Although it probably goes without saying, sunrise in Paraíso isn’t something soon forgettable. I meet up with a clairvoyant Frenchman named Johan Guyot, whose psychic abilities included the good sense to relocate here about seven years ago and open EcoTour Barahona, the lone gunman of note for sustainable tourism in the region. “Tourists don’t know about the beauty and the variety of this region,” he says, stating the obvious. “In fact, actual tourists here often feel like pioneers enjoying the authentic, virgin and unknown.”
Guyot tells me about the ’80s tourism surge in the country, when investments in tourism infrastructure were entirely dedicated to the all-inclusive sun-and-beach concept in the eastern and northern parts of the country. “[But] most of the beaches [here], like the Bahía de las Águilas, are protected by the Dominican Republic Ministry of the Environment, so tourist development didn’t include the Southwest,” he explains.
Since Paraíso is pretty much the last significant — if you can call it that — population center from here to the border, Guyot helps me plan my route (not tough — there is only one road) and logistics for the day. I step on the gas, bypassing the Larimar Mine, another little gem in the area (no pun intended). Notice I used the definite article the — this is the world’s only larimar mine, the one spot in the world where this semiprecious stone is found, born here in such abundance that it’s fairly common for larimar to wash up in a variety of creeks and beaches in the area. Its color, described on Wikipedia as “white, light blue, sky blue, green-blue and deep blue,” is pretty much a metaphor for the surrounding seas, so its wealth here is more than fitting. But I’m more of a green kind of guy, so I head first toward an astonishing trifecta of natural attractions in the DR’s southernmost point.
Parque Nacional Jaragua, Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco and Lago Enriquillo/Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos together form the Jaragua-Bahoruca-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve, the first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the country. Jaragua is home to both Laguna de Oviedo — a hypersalinic lagoon that’s considered one of the most biodiverse spots in the Caribbean and is packed with flamingos and sea turtles — as well as my utopian beach, Bahía de las Águilas. Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco is the bird-watching capital of the DR, with more than 50 species of birds, including the white-necked crow, which can only be seen on Hispaniola. Lastly, at 138 meters below sea level, the brackish Lago Enriquillo boasts the lowest point in the Caribbean. In the middle of the lake sits the protected Isla Cabritos, home to Mini Cooper–size Ricord’s iguanas, an estimated 200 American crocodiles and an incalculable number of egrets and flamingos. Together, the three areas form what is surely the most undervisited, underpromoted and under-the-radar ecological hot spot in the Caribbean.
When I pull up to the Lago Enriquillo visitor’s center, the parking lot is empty, and, despite the fact that it’s past opening hours, no members of the guide association that leads tours to Isla Cabritos are anywhere to be found. What are here, however, are the aforementioned iguanas, in such numbers that the whole place feels eerily prehistoric. Everywhere I look, massive iguanas are creeping about — not one of which seems the least bit afraid of me. Quite the contrary, I feel as though I’ve woken up in an episode of Land of the Lost, and unbeknownst to me, I’m what’s for dinner.
I find a phone number for English speakers to ring up the guide association, and when I call, I’m told that today is a holiday and that while things should still be running as usual, the guides had had a few too many Presidentes the night before and, as such, they wouldn’t be stumbling into work anytime soon. I return to my Chevy Spark with the idea of flamingos still dancing in my head but fully content with just the visions of Ricord’s iguanas. Isla Cabritos was meant to be a mere pit stop, anyway, on my way to paradise found.