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Southwestern Dominican Republic offers an affordable adventure

Coral heads loom like sculptures on a ride to Bahía de las Águilas. Below, the semiprecious larimar stone found only in the Dominican Republic.PATRICIA BORNS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

PEDERNALES — If your pockets have more holes in them than money, I have two words for you: Dominican Republic. I recently spent a month in the little-traveled Barahona and Pedernales provinces for under $1,000. Both are located in the island country's dry southwest with its most important national parks, beautiful beaches, and the warmest people imaginable.

Old but air-conditioned guaguas, or buses, depart for the provinces from Santo Domingo, the capital, filled with passengers and blasting a reggaeton beat. The six-hour, $11.50 trip, with stops at military checkpoints and colorful vendors hawking chewing gum and roasted corn, allowed plenty of time to learn my seatmates' life stories.


When Junior Jimenez, a local farmer's son, said of his hometown, "Everyone loves Pedernales," he was right, but people have to discover it first, and few do. There are no all-inclusive resorts. Life here is filled with simple things like breezing through the night on a motorcycle for 38-cent empanadas, or swaying to Bachata music in the public square. I owed my discovery to Jimenez's girl-friend, Kylie Culver, a Cali-fornian working for Batey Relief Alliance.

When Culver heard I was coming for a school project, she introduced me to Marino and Katia José, who lead the area's nascent ecotourism movement. They offer tours to the Bahía de las Águilas (Bay of Eagles), Bahoruco mountain range, and El Mulito, a beauty spot located an hour upstream on the Pedernales River. Scientists and backpack travelers are among the guests at Doña Chava, their hostel. For $500, including breakfast and dinner, its cool, dim rooms and garden shaded with fruit trees were my budget base for the month.

Founded in Katia's mother's house, Doña Chava feels like home. The whole family makes and serves the Criollo meals, the best food in town. For me, a typical day started with coffee on the patio or at one of the town's two bakeries. While roosters crowed and cows wandered onto the sidewalks, vendors opened their stands to sell spaghetti or chicken — Dominican breakfasts are hearty.  Conchos, or motorcycle taxis, cruised by looking for riders, while a line formed at the polleria for fresh-killed chickens.


On my days off, I walked with a book and a picnic to the end of Avenida Duarte, where the beach, unfurling in grainy white sand and ultra-clear water, was often empty except for fishermen unloading their catches of lobster and rubio. A $1.30 concho ride would have gotten me there faster, but walking guaranteed I would make discoveries: a house with a "se vende mabi" sign selling the homemade beverage of fruit, bark, and spices, or Dominicans like Eduard Claudic, who often walked with me, practicing his English.

At 8 p.m., people stepped out to the public square, sipping flasks of rum or papaya milkshakes, and moving to the disco, which shares space with a car wash, or to food stands dishing chimis, or burgers, and fried chicken and plantain chips ($5). Haitian orphans waited in the shadows for leftovers, accepting them with a polite "messi," or thank you. Pedernales sits a mile from the border with Haiti and every Monday and Friday by government agreement, the cultures come together to trade at the market just before you cross into Haiti's Anse-à-Pitres.

Outside of town several attractions are best seen by rented 4x4 or on tour ($65-$114 per person). But you can have as enjoyable a time seeing the region by guagua, or motorcycle, on Route 44. Doña Chava's Marino Jose offered his Honda 99 cc for $13.50 a day.


Seven miles from the hostel on 44, glimpses of garnet earth signal CaboRojo, or Red Cape, home of mining company ALCOA. Don't be deceived by the industrial look: The beaches here rival the world's best. A marked dirt road turns off to Bahía de las Águilas, part of Jaragua National Park. Along the way I ducked through the white mangroves — watching for tethered cows — onto blinding stretches of sand and sea.

At the bumpy road's end, for a $1.50 entrance fee, you can hike a beautiful 1½-mile trail with columnar cacti towering overhead to the four-mile beach. Or you can hire a fishing skiff and breeze past coral heads the size of small buildings ($8 split among six passengers). There are no facilities other than the seaside restaurant Rancho Tipico, whose fried whole snapper and cold Presidente make a happy ending to a beach day ($8).

Two hours from the hostel, Route 44 bends southeast to Oviedo, the park base for Laguna de Oviedo, where salt-crusted waters provide habitat for pink flamingos. My favorite part of the trip, which you can do by guagua, was getting there: ascending from the desert-like plains to the green Pedernales uplands, passing tomato fields, cow herds, and towns like Manuel Goya and Los Tres Charcos. In Oviedo, the owner of a corner comedor, a family-style restaurant, took the rubio I had bought that morning from a fisherman and fried it with green bananas for lunch.


On my return to Santo Domingo, I left a few days to explore Barahona, the ultimate 44 road trip, with limestone cliffs falling to the frothing Caribbean Sea. The landscape exudes a lushness hinting at the presence of the Bahoruco range, whose dry woods, massive evergreens, and tropical cloud forest form part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Five rivers run from the mountains to pebble beaches, some with excellent surf breaks and protected swimming areas formed by inshore reefs.

The river towns of Los Patos and San Rafael are especially festive on weekends as families gather to swim in the freshwater inlets. I passed through another town, Paraíso, on a market day (Sunday and Wednesday), when the streets overflow with vendors selling everything from avocadoes to cellphones.

Second homes of politicians dot the Bahoruco hillsides. Businessman Polibio Schiffino's grandfather Polibio Díaz summered on his cattle ranch here. Today, his employees' descendants still work on the property, transformed by the third Schiffino generation into a luxury inn, Casa Bonita ($205 a night), where I enjoyed my first hot shower and artisanal bread in weeks.

On a day trip from here to Cachote ($65), I jolted for 15 miles up the horrid Cienaga Cachote road to 4,250 feet above sea level, hiking literally in the clouds. At the approach to the Canto del Jilguero nature center, an unpleasant smell came from the woods. When I mentioned this to Martiano Moreta Matos, an environmental leader who introduced sustainable farming to the Cachote coffee growers, he knew what I was talking about. "It's a medicinal plant believed to prevent diabetes," he said.


The community's 30 growers take turns guiding visitors on the hiking trails. "We used to cut down trees to grow coffee. Now we preserve them," Matos said.

Another day I went in search of larimar mines. A Dominican artisan, Miguel Méndez, is said to have discovered bits of semi-precious blue larimar on a Bahoruco beach in the 1970s. The 9-mile trip to the mines ($65), on a road only nominally better than the Cienaga Cachote, leads to Las Chupaderos, where 50 or more holes surround the pueblo. US and European investors finance the drilling, while the miners are paid by the pound for the stones they unearth. Buyers come from as far as China and Japan, purchasing 500 pounds of larimar at a time for as little as $50 a pound. It's dangerous work, as I saw touring a 75-foot mine shaft. The operations are entirely informal.

"You dig it, you own it," a foreman explained, showing us some stones. Rinsed, they looked like pieces of the Caribbean. How do they decide where to dig? "They just know," he said.

On my last day, leaving luxurious Casa Bonita to wait for the guagua back felt a little like being Cinderella after the ball. But on the bus, packed together with Dominicans sharing their cassava chips and rock songs, I felt fine.

Friends who have been to the Dominican resort coasts here say they are in no hurry to return. We had barely pulled out of Barohuco, and I didn't want to leave.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@gmail.com.