Relax or play hard in the Dominican Republic

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By Victor Block

“You expect me to climb that?” I asked Carlos, my guide on a morning outing in the Dominican Republic. “And then slide back down?” I added with trepidation in my voice.

Reassured by our leader’s words of encouragement, but only slightly so, my wife Fyllis and I scaled the first of 27 waterfalls created by a rushing river whose arctic-like water contrasted with the heat of the surrounding forest.

Only the devil-may-care attitude which Fyllis displayed as she plummeted down the chute prompted me to follow.

After returning safely, if slightly bruised, from our adventure, Fyllis and I stopped for a lunch of pit-roasted pig washed down by a cold local brew. Then it was on to a hike in a rainforest, pausing to explore caves that have been carved out over eons.

Many people picture the Dominican Republic as a place of golden sand beaches and inviting all-inclusive resorts. While there are many such settings, we had other things in mind during our recent visit.

We were intrigued by a long list of activities that provide opportunities to explore the largely unspoiled countryside, interact with local residents, visit towns and villages little touched by tourism, and enjoy encounters with Mother Nature.

Christopher Columbus spotted the island in 1492, and a colony was established there 10 years later named Puerto Plata (port of silver). Among reminders of Spanish colonial days is Fuerte de San Filipe (Fort of Saint Phillip), which juts out over the north shore. Its massive walls enclose a little historical museum and a tiny cell in which Juan Pablo Duarte, a hero of the Dominican Republic’s fight for independence, was once detained.

Puerto Plata is well located for visits to nearby villages and beaches. Playa Cabarete (Cabarete Beach) is popular among both locals and visitors.

Once a tranquil fishing village, Sosua evolved into a bustling community known for an enclave of Jewish residents whose relatives fled from Austria and Germany just before World War II. The town is home to the first synagogue that was established in the country.

When Fyllis and I sought a change from beach outings and sightseeing, the challenge became which activities to select. As non-golfers, we couldn’t take advantage of some of the best courses in the Caribbean.

We decided to focus on new experiences. We put mountain biking, wind surfing and deep sea diving on our “not in this life” list. Whitewater rafting, kayaking and horseback riding had some appeal. Then we found the perfect solution. We were directed to Iguana Mama, an outdoor tour operator that lives up to its slogan, “Mama knows best.”

That heart-pounding climb, with its breathtaking waterfalls was one of a long menu of offerings. Along with the recreational pastimes available at many vacation spots, Mama throws in a few that catch your attention and if you participate — your breath.

Zip lining and canyoning provide trips over and down into the landscape. Sailing on a catamaran, ocean fishing and whale watching cruises entice salts and landlubbers alike out to sea.

We selected two options that we thought would provide a moderate challenge. One was a bike ride over dirt roads that passed through neighborhoods of modest homes. We waved to children playing in the streets as we steered to avoid bicycle-eating potholes and chickens scratching in the dust.

Then, after loading our bikes onto a rundown outboard motor boat, we enjoyed a ride on the Yessica River, past cows grazing in fields and fishermen throwing their nets. Back on land, we sipped a cool drink of coconut milk from the shell, then pedaled back to our starting point.

Another day, another outing. This time, it was a hike in the Choco National Park, named for the chocolate (choco) color of the earth. It included exploration of several of the more than 100 limestone caves, many connected by underground rivers, which added a whole new dimension to the usual walk in the woods.

A bonus was an encounter with an elderly man who invited us into his tiny, primitive hut made of palm tree wood and fronds, and offered us a snack of warm yucca. This epitomized every experience with the Dominicans we met, who invariably were friendly and courteous.

If you go …

All-inclusive resorts are the choice of many travelers to the Dominican Republic. The Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Resort in Puerto Plata offers an all-inclusive experience that includes meals and beverages, swimming pools, spas and tennis, basketball and volleyball courts. Daily activities range from golf and tennis lessons to classes in Spanish, aerobics and preparing a Dominican cocktail. Rates begin at $82 per person a night, with the seventh night free when booking six nights. For more information, go to lhvcresorts.com.