The Puerto Plata Report: news and travel info from the Dominican Republic's north coast

Adventure travel in the Dominican Republic

Two hours into the mountains, Maxima Aventura is a wilderness dude ranch for adventure travelers and extreme sports enthusiasts

By Ron Añejo

There’s something wrong with the picture when you find yourself in the tropics kicking pine cones across the lawn. There’s something wrong with the picture when your feet are on solid rock, but the view over your shoulder is 200 feet straight down. And there’s something wrong with the picture when a pleasant bus ride through tobacco fields and sugar cane plantations suddenly turns into a rum-soaked, wet T-shirt contest.

Call it extreme adventure mixed with extreme partying in an extremely unusual part of the Caribbean. Call it extreme brainwork at the end of the day when you have to accept that it all actually happened, and here you are.

Of course, not all of it is for everybody.

Rappeling in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic: the Jimenoa River gorges down over 200-foot vertical dropsMany people who come to the Dominican Republic for a Caribbean holiday would prefer to just sit around their all-inclusive resort, couch potatoes cum beach potatoes, waiting for the next buffet to open, knocking back their thimbles of beer at the open bar, grateful for the advice that it’s safer to stay on the resort property, thrilled with the city coach tour that goes past the rich people’s houses and the poor people’s veggie market.

Not everybody gets off on the idea that, being on the second largest island in the Caribbean, you can hire a van and driver and head off into the mountains, and just a couple of hours away from the sun drenched beaches, discover a place like Jarabacoa (Hara-ba-cóa), where the fertile hills and valleys and see-your-breath-at-night temperatures make it feel like spring time in New England.

And of course, not everybody wants to party the way we did that day. Bird watchers and nature nuts also love to discover Jarabacoa, where strawberries and snow peas grow, where you can take mountain hikes and drink fresh fruit juices. It’s just that the group I happened to be with can pretty much be described as The Party of Puerto Plata. These are the people who in their daily course of work are called upon to create the fun that the tourists take home as lasting memories. They take them sailing, they take them diving, they run local bars; all the while having to maintain the safety and security standards required by the big corporations that send the tourists to town and who don’t want to get sued over anybody getting into trouble over having too much fun. So, for the people I went to Jarabacoa with, their workaday life is like spurring the hell out of a party horse while constantly hauling back on the reins.

Travel tip: too many pitstops and you'll miss dinnerUnderstandable then, with a weekend opportunity to let go of them there reins and blow off some adrenaline, meditation and tai-chi were not high up in the order of priorities.

Our destination was Rancho Baiguate (Buy guát-eh) in Jarabacoa. We were going to try out a part of their program that they call Maxima Aventura. Maximum Adventure.  We, the people who do the beach and ocean thing for the tourists, were going to visit the people who do the mountain and wilderness thing.

Rancho Baiguate is like a dude ranch for adventure travel. Some thirty simple but very comfortable rooms are housed in small buildings set among manicured gardens. The country-style dining room serves hearty, country-style Dominican food. There is a sitting around area, a bar and a gift shop selling cheap t-shirts alongside hand rolled Dominican cigars. Across the lawn and over a walking bridge they have an Olympic size pool. The air is fresh and cool. With nighttime temperatures around forty degrees Farenheit, you sleep comfortably, cuddled up under a thick blanket.  Here, the sound of the river to lulls you to sleep, instead of the hum of an air conditioner.

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True to the Caribbean concept of time, we spent two hours at our designated meeting place, Pat’s Rum Runners Bar, where everybody knocked back cuba libres and Presidente beers while waiting for everybody else to show Jenny was often the brunt of our caring attentionsup. We finally left, with hoots and hollers and a full cooler and large cups very unlike the thimbles you get in the hotels, and it was only a matter of time, with La Vida Loca blaring from the boombox, that somebody would get the type of urge that could start the type of wet t-shirt contest that only subsides when all the rum splattered on the ceiling of the van finishes dripping down on your head. Accounting for the pit stops, by the time we got to Santiago – half way – we were already four hours late for the nice dinner that Rancho Baiguate had prepared for us.

