The northeast coast of Dominican Republic is where the cool kids go to look for adventure. Superlatives run out fast here, as the dazzling azure sky oversees the churning Atlantic surf rolling onto Beach-Boy-blonde sand in a constant flux of roaring energy.
Magnificent, breathtaking, awesome, soon becomes “wow, just wow” as the miles fly by and an unending parade of promenadable beaches offers a different vibe depending on your mood. It’s an outdoorsy type’s idea of heaven on earth, wall-to-wall heavy surf and perfect kiting winds, miles of unexplored hiking tracks up mountains and along vertigo-inducing cliff edges, stumbling across the odd mystic waterfall on the way.
Offering a calm and colourful counterpoint to all those dazzling blue and bluer seascapes is the quiet clifftop town of Cabrera. It doesn’t have a beach, so tourism isn’t really a thing in its narrow, bustling streets, but the hub of local social life is the town square called Cabrera Park, flanked on three sides by energetic bars, cafes and street food stands that open late to the hundreds of pasola-riding punters. The fourth side is occupied by the cute but inscrutable white facade of the Santa Cruz Catholic church, just in case the evening crowd needs saving.
Emanating out from the square is a fascinating network of streets housing people, pets and commercial activities, often in one humble space. Shopping is a multi-stop enterprise of retro-simplicity, with tiny produce markets sidling up against local pottery vendors, barbers and beauty shops all jostling for attention using colourful hand-painted signage. The dollar store vibe has infiltrated with a host of more modern emporia flogging everything from juice and crackers to fake designer handbags at very few pesos, but somehow that just adds to the retail adventure.
Cabrera quickly captures your heart with its simple charm, friendly people and vibrant presence of civic art in murals and hand-painted signs around every corner. It’s also a great place to stay as base camp for a laid back vacation with and authentic DR vibe, so here’s are some adventures to enjoy within a half hour drive of “the square.”
ONE Take a walk along the Malecón [Spanish: pier, jetty], a wide sweep of promenade hugging the cliffs that form Cabrera’s town limits to the north. The spray from Atlantic waves crashing into the crevices of the coastline reaches the road at times, and comfy stone benches are the best vantage point. There are a few local restaurants with cold beers and good pizza if you need a stop along the half kilometre stretch.
The Malecón is also home to the Cabrera town sign which acts like a magnet for Insta-selfies and family group snaps. Five foot tall cast concrete letters are painted in a riot of colour and set against a backdrop of sky, sea and surf. It’s a northeast coast thing and every town has a version, thereby offering an eye-catching series of photos for the truly dedicated.
TWO Take Autopisto 5 south towards Nagua for brunch at Cappuccino & Vivero Flor Cafe and feel transported to a Balinese sanctuary. The roadside entrance to this gorgeous outdoor restaurant gives no hint of the horticultural wonderland of a garden nursery that lies behind. Stop off here too for artisanal organic yogurt and cheese produced at the nearby family farm. It’s on the menu alongside classic breakfast and lunch favourites cooked to order.
The charming gazebo is perfect for lounging around over several cups of strong Dominican coffee, but afterwards make sure to take a walk through the nursery. Enjoy a wonderful butterfly ballet as the flowering shrubs and fruit trees attract hordes of colourful species and discover rustic indoor-outdoor event spaces that make you want to hold a party.
THREE Just 15 minutes drive south of Cabrera there’s a beach so calm that even a fearful newbie can manage to paddle board with dozens of green turtles. Because of its shape and topology, Playa Diamante is so glassy it’s hard to believe we’re still on the Atlantic coast and so shallow you can walk for miles without the water reaching your waist, making paddling or canoeing a fish-eye option for all ages.
There’s a cool beach shack lurking under the trees with cold beers and the ubiquitously delicious catch-of-the-day from Diamante’s local fishermen, while a derelict boat emblazoned with art and graffiti makes a great conversation starter with the locals.
FOUR Speaking of ubiquitous fish, there’s a respect for seafood in this area that means every dish is worth tasting, although the simplest often turn out to be the best. Selecting a whole fish from one of the casitas at the eastern end of Playa Grande is one way to eat what the locals eat. Known by the locals as the “beach club”, this popular hang out hosts as many visitors as it does choosy Dominicans who like their beer ice cold and snapper pan-fried.
Your vendor/chef will return with a large, perfectly seasoned and crisp-skinned fish along with lashings of rice, salad and tostones – twice-fried plantain slices that form a staple side at many of Cabrera’s eateries. Two can easily fill up on this authentic local lunch and share a Presidente grande for about US$20 which isn’t too touristy, although prices reduce considerable the further off the beaten track you go.
FIVE Save Sunday for “the square” and join hundreds of Cabrera-dwellers as they chase away the end-of-weekend blues with street food, music, dancing and just plain socialising on every corner. Tables full of families enjoying an easy early dinner of pechurinas on the pavement outside SnackBar; street-glam young people downing shots and smoking hookah at KLK; efficient chef-owners slinging drippingly-good burritos and homemade burgers at the budget hunger-buster Mata Hambre [Spanish: Kill Hunger]. From late afternoon till the wee hours, it’s all good clean fun on a Sunday at Cabrera Park.