I’m standing above a clear freshwater lagoon in a lowland subtropical forest on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic. The air is silent except for the chirping of birds. I take a breath and summon the courage to jump. The water’s colder than I expect, and the plunge deeper, so it takes a few extra kicks to break the surface again. When I do, it’s a transforming moment. I’d arrived in Punta Cana the night before, but only now does it feel like my trip has finally begun.
The lagoon is named Guama, and it’s one of 12 ojos (eyes) that are connected by a coral-lined trail that winds through Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve. Punta Cana was once home to the Taíno people, who were the main inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola prior to Spanish colonization. The presence of drinking water made the area hospitable, and I’m going to assume they swam around in the ojos too, so taking a dip feels like connecting with history. I kick around the lagoon, looking up into a disk of blue sky framed by lush green trees.
Of course, when the Taíno were here they didn’t have the benefit of a swim platform, staircase, and snorkeling equipment. They landed on the island via dugout canoe, not JetBlue, and they didn’t have an air-conditioned hotel to escape the afternoon heat. Clearly this was the easy version of an eco-adventure, but I’ll count it anyway. Who has the time for bushwhacking?
I visited Punta Cana in late November as a guest of the Puntacana Resort & Club (the area is spelled Punta Cana, the resort is Puntacana). I went with my wife and two boys, ages 9 and 13. We were invited because the resort wants people to know that it’s safe to visit. Tourism is one of the top industries in the Dominican Republic, but it has seen a steep decline in arrivals after 12 U.S. tourist deaths last year caused a media frenzy. The deaths were all attributed to accidents or natural causes, but speculation abounded, including the theory that bootleg alcohol was to blame.
In perhaps the most scrutinized case, a couple from Maryland died on the same night in the hotel room they were sharing in Playa Nueva Romana. Dominican officials concluded that both deaths were the result of respiratory failure caused by fluid in the lungs but asked the F.B.I. to conduct their own toxicology tests. Released October 18, the findings ruled out methanol poisoning from alcohol, bolstering the Dominican government’s insistence that tourist deaths, while tragic, were not occurring at a higher-than-average rate. More than two million Americans visit the Dominican Republic each year. Unfortunately, sometimes people die while they’re on vacation.
And so we went to Punta Cana to show that it’s safe (we were fine) and to do something more meaningful than just relaxing on the beach.
Punta Cana is named for the cana palms that grow in the area, but its original name was much cooler: Punta Borrachón (Drunkard’s Point). The modern history of the area begins 50 years ago, when a group of investors bought 25 square miles of undeveloped land stretched along five miles of coastline on the eastern tip of the country. The goal was to build a luxury resort that celebrated and protected the natural beauty of the area, an eco-resort before the term existed.
At the time, Punta Cana was little more than a cluster of fishing villages without even a road connecting it to the rest of the country, so everything had to be built, from hospitals to schools to the power plant and airstrip. The first hotel, the Punta Cana Club, opened in 1971, followed by Club Med in 1978. In 1984 its private international airport opened, and development took off with it. There are now dozens of resorts in the greater Punta Cana area, and Punta Cana International Airport is one of the busiest in the Caribbean.
As for the Puntacana Resort itself, it consists of three hotels, Tortuga Bay, Four Points, and the Westin Puntacana, where we stayed. There are two golf courses, a tennis center, seven restaurants, seven bars, a newly renovated beach club called Playa Blanca, a diving and watersports operation, and a very posh Six Senses spa.
I’m skipping a few things here because I want to get to what makes Puntacana different. Fundación Grupo Puntacana is a nonprofit established to protect the environment and improve the wellbeing of the community. To get a rundown on their good deeds, we met group coordinator Antonio Barletta at the Center for Sustainability, a classroom, laboratory, dormitory, and administrative office. Visitors can take a tour of the center and surrounding grounds.
As Barletta—a former broadcaster from Santo Domingo—explained, “the ecological and social aspect merged” when the foundation was established in 1994. That means that in addition to training local people for traditional tourism jobs, they’re putting them to work on some of the most advanced environmental preservation efforts ever seen in a large resort.
