Paradise found, in the Dominican Republic

One million ducks, a tropical rainforest and some hungry rhinoceros iguanas greet Fiona Dunlop as she revisits the Caribbean nation

My atlas index shows eight entries for "Paradise", one for "Paradis" and four for "Paraiso". There is one missing though, Paraíso in the Dominican Republic. A blip on a virgin coastline of jungle-clad mountains, this particular paradise has so far escaped the indexers, as well as most of the four million tourists who visit the island annually. As the majority head for the resorts of the east and north coasts, they miss out entirely on the gorgeous south-western triangle that dips deep into the Caribbean and embraces Paraíso.

And what they miss! Lush tropical forest, lagoons heaving with birdlife, fresh-water pools and rippling waterfalls, rugged cliffs plummeting to shingle beaches and coves, sea painted every hue of azure, boisterous surf, locals who dance the night away at grocery stores, ravenous packs of rhinoceros iguanas, plus a low-cost diet of lobster, red snapper, passion fruit and rum. This bounty has not only inspired a handful of independent lodges but also earned the region its status as the Dominican Republic's only biosphere reserve. Not bad as a setting for Paraíso, which is in fact pretty ramshackle.

I'd returned after a gap of 14 years and, superficially at least, little had changed. A welcome exception was the hugely improved road from the capital, Santo Domingo, making it three hours' drive instead of a day, although drivers still zip past on both sides, rarely signal, and brake unannounced. But that's all part of the fun, along with roadside snacks from cassava bread to coconut-cakes, cashew nuts, wild honey, pineapples and the most delectably creamy soursop I have ever tasted. Majestic scenery is another big distraction. However, once south of Barahona, the "big" town of the south-west and the gateway to this coastline, those familiar pot-holes returned.

The area unfolds between two superlatives: the Caribbean's only salt-water lake, the huge Lago Enriquillo, and the spectacular 8km-long beach of Bahia de las Aguilas that nudges the Haitian border. This is part of the country's largest national park, the Parque Nacional Jaragua, a combination of dry subtropical forest and marine reserve with a bird-rich lagoon thrown in, although I missed out on the flamingo season.

Despite the superlatives, it is little visited; on the powdery white sweep of Bahia de las Aguilas, even on a Sunday, I only spotted a handful of people. Come Monday I could have had the calm turquoise waters to myself. Even the 15-minute boat ride stood out thanks to a torturous limestone headland on which palm trees and cacti took seemingly impossible root. Frigatebirds circled above like watchful guardians of some supernatural universe.

Earlier, at the solitary beach restaurant where I'd hired the motor boat, I'd demolished yet another sublime seafood lunch in the cheerful company of the owner, Santiago, who was incongruously kitted out in immaculate white trilby, suit and tie. This turned out to be for his own wedding party. Soon there materialised a towering tiered cake and dozens of guests who settled into beribboned chairs on the sand, a distinctly Fellini-esque sight in this end-of-the-world place. As I headed back later that afternoon on the dirt road, across arid, cacti-studded terrain, huge SUVs were still bumping in, packed with laughing, flamboyantly attired guests.

Ever present in the background were the stark, forested slopes of the Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range that stretches west to Port-au-Prince, in Haiti and north of which lies Lago Enriquillo. At 46m below sea-level, it is the lowest point in the Caribbean and rivals Manhattan in its vast expanse. Next day, from my hotel perched on a hillside north of Paraíso, I set off there. En route, I stopped at the smaller Laguna del Rincón, where Alvaro, a beaming rifle-toting guide, instantly took me under his wing.

As I followed him along a trail, he rhapsodised about the abundant wildlife and food: "There are one million ducks here in winter, five different species!" he yelled. "We also have flamingos, pelicans, herons and turtles! And look at those crayfish!" he roared, pointing at a fisherman's bucket. "Then there are prawns, crab, eels and fish! You should try the tilapia in coconut sauce!"

