A Weekend of Exploring Caves Both Above and Under-Water in the Wild Cotubanamá National Park, Dominican Republic

August 2020: On my way back from Jamaica, I decided to stop in the Dominican Republic for a few days to visit the Cotubanamá National Park. I often use google maps to search for wild areas to visit in a country and the peninsula where Cotubanamá national park is located looked as wild as it gets. The park consists of thick dry, un-broken tropical scrub forest that borders hundreds of miles of pristine white sand beaches with coral reefs. Within the forests are hundreds of caves, many un-explored. In many caves, the  indigenious people that once lived in the area have left pictographs. Some of the caves like Chico Cave are only accessible by scuba diving.

Cotubanamá National Park Beach

How to get there?

Day 1: I took a quick and cheap 1.5 hour flight from Miami to Santo Domingo. The D.R. had just started requiring Covid tests from passengers and the airport was a complete mess with no apparent logical order when I arrived.  All passengers were required to have a Covid test or be tested for Covid. By the time I arrived to immigration I has hiiredly shuffled through without any Covid related questions.

To get to the national park I hired a car and driver to drive me approx 2 hours to Bahibe, a small town on the edge of the park. I strategically chose a hotel that bordered the park, so that I could enter after the early Covid curfew took effect. The forest of the park bordered my hotel and the ranger station can easily be bypassed when walking along the beach.

Map of the Park

Typical Beach in the Park

Walking paths 

The park is easily accessible. To enter, I left my hotel and walked along the beach passed the beginning of the scrub jungle and the ranger house. There is a thing sliver of white sand on the beach. The rest is gnarled tree roots, dry coral and washed up shells. The walking along the beach on the coral is sharp and difficult, so I walked along the jungle path in the interior instead.  The paths were intermittently well marked. other times, I had no idea if I was still on the trail. I knew there were a few caves in the area and so I continued down the paths partially looking for the caves but more importantly exploring the national park. 

Cotubanamá National Park Beache at low tide was a grave yard of shells, dried up corals and other interesting marine organisms like venemous sea urchins-some still alive. This is definitely not the place to walk bare foot. Some local indigenious people were collecting crabs and others shells.

Rhino Beetle that I found near Cotubanamá National Park that decided to crawl up my leg. This thing was massive. After all of my travels in the world’s most exotic jungles, it was in my hotel in the D.R. that I came across the largest beetle I have ever seen. It’s pichers not visible in the photo were also massive and I had a tough time removing him from my leg while trying to keep him from digging his pinchers into my flesh.

Seashell

I walked for miles along the coast trail until I realized that I wasn’t seeing any prospects of finding any caves. As was the case with most places when traveling during Covid, I had the place to myself. Then out of nowhere, an indigenous man appeared silently on the trail in front of me, shirtless and in flip flops carrying a bag of crabs over his shoulder. I asked him in Spanish where the caves where and he pointed back down the path I walked in on and told me to continue back. The presence of the man startled me and highlighted the possibility of being robbed out in the middle of the jungle in the DR which isn’t a terribly un-common experience. I did eventually find the cave. According to my GPS, there were a few caves in the area but only one could be reached from the trail. Off trail the the vegetation was thick and hostile with thorns and spikes. Occasionally I would see a sign on the side of the trail warning of poisonous plants or trees. The cave was interesting. The occasional bat flew over my head. The cave top was about 20 feet high. The longest tunnel was a few hundred feet before I came to a section where the ceiling caved in. Then the tunnel continued deeper into the cave before I came to a dead end. I looked for pictographs of the indigenous people, which i read existed in the cave but without anyone to show me there whereabouts I never located them. 

Cave

Exploring cave interior alone

Cave Diving in Chico Cave

Day 2: I arranged for a morning pick-up by the divemaster, a German adventurer in his 60’s, who has traveled the world living in various countries his entire life and scuba diving everywhere. We set off to El Chico Cave, which is locate closer to Bayahibe.The max depth is 50 feet, which is pretty shallow, so I decided to do the dive even though my flight was due to depart exactly 24 hours later the next day. The cave is completely undeground. There are no exits. it is a one way cave that extends 500 meters to an air pocket where you can surface into a small room. Then the only way out is to return the same way you entered. 

We picked up dive gear from a local dive shop, and set off down a rough dirt road through the scrub forest. At the entrance gate a few boys hopped on a motor bike and followed us to the cave entrance to help carry the tanks the few hundred feet down the stairs into the cave. I brought my go-pro but stupidly removed the batteries to charge them in my hotel room and forget to return them so I had no device to capture photos of my dive. 

The cave is dark and there are no artificial lights. We lit up the water with our flashlights and the clarity was incredible. The water lit up an emerald green with flawless visibility. The divemaster entered first and I followed. We entered a magical freshwater world of stalactites and stalagmites. 

My dive guide and I were the only ones diving. Our dive I was told was the first one in the cave since the start of Covid. As we descended the darkness of the cave grew heavier. The stalagtites would refect the light of our flash lights and the crystals on them would sparkle. After a few minutes, I realized no matter how much air I let out from my BC, it would still inflate causing me to flot up close to the cave ceiling where the stalatites were. With my dive guide ahead, I followed but my path was less direct and more up and down as I constantly struggled to releieve air from my BC. I likely had a leak in my BC and the air from my tank was leaking into the BC causing it to constantly inflate. We continued on for about 15 minutes in the cave and I decided to turn back and avoid risking damage to the sensitive cave formation. 

Entrance to Chico Cave-Entry Point for the Dive

The entrance to the cave does little to instill confidence but the warning is needed because in the event of an emergency there is no place to surface in a cave and cave diving can be dangerous and every year dozens of divers die. 

Warning Sign at Entrance of cave

Chico Cave Dive-Photo from my friend Shawn

Chico Cave Dive-Photo from my friend Shawn

Santo Domingo

I raced back to Santo Domingo from Bayhibe to beat the Covid curfew so that I could buy some food and beverages for my hotel and also see a little bit of the old city in Santo Domingo, one of the oldest cities in the Americas. I checked into my 200 yea old hotel, went out to the streets. The streets were crowded as people enjoyed their last hour of freedom before the police would force them back to their homes. Others like me stocked up on food in the grocery store at the last available moment. I purchased a few items, returned to my hotel and relaxed in the rooftop pool of my boutique hotel. At 6pm, the police declared with a loud speaker that the curfew was in effect and the streets were post zombie apocalypse empty. I looked down from my hotels rooftop. Here in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon in the biggest city in the Dominican Republic, the streets were empty aside from a sporadic police car. The only noises were that of the occasion flock of parrots.

Santo Domingo

9 + 5 =

error: Content is protected !!