The tree-ringed lagoon glowed a color you usually see only in the mouthwash aisle, and under the surface of its glassy water, fallen branches looked like open hands ready to make a catch. The boulders at the bottom were either a few feet down or impossibly deep — the clarity of the water made it impossible to tell.
Hoyo Claro, a spring-filled pool known as a cenote (say-NO-tay) in the Dominican Republic, was just a few miles inland from the luxury all-inclusive beach resorts of Punta Cana, but it felt like a different universe.
If sandy Caribbean beaches are the face of the Dominican Republic, its streams, rivers and cenotes are its veins, arteries and heart. The capital, Santo Domingo, is framed by three rivers, the Haina, the Isabela and the Ozama, upon which the conquering Spaniards built their fort, the first in the Americas, in 1496. The country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, to the west, is laced with waterways and peppered with those irresistible neon blue cenotes.
Dominican friends balked at my plan to rent a car and visit the rivers and cenotes alone last summer. The country has a reputation for being a little rough, an idea bolstered by a U.S. Department of State advisory, which warns U.S. citizens to exercise increased caution while traveling in the Dominican Republic. And with 65 of every 100,000 Dominicans dying in road accidents every year, the country also has the highest rate of traffic fatalities in the Americas, according to World Bank data.
Instead, I joined two of those friends, Hogla Enecia Pérez and Manuel Herrera, on a journey over some rugged dirt roads that are better hiked than driven. Hogla rented a car for us to visit one river. And using a cousin’s S.U.V. with four-wheel drive, Manuel ferried me and, on one day, his family to other swimming holes. In the Dominican Republic, small, rural pools like Hoyo Claro are marked only with a small plastic sign, barely visible from the road, so finding them is a great way to sample Dominican warmth and hospitality: Invariably, you’ll have to pull over and ask directions from a local.
Once you find a swimming hole and immerse yourself in the cool, clear water, you may feel, as I did, ducking under the water, that you’re feeling the heartbeat of the Dominican Republic itself.
Magic in the mangroves
Seeking shelter from the midday sun, I stood under the shade of a mangrove tree in the jade waters of Río Caño Frío, a cool waterway on the Samaná Peninsula, along the northern coast. I was in up to my chest and could still see my toes, which I wiggled into the sand. I wanted to root myself there forever, but Hogla waved me out of the water.
A barefoot local led us into a lush forest where we followed a wild-orchid-lined path for a few minutes before arriving at a trio of pools, places where thickets of trees, fallen trunks and other natural barriers had cordoned off the river into smaller parts: the first nicknamed Love, the second Children and the last Divorce. The pools had mystical properties, our guide claimed. If you want to find true love, jump in the Love pool. More children? Immerse yourself in the second pool. And if you’re looking for a divorce. … He cracked a smile.
To enter the Love pool — a circle of emerald green fringed with the shaggy gray shoots of mangrove trees — we first had to balance precariously on a tangle of roots and branches. We both hesitated. As I looked down, it was impossible to tell just how deep the water was or whether or not the riverbed was soft. Were there rocks? Finally, we took the plunge. It was cool and fairly shallow, and luckily, the bottom turned out to be sandy.
The Children pool was easier to enter. A white sand bank gradually sloped into a shallow lagoon tinged a crisp light green that reminded me of Roman glass. Without the shade of the first pool, the sun heated up my head, even though beneath the surface, I had goose bumps.
Hogla and I warmed up on the trunk of a fallen tree that sliced the lagoon into two, and I felt that delicious sensation of shrugging off a sweater on the first warm day of spring.
The bright aquamarine water of the Divorce pool was the clearest, and with both shade and sun, it was the most inviting of the three, but superstition kept us from taking a swim. Even though Hogla and I were both already divorced, we didn’t want to doom ourselves to going through that ordeal again.
Instead, we headed to nearby Rincón Beach, where a neat row of tiny, colorful shacks offered an array of local dishes prepared on clay hearths. We had fresh lobster and octopus served alongside two plates of homemade tostones, and a heaping mound of rice with pigeon peas prepared the Samaná way, with coconut milk, all for 1,500 pesos (about $26). We sipped fresh coconut water, spiked with local rum, straight out of the shell of green coconuts, the top lopped off with a machete (300 pesos).
Bring your cooler and chill
Not far away on the Samaná Peninsula, nestled between two mountains carpeted with green, the golden sand of Valley Beach offered a spot to while away the hours watching the sun dance across the cerulean stage of the Atlantic Ocean. At the beach’s western end, the small but pristine Río San Juan — not to be confused with the municipality of the same name several hours’ drive northwest — attracted locals to lounge in its waters, their coolers full of drinks and snacks.
Edged by a dramatic rock wall that gives way to a soft fringe of trees, the water provided a cool, calm retreat after being tossed about by the intense shore break of the Atlantic. Jutting trees shaded the narrow, shallow river, which gracefully curved its way into a thicket of emerald green. I followed Manuel, his wife and their two children into the water and was surprised to find that they knew the other family hanging out there, despite the fact that we were some distance from Santo Domingo. The group chatted, catching up on gossip, as the kids raced between the river and the sea.
