Since shortly after six in the morning, we traveled the southwest coast of the Dominican Republic departing from Casa Bonita and Km. coast road, with stops whenever we could not resist the charm of the places and people as we passed.
After two and a half hours, we reached the surroundings of the Laguna de Oviedo Visitors Center hungry and in need of renewing our energy. Carlos, the driver and guide followed in tune with us.
Accordingly, instead of immediately detouring onto the road that would take us there, it advanced a few hundred meters further on the 44 route and he parked right at the entrance to a roadside business he knew from several years of visiting the lagoon and sour cherry. The roadside grocery store was called thatched Alba.
Over the years, the Castilian term dictated that Dominicans adapt to small food stores and other household goods stores – and also used in Spain (España) - thatched. The word derives from the verb colmar, synonymous with “to fill”, “to complete” but also, in a more figurative way, “to satisfy”.
In agreement, Dona Alba, the owner, served us thermos coffees, very hot but much more sugary than we were used to savoring. On the way, we also brought two Maltas, a carbonated malt drink that we had the impression (not sure) that we had drunk the last time in a distant last visit to the city. Venezuela of October 2013.
Finally, the Arrival of the Long Laguna de Oviedo
Carlos finishes his coffee. Finish off the cake of your satisfaction. We said goodbye to Alba and the boy who helped her in the establishment. From there, to the Visitors' Center installed on the edge of the northeastern edge of the lagoon, it didn't take even two minutes.
There we are welcomed by Saturnino (Nino) Santana and his colleague Héctor, officially named Juan Carlos Jiménez. They are the two natives from the surrounding area, members with a history of the Association of Guides de la Naturaleza of Oviedo.
Saturnino greets Carlos with feeling. Soon, he assumes the role of the duo. It takes us in front of an affixed map and opens the essential explanations for the exploration and knowledge of the lagoon on whose shores they both grew, a pond, it must be underlined well underlined, more than unusual, extravagant.
Among the various singularities of the Laguna de Oviedo, the long and insignificant tongue of land that separates it from the vast Caribbean Sea stands out on the map. “It is this same proximity that makes the salt lake as it gives it its color and makes it special for several other reasons. In a little while they will already understand and feel what we are talking about.” Saturnino assures us.
From that corner of the Visitors Center we walked towards the bank. On the way, we passed a herd of domestic pigs busy digging for roots in a patch of soaked earth in the shade of coconut trees. The pond's greenish body of water lay motionless beside it.
The Still Fresh Time of Boarding
We went up to a small wooden jetty. Then aboard one of several small motorboats with a roof supported by crossbars. For more than three hours, this roof, elemental but providential, protected us from the inclement sun that punishes the vegetation there and evaporates the shallow water (1.5m).
Only when we set sail did we observe any movement on the surface of the lagoon. As we enter it, we come across the first birds in flight: A trio of white herons, two ibises. In the distance, the distended, almost anguished silhouette of a solitary flamingo.
We skirt a rocky peninsula. On the other side, the nearest bank is promoted to a slope, a veritable slope lined with verdant shrubs, from which cacti with intricate branches stand out.
Hector points the boat to one of the twenty-four islets spread across the 23km2 of the pond. As we get closer against the light, the number of silhouettes of ibises, herons and other species of birds increases. Hector walks around the island.
Ibis, Herons, Flamingos and Cia.
Gradually, the silhouettes turn into perfect images of the birds perched atop the branches and cactuses that filled that intriguing aviary island.
From there, we advance towards El Salado, a subdivided area of the lagoon, contained by an elevated sand bar. Saturnino gives us an indication to be silent and to look beyond that arm, at a distance.
The water there is much shallower than the one we used to navigate. Still no breeze, it mirrored the vegetation above in lush shades of green.
We leave the boat for a marsh typical of mangrove areas. We climbed onto the sandbar and camouflaged ourselves behind the thick, thorny grass that rose above our waists.
Through a handpicked opening in the bush, we could see an area of that sub-pond dotted with pink spots that moved almost in slow motion.
It wasn't even the time of year when the greatest number of people flocked to it, but even so, the Laguna de Oviedo was home to an abundant colony of migrating flamingos.
