One of the country's best public beaches and departure area for water excursions is in the nearby village of Bayahibe. A público ride, departing from La Romana's Avenida Libertad, costs RD35/US$1.15 per person, and a taxi could run as little as US$30. The one-way ride takes about 30 minutes. If you've got a rental car, head east from La Romana along Highway 3. The Bayahibe turnoff at Highway 815 is clearly marked. Veer to the right and follow signs another 15km to the village waterfront.
Outside La Romana is the gated entry to Casa de Campo. Unless you're a registered guest or have access to an employee's day pass, don't bother trying to get in. When the US-owned Gulf & Western Industries bought the local sugar industry in the 60s, they also purchased all the coastal land between the city and Río Chavón valley. Casa de Campo quickly developed into a hideaway for global rich and famous and still attracts the country's highest concentration of Americans. Miami Cubans now own the complex. What properties lack in palm-laden beaches, facilities make up for with their world-famous Pete Dye-designed golf courses, including a third that opened in 2003.
As of late 2004, Highway 3 was under major expansion trying to accommodate traffic growth. In DR, these projects can get strung-out forever, increasing risks for drivers and passengers. In some sections, half the highway was blocked off, leaving two lanes of traffic to split what remains, including a rutted shoulder. Defensive driving will get you through, but with traffic increases has also come a greater presence of law enforcement randomly pulling over vehicles for spot checks. Make sure to have documentations in order.
The turnoff on the right for Altos de Chavon isn't clearly marked these days, but it's approximately 6km once passing the Casa de Campo entry. You've gone too far at the airport on the left. Since opening in late 2000, rural vistas along this route are gradually succumbing to development as locals and expats try to cash in on tourism.
Just beyond the airport, the highway descends into the Río de Chavón Gorge, which has served as backdrop for numerous Hollywood blockbusters. The lush river valley was destroyed during the 2004 hurricane season when four back-to-back systems culminated with Jeanne stalling as a tropical storm for 48 hours. Chavón drains the southeastern region, and massive flooding was so severe that Highway 3 bridge washed away under 20 feet of water and debris.
For the next 2 months, traffic was severed. Travelers arriving at the airport planning to stay at Bayahibe resorts were left to navigate like the locals. Watercraft that hadn't capsized or washed away now served as water taxis plying the coast and shuttling tourists with luggage between La Romana and Bayahibe. This unplanned adventure lasted until a smaller roadway was completed across the river, while construction of a new bridge proceeded in record time.
Heading into town on December 17, a burst of color accented the valley from Dominican flags lining the new bridge and furling in the gorge's wind tunnel. A stage had been erected, surrounded by chairs and event tents, for a dedication ceremony that would restore traffic flow. However, it will take decades for the river banks to return to an Edenistic appearance.
A word of caution: There are places to pullover on both sides of the bridge, and rarely will you pass without finding locals swimming in the river, especially near the north side's low-level damn. The country has an extremely high rate of deaths from drowning in rivers, so proceed with caution.
Once cresting the gorge still heading east, you'll see signs for the roadside community of El Limón, which is a perfect example of overdevelopment gone bad. Back in the mid-90's, investors constructed a monstrous shopping plaza of stone that housed an overpriced supermarket, a few small shops, and what was supposed to be office space. Business never took off, and today, the complex is an overgrown eyesore. Across from the plaza is a dirt-road intersection with an arrowed-sign pointing towards the small community of Boca de Chavón.
Of all my years exploring this region, I'd yet to make it to this bedroom community of Bayahibe, which is closer by boat than roadway. A few evenings before Christmas, a friend asked if I'd like to catch a ride on back of his motorcycle. Ráfa had always been a trusted comrade of adventures, this night proving no different.
From the Highway 3 turnoff, it's about 14km to Boca de Chavón, which conjures a feeling of being lost, even though heading in the right direction. The Dominican countryside is surreal through these parts, like a tropical Jurassic Park where nonchalant brahmas graze and nomadic goats roam. The dirt road winds its way, like you'll need to do around rutted potholes, with just enough curves to charm anticipation of what awaits beyond. Random farm houses are scattered; every time thinking one was abandoned, someone appeared out of no where with a wave and a smile. At no point were we passed by a vehicle; only other cyclists, horse and burro riders, and pedestrians all with recognizable saludos a "¡Ráfa!"
At the first signs of modern civilization, we pulled over at the communication towers. A roadside guard, positioned in a squalor camp, welcomed us and apologized for just finishing supper with nothing left to offer. The smell of grease from frying chicken over an open fire was tantalizing, dogs and giant chickens tangling over the scattered scraps. Ráfa gave a quick rundown and went back to the conversation while I explored.
North of the road overlooks the Río Chavón valley and the distant cliff-top structures of Altos de Chavón, with the newest Pete Dye golf course just beyond. The views were impressive, even with the scarred riverbanks from recent flooding. There's potential to explore farther along the gorge, provided you're wearing more than shorts and flip-flops.
To the south, the plateau eases into lower-elevated river bottoms, with the small community of Boca de Chavón situated at mouth of the river, as seen in the final Overview photo. The Caribbean shimmering at sunset, with Isla Catalina fading in the distance, outshines the construction cranes and bulldozers of mass development taking place along the Casa del Campo side of the river.
The road eventually becomes the main street in town, with one aspect I couldn't help but notice. Civil engineering at some point had painstakingly constructed curbing and sidewalks on both sides but had never returned to pave the street, unlike in Bayahibe, where streets were paved some years back, but without support curbs, flooding eventually washed away streets. Ráfa pulled over at a clearing that overlooks a small harbor on the Boca side and across to the rock barrier that protects Casa's new international marina.
Numerous buildings are springing up along the Casa boundary, but my attention kept refocusing on the palm-thatched Boca building extending over the water. A young man was waving from the balcony, Ráfa explaining this was a restaurant that survived by shuttling Casa de Campo guests across the river. Later, when putzing around, el muchacho had tracked me down and offered a brochure for the La Casita Ristorante specializing in Italian and International cuisine. I was surprised by the elegance represented in the photos. Unfortunately, they don't have a website, but contact numbers include 809/359-6155 or 809/556-5932. They open at 11 am and again at 6 pm daily.
A few wealthy have invaded to build waterfront mansions secured behind walls, elevated views of the sea in exchange for floodwalls instead of beach. Otherwise, Boca de Chavón is a typical poor but proud Dominican village. I'd been wandering around when Ráfa called me into a backyard for introductions. The height of the afternoon coffee hour was in order, and I couldn't help but notice how everything was so immaculately kept, even the dirt yard swept free of leaves. Saying goodbye, we were detoured twice on the short walk to the motorcycle for more chatting and coffee.
We made a quick zip across the baseball field where local youth were busy indulging Major League dreams. The cluster of shacks behind the field was obviously the poor part of town without utilities and motorcycle paths doubling as roads. We stopped in front of a couple of homes occupied by young women followed by broods of youngsters. Ráfa slipped them both pesos, and whether some of the children were his or as part of the Christmas spirit, I didn't ask.
Shades of dusk were painting the skies as we prepared to make the Highway 815 turnoff for Bayahibe. We'd been chatting it up when Ráfa pulled into an overgrown lane and stopped. He quickly hopped off, looked at me, and spun around while unzipping. I had to laugh before joining him. Call it the consequence of Dominican hospitality.