“It seems like everyone is going to the Dominican Republic,” an acquaintance mused during a coworking session uptown. I was surprised. Before the Ministry of Tourism invited me to take a tour of the Dominican Republic* in March, I had never even considered it as a destination, much less one that would fulfill my yearning for sustainability and adventure. Costa Rica, I thought, was the place to be. But I found myself completely charmed by the Dominican Republic’s North Coast. I started evangelizing the DR to all my friends and even my family (“There are villas to rent, Mom!”) as soon as I returned in March. And I noticed that people I knew – those well-traveled, socially conscious, interesting people – were posting on Facebook asking for tips.
Perhaps it was as I sipped on a mojito using a miracle berry and mint sourced from a hydroponic garden about 100 feet away after trying out some aerial circus tricks. Or maybe it was listening to the mournful calls of a lovesick humpback whale piped up to me from under the boat. But at some point on my trip, I became a Dominican Republic Convert.
Like any beautiful, tropical country, there are parts of the DR that certainly wouldn’t appeal to me, like Punta Cana, a mega resort-packed Spring Break destination on the Caribbean Sea. But there is plenty for a sustainably-minded tourist to experience. Give yourself 15 days, and you could really do almost all of it, including many of its 126 national parks; Barahona, known for it the gorgeous views, biodiversity, birdwatching, white water rafting and rock climbing; and Santo Domingo, which – as the first Western discovery of America – apparently offers a great pit stop for some culture and history.
But we only had five days, so we headed straight up the new highway to the North Coast and our destination: the province of Samaná, which contains the destinations: Las Terrenas, Cabrera, and–sharing a peninsula–Samaná and Cabarete. The North Shore is less garish than the most obvious Caribbean destinations in every way, from the slate blue water of the Atlantic Ocean, the abundance of waterfalls, and the secluded resorts serving locally caught fish by candlelight.
If you’re looking for an authentic Dominican Republic experience, go for typical and hearty meals made with rice, beans, chicken, salsa, coconuts, avocado, plantains, and, in the north, seafood. The DR is also a big producer of coconuts and coconut cream, Presidente beer, organic cacao, coffee, sugarcane and rum. Then dance the night away to bachata, merengue, and salsa.
If you are a conscious traveler, above all, avoid staying in an all-inclusive resort, especially if it is owned by a foreign corporation. Yes, it will employ some locals at low pay, but because you are encouraged not to leave the confines of your padded paradise, almost all the money you spend gets siphoned back out of the community and the DR and goes to shareholders located somewhere else. Plus, they often have vast, destructive, concrete physical footprints, and they are wasteful–of electricity, of water, of imported food–because they strive to keep foreign tourists feeling as if they are on a luxurious bubble.
You can do better. Here’s how…
To get to the North Coast, you can fly into Santiago or Puerto Plata, which is close to the haute hippie/sports town of Caberete. There are taxis everywhere that will take you to Cabarete for about $40 U.S. For the jungly Las Terrenas, it’s recommended that you fly into Santo Domingo and take a public bus to Sanchez, then take a van to Las Terrenas. Otherwise, a private van is $300. If you want to see both areas (I recommend you do) you could fly into Santiago and leave from Santo Domingo. To go from town to town, travel in guaguas (the local transportation) or buses. Within the towns, you can request bikes, but most people use motorbikes to get around – it’s not terribly dense. And you can always hail a taxi or have your hotel order one for you.
With a huge expat community of young yoga hippies and old rich hippies that split their time between their villas here and their pieds a terre in France, this little town is the perfect launchpad for your DR adventures. You can get the best of both worlds: typical Dominican food and fresh smoothies, kitesurfing with the kind of people who are famous in San Francisco (like, say, Richard Branson), and dancing to salsa with the locals after sunset. Cabarete was my favorite stop, so much so I considered moving there. “What I love is that it’s a melting pot of all different nationalities, artists, musicians, conscious people, and health practitioners,” a local told me.
