By Adam Goshorn
In the blue waters of the Caribbean, the island of Hispaniola rises from the sea to an astounding 10,164 feet atop Pico Duarte, its tallest mountain. Off the northern coast is the final resting place of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, which ran aground on Christmas Day 1492. The island was later colonized by both France and Spain, a complicated history which is still evident today with the western third of the island being the Creole-French speaking country of Haiti and the eastern two-thirds the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic itself is almost as large as Costa Rica, but this Caribbean paradise remains a little-known destination for whitewater paddlers. For most visitors, a trip to the Dominican Republic means relaxing on the beaches and golf courses along the beautiful coastline, but for those willing to get off the beaten path, the mountainous interior offers a glimpse into traditional rural life and some excellent whitewater paddling.
Rio Yaque del Norte
The Rio Yaque del Norte is the longest river in the Dominican Republic and has more sections of runnable whitewater than any other.
While it is possible to go even further upstream to the National Park boundary, the uppermost section that is run with any regularity starts at the bridge just downstream of La Cienaga. From there, paddlers can enjoy five miles of Class III-IV to the take out at the footbridge at Rancho Faisar. This run is mostly boulder gardens, but there is one notable five-foot bedrock ledge, which can create a stout hole at high water. Most of this section is upstream of a sizable tributary, necessitating a higher water level than the next two sections downstream.
The 8-mile section from Rancho Faisar back to the put in for Las Guazaras Canyon might be the best kayaking run on the river. It’s not as easy to lap and the action isn’t as densely packed as Las Guazaras Canyon, but it has several distinct mini canyons separated by wider, easier sections through picturesque farmland. If this section is at a medium level or higher, the section upstream should be running and is worth checking out.
The 3.7 miles from Rancho Las Guazaras to Puente Amarillo is known as Las Guazaras Canyon or simply The Rafting Section. It is the best-known whitewater section in the country and some local companies even squeeze small rafts down the narrow rapids. It contains numerous, boulder- strewn, Class III-IV rapids with the actual difficulty varying greatly with the water level. With a large watershed and a well channelized riverbed, this section is rarely too low to paddle.
Just downstream of The Rafting Section, the 6-miles from Puente Amarillo to the village of La Peña is a good option for paddlers not up to the rigors of the sections upstream. The river is wider here and so it takes a higher river level to bring this section into the runnable range. At a healthy medium water level, the difficulty of this section still doesn’t exceed Class III, but offers up some nice surfs and splats. Unfortunately, the water quality can take a turn for the worse when heavy rain is causing street runoff in Jarabacoa.
If the Rio Yaque del Norte is at healthy flow, it is likely that the Rio Bao is also running. Although they flow in almost opposite directions, the headwaters from both rivers originate in the mountains around Pico Duarte. If the Yaque is on the low side, it is probably not worth the drive to the Rio Bao.
If it was possible to travel in a straight line, the Yaque and the Bao are actually not that far apart, but the almost three-hour drive requires going out of the mountains, almost to Santaigo, and then back into the mountains to reach the Bao. With an early start, it is possible to day-trip to the Bao from Jarabacoa, but an easier option is to paddle it the afternoon of the day you arrive, spend a night in the area, and paddle it again in the morning before making the trek back to Jarabacoa. If it is at a good level, you’re going to want to do it more than once anyway.
The best section is the 7 miles from the bridge downstream of Mata Grande to the bridge at Aquas Calientes. This section offers numerous Class III-IV+ rapids and excellent scenery. It is also possible to paddle the 7 miles from Aquas Calientes to Rancho Gango, but this section includes a long, slow paddle out after the whitewater subsides.
The Rio Blanco flows out of the steep mountains east of the city of Banao, almost in the center of the country. It cuts an impressively deep and beautiful canyon with vertical walls that narrow to a width of less than 20 feet in places.
The Lower Rio Blanco also benefits from what is more often a nemesis of paddlers, a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, the dam dewaters the upper section of the river, making it only runnable during large floods, but the power station provides runnable flows most days for the 2-mile long, class IV, lower section, resulting in the only dependable whitewater run during the dry parts of the year. However, it also creates a situation for a possible skunking if the power station stops generating when paddlers are already in the canyon, resulting in tough slog out in a mostly dry riverbed.
The Lower Rio Blanco is accessed from the road to the powerhouse by a foot path near the gate and guard house (200 pesos is appropriate thanks to the guard). This trail reaches the river about a quarter-mile upstream of the power plant, so paddlers have to scrape down part of the dewatered section and ferry across the strong outflow from the power plant before the actual run gets started. This access is a bit time consuming to figure out the first time, but should only take about 20 minutes on future laps and the whole process makes it feel like mini expedition every time. The take out for the Lower Blanco is at its confluence with the Rio Yuna. During high water events, it is worth the drive further up the road to see if water is spilling from the dam. If it is, the Upper Rio Blanco from the bridge just downstream of the dam back to the put in for the Lower is 5.5 miles and a step up in difficulty.
