Flora, fauna, and food in the Dominican Republic

Four-foot lizards, todies, and great food in the Dominican Republic

You can't go wrong with peanut M&Ms and a cola for breakfast.

Or so I try to convince myself.

Fellow passengers and I have just stepped off the early-bird bus from Santo Domingo to Bavaro. We're taking a 15-minute break at a small open-air grocery store-cum-bus stop about 90 minutes east of the Dominican capital. Cooked meats, vegetables, and potatoes lie in pans behind an open display case. To me, 8:30 in the morning is a bit too early to think of goat and fried plantains for breakfast. So while fellow travelers line up cafeteria-style, I opt for junk food.

In another couple of hours, the bus will drop me off near Punta Cana International Airport for my flight home. As we reboard the bus and move back into traffic, I tote up my experiences during a week's visit to the Dominican Republic.

It began as an exploratory trip to an ecologically progressive resort on the country's east coast. It has ended in the capital with a fondness for the Dominicans I met, a fascination for the country's wildlife and tectonic landscape, and lingering regret that I hadn't paid more attention during Miss Walker's elementary-school introduction to Spanish.

* * *

Gloria Caminotti sits atop a low concrete and coral wall that circles an enclosure where several lizards up to four feet long rest in the shade or munch melon rinds.

"These were the largest land animals on the island when Columbus arrived," says the naturalist, pointing to the rhinoceros iguanas behind us. Today, she adds, only about 10 percent of the island's original population remains.

The few specimens at our backs - unique to the island of Hispanola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island) - represent one attempt to rebuild the population of this threatened species. Their rehab center is the elegant Punta Cana Resort and Club, which boasts, among its other inhabitants (at least part of the year) Julio Iglesias, Oscar De La Renta, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The resort takes its environmentalism seriously, for the most part. The golf-course grass is tolerant of drought and salt. The course is irrigated with "gray water" (previously used to wash dishes or laundry, or in showers and sinks). Fruits and vegetables gracing restaurant plates are organically grown on the grounds. And the resort, which includes year-round residences, has adopted something akin to zoning laws (in a country largely bereft of them) to maintain a relatively small human footprint on the land. On the other hand, golf carts run on noisy, fume- spewing gasoline engines.

Punta Cana's environmental flagship is a 2,000-acre ecological reserve that includes a 10-acre biodiversity lab and field station. Built in 2000, the lab draws researchers and graduate students from Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, the Dominican Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Investigations, and the University of Miami in Florida.

Over breakfast in the resort's main dining hall, Andrea Townsend, a Cornell graduate student, describes her work as she stokes up for a day of tracking the elusive broad-billed tody. The bird species is unique to the island's lowlands. Biologists regard it and its upland cousin, the narrow-billed tody, as relic species. Their now-fossilized ancestors have been found as far afield as Wyoming and France. The question at hand: Why is the upland variety, found largely in the Sierra de Baoruco Mountains, vanishing?

"Are the lowland todies merely out-competing" the highlanders? Ms. Townsend asks. If so, "Then there may not be much we can do to preserve the highland species. If the problem isn't competition, it may be a habitat-loss issue," she says. That's a more tractable problem.

Punta Cana Resort, which has won awards for its ecofriendly approach, is home to the second-largest barrier reef on the island. The reef will soon become a protected marine area, where researchers can extend their ecology studies.

Over the next year, says Kelly Robinson, director of the resort's ecological efforts, there are plans to establish a museum and botanical gardens to help acquaint visitors with the region's natural history.

The east coast of the island is still isolated, however, which is why it has become such a magnet for resorts. For a closer look at the "real" Dominican Republic, I decide to leave Punta Cana and strike out on my own.

Off to see different sights

A two-hour cab ride from Punta Cana takes me to Bayahibe, a tiny fishing village on the country's south coast. It's a gateway to Parque Nacional del Este, widely considered the crown jewel in the country's national park system.

The park system embraces a stunning array of terrain. At the high end, Pico Duarte rises to 10,417feet. It lies on the boundary between Parque Nacional Jose del Carmen Ramirez and Parque Nacional Armando Bermúdes. At the other end of the scale, Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos sits 13 feet below sea level in Lago Enriquillo. Along the coast, Parque Nacional del Este is among several parks that seek to preserve coastal and marine habitats.