Burger King in Santiago was not prepared for our fifth pit stop. When all twelve of us fell through the front door and somebody jumped on a The Burger King staff just ducked their heads and let the storm blow throughtable and blew a blues number on his harmonica while we took pictures of ourselves behind the counter with the Burger King staff, we had to wonder whether the  personnel’s absolutely cool and collected reaction was due to advanced assault training, or pure shock.

Travel tip: visitors are well advised to arrive at Rancho Baiguate by sundown, and not wake up the manager at one-thirty in the morning and register at the front desk smelling like a rum factory; there are better ways to elicit a warm welcome. This poor guy, his lack of assault training notwithstanding, became much more congenial as soon as we realized, after his very patient explanation made the next morning through gritted teeth, that if we were going to go cliff climbing perhaps we shouldn’t be drinking the leftover Presidentes from the cooler in the back of the van, before breakfast. Empathy set in after we got to thinking about the things we say to – and about – those beach and ocean tourists who, on a rage of 151-proof rum, propose to go sailing and diving or otherwise take on Mother Nature. More than one corpse has been pulled out of the sea over this. Thus, everybody made the switch from extreme party mode to a more reasoned, extreme adventure mode.

On the wall of the sitting area at Rancho Baiguate there are maps and posters of all the things you can do there. Wilderness horseback riding. Trail hiking, in the vicinity of the ranch and even up Pico Duarte, which at 10,000 feet is the highest mountain in the Caribbean. They have all-terrain four wheel vehicles to blast around the countryside. You can do white water rafting and go river tubing. There is cave exploring and cliff climbing. There is hang gliding, and a picture that announces the imminent arrival of hot air balloons. Rancho Baiguate caters to both overnighters and to day trippers from the beach resorts, from amateurs like us to extreme adventure enthusiasts who can pack as much into their sojourn as their stamina will allow.

You don’t have to think extreme to enjoy Jarabacoa. Lots of people go up on one-day bus tours to visit the region. The drive over the mountains into the fertile Cibao valley, through the bustling city of Santiago and then up into the pine forests behind La Vega, makes for a pleasant ride, a veritable eyeful of things to see, to photograph, to contemplate. Many such tours make a stop at the Jimenoa (Him‘n’Noah) Falls, where you park and walk up a series of stairs and over wooden hanging bridges until you get to some picturesque, scenic pools fed by a waterfall that gorges out over a 200-foot precipice. You find yourself standing in the bottom of a huge gorge, where an electrical generating plant some three stories high was taken out by Hurricane George. And as you stand there, there’s something wrong with the picture of how important you think you are when you realize that not long ago, the water, blasting with unbelievable force, had completely filled up this gorge and engulfed that entire generating plant, leaving huge pieces of it strewn down the river like so many cast iron and prefab concrete matchsticks.

It’s a little more dramatic, though, when you stand directly below that straight-down, 200-foot rock cliff and think about the fact that you arrived at those lovely freshwater pools by way of the cliff itself. That is, by hanging on a rope running through a clip in a waist harness and literally walking down that 90-degree incline. It’s extreme, to look up, and contemplate that you just did that.

Okay, we all swim, dive, and we’re good at bending elbows. But not of us are particularly fit. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough for us to take the bus, saunter up suspension bridges and splash around in pretty pools.

That morning at Rancho Baiguate, after realizing we shouldn’t be drinking beer for breakfast, we ate eggs and toast and fruit and dawned wetsuits and jumped on to the back of a safari jeep that took us high up the mountain. We all got a little nervous when the jeep almost tipped as the driver hooked a left on to a steep dirt trail and parked.  Then we walked, for about twenty minutes, down a narrow path that challenged our rubber legs, to where we came out of the woods into an incredible basin fed by yet another 200-foot waterfall, of crystal clear water falling out of the sky and rushing around massive boulders that once upon a time had come crashing down from where they had been part of the cliffs that towered above us. Splat.

