One Wild Ride: Untamed Adventure in an unlikely climbers' paradise
I’ve been accused of something called “sport traveling.”
If there’s potential for rock climbing in an area I’ve never visited, there’s a good chance I’ll go. This is how I’ve embarked on climbing trips involving countries you might see on the evening news—like Algeria, Oman, and Yemen—and scary first ascents in remote areas. This is also how I ended up in the Dominican Republic, which, in comparison, seemed tame—more like a beach vacation with potential first ascents sprinkled throughout.
I departed from Salt Lake City with photographer Andrew Burr and friend Cody Roth. Cody is one of the most all-around talented, yet humble, climbers I know. He’s excelled in competitions, onsighted 5.14b, and climbed in Europe for several years (hence the thick Austrian accent that belies his nationality). It may be cliché to call someone a “soul climber,” but there’s no other way to describe Cody. His motivation for climbing is one of the purest I’ve witnessed in my 20 years in the sport. I hadn’t seen him since a 2006 trip to Morocco, but when he saddled up next to me at the airport, it was as if the past six years were just the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
Andrew (or just “Burr”) and I have been on several international trips as well. He’s the hardest-working climbing photographer I know. He never puts his camera down. And although Burr has been known to arrive in a foreign country without a debit card or drink the last of the smuggled tequila before going through customs, he will also spring for a round of first-class airport-lounge passes for everyone when a flight is canceled and would surely take a bullet for you. This would be our small crew to explore new routing in the D.R.
Two Boeing 737s and nine hours after leaving Salt Lake City, we landed in Santiago, a city of 691,000 people in the hilly north-central region of the country. I was surprised to see the luscious green landscape emphasized by steep hillsides. The climbing was unexpectedly good, too: streaked, pocketed limestone up to 150-feet tall with spectacular tufas. (The Caribbean isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge sport climbing.) Existing bolts, as in any tropical environment, were suspect; Burr broke one while jugging a line, but another very rusty bolt kept him from decking. We ended up bolting and climbing four new lines, adding to the 50 established routes in the country. There’s potential for many more, anywhere from 5.6 to 5.insane. The local climbing community is tiny, comprising just the local fire department, so development will probably continue at a snail’s pace. But these guys were enthusiastic and gracious when showing us around their different areas and provided as much beta as they could. I’ve traveled around the world as a climber, and though the countries I’ve visited are vastly different, climber hospitality doesn’t vary much from culture to culture. It’s consistently good.
We were eager to sample different cliff lines and beaches, but we learned soon enough to slow down to D.R. time—where everything takes twice as long as you think it will. We also quickly realized that no matter what plans you make, something will likely change. The D.R. may never gain A-list status for killer cragging and new routing, but we stayed long enough to experience the culture, have some epic adventures, and find more than a few reasons to come back. In fact, for the right kind of climber, the D.R. could be just the ticket. Here’s why.
1. Beyond the guidebooks
Tourists do travel here (see “#10: Well-Earned Effort”), but hardly any go beyond the gift shacks at the pier. As a climber, you’re immediately immersed in Dominican culture—don’t be afraid to get out there to meet locals and converse about the climbing. As with any other foreign country, you’ll need a passport, plus a $10 tourist card (valid for 30 days) to enter. The country offers a plethora of inexpensive public transit options. But because climbers go off the beaten path, I recommend renting a car or motorcycle (the latter only if you’re an experienced driver, as there are potholes galore) to get around. In the peak season (December through February), call ahead to reserve and avoid potential last-minute charges. Spanish is the official language, but most citizens speak some English. Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook ($9, shop.lonelyplanet.com).
2. Jungle climbing
I’d never been to a crag where the approach involved a high-speed slalom through a mangrove forest on a boat—until the D.R., that is. The forests here embody adventure: A typical day of climbing involved thrashing through thick vegetation, swatting no-see-ums constantly, and enduring heat, humidity, and afternoon downpours. But the bushwhacking is well worth the effort; the moments of climbing bliss were all the better for the effort involved. Just don’t forget the bug spray.
3. High first ascent potential
After gathering some beta from the locals, we fought through a bushy gully around 3 p.m. one day, and our attention zoomed in on the steepest section of a crag. A half-dozen 5.10 to 5.11 bolted lines stopped halfway up the 150-foot-tall limestone wall. The locals lacked the experience (and maybe the gumption) to tackle the upper portion of the face, and I wasn’t sure we had enough time in the day to get much higher. But an hour later, Cody and Burr had drilled 12 bolts, and then Cody tied in and smoothly climbed the hardest route on the wall: Trece Triple (5.12c). Because the climbing community is so minute, you can almost close your eyes and point to the wall for a first ascent opportunity—no matter your skill level. But BYORG (Bring Your Own Rope Gun).