STAY, DO, EAT: Extreme Hotel – Don’t be fooled by the name, this hotel is a dream for the conscious traveler who likes to take an active vacation. Located right on Kite Beach, it’s right in the thick of things. If you’ve just landed and you want to make friends, go here and get involved in something. It was here that I glimpsed the vibrant community in cabarete, and thought, hmmm, I could live here. Or at least stay here for a few weeks.
Even if you don’t stay there, you can sign up for a yoga retreats, a weight loss program, lessons with the only certified and safe circus in Cabarete (the kind with human, not animal, performers), or a class at the gym. Or you can have a meal or drink at the restaurant/bar and serving healthy, local fare.
While we were there, we had sushi made with all local ingredients, save for the seaweed and soy sauce. Then the bartender served up the healthiest mojitos ever. He gave us each a local miracle berry to suck on, which turns everything sweet. Then he mixed up the mojitos with soda water, lime, and hyper local mint (no sugar) from the aquaponic farm on the property. The bartender told me that after the last storm, the hotel initiated a beach cleanup, and the plastic item they found the most was straws. So they switched to serving up drinks with reusable metal straws. Bueno!
The aquaponic farm is a fairly new concept in the world of sustainable farming. It uses 90% less water than traditional farming (thus serving as insurance against drought), and a lot less land, too, making it perfect for urban agriculture. Plus, since they can’t use hormones or pesticides (it would kill the fish or plants), you know it’s organic. The tilapia at Extreme Hotel’s farm are fed a diet of animal and plant (moringa seeds from the tree in the garden) protein, then breathe and poop out nutrients for plants, which filter the water. And the ingredients they grow – mojito, garlic chives, green onions, and basil – are sold in five supermarkets in the region, as well as the onsite restaurant. Any mojito you order in cabarete will have their mint. They also have an off-site farm that grows lettuce and arugula, bread fruit, avocado, acai and honey.
STAY, EAT, DO: Natura Cabaña – Designed according to feng shui principles, this small resort a few minutes outside of cabarete is best for a couple on a romantic vacation. It consists of several cabanas built from local, natural materials. Many of the ingredients used in the two open-air restaurants come from their organic vegetable and herb garden. And you can also stop by for a 90-minute yoga class.
STAY, DO, EAT: Seahorse Ranch – This is best if you want to bring a large group of friends or your whole family and want a truly upscale experience. We stayed in a large, gorgeous villa with an ocean view and a pool. It feels gated, but its amenities are open to the public, including a restaurant, tennis club, and equestrian center. (The pool is just for members.) You can even hire local chefs to come and cook your meals, if you would like.
It also now has a USDA-certified organic farm, Villa Orgánica, with a stunning array of produce – star fruit, passion fruit, mustard greens, eggplant, mint, tarragon, sweet potato, amaranth, arugula, jackfruit, inca peanuts, lemongrass – and chickens, too. When the farmer, Carlos Juan Rodrigez, told me the workers execute pest control simply by picking caterpillars off by hand and then frying them up for lunch, I started laughing in disbelief, but he was serious! Three times a week they have a public market where they sell their produce, and once a month they have a Full Moon dinner party near the farm of about 30 people, which, for $20, tend to sell out.
EAT: Fresh Fresh – This smoothie and sandwich shop in Cabarete proper not only has delicious, healthy food for reasonable prices, it also has wifi and a covered outdoor area where you can work.
DO: Go dancing or partying – I didn’t have the time or energy to do this, after our whirlwind tour, but you can hit up many of the beach bars for some Latin music, or look for posters for a big expat dance party featuring global music.
DO: Learn to kite surf – Once you see the kites swooping back and forth in front of Kite Beach, you’ll have a hankering to try it, too. But warning: you need at least three days of the bunny hill (a.k.a. practicing with your feet in the sand on the beach) before you can even get in the water. So I would only try this if you have a week or more in Cabarete. If so, go to the Kite Club. In lieu of that, however…
DO: Surf – Head to Encuentro Beach early in the morning for a coffee, then hit up LG Surf Camp for some lessons. The owner, Luciano, is a Dominican and from what I was told by an acquaintance who used to live there, a super nice guy.