It starts with garbage. Punta Cana has one of the biggest solid waste management and recycling operations in the Dominican Republic, recycling more than half of all waste. They use biomass to power a laundry service that washes the linens of a dozen hotels. And then there’s my favorite garbage disposal method of all: worms.
These particular worms are California red wigglers, and their job is to eat the organic food scraps left over from the resort, like that mushy banana in your fruit bowl. They consume their weight in organic trash every day, and when it comes out the other end, it’s nutrient-rich worm compost. Some of that compost is sold and some is used for landscaping around the golf course. The rest is mixed into garden beds that grow produce for the resort’s restaurants and the local market, including eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It’s a perfect loop: organic produce waste fertilizes fresh organic produce.
I visited Puntacana once before, in 2011, and the worms were already at work. Back then the vermicomposting project was just a shed where they’d shovel a line of organic waste onto the floor for the worms to feast on. Now it’s more sophisticated thanks to the addition of an open-topped steel bin the size of a shipping container that allows workers to shave a layer of compost off the bottom without interrupting the worm smorgasbord. And did I mention that worm compost doesn’t smell bad? It’s exactly like soil.
Not only does the resort make productive use of worm waste, it uses fish poop as fertilizer as well. The foundation has tanks of tilapia whose waste provides nutrients for an aquaponics program that grows lettuce, basil, and mojito-ready mint.
Then there’s the lionfish. The Dominican Republic, like its neighbors, has a problem with invasive lionfish, who normally live in the Indian and Pacific oceans. These spiky, venomous fish lack predators in the Caribbean, and, thanks to their voracious appetites, can decimate native species. The foundation’s lionfish control program encourages local fishermen to catch lionfish to be served at restaurants (they either spear them or trap them in a cast net to avoid unwanted bycatch). The fishermen’s wives, meanwhile, are trained in taxidermy, and their creepy-looking stuffed lionfish can be found at souvenir shops throughout the resort.
Native animals are treated much better. The foundation builds underwater “lobster casitas” to bolster populations of Caribbean spiny lobsters. There’s a program to help save the Ridgeway’s Hawk, with major U.S. universities like Cornell sending ornithology students here to study. There’s beach monitoring and reduced coastal lighting to give newly hatched hawksbill sea turtles a better chance of survival. They raise local rhinoceros iguanas in a special enclosure that recreates their natural habitat. There’s an apiary with nearly three dozen beehives that produces award-winning honey. And there’s a cutting-edge system for growing coral to help restore damaged reef systems.
In fact, the Coral Garden program is one of the largest coral nurseries in the Caribbean. We stopped to watch the experts at work over a series of saltwater tanks near the beach, tending to little coral nubs attached to disks that look like hors d’oeuvres at a fancy party. That coral will eventually be affixed to a metal framework underwater, where it will provide a home for reef fish and a new attraction for divers.
Our trip wasn’t all education. We did standard resort activities too, from stand-up paddle boarding to kayaking to tennis, and it was all spectacular. This really is a beach paradise straight from your coworker’s desktop background, complete with clusters of palm trees growing nearly horizontally over the water.
But there are nice resorts around the world. What impressed me about Punta Cana is that their sustainability efforts appear to be both legitimate and effective, not the superficial greenwashing a cynic might expect. Eco-conscious visitors—or anyone with a tinge of travel guilt—can see for themselves that there’s a long-term commitment to preserving and improving the environment here. The biggest impact is the flight, for which you could feasibly purchase carbon offsets.
If there’s a downside to Punta Cana, it’s that it’s essentially a walled-off tourist enclave. There are gates just to enter the area from the airport, and additional gates in front of every resort. If you’re hoping for a glimpse of how most Dominicans live, you’ll have to go outside the wire to a nearby town like Higuey.
The upside is that Punta Cana is completely safe and about the easiest Caribbean vacation you can take, with daily nonstop flights from New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, and other U.S. cities. Once you’ve collected your luggage at the airport, you’re minutes away (like five minutes) from whatever hotel you’ve chosen. The roads are free of potholes. The people are friendly. The rum is sublime. And if you can tear yourself away from those pristine beaches, an inspiring look at an environmental success story is there for the taking.