No water slide at any water park will ever be the same again — not after cascading down real waterfalls in the Dominican Republic. The waterfall escapade is billed as 27 Waterfalls by its organizers, but that's really a misnomer since it's more like 10 waterfalls flowing into 27 pools of water. And it's only one of a multitude of outdoor adventures we sampled in the Dominican Republic.
When most people think of the Dominican Republic, they think beaches, and when they think beaches, they think all-inclusives. Punta Cana, whose admittedly beautiful beaches are lined with a succession of all-inclusives, is the most visited (read: touristy) destination in the whole country. We opted instead for Puerta Plata on the north coast, which also boasts lovely beaches but also offers a wealth of other activities not available in Punta Cana. Here visitors can see the countryside, meet the people, visit real towns and connect with nature. And the best way to experience the north coast is through a wide variety of outdoor adventures.
Back at the waterfall, outfitted in a life jacket and helmet, my husband and I began our trek with an easy 20-minute hike to the first pool through shallow, rocky streams of water. Closed-toe water shoes are a must. Then we swam, hiked, climbed and clambered our way to the top. As we rounded one bend, my initial reaction was, "You expect me to climb up THAT?" And then even worse: "Come back down?" But the guides — and it did take two — flawlessly aided me in my ascent so that I hardly felt the extent of the exertion. Essentially they pushed, slung and carried me skyward. The first several pools were the most difficult to navigate, but the guides were there to literally lend a hand as needed.
Usually the descent is a simpler matter. Not so here. The main options are surging down a series of natural water slides or jumping over falls into pool after pool of clear, flowing river water. Although the highest jump is a somewhat terrifying 20 feet, most are about the size of a high-dive board at a local pool. Line Freij, visiting from Sweden, described the experience as "a real adrenaline kick." She confessed: "I was a little shaky in the knees after the first jump, but after that I felt like a pro. My favorite part was the slides."
Lunch is provided as a reward for actually making it down.
In one canyon, standing in the water below, rocks protruding on all sides, I was surprised to look up and see a forest above. It was an other-worldly confluence of several of nature's best features not usually assembled together all in one place. It is that same emphasis on the off-the-beaten-track connection with nature that propels the philosophy behind Iguana Mama.
Although 27 Waterfalls is the most popular, visitors can choose from six different waterfall options that vary in terms of difficulty. There are also six different mountain-bike adventures, from a relatively easy jaunt along the coast to a maximum-endurance ride over 45 miles of "technical single-track climb" that even the owner, Michael Scates, categorizes as "hideousness and pain" — not a lot to recommend it in my book. We opted for the gentler ride, which was combined with an unexpected visit to a local zoo and an even more leisurely sail in an old rundown rowboat down the Islabon River. That came with the usual commentary about the local flora and fauna along with the de rigueur bird sightings. No hideousness, no pain.
Another day, another outing, this time a hike through the Choco National Park. This was not just a hike, however; it involved the exploration of a variety of caves that added a whole new dimension to the usual walk in the woods. As in all caves, the stalactites and stalagmites gave them their eerie sense of wonder, their grotesque shapes and yawning divides forging a sinister, ethereal quality to the caverns. The faraway sound of Coqui tree frogs chirping from below the surface reinforced the ghostlike ambience. The water was so clear we didn't even know it was there until a sliver of rock causes it to ripple. According to our guide, Carlos, stalagmites grow only 1 millimeter a year, and if anyone touches them, the grease from their fingers prevents water from being absorbed and therefore stymies their growth. They didn't appear any the worse for wear.
Every cave is different. Climbing down over rocks and roots, using vines for leverage into the cave allows a personal connection not accessible when looking down from above. I grabbed the jagged limestone outcroppings for support and tentatively slithered down boulder over boulder, becoming immersed in a stalactite jungle. The gingerly scramble back up was equally exhilarating.
Our outdoor adventure company was Iguana Mama, which also offers, in addition to waterfall, biking and hiking options, canyoning, catamaran sails, windsurfing, diving and snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, whale-watching, rafting and kayaking, zip-lining, horseback riding and more. As the first such adventure tour operator in the area, the company still focuses on preserving the non-commercial, less touristy aspect of adventure travel with a strong emphasis on eco-tourism.
But choosing to see more of the countryside doesn't rule out the all-inclusive lifestyle. In fact, Lifestyles Holiday Vacation Club in Puerto Plata offers every comfort in accommodation and recreation.
Depending upon the price, all-inclusives treat guests to a week of opulence that can range from persistent pampering to lavish indulgence. Either way, unlimited drinks and food are available around the clock. Here, instead of lying on typical chaise lounges, guests enjoy queen-size platform beds, replete with pillows to cushion weary heads. Some are double-decker with billowy white curtains providing as little or as much privacy as desired. Some of the beds swing hammock-style, and nearby nightstands accommodate all that aforementioned food and drink.
WHEN YOU GO
If you want to sit by the pool or lounge by the ocean with an endless supply of food and drink at your beck and call, there's no better place to do it than Lifestyles Vacation Resort: www.lifestyleholidaysvc.com. But if you want to sample the country through a series of more challenging adventures, Iguana Mama is the place to go: www.iguanamama.com. The best holiday, of course, would include a little bit of both.
Photos courtesy of Fyllis Hockman.