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The Dominican Republic is a rich tapestry of colors, geography, cultural influences, even climate – all enhanced by a rich history. Upon its discovery in 1492, it was described as a “paradisiacal island of high forested mountains and expansive valleys and rivers,” and the veracity of these words endures.

Beyond its beautiful beaches, this Caribbean country offers a captivating cultural experience and enough pleasant surprises to satisfy all tastes, from upscale resorts to adventure travel and extreme sports. While many of us know Punta Cana, La Romana, the capital city of Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata and the Casa de Campo resort, fewer tourists venture to the more remote locations in the Central Mountain range.

(For those of you dreaming about palms and the tropical warmth of a Caribbean beach, Constanza and its environs are NOT for you – at least not until you wish to escape from the summer heat.)

This past summer, I was fortunate to be chosen as a Project Leader for International Student Volunteers, or ISV (isvonline.org), for two projects in El Castillo, a village of agricultural workers in the mountains above Constanza. For one month, I stayed at Villa Pajón, a charming eco-resort 15 kilometers (but don’t let the short distance fool you; it takes about one hour to travel back and forth) uphill from Constanza with approx. 60 volunteers from Canada, the US, England, Ireland and Australia, among other countries.

The consensus among program participants was that they’d arrived at the Garden of Eden: a unique, precious spot to be cherished despite its lack of electricity, technology and other modern-world amenities. To top things off, we enjoyed locally grown, mostly organic produce and the hospitality of our friendly neighbors on a daily basis.

The work we performed was fulfilling, and gave us a well-earned sense of accomplishment and intercultural enrichment. It included the much-needed construction of latrines and roofs for several plastic-covered houses and the establishment of a summer school program for the children of El Castillo. Although we were in the Dominican Republic, we also got a taste of Haitian culture when migrant workers in the community performed their impressive machete dance for us. As some of the volunteers claimed, it was an “epic” experience.

Biodiversity is high in this nature reserve, and the seemingly Nordic environment and unique conditions have enabled Constanza’s agriculture to specialize in flowers and colder-climate crops. In fact, when I was first told to bring a sweater to Villa Pajón because temperatures could get cold in the evening, I shrugged, thinking I knew better. Then I found myself cuddling by the fireplace almost every evening – an unthinkable idea before my adventure near the highest peak in the Caribbean.

Indeed, the Pico Duarte could be seen from our privileged location at eye level across the valley, and we often woke up to the surreal image of being on an island floating above the morning clouds.

At 3,900 feet above sea level, Constanza is an atypical Caribbean destination. But for the adventurous, the trip to El Castillo and Villa Pajón on extremely rugged but scenic roads will prove worth the long trek.

Near this romantic location perched high in the mountains are other worthy areas of interest. The Aguas Blancas waterfall is considered among the highest in the Caribbean, and can be reached by horseback from El Castillo and Villa Pajón. The locally grown strawberries are among the best I’ve tasted.

How to get there. Villa Pajón Ecolodge: (809) 412-5210; International Student Volunteers: isvonline.org.

(For information on how to donate to help the communities in El Castillo, please contact: yarelis7@hotmail.com, the Consejo Interinstitucional para el Desarrollo de Constanza, or the Fundación José Delio Guzmán.)

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