DO: 27 Waterfalls – Are you the kind of person to take the stairs or jump off the edge? Either way, you’ll enjoy this natural waterpark that winds its way through the jungle. It’s about 1.5 hours from Cabarete, and 45 minutes from Puerto Plata. You might do it first or last if you land or leave from Puerto Plata, on your way to or from Cabarete. We started by taking a short and completely manageable hike to waterfall 11 (you can choose to start at 27 and do them all), then floated, scrambled, climbed, and leapt off, over and around the waterfalls one by one. It was thrilling and gorgeous (walking through a high hallway carved by the water into stratified rock was the most breathtaking part for me, even more than the cliff jumping) though after 12 waterfalls I was starting to get a bit chilled and was happy to take a short walk back to the main area for a buffet lunch of typical Dominican Food. Just make sure to go on a weekday and go early. On weekends, the locals come too, and it can apparently get crazy. The day we were there, we were behind a huge group from a cruise which meant my reverie was frequently interrupted by quibbling teenagers. (Cruises, ugh.)
SHOP: Bead It – The front of this store is deceiving, with typical tourist items. But in the back, there is locally-made jewelry, dreamcatchers, tie-dye pillows, local moringa oil and honey, natural mosquito repellant, and loose beads if you want to make your own jewelry. I found an incredible shell necklace– it was the only thing I bought the entire trip.
EAT: Clorofila – I didn’t have a chance to check this out, but it reportedly serves excellent vegan food.
STAY: Dominican Treehouse Resort – This eco-friendly, tropical rainforest resort is magical, with treehouses integrated lightly into the surrounding jungle. I would call it rustic, except the food is luxurious, there is hot water, the staff (comprised fully of locals) is wonderfully attentive, everything is clean, and the treehouses afford you so much privacy, with a backdrop of jungle noises. On the flip side, meals are communal, so you’ll make friends while you’re there. They’ll arrange all the tours and activities you could want, including a farm tour, bikes so you can go down o the secluded El Valle beach, and yoga in the jungle in their yoga dome. There’s no wifi (which is why our group of journalists and bloggers didn’t stay there) so be prepared to disconnect and fully immerse yourself in the moment.
STAY: Sublime Samaná – For those seeking a more luxurious experience, go in with your friends or family an airy bungalow at Sublime Samana, a privately-owned (not all-inclusive corporate!) cocoon of green lawns, tennis courts, and blue pools by the ocean. Enjoy yoga, Pilates, and meditation at the yoga temple, with a backdrop of crashing waves, and a massage with local, organically-grown herbs and fruits at the spa, and local coconut oil. They use all natural cleaning products, buy local art for the decor, and sell organic items in the gift shop. They’re in the process of putting in an organic garden, too. The seaside kitchen serves up a daily catch and fresh, local ingredients.
Other eco places to stay: Clave Verde
DO: Horseback riding to a waterfall – Hop on a horse, and be led by a local up a long path through the rainforest, across a stream, to a gorgeous view, before arriving to a waypoint and taking a quick hike down to a beautiful waterfall. It was an easy and pleasant ride, and the horses seem to be well cared for to my semi-trained eye. Our experience was provided by an outfit known as Ramona y Bracillio, who when you’re done, provide a delicious local lunch. They do not have a website, but if you ask with your resort or hotel, they can probably arrange it for you.
EAT: Mi Corazon – Hidden up a spiral staircase inside a nondescript building, inside you’ll find a romantic courtyard with two terraces, thoughtfully decorated in the Italian style with tile and chairs from Santiago, and stonework from the Limon area. All the food is local. We had a dreamy meal of goat cream cheese terrine from Dominican goats, local dorado (mahi-mahi) fillet, and an Austrian dessert, kaiserschmarrn. Save this for your fancy night out.
DO: Whale Watch – Usually you go out whale watching with no assurance that you’ll actually see one. But when we went out on a boat guided by local naturalists, we saw five humpback whales!
Samana is the most important sanctuary around the Carribean for humpback whales, who come down from Canada in the winter to mate, breed, and shepherd their young into the world of the ocean before traveling back up north. We went out with Whale Samana, which I absolutely recommend. There were plenty of boats out, but ours was the most comfortable (shade is heavenly), and the only one with trilingual naturalists explaining what we were seeing. They gave us special anti-nausea wristbands before boarding, and passed around local ginger crystals, a nice touch. Whale watching is both a breathtaking and beneficial activity. As the lead Naturalist, Kim Beddall said, “Whale watching makes a live whale more profitable than a dead one.”
