Everyone’s heard of Punta Cana…but Barahona and Pedernales? You’d think this area of the Dominican Republic would be famous for having the country’s only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the lowest point in the Caribbean, and the one place in the world to find the precious Larimar stones, but no…the Southwest DR is a hidden gem. And a little too unknown, as far as the Dominican Republic tourism board was concerned. Trying to spread the word about the incredible provinces of Barahona and Pedernales, they called up HoneyTrek. Having written about the DR on our blog, for Travelocity and our Nat Geo book, they knew we loved the country and asked us if we wanted to come capture the Southwest’s diverse landscapes, untapped adventures, and warmhearted people. Our answer? We’re already packed!
Mad Dash Across the Carribbean
Timing was the one complication. We were on assignment for Lonely Planet covering Day of the Dead in Mexico, right up until the first day of the DR shoot. To make it there in time and do right by the venerable LP, we stayed up all night for the Día de Muertos celebration in San Andrés Mixquic, joining Aztec rituals, graveside parties, and parades through the streets, until our plane departed…for Columbia. Yep, there were no direct flights to Santo Domingo so that meant an 18-hour journey through southerly Bogotá.
We landed a little worse for wear and did a mini makeover in the airport bathroom before meeting the producer, Juan Pichardo. When we got to his house, I’m sure he was thinking, “Who cast this ragtag couple?” But Juan, along with the rest of the crew turned out to be buen amigos. We dropped off our massive Mexican sombrero, poncho, and Catrina costume, then continued our journey three hours to the province of Barahona.
We crashed hard at Casa Bonita Tropical Lodge, and woke up to views of the ocean, lush mountains, and a four-person camera crew outside our room. “Buenos Dias,” said Nick the director in a Wisconsin accent. He’s the one that cast us for this series of videos being produced for the ministry of tourism, so it was as much on his head as ours to make this thing good. After his charming midwestern pleasantries, “Time to hop in your robes for the breakfast shoot.” We ate as slowly and gracefully as we could, but when you have $20,000 camera in your face, even basic motor skills are in question. The next challenge was swimming with a drone overhead and not giggling. “Is this really happening?” we whispered to each other; “This is freakin’ awesome!”
Magical River Hike
Behind Casa Bonita was a river in a turquoise blue we thought was only possible in the Caribbean ocean. We forded it a few times with ATVs, then got out for a hike up the middle. Climbing up boulders, swimming through pools, and stopping to pick wild oranges, we reached a gorgeous waterfall with a ladder. Mike scrambled right up and canon-balled in, all the while cameramen Quinn & Justin were capturing footage above and below the water. On the way back, Nick said you two should dig for Larimar. We were thinking the odds of finding this precious stone was slim to none, but Barahona has it in abundance. We plugged our hands into the river pebbles and got three rough-hewn gems in one shot!
Horseback Riding Rancho Platón
With four hotels and a dozen adventures to try in six days, we had to keep moving. We hopped in a 4×4 and wound our way up the jungle-tangled mountain until Rancho Platón appeared. Tree houses, cabins, stables, and an open-air dining room were tucked in a thick bamboo forest. After a quick lunch, it was time to horseback ride. The intrepid Quinn and Justin hung out of the back of a pickup truck to film us trotting towards them. We’re all for extra takes, but man, it’s tricky when you’re on a horse and possess limited cowboy skills. Going back and forth across the river, Anne nearly got bucked off at one point, but we got the perfect shot.
More Than Gorgeous Beaches
Everyone already knows how amazing the beaches are in the DR so we didn’t spend too much time there, but just look at this cove! What people don’t know is that the Southwest has the country’s only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo, so off we went!
We pulled into the ranger station at Laguna de Oviedo, a lagoon just off the Caribbean, yet three times saltier than the sea. It’s home to a slew of species, including the endemic Titaco fish, royal herons, parrots, spoonbills, and American flamingos. It’s also a nesting beach for four species of sea turtles. In late spring you can see the leatherbacks lumbering to shore to lay their eggs and late summer you’ll find the baby green turtles crawl into the surf. We took a boat around the islets and mangroves and docked at Iguana Island. We assumed some truth to this name but didn’t realize we’d be walking among dozens of these three-foot long reptiles. No fear of humans, these beauties came right up to us and the camera.
Miami Vice Moment: The crew had their own boat to film our boat.
Half the reason for this shoot was to show the region’s incredible geographic diversity. Within an hour we went from below sea level to mountains that soar 5,000 feet. The road to get into the Sierra de Bahoruco was an adventure in and of itself…especially when Mike drives and hits every red dirt puddle as fast as he can. Quinn used to do shoots for Ford and Toyota, so he knew all about capturing a good mud tsunami (watch second 40 on this video; skillz). We got out at the trailhead over the Hoyo de Pelempito and it felt like a completely different world with pine trees and a chill in the air. To be hysterical, Justin wrapped himself in his gold light diffuser like a super hero cape and did a modeling shoot of his own, while Jeancarlo (an offiical drone-ographer for Survivor) captured us hiking the trails.
Bahía de las Aguilas & Cabo Rojo
We piled into the van and literally everyone but the driver power napped until we were magically back at the beach, this time in Pedernales. Along the Haitian border, this region is barely developed and beautiful that way. Bahía de las Águilas is a cove largely unchanged since pre-Columbian times with pristine powder sand and a vibrant coral reef. It’s only accessible by boat and during the day but the gorgeous Cabo Rojo is right next door with cute accommodations. We checked into Eco del Mar, a glamping retreat in its purest form…spacious camping tents upgraded with a comfy bed, nice sheets, and the ocean less than 20 feet from your zippered door. With a little daylight left and no time to waste, we hit the water on our stand-up paddleboards. Trying to stick close to one another for the shot, we paddled towards the dramatic red cliffs, as the sun plunged into the sea. This footage alone, makes us want to go back.
Shot List: Beach, check. Mountains, check. Jungle, check, River, check. The only thing missing in our mind was the local market. We pride ourselves in always getting local wherever we travel and knew from our time in the DR, the Barahona market would undoubtedly be cultural. Sugar cane juice pressed with a hand-crank, oranges piled into pyramids, dominoes slapping down on card tables, Mamajuana rum curing in big jugs, and Dominicans being their convivial selves…the Barahona market was just what we hoped. We shopped without any real need for tomatoes or cinnamon sticks, but we loved the excuse to chitchat with the vendors.
Flat Tire = New Friends
What’s an exciting road trip without a flat tire? We hobbled our way into the nearest town and when we asked where a mechanic was, they pointed to a little white house with a few kids out front. This “tire shop” was run by a 12-year old boy, with a kindergarten-age sister that kept us entertained with rounds of patty-cake.
What a Team!
Seven very full days later, it was time for our final interview about HoneyTrek and our Southwest Experience. The region is truly incredible, as was the opportunity to work with such a talented team and share the HoneyTrek story. When Nick said, “That’s a wrap,” we took to the colonial streets to celebrate. A tropical storm came out of nowhere, but it didn’t stop us, we were walking on Cloud 9. We sat in a 17th-century plaza, going one for one with inside jokes from the trip and moments we’ll never forget.