Climbing the steep rocky switchbacks, I stall in my tracks without noticing, dreaming of faraway alternatives — long-ago strolls on flat beaches, delicious beer of the future. The trail, lined with both tropical trees and evergreens, passes hillside farmsteads and sparkling streams, while green cotorra parrots wing overhead — lovely. But my knees ache, my hamstrings are cramping and my bronchioles sting with each breath. “La proxima parte se llama Arrepentimiento,” guide Joel says, casually backtracking downhill to join me, “difícil.” Translation: The next part, nicknamed “Repentance,” will be difficult. My chest heaves, lungs flapping after what turns out to be the easy part. Joel, breathing easily, inclines his hand to show the upcoming 19 percent grade. The tiered trail ahead looks like a rock wall. Perfect. I repent my desk job, the zero-percent grade between my chair and the snack machine.
With Joel, two mules and two muleteers, I’m on a three-day trek to summit Pico Duarte, at 10,417 feet the highest peak in the Dominican Republic and in the whole Caribbean. And it’s August. I’m sweating, a lot. From the high glade across the pass, the blue-green ridges of the sierra overlap into the distance, a transfixing vision. Then mist rolls in and gentle rain begins. The thin air breathed deep smells of pine and sea — wonderful. “It always rains here,” Joel mentions for the first time. Then it starts to pour. I pull my raincoat over already wet clothes — miserable.
Why am I here? And why, in the days to come, will I also scale the waterfalls of Damajagua, try kiteboarding for the first time, go surfing, ride a horse for six hours and run myself to the point of exhaustion? Because I want to get as far outside my office-bound daily mindset as possible. And because you can’t drive to the most beautiful places on earth. The DR’s central region, hours from U.S. airports, has months’ worth of mind-clearing adventure opportunities, not to mention luxurious ways to recover in between. As for beauty, I hardly have to turn my head, which is good because I’m almost too tired.
I follow the mules into Compartición camp at 8,000 feet after one of the toughest walking days of my life, with another hard climb tomorrow. But as the clouds part, I can see for 50 green miles again, and I know I’d start over if I had to.
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By Matthew Miller
From the ISLANDS Best Travel Guide: Dominican Republic
Days 1-4: Summit the DR
Fly to Santiago (STI), rent a car, drive to Jarabacoa in the mountains. Relax into the Dominican vibe at Rancho Baiguate, test your gringo Spanish and rest up. Tomorrow’s a big day. Meet your guide to discuss the Pico Duarte trek. Got hiking boots, rain gear, layered non-cotton clothing and a day pack? Mules carry the rest. Rancho Baiguate guides bring food and do the cooking. Food tastes better at altitude. Request ahead for special diet needs. Take it slow (you’re on vacation), walking or riding uphill. Sip the clear creek water (safe to drink) and listen to the birds. Overnight at La Compartición. Run by the national park, the shared camp has plain but well-kept cabins, a cookhouse and restrooms. Bathe in the creek. Get up before dawn (courage!); mount a mule in the dark and ride for the summit. Do the last steep trail on foot, racing the sun. The walk back to town is easier if you succeed.
Day 5: Rest. You’ll Need It.
Drive three hours across the island’s central region through hills, tobacco plantations and villages to Sosúa on the north coast. Along the way, stop for a machete-cut agua de coco at a roadside stand. Check into Sea Horse Ranch and give yourself a break. The chef cooks to order the food you bring; the maid does your laundry. “Don’t worry,” one staffer says. “You’re at Sea Horse now.” All villas have private pools. The resort’s communal club pool has a view of the Caribbean. At the Beach Club, you can dine on Caribbean-influenced cuisine from seared tuna to Dominican country stew. For a change, eat and browse at Miró Gallery and Restaurant on Cabarete beach. There’s art on the walls, lounge seating on the beach and Moroccan cuisine like chicken tangine on your table.
Day 6: Ride Easy
Want to surf? Check out the Encuentro break west of Cabarete (turn at the Coconut Palms Resort). Most days the gentle surf suits beginners. The bigger outer break awaits when you advance. Takeoff surf school teaches ocean sense and surfing etiquette as well as moves.
Day 7: Fly a Kite, Señor
Kiteboarding isn’t easy, especially in the maze of lines and kites on Cabarete beach. Start slow at Laurel Eastman Kiteboarding School. If you have time, the four-day “Transformation into Kiteboarder” package goes from trainer kites to water starts. You’ll get dunked a lot, but the water’s warm. Got extra hours? In the morning before clouds roll in, take the teleférico up Mount Isabel de Torres for sweeping views of Puerto Plata and the area. Or tour the Brugal Rum factory to see how they get the deliciousness out of the sugar cane and into the bottle. Or snorkel Sosúa. Rent gear on the beach and dive into an all-time favorite reef spot.
Day 8: Climb Waterfalls
Iguana Mama picks you up at your hotel and drives you to the 27 Charcos site on Rio Damajagua. Part of the proceeds help support local communities. Wear comfortable clothes and closed-toe shoes that can get wet. Strap on a life jacket and helmet, and follow local guides upriver, swimming, climbing ladders and shimmying up ropes to the top. Then leap down.
Day 9: Ride a Tiny Horse
At Rancho Montana southeast of Cabarete, witness Dominican life atop a small but spirited criollo horse. Ride through the village of Veragua, then along the river where locals work and play. Full-day tour includes lunch and mamajuana, a concoction of botanicals as effective an aphrodisiac as the rum it’s steeped in — good for what ails you, especially if that’s sobriety.
Days 1-9: None of the Above
Are you sweating just reading all that? Opt instead for the life of luxury enjoyed by Oscar de la Renta, Julio Iglesias and other celebrities at Tortuga Bay in Punta Cana on the island’s lower-adrenaline east end. Fly directly from Miami to the privately owned Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ). Since the owners of Tortuga Bay resort also own this thatched-roof airport, you won’t have to wait in a single customs line or carry your own bag. You’re the VIP. Look forward to days of such treatment — a private beach, the Six Senses Spa, cold Presidente beer and nine world-class dining options a golf-cart ride away. You don’t even have to drive the cart or make your own dinner reservations. Just call your personal concierge on the in-room cell phone; he or she will take care of the rest. All you have to do is relax.