First, we tracked a mother and a baby whale. Then, we found a single male, and they lowered an aquaphone into the water, so we could hear his lovesick song piped live to us, as moving and emotional as a symphony. That would have been enough, but then a female came along, and another male, and we got to witness the two males vying for her attention as they swam through the water. I was overwhelmed by the show.
After whale watching, you can choose to be dropped off an Cayo Leventado, a small island in the bay where you can get fresh coconut drink and lunch, and relax on the beach. I really enjoyed it there, and wish we could have stayed longer!
Stay: EcoCampo la Sangria
We didn’t have time to visit this charming seaside town. But I was told by a Dominican friend that it’s a great place to visit. And from there, you can take a ferry to a gorgeous little island called Cayó Arena. You can stay at Paraiso Ecolodge while you are here.
We didn’t have time to go here, but if you do, check out the lagoon with excellent bird watching, and try out cave diving, plus surfing at Playa Grande.
A big city, there’s not much to see here for tourists, except for a cable car that goes up a mountain to give you a great view. If you get in really late to the airport, you could stay at Tabagua, an eco lodge nestled in the rainforest 30 minutes from the airport.
Another mid-sized city with a beach and bay. Here we rented a boat for an afternoon of snorkeling. This makes me really sad to say, but I was disappointed by the snorkeling, which was very different than the bright pictures advertised in the snorkeling office, and compares unfavorably to many other Caribbean destinations. Our boat was parked near a gray lump of gray coral, above which swam only four species of fish. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing it to The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, or to the Blue Hole in Belize. Or maybe, I’m unfairly comparing it to the coral reefs of my youth, which may never come back, due to pollution, ocean warming, and ocean acidification. The Great Barrier reach is bleaching faster than ever. The Dominican Republic’s reefs, like ones all over the world, have suffered from pollution, overzealous development (hey there, all-inclusive resorts), and climate change.
The effect of the loss of this reef isn’t just the slicing of one enjoyable activity from your list, the dead coral reefs don’t protect the beaches as effectively from erosion, and those beaches could start slipping away. All the more reason to be very thoughtful about how you spend your vacation, and to do it as lightly as possible. If you stop by Sosua, I recommend you spread your towel on the beach and just relax for the afternoon.
Beyond Conscious Travel
We need to focus not just on ourselves, but turn our energy outward to affect broad change. Here are some ways you can support some crucial movements:
1. Support Cap and Trade. You shouldn’t feel like a dick every time you fly somewhere. With cap and trade, an economic scheme in which total emissions would be capped, and companies who want to burn more could buy credits from companies who can burn less, you could fly knowing that somewhere else, someone is burning less. Learn more. In the meantime, offset your own emissions.
2. Support extended producer responsibility. Does the litter on beaches make you said? Support a scheme where producers of plastic bottles and cigarettes and everything straws that wash up onshore would have to take responsibility for their disposal, either by paying to take them back with a deposit system, and/or designing with an eye to make recycling and reuse easy and economical. Dominicans shouldn’t have to pay to clean up Hershey’s candy wrappers, Hershey should! Learn more.
3. Support an effort to get a wild land or marine area protected. The Dominican Republic’s North Coast has a lot of protected areas. There should be more places like that. You can start by reading this book, or just choosing a local or international should-be-protected area and throwing your support behind it with donations, petition signatures, etc.
5. The Great Barrier Reef (and other coral reefs, likely) is damaged beyond repair. But, “the ecological function of the reef should be maintained as much as possible,” through action to address climate change. We need to start work now on hobbling oil-loving politicians in the 2018 midterm elections. Sign up for Swing Left and Knock Every Door
Have you been to the Dominican Republic? Any eco tips and favorites to share?
*This trip was paid for in full by the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Tourism. This post represents my honest views and favorites from my visit there, including sustainable places we didn’t visit but I think you should try.