was our dive guide. And judging from the broad smile beneath his new
Skin Diver baseball cap, he was eager to show us his favorite dive
site. He ran back and forth between the dive boat and shop collecting
our gear, each time holding up two fingers and repeating, “Only two
minutes to go!” My flight into Santo Domingo from Miami the night
before was late, but I was certainly in no hurry. The warm sun felt
good and I began to remember a story I read many years ago about a
mythological island in the Caribbean called Quisiqueya. Apparently,
when God created this legendary island, he wanted it to be used as
the model for all other Caribbean islands. He gave it the most beautiful
beaches, the perfect climate and the tallest mountains from which
he could sit and admire his creation. Watching the Lord at work, St.
Peter questioned his generosity, asking what beautiful creatures would
inhabit this wondrous island. The Lord replied smiling, “Don’t worry,
very soon I’m going to create the Dominican people.” I watched Tito
run back and forth a few more times before I finally got his attention
and asked, “How many American minutes are in a Dominican minute?”
Tito stopped and broke into laughter. “Five or six minutes!” he shouted
our morning dive on the wreck of the Tanya, a former island freighter
resting perfectly upright in 130 feet of water, I was feeling a
little lazy and decided to forgo the afternoon dive for a visit
to the old colonial city of Santo Domingo. I couldn’t imagine a
visit to this island without seeing the centuries old colonial buildings
that were once the homes and haunts of Christopher Columbus.
The old town part of Santo Domingo is a
charming city that resonates with the ghosts of explorers and romantics.
I had the taxi drop me at the Parque Colon in the central plaza
and took a guided walking tour of the walled city and old fortress.
Two sights not to miss are the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco
and the nearby First Hospital of the New World.
The colonial city is fascinating; its magnificent
architecture sheds new light on old dreams and it is fun to wind
your way through the narrow historical streets. At the Plaza de
Maria Toledo, I had lunch at the Paté Palo restaurant across from
the huge two-story Alcazar de Colon, which was the residence of
Christopher Columbus and his family for decades.
Leaving the old city and traveling east along
the Avenue Las Americas on the southern coast from Santo Domingo,
I planned for stops along the way to visit dive sites at Boca Chica,
Juan Dolio and La Romana.
The Dominican Republic occupies two-thirds
of the island of Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean.
If you measure its coastline, including bays and offshore islands,
it totals a staggering 700 miles. As we drove further east, the
island became surprisingly flatter and the coastline more accessible.
Visitors certainly could not ask for more
in terms of diving opportunities. There are good dive sites virtually
everywhere along the island’s south coast, but two of the most popular
are La Caleta National Park, just east of Santo Domingo, and around
the small islands of Saona and Catalina near La Romana. It was the
latter that drew my attention—and I was not disappointed.
The water temperature, especially on the
south coast, is very warm—close to 85°F—in all but the coldest winter
months. Visibility can vary depending on the dive site location
and time of year. However, local authorities explained that mild
currents often keep the mountain river runoff away from the reefs
and that in winter months visibility can exceed 150 feet. My diving
In La Romana, my diving companion was an
enthusiastic guide named Gustavo, who had brought along his young
son to dive with us Skin Diver guys. Originally from Colombia, Gustavo
has explored the entire coast of the Dominican Republic underwater.
He claims that some of the best Caribbean diving is just a stone’s
throw from where we were standing.
The wall itself was superb: healthy coral
formations, abundant fish, excellent visibility, warm water and
little current. Starting in less than 20 feet of water and plunging
vertically over 130 feet, I finned along the wall marveling at the
huge purple tube sponges and clusters of yellow sponges. There were
large trees of black coral and large Orange Elephant Ear Sponges
The second day we raced southeast across
the water until off in the distance, the low mass of Saona Island—a
band of green with a lace-white sand fringe in the foreground—appeared,
hushed and still in the gathering morning light. A lone fisherman’s
sailboat punctuated the horizon.
Catalina’s walls plunge to more than 130 feet deep.
Saona is part of the national underwater
park and has perhaps some of the country’s best coral formations.
We spent the morning on two tanks and a lot of adrenaline. The gorgonians
swayed together, the fish schooled; a wayward stingray glided by.
From high above, bright sunlight fell down and danced on the sand
and coral, adding and then detracting from the visibility.
The reef was a casual slope that seemed unending.
Some of the most spectacular pillar coral formations I have ever
seen sat like castles on an English countryside. The reefs randomly
jumped towards the surface in 50 to 70 feet of water, where huge
barrel sponges and forests of seafans stretch along the ocean floor.
The next morning, in true adventure fashion,
I threw all my gear in the back of the rental car, topped off the
gas tank and hit the road.
