 uprising to defend the democratically elected government of Juan Bosch.

Ébano Verde

A verdant scientific reserve with winding trails, Ébano Verde is perfect for a daylong excursion. The reserve is home to over 80 species of orchids and is blanketed by the brilliant green of ferns and lichen. There are a number of bridges crossing small streams throughout the forest, which all feed into El Arroyazo (“huge stream”) – providing a refreshing reward at the end of the hike. Visits should be arranged through Fundación Progressio (565-1422; fund.progressio@codetel.net.do) or Constanza’s Tourism Office.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mountain Dreaming: Introduction

Cordillera Central, Ocoa
The sun-kissed sandy shores are what postcards are made for, but a trip to see the real Dominican Republic must include a visit to its lush, green hills. Even if the country isn’t most famous for towering peaks, the Dominican landscape is actually something of a topographical roller coaster, dominated by four mountain ranges. In fact, the DR is home to the tallest mountain in the Caribbean named Pico Duarte, topping out at more than 10,000 feet. During the warm summer months, Dominicans not only flee to the beaches, but they also head up to the hills, where cooler climates, relaxing rivers, and outdoor activities call.

Using the strong summer sun and heat as inspiration, the next series of posts will discuss the less-explored mountainous interior of the country. We’ll take a look at two high valley towns in the Cordillera Central, Jarabacoa and Constanza, a small village called Hoyo del Pino in the Cordillera Central with a new community-led ecotourism complex, and a town in the southern mountain range, San José de Ocoa. Each of these offers a unique experience to see and experience life away from the busy city streets and beaches. Take some time to swim under a waterfall, hike through piney forests, visit a coffee farm, or hang-glide while taking in awe-inspiring views.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

La Comida Dominicana: Alcoholic Drinks

A "Santo Libre": Rum and Lemon-Lime Soda
Two drinks that are always potable are beer and rum. Social gatherings are not complete without one of these two Dominican favorites. The most popular national beer, plastered on billboards everywhere, is Presidente. Its main competition is Bohemia and the Brazilian beer Brahma. All three of these beers are pilsners. There is a darker beer, Ambar, but it is less widespread.

Presidente Beer

Even Hillary Enjoys a Bien Fría.
Presidente is the most popular drink in the Dominican Republic, and has roots just as lofty. Cervecería Nacional Dominicana (CND), a company that distributes most of the beer (including Bohemia) and several other drinks available in the DR, is the current owner and producer of Presidente. The beer was first brewed in 1935, with permission from Trujillo to bestow his title on the beverage. Presidente became increasingly popular, and in 1986 CND was taken over by the large Grupo León Jimenes, of banking and cigar fame. The beer itself is a pilsner, with an alcohol content of about five percent. Presidente beer is a true Dominican icon. The brand supports various cultural and artistic events, fairs, and concerts, including the Carnaval festivities in La Vega.


Just as ubiquitous as Presidente is Brugal, the favored hometown Dominican rum. Take it straight out of the bottle, as is done in the countryside, or play it cool by mixing it with Coke and ice. Urban Dominicans turn to Barceló, a smoother and slightly more expensive brand of rum. Other lesser-known brands include Siboney and Macorix. Rum generally comes as both white (blanco) and dark, of which there are three kinds: the cheapest and sharpest, dorado; a mid-level variety, called añejo; and the longest-aged, most expensive, extra viejo or extra añejo.

One of the most popular, and intriguing, rum-based drinks is mamajuana. An empty bottle is filled with cinnamon, clove, and any other number of other herbs, bark and spices. Another seaside variation involves the eyebrow-raising ingredients of octopus, conch, oysters and squid. The solid ingredients are first cured with honey or molasses and red wine. Rum is then poured in and allowed to soak in the various flavors before being consumed. Dominicans will enthusiastically speak of mamajuana’s aphrodisiac qualities, usually accompanied by a corresponding hand gesture.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

La Comida Dominicana: Non-Alcoholic Drinks


Morir Soñando

Dominicans are fond of jugos naturales, or natural juices, fresh-squeezed and perfect as an afternoon treat under the hot Caribbean sun. Some of our favorites include chinola (passion fruit), tamarindo (tamarind), morir soñando (bitter orange and condensed milk), and cereza (Barbados cherry). 

Just as popular are batidas, thick fruit smoothies made with ice, sugar, and condensed milk. Must-try varieties include zapote (sapote, a blood orange-colored fruit with a brown skin), lechosa (papaya), and guanábana (soursop, with a rough green exterior with soft white flesh and black seeds).


Perhaps even more than beer and rum (to be discussed next week), coffee is the drink of choice for every citizen across the country. Coffee accompanies every family conversation, midday meal, business meeting, and first date. In the DR, the coffee is distinctive: hot, strong, and deliciously sweet. As it’s served in small, espresso-sized cups, coffee in the home is often called a cafecito, or little coffee. Sugar, a Dominican agricultural star, is added in liberal amounts – café con leche (coffee with milk) can only be found in restaurants. At home or in small shops, coffee is served black (called solo or negro). Coffee forms an integral part of the Dominican history and economy. Brought over from Africa in the early 18th century, coffee has become one of the DR’s major exports. Farmers cultivate the sublime bean all across the Dominican highlands, in both the north and the south. Visiting a small farm to see where that cafecito came from is one of the best ways to experience a taste of campesino life.

Other Liquid Delights

Té de Jengibre
Around Christmas, té de jengibre (ginger tea) is served at family gatherings with galletas (crackers). Chocolate (hot chocolate) and avena (liquid oatmeal) also make appearances in the cooler months. In rural areas, a drink called mabí is a popular refreshment, often sold in unmarked bottles. It looks and tastes like a lemonade cousin, but is actually brewed from bark and spices.

Of course, the careful traveler should be warned to make sure drinks come from boiled or bottled water.