4. Tropical epics
Picture “epic,” and images of whiteouts and frozen digits materialize. This is clearly not what you’ll encounter. In the D.R., many epics (which I personally define as any moment where I wonder, “Are we going to die?”) don’t happen on the rock, but on the way to the crag. We had a couple such experiences: First, a questionably sober driver took us on a rowdy boat ride at dusk to Playa Frontón, one of the D.R.’s best climbing areas, on the eastern edge of the country in extremely rough waters. We traveled in a skiff, and Cody and I were tossed around like empty two-liter soda bottles. The same night, we were dropped off on a deserted beach, where I was convinced (despite the country’s relatively low crime rate) that drug lords would kidnap us, and we’d never be heard from again. Not to mention the beehive we ran into, mosquito swarms, fire ants, and gobies we received from climbing coconut trees. This is not every climber’s idea of a perfect vacation, but for the offbeat sort who can find the humor in most situations, the D.R. will be unforgettable.
5. World-class urban cragging
Our new friend Wladir was our local contact. On the first day, he dropped us off at what we dubbed the Urban Crag, located in the heart of the bustling metropolis of Santo Domingo. The approach and routes at Calle 10 (the sectors were named after the corresponding streets that crossed them) were short but offered crazy tufas and finger-swallowing pockets. Take the otherworldly limestone of Spain and plop it in the middle of Detroit, and you have the Urban Crag. Don’t go there for the ambience: We experienced nonstop jackhammering in the street, diesel fumes, and a few bums drinking rum in the cave, but the colorful streaks of rock and fun moves drowned everything else out.
6. Free recovery drinks
That boat ride to Playa Frontón cost $40 (and nearly our lives!), but it had merit: We drank endlessly from fresh coconuts on the beach. Considering the high price of coconut water in the U.S., we came out ahead. Not to mention the beach camping here was among the most idyllic I’d ever experienced.
7. Cheap eats
Dominican street food is made for dirtbags: It’s fast and has a high calorie-to-money-spent ratio. Some of my favorite offerings included chulitos, rolled-up finger foods made of cassava, the root of a tropical tree, filled with meat and cheese; chimichurries, Dominican hamburgers with specially marinated meat; and empanadas, tasty ground beef in a pastry pocket. (The D.R. would be problematic for a vegan or vegetarian.) There was also an abundance of fruit stands that peddled local rum.
8. The best rest
There are countless rest day activities, each vacation-worthy for most people. Sprawled along more than 1,000 miles of coastline are some of the world’s best white-sand beaches. Surfing, snorkeling and diving, fishing, kiteboarding and windsurfing, and especially deep water soloing are all at your fingertips. Divers find eagle rays, eels, barracuda, nurse sharks, turtles, and more, depending on location and time of year. January through March, head to Samaná or Silver Bank to watch for humpback whales. Mountain biking and whitewater rafting (or relaxed floating) are popular in Jarabacoa. Or climb up to Duarte Peak (10,456 feet), the highest peak in the Caribbean.
9. Unconventional and exotic lodging
I would have flown to the Dominican Republic just to stay at Paraiso Caño Hondo in Sabana de la Mar. It’s a rustic enclave tucked into the mountain, with the Río Jivales running through the property and guided into 10 waterfall-fed pools. Wi-Fi is available, but you won’t need it: We spent an entire rest day just eating fresh fish, drinking El Presidente cervezas, and swimming. Bonus: There are a few bolted routes up to 5.10 right on the grounds. Double-bonus: While we stayed here, we established two new routes, Tony Capone (5.13a) and Presidente del Sol (5.12c) on beautiful, clean, and sculpted limestone.
10. Well-earned effort
On our last night, as the three of us sat on the beach enjoying a rare moment of tranquility and harmony, a belching cruise ship blighted the horizon. To each his own, I thought, but that way of seeing the world isn’t for me. The bickering, bushwhacking, bad beta, and blown tires are the moments we tend to remember most when traveling. They bring us closer. I posed the question out loud: “If you were offered a free cruise, would you take it?” Burr immediately barked, “No!” Cody responded with surprising tenderness: “I would if you guys were on it.”
Some of the most popular crags include Playa Frontón near Las Galeras and Parque Mirador del Este and San Cristóbal near Santo Domingo. There are seven international airports in the country; fly into whatever is cheapest and closest to your final destination. Some of these areas don’t have any amenities, including fresh water, so pack your own (or means of treating). There’s no guidebook, but Mountain Project has limited info, and Wladir, a local, frequently answers questions posted on rockclimbing.com.