When I speak to some of the 4.1 million people who vacation in my native Dominican Republic every year, there's a lot of talk of banana boats, swim up bars and all-you-can-eat buffets. World-acclaimed cities like Bavaro Beach and Punta Cana have made the Dominican vacation synonymous with the all-inclusive beach resort. But that's a Dominican Republic I do not know. Locals go elsewhere to vacation in their motherland. (*SEE PHOTOS & VIDEO BELOW*)
A Place My Grandparents Call Home
The mountain town of Jarabacoa, with its astounding panoramic views, impressive rivers and waterfalls and refreshingly mild weather is a true Dominican citizen's paradise. Luckily for me, it's the place my grandparents call home.
The last time I visited Jarabacoa, I was thirteen years old. Then, I was oblivious to the town's charm and was instead focused on the lack of hot water and inescapable bloodsucking mosquitoes. After a 12-year absence, I returned this summer, surprised by what I had missed as a fussy child.
"Jarabacoa has this natural beauty that doesn't exist in the east. I go there to relax and live the countryside lifestyle," says Jeanine De La Torre, a 42-year-old engineer from the southeastern city of La Romana. "I feel like I leave civilization when I go. Lots of hotels there don't even have TVs. I love it."
City dwellers, or capitaleños, escape here to breathe in the mountain air on weekends. The green curves on the horizon are dotted with white specks, vacation homes called cabañas, built by both the wealthy and the so-called "Dominican Yorks" (Dominican emigrants who live in New York) to beat the grind. Renown Dominican painter Fernando Peña Defilló and Puerto Rican balladeer Danny Rivera make Jarabacoa their address, and Julio Iglesias is rumored to be building a house here.
"Jarabacoa's tranquility and nice climate make it the destination for people that want to leave the city behind and relax," says Yasele Gomez, head of the Office of Tourism in Jarabacoa. "Its combination of rivers, mountains and weather make it perfect."
Painting The Landscape
Situated in the the Cordillera Central Mountain Range in the center of the country, Jarabacoa is nationally known as "the city of eternal spring." While my friends in NYC were experiencing Heatpocalypse 2011, I comfortably sat at my grandparents' table for lunch — sweat-free — enjoying a heaping portion of plantain fritters with rice and beans while feeling the everlasting cool breeze swirl in and out of the airy house.
No other town in the Cibao Valley matches the pleasant weather or boasts as many distinguished ecological sites. Three rivers — Jimenoa, Baiguate and the longest in the country, Yaque del Norte — wind through the pueblo. These rocky streams are often the setting of my memories of criollo cookouts, young love courtships and plain ol' boozin' (the latter of which I witnessed but didn't partake in).
La Guazara is the most popular spot for a rendezvous on the Yaque del Norte, and come Holy Week in April, throngs of Dominicans from all over the country fill its bank-side bars and restaurants. With merengue and bachata music blasting, nearly everyone with a frosty bottle of Presidente beer in hand is forced to shake their bodies to the fast beat of their music.
In addition to the trio of rivers, a pair of the country's most photographed waterfalls, Jimenoa and Baiguate, also attracts thousands of sightseers aspiring to capture their soft beauty. Backpackers from around the world and Dominican Boy Scouts, my dad included, delve even further into the jungle, past the waterfalls, to brave the 3,087-meter ascent to Duarte Peak near Jarabacoa, the highest point in the Caribbean.
Gomez credits ecotourism in particular as one of the main driving forces behind the town's economy. "In the last ten years, Jarabacoa has emerged as the nation's ecotourism capital," she says. "It's not only about sun and beach."
There are currently about 20 hotels and resorts (like Hotel Gran Jimenoa, with rooms starting at $60/night, and Jarabacoa River Club, with rooms starting at $90/night), over 15 major restaurants and 5 nightclubs in Jarabacoa, pretty impressive for a town that in 2002 was recorded as having about 57,000 inhabitants.
The longest river in the Dominican Republic cuts through the mountains in Jarabacoa. Photos don't do it justice. (All photos by Vilmarie Estrella)
Tourists with the Rancho Baiguate brave the whitewaters of the Yaque del Norte.
A Dominican boy floats down the river, unfazed by the commotion in front of him.
Girls congregate at the popular river hangout, La Guazara. People like to sit on the boulders and drink, or make campfires and cook on the banks.
Come the weekend, the bars and restaurants on the banks of La Guazara blast merengue and attract dozens.
The watering hole and cave near the Baiguate Waterfall make it a must-see for Jarabacoa's visitors. If only I had brought my bathing suit for this one...
Hiking is a popular sport in the Dominican mountain town. This is an easy hike from the Baiguate Waterfall.
A visit to Jarabacoa isn't complete without a horseback ride through the green canopies of the countryside.
One of my most fun experiences was learning to ride a four-wheeler and hauling it through mud and puddles. Ride on!
In the Parque Juan Pablo Duarte in the center of town, people can get their shoes shined or sit and have an ice cream cone.
Ah, the soothing sound of roosters singing at the crack of dawn...nothing better to remind me that I'm in not in New York.
More and more mansions are popping up hillside in Jarabacoa. This is the view from my grandma's house.
A local woman enjoys the mountain breeze by her glassless window.
The infamous motoconchos' disregard for traffic laws put my life in danger multiple times. But Jarabacoa just wouldn't be the same without them.
A big chunk of tourists are brought in by the Rancho Baiguate, a full service adventure center that offers daily excursions including horseback riding, waterfall canyoning and hiking. Their most popular activity, white water rafting, is Jarabacoa's ace of spades: The town is the only place in the country where it can be done, according to Gomez.
Isabel Rosario, the head of sales at Rancho Baiguate, understands why they welcome between 7,000 and 10,000 visitors annually. "Tourists leave the all-inclusive resorts on the coast to visit the waterfalls, mountains and good restaurants in Jarabacoa," she says. "It's not all about the beaches — some people prefer participating in outdoor adventure sports and they come here to do that."
Neta Sachar, 28, traveled from Israel to vacation at a beach resort with her family and took a day trip to Jarabacoa. "I wanted to find something in the mountain area and see the real Dominican Republic," she says. "We needed a break from the beach and all the tourists."
Keeping It Authentic
In contrast to the beach resort, the Sachar family witnesses how the local people in Jarabacoa lead simple, happy lives. On any given street, residents slowly swing back and forth on their rocking chairs, sipping on tiny cups of the strong Cafe Santo Domingo. Chickens and roosters freely roam about, their singing always audible no matter what block. People chat over staticky merengue, sipping on Brugal Rum and Coke outside the colorful bodegas on every corner.
One day, I, too, will have white speck on the Jarabacoan hills and live at a leisurely pace. I knew of a small plot of land my dad had inherited from his father, and after witnessing the potential of Jarabacoa as an adult, I jumped on buying this piece of real estate from him. To him who grew up there, it's negligible. But to me, who loves the outdoors, it's gold.
I can only hope that Jarabacoa will remain as I remember it and not become a victim of urbanization. When I retire here in thirty years, I want to still be able to feel the pine-scented mountain breeze, reminding me of where my family comes from and how lucky I am to live in a green paradise.
Getting There: Santiago De Los Caballeros (STI) is the closest airport, just a 40-minute drive away. JetBlue, Delta and Sprit Airlines offer direct flights from New York, Boston and Fort Lauderdale. Taxis and buses go to Jarabacoa from the airport.
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