CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has it that the tiniest Caribbean islands are the most precious and desirable. Think eight-square-mile St. Bart's, or the newly chic crop of "single-resort islands." This logic is fine if your idea of dry-land adventure starts and ends with daily barefoot beach strolls. But if you're a mountain biker seeking enough varied terrain to explore for more than an hour or two, you probably subscribe to that all-American axiom "Bigger is better." Hence the allure of the 19,000-square-mile Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean's second-largest island, Hispaniola. (Haiti lies to the west.) And it's not just size that appeals: The range and diversity of riding here beat any you'll find elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Flying into Puerto Plata on the north coast, you immediately see that the country has more to offer than beaches. With tropical bush–covered peaks rising steeply from the cultivated coastline, the Dominican Republic looks like a rugged, misplaced chunk of Central America. Forget the value-priced, all-inclusive resort compounds for which the DR is dubiously famous. Instead, take a 20-minute taxi ride east from the airport to Cabarete, and make it your home base for two-wheel adventure.
A tiny fishing village when wave-craving Canadian and Swiss windsurfers started showing up more than a dozen years ago, Cabarete has quickly matriculated from backpacker's crash pad to a thriving, polyglot adrenaline-sports colony. A few Cabarete outfitters have turned their backs on the ocean to focus on the region's river-threaded valleys, limestone caves, misting waterfalls, and twin cordilleras (10,414-foot Pico Duarte, 100 miles southwest of Cabarete, is the highest peak in the Caribbean). Upstate New York native Tricia Suriel is foremost among these inland guides. With her seven-year-old company, Iguana Mama, she's scouted hundreds of miles of bike routes, on everything from paved roads to goat paths to highly technical singletrack across waist-deep rivers. If you bring your own bike—or rent one of Iguana Mama's new XT-equipped Specialized RockHoppers and ride guideless—it's still smart to sign on for a ride or two to get oriented.
One standout trail, the cryptic-sounding Rocky MF, is a remote, seven-mile experts-only ride that climbs up and then careens down jagged, rock-mined singletrack, all beneath the dense shade of mango and avocado trees in El Choco National Park, one of the country's newest, just outside Cabarete. But most day rides from Cabarete are less technical, rambling forays into the Cordillera Septentrional. As you pedal, the ubiquitous concrete-block shops selling Coke and lottery tickets thin out. Soon you're passing pink-and-green-painted wooden shacks and hibiscus bushes draped with wet laundry. Uniformed schoolkids rush out to try for rolling high fives; farther outside town, they just stare shyly. Trading dirt road for rutted cow path, you navigate between leafy "living fences"—piñon stakes revivified in the fertile soil. Above shoulder-deep pasture grass, egrets flash white, tending humpbacked Brahman bulls.
Slowly absorbing the way life is lived here is what can make riding in the DR so eye-opening. Curious locals seem willing to entertain the rustiest of Spanish-language overtures. Up for some real immersion? Join one of Iguana Mama's multiday trips (they'll design custom itineraries, or you can book ahead for one of their five-day expeditions). During an overnight to Armando Bermudez National Park, near the base of Pico Duarte, my small group enjoyed a vegetarian coconut-milk stew with the park ranger's family, and then sneaked our sleeping bags inside park headquarters to escape a nocturnal downpour.
All this is not to say you should sacrifice the island's more traditional Caribbean seductions for mountain biking: They are best enjoyed hand-in-hand, as exemplified by a triumphant return to the beach at Cabarete after a good hard ride. Late afternoons, you can try out everything from Hobie Cats to sea kayaks to kiteboards. Or my personal favorite, a nice long bodysurfing session and a face-in-the-sand nap.
Access + Resources
GETTING THERE: American Airlines (800-433-7300) flies round-trip to Puerto Plata for about $460 from New York, $360 from Miami. An $18 taxi ride gets you from the airport to Cabarete.
OUTFITTERS: Mountain-bike day trips with Iguana Mama (800-849-4720; www.iguana-mama.com) run $40 to $85 per person. The five-day Dominican Alps inn-to-inn trip costs $950 per person, including guides, equipment, hotel lodging, and meals; customized biking and camping trips are also available. Bikes rent for $30 per day.
WHERE TO STAY: The newly renovated Cabarete Palm Beach Condos (809-571-0758) are spacious and homey, with great beachfront balconies. Two-bedroom condos cost $60 to $160 a night, depending on season and occupancy; studios go for $40 to $70. The 60-unit Windsurf Resort (809-571-0718) charges $74 for a one-bedroom poolside apartment.