Visitors to Lago Enriquillo are likely to spot American crocodiles. // © 2014 Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism
Feature image (above): Pristine beaches and national parks with diverse flora and fauna await travelers who leave Punta Cana for the southwest region of the country. // © 2014 Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism
The Dominican Republic has an impressive tourism product, dominated by the beach resorts in Punta Cana and augmented by resort areas, such Puerto Plata and Samana, as well as the cultural and historical attractions in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital.
One quality these areas share is being located in the eastern half of the country. The Dominican Republic’s western half is much less developed and relatively undiscovered, making it a perfect choice for adventurous travelers who have previously visited the Dominican Republic.
The southwest part of the country is especially appealing for nature-lovers, with the kind of biodiversity that can power a thrilling ecotourism vacation. The region also has beautiful unspoiled beaches — some of the best in the country. Standout strands include Cabo Rojo, Playa Blanca and Bahia de las Aguilas, which runs 5 miles long.
What the southwest doesn’t have is the type of five-star all-inclusive resorts that have made the eastern half of the country famous. Visitors won’t have to rough it in the southwest, but they will have to manage expectations when it comes to resort features and services.
The UNESCO-designated Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve is probably the prime reason to visit the Dominican Republic’s southwestern region. At 1,840 square miles, the reserve is composed of Parque Nacional Jaragua (Jaragua National Park), Sierra de Bahoruco National Park and Lago Enriquillo (Lake Enriquillo), featuring a variety of natural ecosystems, including tropical highlands, cloud forests, caves, islands and coastal wetlands.
There also a high diversity of flora and fauna in the reserve, including an assortment of native orchids and about 107 bird species. Oviedo Lagoon, located on the northeastern edge of Parque Nacional Jaragua, is a prime spot for birders, having a mix of saline and fresh waters and mangroves that creates an ideal environment for wildlife to thrive.
Sierra de Bahoruco National Park offers hiking through deep, natural forests, while Parque Nacional Jaragua encompasses arid and coastal-marine ecosystems. And those visiting the reserve should make tracks for Hoyo de Pelempito (Pelempito Hole), a more than 4-mile-long pit that provides awe-inspiring views down into the abyss.
Most visitors to the southwest have Lago Enriquillo at the top of their list and rightfully so. This saltwater lake is where travelers can book an excursion to see the wild American crocodile in its natural habit. The 26-mile-long lake is actually 148 feet below sea level.
Daily boat excursions take passengers out onto Lago Enriquillo for an up-close look at saltwater crocodiles and to a bird sanctuary. The excursion also makes a stop at the lake’s Isla Cabritos, where the less timid can take a stroll among the island’s numerous inhabitants: rhinoceros iguanas. These iguanas are somewhat socialized and will probably approach in search of a snack.
The southwest port city of Barahona — a former center for sugar processing — makes a good base for exploring the region. Some of the most popular hotels in and around Barahona include the five-room Hotel Piratas del Caribe and the six-room Hotel Casablanca, which gets high marks for personalized service. Casa Bonita — a 12-cabana property with a spa and restaurant — is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.