That night, Kelvin Guerrero and I make plans for the next day's visit to the park. Mr. Guerreroruns a local nongovernmental organization that supports the nearly 200,000-acre reserve.

During dinner, he describes a birding trip he guided for Jimmy Carter, who visited with his family a week or two before I arrived. The island is a mecca for birders. Of the country's 300 species of birds, 28 are unique to the island, and eight are on the verge of extinction. The former US president, he says, logged his 1,000th species at the park.

Our aims are more modest. I've come to see the park, currently the subject of a substantial conservation effort. And, after four days at luxurious Punta Cana, haute cuisine has grown a bit stale. I'm hankering to find the Dominican equivalent of comfort food. When Guerrero hears that, he picks up his cellphone, makes a call, and then says, "We're all set."

The next morning, we clamber into his pickup truck and head to Boca de Yuma, one of two official entrances to the park.

Here, the park's eastern flank rises tens of meters high above the shoreline. As we hike the trail to an observation tower atop the coral-limestone bluff, Guerrero stops and whispers, "Shh! A tody." He sees it, we miss it, and I think of Andrea Townsend back at Punta Cana looking for it.

At the summit we climb an observation tower to admire breathtaking views of the dry subtropical forest behind us and of the expansive bay, Bahiá de Yuma, in front of us.

Across the forest, cacti mingle with trees bearded with mosslike plants that draw their moisture from the air. The ground is porous. Heavy tropical rains quickly percolate down to feed underground rivers and sculpt caves, leaving little at the surface to nourish plants. We pass small caves on the trail where tree roots plunge into the openings, reaching deep for their meager ration of moisture.

We also visit a cave where ancient Taino Indians painted and etched images that are still visible in the limestone.

Then it's lunchtime, and we head for the comfort food I've been longing for. Our meal has been prepared by a friend of Guerrero's, Carmen Perez, who was on the other end of last night's phone call.

She and her family live in a modest home in San Rafael del Yuma, on a narrow road where men on horseback and teens on motor scooters vie for the right of way. Their hospitality during this hastily planned visit is as warm as the Dominican sun.

Earlier in the day, I sprang for groceries, and now her dining table holds platters and bowls piled with slaw, fried plantains, rice with beans, and freshly caught fish in a tomato broth. Sorry, Punta Cana, but as delicious as your food is, it's no competition.

The next morning, Guerrero drives me west to La Romana, where I catch a bus to Santo Domingo and urban life. When I have a free afternoon. I opt for a stroll along the shoreline highway to old Santo Domingo.

Much of colonial Santo Domingo sits atop a bluff overlooking the small harbor. I walk up a cobblestone street to the entrance of the fort, pay a small entrance fee, and begin looking at the brochure for the self-guided tour. A lanky Dominican approaches, shakes my hand, and insistently offers a not-so-self-guided tour.

In the footsteps of Columbus

I bite. He is a veritable fount of information as we walk past buildings that were home to Christopher Columbus, his son, and a host of other Spanish explorers who used Santo Domingo as a springboard for their conquest of the New World.

Before I leave the city and the country, I have one more encounter with Dominican geology - dinner at El Meson de la Cava. It's a restaurant in a limestone cave that reputedly was once a hiding place for pirates. The food is excellent, but the restaurant is not for the faint of heart. My dinner guest tells of a friend overturning a chair and leaping onto a beautifully set table screaming after a mouse scurried across the floor. After all, this is a cave.

A larger set of caves nearby houses a disco, Guacara Taina. I pass up a visit. I have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to catch the first of two daily buses to Bavaro via the Punta Cana Airport. The bus is first-come, first-serve. It fills quickly and leaves early. And the snows of New England beckon.

For more information: Punta Cana Resort and Club: www.puntacana.com; Parque Nacional del Este: www.drpure. com/drpure/index.php?topic=Park&page= 68; The Dominican Tourism Bureau, www.dominicana.com.do.

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