Waterfalls, Rivers and Rain Forest in Dominica
Waterfalls, Rivers and Rain Forest in Dominica
When I saw that the only way down the 300-foot cliff was a series of ropes and roots for handholds, I gasped. Below, a field of rocks was being battered by the Atlantic. I wistfully thought about earlier Caribbean vacations, when the main activity was sitting on a beach, lifting a pastel drink that complemented the startlingly aqua water. But after reminding myself I hadn’t come to Dominica for lolling, I grabbed a rope and began the climb down, backward, to reach a place called Wavine Cyrique, which I’d been told was one of the best sights on the island.
My good friend Ellesor had been trying to get me to Dominica for more than three years, ever since her niece had started serving in the Peace Corps there. But I wasn’t interested. Caribbean islands had begun to feel interchangeable to me. All focused on the white fringe and the unvarying S’s — sun, sand, sea, SPF. Call me jaded, but I had better ways to spend my time and money.
Finally, Ellesor asked her niece, Menke, to send me a list of her favorite things to do on the island. Jumping out at me were the words “hiking,” “rock climbing,” “waterfalls,” “mountain lakes” and “not like any Caribbean trip you’ve taken.” She emphasized that we would stay active exploring and that there was far more to do than beach bumming. I was sold.
One of the larger islands in the Lesser Antilles, Dominica is also one of the least known. It’s sometimes confused with the more populous Dominican Republic, though the pronunciation is different: Dom-in-EEK-a. Probably one reason for its obscurity is its lack of the feature most vacationers want — those long white beaches. A young island, Dominica has several active and dormant volcanoes and, as a local man, Ronald, told me, “more mountains than people.” What beaches there are normally have black or golden sand, and they’re usually just commas in between rock cliffs.
But the interior on what’s billed as “the Nature Island” is filled with wonders, including 365 rivers (“400 when it rains,” Menke said). Three-hundred miles of hiking paths cover the island, one crisscrossing the whole length through the interior. Two-thirds of the island is rain forest; 20 percent is in the national park system. The easiest hike we did was up and down hills in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park that took us around Freshwater Lake, which was formed in the lip of a volcanic crater.
With this emphasis on nature — and without any large, international resorts or the usual influx of margarita-craving tourists — the island feels more accessible and authentic. I noticed on our first day driving around the island (on the left-hand side of the road) that I didn’t see any big gleaming walls with fine lettering, behind which lie grand hotels that operate in their own bubble on so many islands, separate from day-to-day life. The biggest hotels here, generally, are eco-resorts, situated quietly in the jungle or near ocean-view cliffs, many making use of solar or wind energy.
The towns we passed through were small, hectic and throbbing with an energy that was as rowdy as the colors of the houses — lime greens, blazing pinks, deep yellows. Buildings weren’t always plumb; signs like “Iguana Crossing” were often hand-painted. Every town had a series of tiny, ramshackle buildings known as “rum shops,” the local versions of bars — basically sheds with big windows that open up to serve drinks. On the beaches we passed, the golden sand was populated mainly by multicolored fishing boats, parked for a rest. Or fishermen building new boats, which in their just-started stage look like the rib cages of grizzly bears. Or fishermen hacking the day’s catch into fillets for customers. In the jungle areas, men at roadside stands were cutting small logs used to prop up their yam plants.
“This feels like the land that time forgot,” said Troy Dixon, a Canadian who recently opened a hotel of bungalows on the northern coast called Calibishie Gardens. “Life is real here. It’s about culture and people, not commercialism.”
At one of the first destinations on our visit — Trafalgar Falls — I noticed that many of the visitors appeared to be locals. Trafalgar Falls consists of twin waterfalls; a man selling bamboo flutes told me that on the left is “Daddy Falls” and on the right, “Mommy Falls.” Most people were lounging in the cold pools downstream or in the hot ponds to one side that are filled by springs from deep underground. (The geothermal activity on the island creates some boiling beaches, where heated water gurgles up through the sand, and Champagne-like bubble streams underwater, which are beloved by scuba divers.
Though I dipped in both the hot and cold water at Trafalgar, I had my eyes on the waterfalls themselves. But a steep boulder field lay between them and me. Menke, Ellesor and I started scrambling and straining to get up and over the boulders, picking a path, getting stranded twice, but pushing on. Finally, after we got stuck in a flat spot with no way to advance farther upward, a Dominican climbed up to us and led the way to a lovely pool below the 75-foot-tall “Mommy Falls” — as blue as any sea found in this part of the world, but much colder. As I floated in the deep water, gazing happily at my pink toenails, Menke shouted something. But the roar of the falls drowned it out. She paddled closer. “I said, ‘Who needs a beach when you’ve got this?’ ”
I had the same thought several times over the next few days; as when we ventured deep into the jungle at Chaudiere Pool, where we jumped off 15-foot cliffs into 30-foot-deep water and sat down on a rock in the middle of a muscular river and let ourselves be flushed down into the pool. Or when we visited another, more violent waterfall on the east coast — Victoria Falls — the force of which generated whitecaps in the pond below and a series of small rainbows. Victoria was even more beautiful than Trafalgar. The cliff beside the frothing column of water was covered in hanging roots that dangled like tinsel from trees on the ridge above. The locals call these roots “tree beards.”