Spanning the north coast of the Dominican Republic, the Puerto Plata province offers so much more than sun, sea and breathtaking beaches. Beyond the sparkling coastline and white sands that stretch for miles, an avid explorer can find waterfalls, botanical gardens and a mysterious island that disappears with the tide. Known to locals as la novia del Atlántico, “the bride of the Atlantic”, Puerto Plata is as beautiful and romantic as her name.
It’s a sunny day in August when my husband, Philip, and I depart on the adventure of a lifetime.
We begin at Playa Dorada, one of the Dominican Republic’s most well-established tourist destinations. It’s lined by all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels and everything in between—including an 18-hole golf course. Yet, despite its popularity, the beach is never crowded. Close to many of the area’s most popular attractions, it’s the perfect spot to combine a relaxing beach vacation with a little action and adventure.
After arriving at our hotel, we are greeted with a cool towel and a drink of our choice—passion fruit mojito for me and a local beer for Philip—which we sip as we stroll through the hotel’s lush tropical gardens, under palm trees and past blooming pink hibiscus flowers to our room. We change into swimsuits and head directly to the hotel’s rooftop pool. Here, a glass-fronted balcony looks out over the beach. We slip into the jacuzzi and watch the sun set over the ocean.
Breakfast is served on the beach. Nursing a giant cup of coffee and a Dominican twist on eggs Benedict—served on yucca cakes in lieu of an English muffin—we eat in the shade of a giant palm tree.
For the next two days we become beach bums, oscillating from our room, to the pool, to the beach, and back. We drink too much, eat too much, and get just a little sunburned.
When we finally drag ourselves away from the cocktails and the crystal blue water, we drive to San Felipe de Puerto Plata, the capital of the Puerto Plata province. The city’s old colonial-era center is dominated by Fortaleza San Felipe, a 16th-century Spanish fortress that now houses historical and military artifacts. While little remains of the actual structure, its dramatic location, jutting out over the water’s edge, makes for a great photo opportunity. Further inland, we find Parque Independencia, where cobbled streets lined with brightly-colored traditional wood homes lead to a beautiful plaza framed with royal palms. We pause to admire the unique combination of neoclassical and Victorian-style architecture that dates back to the late 19th century, and take a break from the heat inside San Felipe Cathedral.
One of Puerto Plata’s top attractions is Mount Isabel de Torres. At 2,600 feet above sea level it’s one of the tallest mountains in the Caribbean. The city sits in its shadow.
According to the tourist map I’ve been using as my guide, you can hike up or take the teleférico, a brightly colored cable car that swings above the mangrove jungle below. We choose the latter. The aerial view of the coastline and the city is breathtaking. A tiny window opens just enough to let the breeze in and my camera out as I try to capture an Insta-worthy shot. Below, we get a bird’s-eye view of a baseball field and the occasional rural home with goats tethered at the front door.
A stroll at the top reveals the Dominican’s own Christ the Redeemer statue and leads us through a botanical garden. We get a little lost as we venture off the beaten path but soon find ourselves back on the mountain’s edge admiring the view. As we take a break, a brightly-colored gecko appears and stealthily sneaks a bite of Philip’s banana. We take an excessive number of selfies before making our descent and heading back to the hotel.
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The 27 Charcos de Damagua offers a completely different type of adventure. Wearing hard hats and life vests, we follow a tour guide through the Dominican wilderness. We wind past palm trees that tower into the sky, parakeets that startle and flutter as we bumble by and brightly-colored butterflies that seem to follow us as we ascend. Without warning, a clearing reveals a stone staircase and at the bottom we step into a refreshing stream of water: the Damagua river. Our canyoning adventure has begun. While the name 27 Charcos implies there are 27 waterfalls, the excursion only covers about seven of them, and it’s plenty. As we follow the river downstream, we wade and swim through the cool clear water. When we encounter a waterfall, we take a deep breath and jump or, like children at a water park, we descend screaming down natural water slides carved out of the rock. It’s one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences of my life.
Before leaving our cozy boutique hotel on Playa Dorada, there’s one more day trip we absolutely cannot miss: Cayo Arena, a coral islet that shrinks and almost disappears with the change of the tide.
A small speed boat bounces over the surf and drenches us with seaspray as we zip toward our destination. Suddenly, a small rise of sand, no more than 90 feet long, pokes out of the ocean. Seven primitive wood shelters, used by excursion companies to coral their clients, stand on the shore and all around heads bob in the surf. We even see a group of divers preparing to make their descent. We hop out of our boat and follow our guide as he leads us on a snorkel adventure around the island. Barely a few feet out, vibrant corals and sponges are swarmed by schools of tropical fish: sergeant majors, damselfish, angelfish, and yellowtail snappers. Philip spies an octopus lurking behind a rock. I squeal in delight when a sea turtle swims by. Before heading back, we grab a few cold Presidente beers and join the crowds frolicking in the turquoise water.
On the road to Cabarete, we make a brief stop in Sosua which, in 1940, served as a refuge for Jewish families fleeing Nazi persecution. Today, both Sosua and Cabarete have a large German population and a lot of really great German food. At the German Bar & Grill, we eat bratwursts, sauerkraut and weissbier for lunch before driving over to Castillo Mundo King, an eclectic art museum/castle.
Located at the top of a hill overlooking Sosua town, Castillo Mundo King is a bizarre castle with bright white turrets, towers, pillars, and unfathomable inscriptions, carvings and sculptures. The owner, Rolf, who also lives there, started building it more than 20 years ago. Construction continues when funds allow. Inside, a maze of rooms—including a crypt which authentically has no lighting—house more than 800 pieces of art. Our tour guide points out Haitian art, as well as religious pieces, alien depictions, and, our personal favorite, traditional zombie art. A rooftop sculpture garden features several thrones made out of stone, towering wooden structures that resemble totem poles and monstrous carved stone statues. Before leaving, we bump into Rolf, who takes great pride in showing us his three alien spaceships and walls filled with alien graffiti.
Before departing Sosua we decide to check out the beach. Playa Alicia, also known as miracle beach, popped up out of nowhere approximately 10 years ago when a sandbank at sea was dislodged and resettled on this spot. Today, the beach is clean and beautiful with modern facilities and sun chairs for rent. We arrive just in time to watch the sun set behind Mount Isabel de Torres and bathe the entire area in the most majestic orange glow.
Waking up in Cabarete, we take two steps out of our hotel and onto the beach in search of somewhere to enjoy breakfast. It’s still early but the ocean is already filled with kite-surfers dancing across the waves. Cabarete beach is a world-renowned kiting beach and regularly hosts professional kitesurfing competitions. Meanwhile, Playa Encuentro, just three miles to the west, offers some of the most consistently superb surfing in the Caribbean.
Cabarete also has amazing beach restaurants and so after Philip and I take a few kite-surfing lessons—which do not go well—we live our best vacation life by eating with our toes in the sand while we watch other more competent surfers do their thing. In the evenings we embrace the vibrant nightlife and walk barefoot from one beachbar to the next, dancing merengue all night long.
As we bid a fond adios to la novia del Atlántico, we leave with our hearts dancing to the rhythm of Juan Luis Guerra’s Tus Besos and memories to last a lifetime.