The Dominican Republic’s Eco-Focused North Shore

January 18, 2021 Updated: January 20, 2021

Considering its proximity to the U.S., it was surprising that the Dominican Republic somehow got passed over in my Caribbean travels. I had heard tell of Punta Cana, the easternmost point and a popular cruise destination, but beyond that, I knew very little.

On a weeklong trip to the lesser-traveled north shore, however, I found a real appreciation for the island’s beauty.

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Swapping hiking boots for saddles, travelers ride horses to see the 150-foot Salto El Limón. (Kevin Revolinski)
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The view of the low-lying mountains along an equestrian trail to visit the waterfall El Limón. (Kevin Revolinski)
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The 150-foot Salto El Limón waterfall. (Kevin Revolinski)

Samaná

I chose to stay where the north coast gradually bends south toward Punta Cana. There extends a long, almost island-like finger of land known as the Samaná Peninsula. I stayed on the Atlantic Coast at the resort Sublime Samaná. After daily excursions, I’d visit the spa or relax on the fine sandy beach that curves along the small bay. Reliable waves and a shallow and gradually sloping sea bottom there made perfect conditions for boogie boards, and I rode into shore, tumbling into sizzling surf just steps from the beach.

On the southern side of this peninsula lies the town of Samaná, famous for humpback whale watching, which I recommend highly. Every season, humpback whales from the north Atlantic return to these waters to give birth and raise their calves. This is another easy day trip; afterward take a launch out to Cayo Levantado, a small island in the bay with nice beaches. You can have lobster delivered to your beach blanket.

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Taking a leap into a pool along the adventurous 27 Charcos tour. (Kevin Revolinski)
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The tranquil grounds at the seaside Sublime Samaná. (Kevin Revolinski)
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Humpback whales come to Samaná Bay every year to raise their young. (Kevin Revolinski)

Wind and Wave

Situated a 45-minute drive east of Puerto Plata, another port of some popularity with cruisers, is Cabarete, a resort town with a long stretch of sand popular with horseback riders. But that beach, facing the constant wind and waves off the Atlantic side of the island, is better known as the Windsurfing Capital of the Caribbean. Windsurfing and kite-boarding are so popular that if you look out to sea, the sky is filled with the rainbow colors of parachutes and sails, crisscrossing up and down the coast.

Rentals and lessons are easily found, and so are sushi and mojitos beachside.

Cabarete makes a good home base for travelers looking for a lively time, and a good home base is the ecologically sustainable eXtreme Hotel, which sits right along the sea, drawing travelers interested in fitness and adventure. Their organic restaurant gets ingredients from a botanical garden next door and from their partner Taino Farm outside town. The farm offers a rustic cabana option in the jungle, but at a minimum, the farm is worth a tour and a floating excursion on the river that runs along the property.

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Ride along the beach or the waves at Cabarete. (Kevin Revolinski)
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Cabarete is known throughout the Caribbean and beyond as an ideal windsurfing destination. (Kevin Revolinski)
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In Cabarete, enjoy beachside mojitos made with Dominican rum and locally grown organic mint. (Kevin Revolinski)

Chasing Waterfalls

The D.R. has a number of spectacular cascades, but the 150-foot Salto El Limón may be the best of the bunch. I rode on horseback up into the modest mountains, on a trail that crossed shallow rivers and climbed to scenic overlooks, including one of the falls themselves. Descending the other side of the hill, I passed a smaller but no less photogenic cascade before arriving at El Limón. Visitors swim in the pool beneath the wide apron of cascading water, the spray from which creates rainbows in the mid-day sun. Daredevil local guides climbed the slippery face of the cliff and performed death-defying dives into the shallow waters below.

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A white-tailed tropicbird sails above the waves just offshore. Over 300 species of birds have been identified on Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. (Kevin Revolinski)

On the final day, I wasn’t just going to see a waterfall, but 27 of them. And I’d be jumping from them. “Like yesterday’s waterfall daredevils?” I wondered warily. I’d rate my thirst for adrenaline rushes at about medium-low. Donning a life jacket, helmet, swimming trunks, and shoes I knew I’d get wet, I took a longish hike up a low mountain just west of Puerto Plata to Rio Damajagua and its “27 Charcos.” I saw several families with children, so have no fear: this isn’t a Red Bull extreme sport.

Beware of shortened, 2.5-hour tours, hiking only as far as the seventh waterfall. The longer excursion with a private guide for the full 27 is worth it. The hike is mildly strenuous, but the trip back down is like no other. The river tumbles and rushes down the mountain through a limestone channel it has carved over thousands of years. The stone is worn smooth enough that travelers can slide right through some passages as if at a waterpark.

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A kite surfer in Cabarete. (LaGente.do/Shutterstock)
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Horseback riding in Cabarete. (Sheryl Chapman/Shutterstock)
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Samaná is known for its whale watching. (Jenya_TarasoF/Shutterstock)

Where the falls—the highest of them was perhaps 20 feet—drop directly, guides instruct me to cross my arms over my chest and jump, plunging safely into deep pools. Minimal swimming skills suffice, especially with the vest, and the water beyond each pool ranges from ankle deep up to the neck.

In those deeper passages, the channel is narrow, the current mild, and everyone moves through single file, bobbing along in water made milky with minerals. Much like the rest of the north coast experience, it’s not something you will soon forget.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.”  He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com