Deserted beaches of sand and fine gravel, steep cliffs and a savannah: Barahona is a side of the Dominican Republic that few foreigners ever see.
Crocodiles slumber in the salty waters of Enriquillo Lake, while turtles, iguanas and flamingos feel at home in Jaragua National Park.
The people living in this remote region are especially friendly and open, and the hotels and restaurants are very affordable. What it doesn’t have are charter flights or all-inclusive travel packages complete with egg-throwing events and merengue dancing courses.
Charter flights? “I can’t recall any,” says the woman wearing a smart blue dress uniform at the entry and customs booth of Barahona international airport. “Maybe tomorrow there will be a private plane arriving from Miami,” she adds.
The building and runways, designed for long-range passenger jets from Europe, are empty.
Cows are grazing just outside the airport entrance. The airport was opened in 1996 amid great pomp, but quickly turned into a flop.
By contrast, things are lively along the Playa San Rafael beach, at least from Friday through to Sunday, when residents of the capital Santo Domingo come down in their cars, a drive of about four hours.
The drive from Barahona to the picturesque shoreline road is about half-an-hour, the road leading to Pedernales, on the border with Haiti. The stretch is one of bays with coral reefs alternating with long beaches, coconut groves and villages of stone and wooden houses.
In every hamlet there’s a small shop offering a visitor everything from an ice-cold beer to a ham sandwich to ladies’ brassieres.
Merengue and bajata music is blaring out from loudspeakers. Farmers and fishermen are playing dominoes, emphatically slapping the pieces down on the board. Everybody greets everyone else. This is pure Dominicana, as the Caribbean country is called in Spanish.
“Hi there. Take a picture,” one father on Playa Rafael says to a foreign guest, while holding out a bottle of rum. The family poses for a group picture in front of a gurgling creek flowing into the sea.
There’s a lot of crowding at the bars, where guests are served water, beer and stronger beverages. Chicken drumsticks, freshly-caught fish and cornmeal cakes are frying in pans in many booths along the way.
On the coastal road, bare-chested teenage boys from surrounding villages are performing death-defying tricks on their motorbikes.
In the evening, the Parque Central and the harbour road in Barahona become a promenade for people taking a stroll. Park benches and cafes are occupied with people chatting with their neighbours. Even in the cinemas and discos, foreigners are the exception.
Those who need a taxi at night just might have a problem. But instead, round the clock, there are the sputtering motoconchos or motorbikes on which the driver and his guests of mum, dad and child all squeeze together atop the two seats.
Dominicanos don’t get fazed at such overloading.
Some 20-years-ago the region had 200 hotel rooms. Today the figure is 2,500, spread along a stretch of 100km.
But this is still far too few to make Barahona airport of any interest to international travel operators and airlines. Tourists who want to experience a lot of nature, sunshine, and peace and quiet, think this is quite all right.