Leap down waterfalls into turquoise pools, then unwind with barbecue food and rum cocktails
Deep in the untamed. Damajagua jungle, Augusto Bonilla is preparing for the day’s big moment, patchy sunlight illuminating the pool below him. Watching his guests with an experienced eye, he tightens the helmet’s chin-strap, his sandals squelching on the precipitous rock ledge. ‘Have no fear,’ Augusto tells them, as he shuffles an inch closer to the waterfall’s foaming lip, his eyes fixed on the horizon. ‘Just close your eyes and jump.’ Without another moment’s pause, he launches himself, like a human cannonball, out into a hazy abyss of mist.
Seconds later, Augusto resurfaces in the river’s natural punchbowl. With a broad grin, he scans the backcountry surroundings. Above him, buffpalmchats (the national bird of the Dominican Republic) chirrup unseen in the cocoa and mango trees, while sage-green creepers and vines dangle over the eroded clay banks.
He lifts his head skyward, coaxing the band of nervous canyoners eight metres up to follow. ‘Viva hoy y orar por la manana,’ he shouts: live for today, only pray for tomorrow. Soon after, they too take the leap of faith, flapping their arms as if in flight.
From Puerto Plata to Cabarete, the north coast of the Dominican Republic is awash with tanned kiteboarders and surfers, but a trip inland offers an alternative exhilarating way to embrace the water and explore the jungle landscape. Of all the guides who take adventurers into the hinterlands of the Saltos de la Damajagua, Augusto is one of the most experienced. Having spent the past 24 years in Damajagua’s natural swimming holes, he knows the chute network better than most. There are dozens of others to jump off, he says, some that form curtains of milky-white ribbon and swishing bridal veils, others that fan into gigantic clouds of spray. There are so many tributaries, he jokes, locals keep discovering new bathtubs.
Back in Cabarete, kiteboarders, surfers and canyoners converge again on dry land to unwind after the day’s adventures. Everyone heads to their favourite shack to swap stories, the bars fill up and the beaches are slowly abandoned, the skies mellowing from vivid blue to smoky pink. Farther east at the mo utli of the Yasica River, a short pontoon ride across the delta, a more rustic option is on offer. This is the way to Wilson’s Bar, a breezy beachfront shack, haphazardly built out of items (palm fronds, fallen trees, a broken surfboard) left behind in the aftermath of a tropical storm.
At its bamboo counter, owner Wilson Zapete is cutting up coconuts. To a lilting soundtrack of reggaeton and salsa, he scoops out their flesh and fills the shell with crushed ice and rum. The kitchen is firing up a barbecue and muscular blue swimmer crabs are hauled straight from buckets in the lagoon into a blackened pot, reappearing moments later on a platter as a jumble of ruddy-red claws, with prawns and fresh grilled fish. This, says Wilson, pointing to the lagoon, is the only market he needs.
It is after nightfall when the diners have finished, the tinkling seashells suspended from the palm-leaf roof announcing the arrival of a brewing storm – and perhaps an impromptu refit for Wilson’s shack. ‘I first came here 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen so many changes, but only great ones.’ And with that he raises a toast to good times before disappearing back into the kitchen.