The horse’s name is Mantequilla, Spanish for butter. But as smoothly as she moves, the path we’re treading is a pockmarked, mud-splattered mess, a serpent linking bumpy hills and rocky knolls that are woven together in a topsy-turvy topography of contours. Everything around me radiates green: waxy leaves and ferns, dangling moss-covered lianas, glossy emerald thickets. It’s with some vague notion of communing with the creeping tangles of photosynthesis that Mantequilla and I are here, forging our way up this forested mountain.
I’m on Samaná, a rugged peninsula in northeastern Dominican Republic, riding through the jungle looking for a (supposedly) nearby waterfall. Before coming here, I’d heard Samaná was a secret subtropical paradise, a Hispaniolan hideaway for eco-explorers, an antidote to the usual beach-and-bachata fluff. But I didn’t realize this 50-kilometre-long peninsula is an outsize orchidaceous rain forest with almost preternaturally gorgeous landscapes. No one told me it would be this raw.
After grinding along for almost an hour, rounding yet another bend, Mantequilla and I emerge into a clearing on the mountain’s summit. An undulating vista spreads out on all sides: countless palm-crowned hills framed by an aquamarine sea. In the distance, I spy rocky islets covered with red-throated frigate birds. Across the bay, there’s a biosphere reserve full of petroglyph-decorated caves and mangrove habitats.
At the end of the trail, where a wood cabin overlooks a ravine, I dismount and start descending a staircase carved into the cliffside. There are so many steps I start thinking that I’m entering an ancient Taino temple. Reaching the bottom, I finally hear it: Salto El Limón. Scaling one last hillock of verdant density, I arrive at the base of the falls, which, at 50 metres in height, is one of the Caribbean’s most exalted displays. Spring-water torrents tumble over the edge high above, plummeting down in vectors of froth, trailing a million mini-rainbows. I peel off my shirt and shoes and dive into bracingly cool water. The waterfall rains onto my shoulders; it’s like being massaged by a giant.
To recover after my jungle trek, I spend a few days chilling on Playa Cosón, an untrafficked setting that topped Luxury Living’s Top 10 list of beaches to live on. CasaCoson is a stylish, laid-back hotel owned by Marzia and Yvan Magnien, two former fashion designers from Paris who retired here after popularizing leggings. There are barely any other buildings around. “Every morning, you open the window and see the postcard,” says Marzia, spreading her arms.
I head out in the early afternoon for a walk. Soon I reach a place simply called the Beach Restaurant. I sit down, admire the royal palms scattered throughout the manicured grounds and order spaghetti alle vongole. When the clams arrive, they rival the best I’ve had in Rome or Venice.
It’s not the only great food I eat on the Samaná peninsula. The town of Las Terrenas may look rustic and rusty, but it’s rich in cafés, bars and little chiringuitos serving freshly grilled fish. “The seafood selection here is outrageous,” Bruno Toso tells me as we set out on a local food tour. The talented executive chef at the hotel Balcones del Atlántico, Toso is a regular at the town’s daily fishermen’s market, made up of a cluster of tables on the beach. I marvel at colossal groupers, terrier-size crabs, metre-long rock lobsters and other varieties of marine life I’ve never seen before. (Later on, we’ll eat a tasty selection for dinner.) As if to underscore that Samaná is more than a wild botanical garden, Toso takes me to an Italian market hawking mozzarella di bufala and fresh pasta, then a German sausage maker and finally a boulangerie serving café au lait and brie omelettes.
Outside of Las Terrenas, much of the peninsula is campo – countryside dotted with little shacks. Driving along the winding roads, I pass plaster huts and tin-roof casitas. The forest seems to have sprouted painted cubes like tropical fruit.
On weekends, life goes from campo to loco as thousands of Santo Domingoans roll in to have a good time. On Friday night, Las Terrenas morphs into thumping nightclub mode. And in nearby El Limón (not far from the waterfall), El Arroyo del Limón – an innocuous-looking hot-spring pool – transforms into a wet and wild party. Pretty girls invade the mineral springs, sipping cocktails and dancing to any one of the three competing sound systems, each one blasting reggaetón at eardrum-piercing volume. Guys in tank tops try to impress the glitter-bedazzled chulas with their dance moves.
But this is Samaná, not Miami, and what really shines (once your hangover dissipates) is its unspoiled nature. Samaná Bay, for instance, turns out to be filled with Atlantic humpback whales. Better known for their summertime appearances in the northern hemisphere, the humpbacks migrate in winter to mating and calving grounds in subtropical and tropical waters, including in the Dominican. From January to March, whales circulate among several local breeding areas like humans checking out singles bars. This is where one-tonne baby humpbacks enter the world.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Canadian whale preservationist and marine mammal specialist Kim Beddall, Samaná Bay has been designated a national marine mammal sanctuary. “We don’t know why the whales come here to reproduce,” Beddall explains as we sail out to sea, gems of light sparkling on the wave tips around us. “But this is where they’re conceived and born, so this is their true home.”
During the course of our humpback safari, we spot two particularly frisky specimens. “Teenagers!” Beddall exclaims. They’re adolescent whales in love, doing the megapterine version of holding hands and making out at the beach. They put on an acrobatic performance, everything from tail lobs to spy hops. Watching them, I can see why Melville considered them “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales.”
Beddall, outfitted in a yellow raincoat, a blue baseball cap and whale-fluke earrings, keeps checking her stopwatch in order to track their descents. Toward the end of the day, one of the creatures leaps out of the waves just metres away from the boat in a magnificent full-bodied breach, spraying us onlookers. “You’ll remember that for the rest of your life,” Beddall enthuses.
On my last day, I follow the advice a friendly couple gave me at the mineral pool in El Limón and make the requisite pilgrimage to Playa Rincón, a beach at the tip of the peninsula. The roller coaster of a road there is cursed with so many potholes that I stop in the village of Las Galeras to order a motorboat. The ride is choppy, even on a blazingly sunny day like this, and our skiff thumps over the waves like a rowdy swordfish. A silver flying fish propels itself in the air over the whitecaps like a weird anchovy/hummingbird hybrid while I bounce off my seat. But the journey ends at a beach that must be among the most glorious stretches of white sand in the world.
After a couple of hours reading Moby-Dick in the shade and splashing around in the bottle-green sea, I make my way to one end of the beach, where a river empties into the Atlantic. A vendor sells pillowy pan de coco (coconut bread) straight from a pot. Cooks at a couple of driftwood huts serve freshly caught seafood; I point at a large-clawed, grouchy orange crab, which they proceed to boil in a pot of saltwater straight from the ocean. As I wait, a piña colada arrives inside a hollowed-out pineapple. The crab is salty and sweet, oceanic perfection. A fisherman tells me that the singer Shakira bought land nearby. Hips don’t lie. Wait, isn’t she Colombian? “Yes, but look around, chulo,” he says. “There’s nowhere in the world like this.”
Originally published in enRoute magazine .
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Date 14-03-07, Duration 3:49, Views 3877