In the Dominican Republic, Los Haitises is home to huge nature preserve
SAMANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — The water is indigo, then turquoise in the light of the rising sun. Behind, an emerald spit of land reaches for the sky, a green oasis, punctuated by a few villas with roofs made of orange, fish-scale-like tiles.
From my balcony at the Gran Bahia Principe Resort on Cayo Levantado, a tiny island in the lee of the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic’s northeast corner, I watch a fishing boat floating lazily in the sheltered waters.
A Dominicano, in his brightly-painted wooden boat, is fishing for the catch-of-the-day.
When we embark on the water two hours later, our goal is neither snapper, nor grouper, but a two-hundred-plus-square-kilometre nature preserve. Los Haitises is a UNESCO-designated biosphere.
Our vessel, a sleek 28-ft. Scarab speedboat. A pair of 200-hp black Mercury outboar engines hangs off the stern. The motors roar, the boat smashes through the waves washing the Bahia de Samana. The shores ahead are devoid of human life. The water belongs to us.
In Januray, the bay will be crowded with tour boats whale-watching. But not today.
After a two-hour crossing, we approach the first of the Los Haitises islands and our skipper throttles back. The boat drifts lazily.
Los Haitises boasts some of the Caribbean’s most significant stands of mangrove and rainforest, seven hundred different plant species, an equal number of bird and animal species, and a collection of tall limestone islands that float above the water as though they are castles.
We glide into the shadow of a massive limestone cave, carved by wind and waves.
On board, two women have been showing off their Larimar and amber jewelry. I’ve been discussing the relative merits of Presidente beer and Brugal Rum with a Vancouverite named Frank. The boat clears a headland and the conversation dies.
Islands grow up almost straight out of the water. A surreal caravan of great camel humps of land plods toward the eastern horizon. They are clad in vegetation in many shades of green; liana vines hang down and sway in the wind from heights of 200 ft. The vegetation is so thick on shore, you feel like you’re in the middle of the Amazon.
Our skipper nudges the throttle and we pull into the lee of one towering behemoth. “High islands,” he murmurs. “Los Haitises.”
“Spectacular,” someone murmurs.
Directly overhead nest a flock of frigate birds, throats red as Mcintosh apples. Off our beam, a hundred pelicans float on the water.
Our skipper guides the boat into a green tunnel, a mangrove swamp where the branches meet overhead, where the arching roots and glittering water make you feel as though you are entering the nave of a great cathedral. And we haven’t even seen the caves yet.
We head back to open water, turn toward unbroken forest fronted by a rickety dock, the lime-painted park office and a wooden boardwalk leading into the first cave.
Inside it is suddenly, wonderfully cool.
I scan the ceiling with my flashlight. A bat twitches and squeaks in complaint. A section of limestone roof has caved in ahead. Sun streams like a waterfall onto the cave floor, spotlighting stalagmites in the shape of sculptures in an art gallery. Dripping water sounds.
On one wall, we see our first cave painting: red and black, reminiscent of a kindergarten art project, but for the fact it’s graced this chamber since before Columbus got here. More than a thousand pictographs and more than two hundred petroglyphs have been located in the immediate area. Some seem downright innocent, some more ominous.
“El Brujo,” the sorcerer, is evocative of black nights when evil spirits roamed this dense jungle landscape. My imagination, coupled with my claustrophobia, overtakes me. I exit the caves at a quick-march and await my comrades on the dock.
Later, we make way on the boat for open waters. Winds blow at twenty knots. Waves roll and roil, flecked by white foam. One of our party huddles in the stern, her face buried in a plastic bucket. Our skipper grins maniacally, showing off a gleaming gold tooth. He jams the throttle forward.
The boat smashes the waves. My drink, a sweating Presidente, spills all over me. The boat’s bow rises up impossibly, crashes onto the flat behind an oncoming wave with a spine-jarring thud.
In the course of this tooth-rattling passage, Los Haitises grows smaller off our stern while Samana looms dead ahead, and the beach of Cayo Levantado sun-bathes off our port bow.
A room with a view awaits me there with a hot tub next to a seaside infinity pool.
A playground called Samana lingers out there. It is less than a hundred kilometres from Punta Cana’s beaches as the frigate bird flies, but it is a thousand kilometres away in mood and atmosphere.
This is the unspoiled Dominican Republic. Until today I never knew it existed.
Columbus reputedly called Samana “the fairest land on the face of the earth.”
No doubt, he voiced this observation braced in a boat off Los Haitises.
Written by Mark Stevens
Category: DR News |