Damajagua River, Dominican Republic
Tourists begin their trek up the Damajagua waterfalls.
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To See the Real D.R., It Takes a Villa

Cofresi, Dominican Republic
There are still white sand and thatched-roof huts on its beach, but the town of Cofresi in the Domincan Republic is largely tourist-free and relatively cheap. (Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism)

But in between, the pristine crescent-shaped beach was mercifully deserted, and we staked our claim on it for the day. Residents drove by on their mopeds, smiling curiously at us and waving a welcoming hello.

It would be easy to drive by Cofresi without ever knowing it existed. There is only one entrance to the town, and it's by way of a narrow, nondescript street that winds downhill from a main roadway, turning abruptly when it runs into the beach. Except for a few little stores selling artwork and souvenirs, the place consists of only a handful of quiet streets, a corner market, and a steak and seafood restaurant. Though built on a little hill, Cofresi is surrounded by mountains that jut into the sea on either side.

Walking home from the beach that first day, we noticed that most of the houses resembled our villa. The well-kept yards and swimming pools tipped us off to the probability that we had temporarily adopted the lifestyle of relatively well-off Dominicans.

As yet another moped approached, Caroline, tired from the long day in the sun, jokingly asked the driver for a ride up a steep hill. Though he didn't speak English, he understood the request, motioned for her to jump on and zipped her away.

* * *

The next morning, we awoke to find that our maid and cook, Paulina, had arrived for the day and had already prepared breakfast. We climbed to the roof deck and found a plate of fresh pineapple, mango, cantaloupe and papaya resting on a wicker dining table, with scrambled eggs, bacon and Paulina's potent coffee to follow.

Paulina was a warm, maternal Dominican with the kind of strong, weather-beaten face that made it difficult to guess her age. We established an immediate bond based on my ability to speak passable Spanish. The others had to resort to charades.

That afternoon, Chris and I accompanied her to the Puerto Plata supermarket to buy groceries. Looking around, I noted with satisfaction that we seemed to be the only two tourists in the store. I'd asked Paulina to prepare only regional fare for us, and she wandered off to gather fruits, seafood and vegetables so unfamiliar to me that I eventually gave up trying to identify them.

When we placed a bottle of Bacardi in the cart, Paulina shook her head and promptly returned it to the shelf. She lifted a bottle of the locally produced Brugal rum, declaring in Spanish, "This one is much better." We didn't realize until later that she'd picked up Brugal 151, a rum so strong that it could replace lighter fluid in a pinch.

Four days' worth of juice, eggs, bread, coffee, rum, seafood, chicken, rice, fruit and Paulina's secret ingredients ran us only about $20 a person -- a great deal considering that one dinner at many of the area's restaurants would cost about the same. Even the all-inclusives, which usually offer quality all-you-can-eat buffets and entree choices, can't beat the customized, home-cooked meals Paulina spoiled us with daily as we lounged on our deck.

* * *

Eager to explore the jungle and mountains surrounding Cofresi, we decided to book the $40 Jeep safari tour recommended by the Cofresi Files. The "Jeep" turned out to be a large pickup truck with two long benches on either side. It arrived at our doorstep at 9 a.m. Along with four other tourists, a trip videographer, a guide named Rafael and his cooler of rum and Coke, we headed into the wilderness south of town.

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