He crescendoed: "We grow yucca, garlic, rice, mangoes, sweet potatoes and raise chickens, goat, cattle and pigs – we have so much we can give it away!" His zeal only slowed when he pocketed my tip for the short hike and admitted: "The only thing lacking is rum and beer! Gracias!" With another big smile, he was off.

My distant memories of Lago Enriquillo sharpened as I passed military check-points, where soldiers lazily waved my vehicle through to villages of vividly painted clapboard houses that dazzled against the dun scrub and chalky soil. Disturbingly though, I learned the salty lake water is rising, threatening some hamlets and leaving dead trees poking above the surface. No one seemed to know why. Further proof came at the westernmost town, Jimaní, slap on the Haitian border, where the expanding lake had forced a thriving market to be moved, although even the access road had become a causeway, lapped by the lake on both sides.

Here, suddenly it was mayhem, colour, dust, noise, like being parachuted into the heart of west Africa. Cool Haitian men strode past and straight-backed women balanced huge bundles on their heads. Bottles, tins and packets of food were stacked up all around, while trucks and tap taps (buses) painted in wild colours, and even wilder patterns, flaunted slogans in French or Creole ("Merci Jesus"), with passengers and goods crammed inside, on the roof, and maybe underneath too. This surge of anarchic energy made the Dominican Republic seem prosperous in comparison, even orderly.

Not so when I stopped further round the lake at La Descubierta beside one of the region's many balnearios, freshwater pools where kids splashed happily and noisily.

Nearby, a woman cooked copious pork and rice dishes in an improvised outdoor kitchen, where pots were balanced between rocks, bachata music blared, and men sipped beer and played dominoes. Motorbike taxis puttered past, one loaded with two children and a woman crowned by giant pink rollers, all riding pillion.

In contrast, after a close encounter with packs of rhinoceros iguanas which demolished our banana-skins in seconds, I later came face to face with the island's silent indigenous past. Las Caritas, etched into coral stone boulders high above the road, consisted of dozens of petroglyphs of smiling faces and stick creatures. Anywhere else they would be fenced off. Here, you just climb up using a rickety handrail to marvel at the fresh, whimsical lines, relics of the Taíno culture which was effaced by Spanish rule, and to soak up the timelessness of this place.

Back at my hotel, the stylish Casa Bonita, it was time to collapse under the hands of a masseuse. The appeal, apart from being immersed in nature (the massage "room" was a thatched forest shelter beside a rushing river with a distant bassline of crashing surf) was that she was using larimar stones, alternating heated ones with cold. There is a something very special about these pectolites, classified as recently as the 1970s and found only here, in the magical mountains south of Barahona. When freshly mined, they display stunning shades of cerulean, turquoise and azure, in fact a mirror image of the Caribbean waters washing the shore. But, being photo-sensitive, this intensity of colour fades with exposure to light, so the larimar you find in jewellery shops is an anaemic pale blue.

What an apt metaphor for the region surrounding Paraíso, a place that has to be seen in situ for its potency to be believed.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Fiona Dunlop travelled as a guest of the Dominican Tourist Board. She went with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) which flies twice a week from Gatwick via Antigua to Punta Cana.

Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomson.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick and Manchester, also serving the airports of Puerto Plata and Samana.

Air Century (001 829 259 5014; aircentury.com) operates internal flights between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana. Book through Colonial Tours (001 809 688 5285; colonialtours.com.do).

Staying and seeing there

Casa Bonita, Bahoruco (001 800 961 5133; casabonitadr.com). Doubles from US$270 (£169), B&B.

Hotel Piratas del Caribe, Paraíso (001 809 243 1140; hotelpiratasdelcaribe.com). Doubles from US$126 (£79), including breakfast.

Rancho Platon, Platon (001 809 383 1836; ranchoplaton.com). Doubles from US$227 (£142), with breakfast.

Ecotour Barahona (001 809 243 1190; ecotourbarahona.com) offers excursions in the area.

More information

godominicanrepublic.com

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