Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

Sure, you could book a trip to the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC and spend your days lazing away on the sun-drenched beaches of Punta Cana. Or, you could head to the northern coast, which beckons adventure junkies and eco-conscious travelers alike with its geographically diverse terrain and growing push toward sustainability.

Huffing from the uphill hike, I cross the tree line at the Damajagua River — which plunges in a swirling mass down the side of the mountain, through the chutes and channels of its waterworn limestone canyon — and peer over the ledge I’m standing on.

“Are you ready to jump?” asks the guide.

“You know it,” I reply, buckling my helmet.

I push off and free-fall between the narrow canyon walls before snapping my arms to my sides and diving into the powder-blue pool below. Sunlight dances across the surface above as I kick upward, exhaling bubbles through a wide smile. It’s taken a few visits, but I’ve finally found the Dominican Republic I’ve been searching for. Turns out, all I had to do was head north.

Of course, for most Caribbean vacationers, the DR has become synonymous not with the waterfall- and rain forest-laden northern coast but with the eastern, arid, multiresort juggernaut of Punta Cana. More than 60 percent of the DR’s international visitors fly directly into the sequestered tourist zone, rarely glimpsing the exotic, exhilarating — and sometimes maddening — country beyond their hotel walls. But that wasn’t always the case.

Before Punta Cana, the area around the northern-coast city of Puerto Plata was poised to become the DR’s shining beacon of tourism. Translating to “Silver Port” for the way its silvery beaches glitter in the sun, the city’s name was bestowed on it by the island’s famed founder, Christopher Columbus (yes, that Christopher Columbus, who knew a good thing when he saw it — reportedly his bones remain on the island to this day). Over the years, the government flirted with locations around the country — Pedernales, Samana and Boca Chica all got some love — but main-squeeze status ultimately went to Punta Cana.