So there we  were, the beach and ocean guys, without a clue as to what awaited us. At this point Kelvin, our guide, and his two assistants, who we planned to give a rough time to but later became very dependent upon, started fixing ropes to a tree and throwing them over a 40-foot, 45-degree rock face. Kelvin showed us how we should try to keep our feet above our shoulders as we fed the line through our harness. All was well and good as each of us made our first attempt at walking backwards over a cliff while hanging on to a rope, this one being a perfect beginners experience that gave us confidence to tackle the next one, which we all knew would be harder, but not how much harder.

Despite the cool nights, daytime is warm and sunny in Jarabacoa and this was a perfect weather day. As we hiked over rocks and swam along the river, the water was refreshingly cool. We were surrounded by nature, nothing was too strenuous, everything felt good.

Until I found myself hooked up again, looking over the next cliff.

My feet were planted firmly on the edge of the precipice. My hands gripped the soft rope that hung over the cliff. Kelvin was beside me, and I was ready. And then, ass out over the abyss, I made the mistake of looking down. My eyes bulged, my sphincter shrank and my heart went into serious conflict with my mind. All I could see, directly below me, were very large expanses of rock and the very tiny people who had gone down before me, now lying back and watching the show. There was definitely something wrong with the picture, but they were all down there and several more were waiting their turn. There was nowhere for me to go, but down.

Eyes back to the rock, feet in front of me, let the rope out slowly, down I go. And then the rock face juts back in and now I’m in mid air, hanging, my hands around the rope being all that’s keeping me from plummeting to the rocks below. Don’t look down. Slowly, easy does it. And then my feet are on the ground. Easy did it! And I sit back, rest on the rocks, water gushing around me, watching the others confront their fear, feeling the exhuberation on their faces when they too hit horizontal ground.

Finally everybody is safely down, waiting for Kelvin, our guide, to follow. With all eyes  looking upward he makes his appearance, hanging face down over the abyss, waving hello. And then, in what took most of us an arduous two minutes to negotiate, Kelvin simply strode down the cliff like it was a walk in the park, and in about three seconds he was standing among us, smiling. Sheeiiit.

We had just impressed ourselves with our courage, and were recovering from our fear, of negotiating a 75-foot verticle drop. Phew! At that point it would have been nice to swim through a few more channels, maybe do a couple more jumps into calm pools of fresh water, before taking on the next cliff. But after this last extreme attack on our brainwaves we discovered that our next challenge lay only 100 meters away. Within no time the smooth rocks we were walking on came to a precipitous end, and, far, far below we could see the park-like setting of pretty pools and snack bar and wooden suspension bridges that bring everybody else to Jimenoa Falls. And down there we could see the people, very small indeed, that we would be among, hopefully, after one more, wrong-picture experience, this one three times higher than the last.

More intense than actually doing it is the thinking about it beforehand. The science behind rappelling is quite basic. What they don’t tell you is that the guy down below who is holding your rope can actually stop you by pulling it taut, and that he controls your descent simply by adjusting the tension on the rope. You can’t fall, but tell your brain this when your only foothold is a smooth, straight up-and-down surface and your ass is 200 feet above the grass and your arms, much more adept at elbow bending, are the only thing between you and the grass. It’s hard to act cool upon arrival. But we all did our very best.

There was something very different about the picture, of twelve party animals out for a blast, returning to Rancho Baiguate, sobered by the extremeness of nature and by the challenge to our respective heads. We got back to the ranch, truly subdued, truly rewarded, respectful of what the what the guys who do the mountain and wilderness stuff do, adrenaline spent, ready to take on the next wave of beach and ocean tourists.

Read…. Dominican Republic Base Camp Network

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