Words by Lebawit Lily Girma

The quick, familiar beat of Merengue percussion fills the air, nearly drowning out the whir of the wind pushing through the bus’ half-cracked windows. We’re bumping our way down the twolane highway on the Dominican Republic’s Atlantic-facing north coast. I’ve heard talk of a nature preserve two hours east of Puerto Plata where you can spend the day surrounded by a verdant forest and a network of iridescent blue, freshwater sinkholes; a place the Taíno people once inhabited, centuries later turned into a recreational space, while maintaining its natural state.

The adventure begins as soon as I step inside the guagua (public bus) I wave down from the main boulevard outside my hotel. “Laguna Dudú?” I ask. The driver’s assistant, hanging halfway out the door, nods and shifts his body sideways, inviting me along for the ride. After zipping past vast fields of coconut trees and pastelcoloured homes on the way to the town of Cabrera, I hop off near a big sign indicating Laguna Dudú’s location. A short walk down a dirt road from the highway takes me to the park’s entrance. I can’t see much past the ticket office, a pink wooden building reminiscent of a countryside home, but I can feel the start of an experience that’s a far cry from Puerto Plata’s resorts.

Arrows guide me as I walk past the office and enter a garden dotted with hammocks. Left: Pozo de los caballos. Right: Laguna Dudú. Left I go, down a series of steps leading into the forest. Limestone rocks tower over me, a sign of the park’s extensive cave system. Turning the corner, a wooden platform appears on the edge of a deep turquoise and emerald lagoon. I drop my backpack, strip to my swimsuit and slide into the water. After an initial shudder, my muscles relax and I simply float on my back, staring up at the surrounding foliage.

Thousands of years ago, the Dominican Republic was divided into five cacicazgos or Taíno chiefdoms. The Maguá chiefdom stretched from Puerto Plata all the way to Samaná and present-day Nagua.

“My wife’s father acquired the land in the 1950s,” explains Reynaldo Grullón, co-owner of Laguna Dudú. “It wasn’t until the 1946 earthquake struck the north coast that a depression happened – the land fell in and the cenotes at Dudú opened up.”

I hike back towards the main park area to visit the main lagoon and the crown jewel of this natural recreational space; Laguna Dudú.

This turquoise body of water spans nearly 2,000 squaremetres with a depth of 7.6 metres – 90 per cent freshwater and 10 per cent saltwater – and lies at the foot of limestone cliffs. Locals and tourists are gathered around a zipline platform on the lagoon’s edge. Watching people attempt the “Dudú drop” is a big part of the fun here. Applause and laughter echo as the crowd cheers on the brave souls who dare to zipline halfway over the lagoon, before releasing and free falling 10 metres down into the water. Claps and whistles follow each big splash. I chicken out and walk down to the lagoon’s entrance ladder to swim in safety.

Heading back to the main road to return to Puerto Plata, I wave at the first bus I see. It doesn’t stop, nor does the next one. For the next 40 minutes, buses speed past me. Were they full? Realizing I could get stranded if I stick to my methods, I decide to seek help. I spot an elderly man stepping out of his home, a two-minute walk away.

“¡Señor, por favor!”

He stops and watches me scurry towards him.

He listens to my bus dilemma and promises he’ll help me catch one. I ask him what he was doing before I showed up. “We were in the kitchen making cheese from scratch. Do you want to see?”

Inside a zinc-walled outdoor shack, another man stands over a boiling pot on an open coal fire. He’s stirring a large, floating mound of queso de hoja, or traditional Dominican cow’s milk cheese. The elderly man hands me a small piece to taste; it’s thick and moist, like mozzarella, but salty.

“Don’t worry; I’ll wait on the highway with you for the bus. You should stop at Playa Diamante first; it’s on the way.”

We’re standing roadside together when a guagua reappears and the driver hits the brakes at my new friend’s hand signal. I hop on after bidding him farewell and overhear his instructions to the driver: “Take good care of her and let her off at Playa Diamante.”

Ten minutes away, Playa Diamante is another natural wonder; a diamond-white sand beach with waters so shallow you can walk almost a kilometre out. Locals are gathered with drinks in the sea much the same as if they were relaxing in a swimming pool.

On the way back to my hotel – the bus stops this time – I reflect on my day of healing waters and serendipitous encounters. It turns out, experiencing the real Dominican Republic takes little effort; it begins right outside the resort.

When you go

WHAT TO DO: Aside from Playa Diamante, head south of Dudú to Playa Arroyo Salado, a stunning 1.6 kilometrelong golden beach where the river meets the sea, offering both freshwater and ocean swims. The village you’ll cross on the way there, La Entrada, also makes for a scenic drive.

WHERE TO DINE: The restaurant at Laguna Dudú serves Dominican dishes as well as burgers and sandwiches. Sample a traditional beachside meal of fried mahi mahi or creole shrimp with tostones at Playa Arroyo Salado.

WHERE TO STAY: Enjoy breakfast with a rooftop ocean view at El Malecón B&B Hotel in nearby Cabrera, a 15-minute drive from Dudú. Stroll along the waterfront in this small town and take in the tranquil atmosphere. In Nagua, the familyowned Hotel Sinai is an affordable option in town, a 30-minute drive from Laguna Dudú and surrounding beaches.