If you don’t want to bring your own cooler, you can buy food at the beach, though it’s slightly more expensive than at Rincón. Ask one of the informal workers at the beach about lunch and you’ll get a whole fish, pulled from the ocean, fried at the small restaurant up the road, and served alongside rice and pigeon peas for about 2,000 pesos.
Clear enough to fool the eyes
Butterflies darted in and out of our path and goats stood guard along the half-mile dirt road that led deep into the woods to Hoyo Claro, a cenote near the beach resort of Punta Cana. On a Sunday morning, the place was empty save for one family, and the air was quiet. Dark rock, fallen leaves, and tall, thin trees with roots that seemed to grow straight into the water, like grasping fingers, edged the pool. Their gray-flecked brown trunks contrasted sharply with the fluorescent cyan of the water.
I eased myself into the cool water from a sandy bank, though there are stairs, and once I was immersed, minnows swam around me. I dunked my head, and suddenly the water didn’t seem all that cold.
I tried to wiggle my way to the bottom of the pool to reach the boulders on the bottom, but the clear water can play tricks on the eye: The rocks appeared to be much closer than they were, and I couldn’t reach them. The water also distorted the distance to one of the fallen tree trunks: I overestimated how far it was from the surface and ended up with a bruise on my calf. Those same tree trunks can also serve as benches when you’re tired of swimming or floating — or if you’re nursing a bruised leg.
My calf was still smarting as I stood on the platform above a cenote at the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve and contemplated jumping into the turquoise water 10 feet below, the blue punctuated by the huge amber-colored boulders covering the floor of the lagoon. Was the water deep enough? Could I break a leg — or worse — on the rocks below? A Spanish tourist hurled himself in and waved to me. He was fine.
Still, I hesitated.
Fed by the Yauya River, the reserve has 13 lagoons, four of which are swimmable and two of which have platforms for jumping. When I arrived at the first, Laguna Inriri, I found it silent and almost empty, save for a pregnant woman floating peacefully on her back, her body casting a cross-shaped shadow on the smooth rocks at the bottom. Branches with emerald leaves leaned over the pool, fringing the edges with shade. A manicured path led to the second, where I ended up standing above the Spanish tourist who urged me in.
Unable to resist any longer, I made the leap. The bottoms of my feet were the first to hit the cold water, and then I was swallowed entirely. My lungs seizing from the sudden immersion, I shot back up to the surface and gasped for air. The tropical warmth and humidity filled my mouth, and as my body adjusted, a feeling of absolute peace took over. I looked at the rocks below and imagined them as fissures in the earth. I was close to something essential — the origins of the world or, maybe, to myself. I turned over onto my back and looked up at a cloudless blue sky framed by leaves that, backlit by the sun, appeared luminescent. The light reflected off the rippling surface of the water, casting undulating lines onto a tree that arched over the pool.
Manuel broke my reverie. “Come on,” he shouted. “There’s more cenotes to see.” Reluctantly, I swam to the stairs.
As I climbed out into the warmth, the coolness of the water lingered on my head and back, and for the first time in my life, I understood the term “spine tingling.” From the nape of my neck, the prickly feeling spread to a point between my shoulder blades. The water felt as if it had a power — the life force of a whole country. That tingling remained as I headed off with Manuel to see those other cenotes.
If You Go
The Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Tourism lists 18 cenotes and springs on its website, including Hoyo Claro and the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve. There are a few ways you can get to them on your own.
Hire a guide: Many hotels offer day trips for a fee. If your hotel doesn’t offer day trips to these locations, some might be able to help you arrange one. You can also hire a local tour guide; the website toursbylocals.com is one way to connect with one. For Spanish speakers, the Facebook group Viajando a República Dominicana also seems to be a great resource for tours, guides and tips.
Rent a car: Big-name car rental agencies like Enterprise, Budget and Hertz all operate in the Dominican Republic. Prices vary based on vehicle and availability; it is mandatory to get the local liability insurance. The Ministry of Tourism advises that you make sure that the insurance you purchase through the car rental agency also includes “casa del conductor” insurance, which can help keep you out of jail should you have an accident. (In the case of a serious crash, the police will take those involved to jail as the case is sorted out; this type of insurance allows you to stay at a motel instead.) While car accidents in the Dominican Republic are fairly common, it’s reasonably safe for tourists to drive. Just make sure to drive defensively and be vigilant — and stay on the lookout for motorbikes.
Public transportation: The Dominican Republic has a good public transportation system; you can take a bus to the nearest major town to visit any of the cenotes or rivers. But because three of the four destinations are quite remote, you will need to arrange a local driver to get from the town to the swimming hole. Indigenous Eyes is the exception, as this preserve is situated inside the Puntacana Resort and Club. You will most likely be able to find a local taxi or an Uber to take you there.
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