I had heard much about the mock 16th century
Italian village high on the Chavon River. Sort of an Artisans place
built in 1978 by the chairman of the Gulf & Western Company; it
is called Altos de Chavon. Part of the exclusive Casa de Campo resort,
it is fascinating to walk around. I was most interested in browsing
through the museum of Taino Indian art and artifacts. And, of course,
the view above the river is compelling. I also found some excellent
workshops, galleries and fine restaurants.
I arrived in Punta Cana at my hotel late
in the afternoon, mostly because I stopped to photograph almost
every stretch of palm tree-lined beach along the way.
corals and sponges compete for space off Saona Island.
Punta Cana is unique. At the extreme tip
of the Dominican Republic, it is at the point where the Atlantic
Ocean and Caribbean Sea squeeze through the Mona Passage. The Mona
Passage is a deepwater corridor between the Dominican Republic and
Puerto Rico. Because all things large pass through here, you never
know for sure what to expect.
The barrier reef borders the shoreline as
parallel reef systems, one close to shore on the breaker-line and
another approximately 300 yards offshore. The outer reef’s depths
average about 70 feet, and it is here that you will find a generous
assortment of Caribbean marine life.
Perhaps the most fascinating dive site in
the Punta Cana area is a freshwater cavern dive named Laguna Pepe.
It is in the middle of a golf course, not far from the ocean. The
cavern entrance is about 12 feet high by 30 feet wide, and once
inside, opens to a spectacular cathedral-like chamber of more than
160 feet wide and 65 feet high. A floating mass of green water floats
on top of a clear layer of fresh spring water. The ghostly green
glow that permeates the clear water is surreal. The cavern floor
is covered with tiny shrimp and some small species of freshwater
From Punta Cana I flew northwest to the Samana
Peninsula and El Portillo. I was greeted by Safaris guide Luis and
his four-wheel-drive Jeep. Ditching my wet dive gear for a day and
trekking through the rain forest seemed like the perfect topside
As we left the hotel, I immediately asked
Luis to stop next to a field where a baseball game was just getting
underway. Sunday afternoons bring out local ball teams in their
game day dress. I knew this was going to be a great photo opportunity
and I asked Luis if I could photograph the ball players. I was amused
by Luis’ animated gestures as he talked to the team; and suddenly,
everyone jumped into a pose for my camera.
Back in the Jeep I asked Luis what he had
said. Laughing uncontrollably, Luis blurted out, “I told them you
where taking pictures for the New York Yankees!”
all things large pass through here, you never know for
sure what to expect.
Our next day in Samana found us in the dive
boat along a rugged coastline with sheer cliffs rising over 400
feet high. The deep water swirling below was so clear I could see
the base of the pinnacle more than 200 feet down. This was Cabo
Cabron, and I glided down the spectacular tower, easily swimming
the circumference of the rocky formation, approximately 80 feet
in diameter. The top is barely awash at 15 feet and the vertical
walls plummet to nearly 200 feet. I can’t recall ever being quite
Our second dive was also breathtaking. At
a site called Punta Tibisi, a rock cliff continues into the sea,
plunging downward to 130 feet. I was again in awe as I watched the
sea explode on the rocks over me. The cliff forms three distinct
tiers of ancient beaches with many more lying scattered along the
sand floor. These provide a random profile of reef structure while
others form deep ravines. In the late winter months of January through
early March, Humpback Whales migrate into the Samana Bay. The songs
of whales are almost always heard and sometimes divers can catch
a glimpse of the whales themselves.
My 10-day odyssey was drawing to a close
and I knew I had to move on. The following morning I moved up the
north coast toward Puerto Plata, where all I really wanted to do
was buy a good cigar. Francisco, my taxi driver, promised to take
me to the best cigar factory for pictures. We drove for two hours
one way to the Leon Jimines Cigar Factory in Santiago to see the
craftsmen hand rolling cigars.
Puerto Plata is a huge resort area. Diving
is very much part of the scene with some good shallow reefs perfect
for new divers. Some of the best diving is just east of Puerto Plata
around the small fishing village of Sosua. You’ll find high profile
corals and a shoreline cave that offer excellent diving.
The day ended well after dark in the patio
restaurant of my hotel. Lubricated with fine Dominican rum, I traded
tales and talked about the future of diving with some other guests.
Sometime around midnight, it occurred to me how ironic it is that
a land synonymous with Christopher Columbus could be so undiscovered
by the rest of the world.
TIME TO VISIT
The Dominican Republic is a year-round destination.
January to early March is the best time to see and hear
the migrating Humpback Whales.
The Dominican Republic occupies about two-thirds of
the island of Hispaniola. It shares the island with Haiti.
There are two major international airports: one in the
capital city of Santo Domingo and the other in the northern
coastal city of Puerto Plata. Other smaller international
airports can be found at La Romana and Punta Cana. It
is approximately a two-hour flight from Miami.
Both air and water temperatures are typical Caribbean.
Winter months average 80°F, while the summer months are
Winter months water temperature averages 75°F. Summer