The Rio Jimenoa comes out of the rugged mountains southeast of the town of Jarabacoa. It cuts an amazingly steep canyon and is best known for its two largest waterfalls, which are local tourist attractions. Higher in the watershed, upstream of those more well-known waterfalls, are two high quality runs, known as the Upper and Staircase Sections.
The Upper Jimenoa is 7 miles of class III-V rapids and includes some moderate portages. The run starts off with a few small rapids downstream of the put in near Arroyo Frio, but soon builds in intensity. The climax is a big drop where a house-sized boulder pinches the river against a huge exposed bedrock shelf. Running the drop requires negotiating a tricky entrance rapid into a hallway that rounds the boulder and sends paddlers flying off a huge kicker into the pool below. The Upper Rio Jimenoa ends at the swinging bridge over the river on Calle La Sal that is also the put-in for the Staircase Section.
The Staircase Section is named for its take-out, which involves climbing 900 concrete steps to exit the river. Not far from the swinging bridge at the put-in, the river enters a bedrock canyon that doesn’t let up for the rest of the run. While the overall difficulty is class III-V, like the Upper, it is a tighter, more technical, and a much more committing run. With blind corners and the canyon walls making scouting and portaging difficult, this amazing 2-mile-run will take most of the day for first- time groups. The highlight of the Staircase Section is a perfect 20-foot waterfall that comes about three-quarters of the way into the run. After these falls, proceed with extra caution because there is an unrunnable waterfall near the end that would be tragic to blunder into.
Rounding the corner form the perfect 20-footer, there is a small runnable ledge, a quick portage around an ugly boulder jumble, and then things get more complicated. The next rapid has huge boulders that create three slots. The far left slot is runnable or paddlers can play it safe by portaging high on river right. It is possible to traverse past the slot rapid and then lower boats and paddlers near the lip of the next (unrunnable) falls. However if you’ve scouted thoroughly and feel confident in being able to get out on the right at the lip of the runrunnable drop, you can significantly shorten the portage by doing so. After the unrunnable falls, a quick seal launch will soon have paddlers crossing a short lake and arriving at the dam and namesake staircase. While suffering up the stairs, paddlers can take solace in the fact that it is only a ten-minute drive back into Jarabacoa to celebrate with food and beer.
General Logistics: The mountain town of Jarabacoa offers the best base of operations from which to paddle daily. There are currently no outfitters that rent whitewater kayaks or offer other logistical support specifically aimed at whitewater kayakers. So, plan to bring your own gear and be logistically self-sufficient.
When to Go: Historically the times of the year with the highest rainfall are April-May and October- November, making those the most ideal times for paddling around Jarabacoa.
Flights: For paddlers traveling from North America, Southwest Airlines offers daily flights into the resort city of Punta Cana and has a specific policy which allows kayaks for $75 each way. The down-side is that Punta Cana is almost a five-hour drive from Jarabacoa. Paddlers traveling from Europe or elsewhere may have more difficulty getting boats onto flights, but can significantly shorten the drive to the mountains by flying into the city of Santiago, a mere one-hour drive from Jarabacoa.
Vehicles: Because you will need to be mobile and self sufficient, you will need to rent a vehicle. The road that accesses the take-out for the Upper Jimenoa, which is also the put-in for the Staircase Section can require four-wheel-drive if it has rained recently. So, either rent a four-wheel- drive truck or know you will have to hire one to access these sections.
Shuttles: Jarabacoa local, Guillermo, has been driving kayaker shuttles on area rivers for years and can be messaged (in Spanish) on WhatsApp at +1 829 574 8165. Local ecotourism company Rancho Baiguate (www.ranchobaiguate.com) has also provided assistance hiring drivers for some groups in the past.
Lodging: There doesn’t seem to be any official options for tent camping around Jarabacoa, but there are many options for lodging. Hotel California is reasonably priced and conveniently located. Online rentals from Airbnb and VRBO are also becoming more common and a few hostels have popped up in the area in recent years. If you’re paddling the Rio Blanco or other runs near Banao, Hotel Jacaranda is a cheap place to stay and is attached to a food court with lots of good options for cheap food and endless people watching.
Currency: Although the exchange rate varies, in the Fall of 2020 1 USD = 58 Dominican Pesos (DOP). All gas stations accept credit cards, as do some larger restaurants and grocery stores, but for most day-to day expenses you will need local currency.
Food: There is drastic economic inequality in the Dominican Republic and drastic differences in the pricing of restaurants. If you’re looking for inexpensive options, seek out the open-air eateries filled with working-class locals. If you’re eating indoors and/or at places that accept credit cards, expect higher prices, 18% tax, and a 10% tip added to your bill.
Beverages: Presidente is by far the dominate beer and seems to be sold every ten feet across the country. As is true throughout the Caribbean, rum and rum based drinks rule the liquorsphere.