The Dominican Republic is the second largest country in the Caribbean, with over 10 million people spread across 18,704 square miles. Located on the northern coast, the city of Puerto Plata (and nearby beach town Cabarete) isn’t as well-known as Santo Domingo and Punta Cana, but it does offer a less crowded alternative.
Founded in the early 1500s, Puerto Plata is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the mountain known as Pico Isabel de Torres on the other. Historically, the city boomed after privateer Sir John Hawkins brought 400 slaves he’d abducted from Sierra Leone, launching Britain’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Now, Puerto Plata is becoming increasingly popular among tourists seeking eco-friendly adventures. From climbing waterfalls and strolling through mountain-top botanical gardens to zip lining through the jungle and helping to build local school and clinics, here’s our tips on the best things to do in Puerto Plata and Cabarete.
Conquer the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua
This action-adventure takes you deep into the heart of the Dominican Republic jungle to a series of waterfalls that vary widely in height and difficulty. Using everything from footholds in the rocks and crudely constructed ladders to ropes, guides help guests gradually ascend to the top, by which point you’ll likely be breathless. The fun part is coming back down: Hiking, shooting down natural rock waterslides, and leaping over 20 feet from narrow ledges into shallow pools surrounded on all sides by rocky cliffs, the descent is the definition of an adrenaline rush. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating 8-hour excursion, but also one of the most memorable things to do in Puerto Plata.
Explore the Caves of El Choco National Park
One of the Dominican Republic’s newest national parks, El Choco offers 48 square miles of wilderness (including forest, jungle, lagoon and open backcountry) to explore. Hiking in the park is relatively easy, taking visitors through protected areas where you can find 12 species of bats and 36 bird species, such as the miniature Verlaine Hummingbird. But El Choco’s main attraction is its dynamic Caribbean karst landscape and extensive system of caves, which offer challenging hiking adventures and breathtaking lagoons whose cool, clear waters make for a refreshing swim.
Help Locals Build a School or Clinic
Discover Corps travelers have a chance to work alongside locals to help build health clinics and schools from recycled plastic bottles. Not only does this project remove waste from the community, but it also teaches environmental awareness and shows locals new sustainable construction techniques that help to provide a sense of ownership. These schools and health clinics offer educational opportunities and provide essential medical services in rural areas that desperately need such resources. The result is a volunteer experience that feels good and does good by the local community.
Learn to Kiteboard in Cabarete
Kiteboarding (think a combination of surfing and parasailing) is one of the fastest growing watersports in the Caribbean. The steady trade winds coming in off the Dominican Republic’s northern coast makes Cabarete a popular place for those looking to try the sport for the first time. Several schools in the area offer beginner lessons, with equipment rental included and both private and semi-private instruction available. If you’re not quite adventurous enough to catch some air yourself, kicking back on the beach with a cool drink while watching the aerial acrobatics can prove highly entertaining!
Snorkel Off the Coast of Sosua Beach
Sosua Beach is one of the area’s most popular places for a variety of watersports, including snorkeling and Scuba diving. We began our underwater adventure in the broad network of reefs known as Tropical Garden. The highlight was a site called Three Rocks, whose linear-shaped formations come to within 15 feet of the surface and attract a plethora of colorful Spotted Drums, Parrotfish, Angelfish, Pipefish and even an occasional Moray Eel. We gradually made our way back to Sosua Bay, where an impressive reef formation barely 100 yards from the shore proved to be even more of a Grand Central Station for aquatic life.
Take a Tram Ride Up Mount Isabel de Torres
Towering above the town at 2,600 feet, Mount Isabel de Torres dominates the landscape of Puerto Plata. When you take the popular tram ride to the top, you’re greeted by a massive Christ the Redeemer statue, which is modeled after the larger, more famous one in Brazil. Hiking through the 7-acre botanical gardens there felt like a different world from the city’s congested streets. It’s filled with brilliant tropical flowers, bright blue bees, rare woodpeckers and hawks. It also offers spectacular views of the entire region, from the coastline to the lush rolling hills and thick jungle that make up the country’s interior.
Zip-lining at Monkey Jungle
Located 25 minutes from Cabarete, this zip-line park built in 2010 offers around 4,400 feet of adrenaline-pumping action. The scenic views of the surrounding mountains and ocean are simply stunning, and the park earns its name by being prime natural habitat for monkeys. After getting a handle on things via two training cables, you’ll fly through the treetops alongside them. The best part is that 100% of Monkey Jungle’s profits help support an on-site medical and dental clinic, which provides free care and medicine for poor Dominican and Haitian population. By giving in to your need for speed, you’re also giving back to the local community. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/ videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.