We get as close as possible without making them disband. We appreciate your persistent prospecting for the crustaceans that give them their color. And, of course, we photograph them. Satisfied with the incursion, we return to the boat and to Hector's company.
From Birds to Reptiles in the Lagoon of Oviedo
For some time now, the lagoon has captivated us with its landscape and the sight of birds. On the following route, Saturnino and Hector tried to break this false monotony. “They know that when we were kids, we liked to go to that same part of the lake, we filled the bodies with mud and we stayed like that, walking around, talking while the mud treated our skin.
Back then, it was more of a prank. But the truth is that over the years and the coming here of some famous people from the Dominican Republic, the mud baths at Laguna de Oviedo have become popular.
Now, we receive groups that arrive almost more for the skin treatment than for the fauna and flora.”
It certainly wasn't our case. Saturnino knew it. So much so that he and Hector were quick to anchor the boat in a guy named Cayo Iguana. Another of the 24 islands in the lagoon.
We take only about ten steps over its half-earth, half-rocky surface when we confirm the logic of the baptism he had received. Saturnino had plucked some wild cherries from a tree. He didn't even need to show them.
Three or four iguanas have detected the intrusion of the human entourage and rush to make contact. Saturnino offers them the cherries. Several more appear, slow but not that much. They emerge from the interior of the forest, competitive and eager to devour one of those unexpected snacks.
At some point, we find ourselves in a strange relationship with rhinoceros-type iguanas (horned cyclura) and Ricor (ricordi cycle). The scene makes us feel in the already very old science fiction TV series “V”, in which humanoid and reptilian aliens gradually infiltrate and end up taking over the Earth.
Return to the Lagoa Marine Coast
By that time, we had exceeded and in what way the estimated time for the return at Laguna de Oviedo. Instead of being bothered, Saturnino and Hector reveal to us one of the last corners of the lagoon, their area of Los Pichiriles. There, we sighted a new prolific flock of flamingos.
We admire them in their leggy elegance but also in their various take-offs, moments of incredible choreographic beauty when in duos and trios, they synchronize their movements and even fly in a way that seems to us cloned.
At Los Pichiriles, we are the closest to the Caribbean Sea of the entire zigzag itinerary we had taken.
There, on the verge of the ocean, we understood better than ever the phenomenon that had generated the lagoon's hypersalinity. Over time, the limestone barrier that once kept the lagoon isolated gave way to erosion and became permeable to the ingress of marine water.
While the inflow of salt water fluctuates mainly with the tides and currents, the entry of fresh water depends on the rain that falls directly on the lagoon and the flows that flow there from the Sierra de Bahoruco. The extravagant color of the lagoon is due to the sediments carried away by the underground inlet of the marine water.
We returned to the Visitors' Center, said goodbye to the cicerones and were once again in the hands of Carlos. The return would take at least another two hours. With time and an internet signal that came and went, we decided to investigate the only aspect of Lagoa de Oviedo that continued to intrigue us: its name.
Why History of “Oviedo”
We knew that we were walking on land in Jaragua National Park, part of the Pedernales province that borders southern Haiti. At a glance, we found that the small town that served the lagoon, Oviedo, was the southernmost in the Dominican Republic.
Both the lagoon and the province maintain the baptism given in honor of Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, polygraph and chronicler of Christopher Columbus, the unavoidable first European visitor to these parts of the Americas.
Today's Dominican Oviedo had as its genesis one of the oldest settlements in Hispaniola. It is necessary to take into account, however, that the city underwent an important transfer.
In 1966, Hurricane Inês almost completely destroyed it. The Dominican president at the time, Joaquín Antonio Balaguer, decreed that it be rebuilt elsewhere, further away from the Laguna de Oviedo and protected from the cyclonic furies of the Caribbean.
Even in the middle of the hurricane season in this region, we continued to be blessed with luck. Those that appeared west of the Antilles rose to the north instead of advancing west over Puerto Rico and Hispaniola or, even further west, over Cuba. Days followed with blue skies, sunny to match.
At least until half past four, five in the afternoon, when the clouds would rush down from the Caribbean Sea over the mountain range of Bahoruco and there discharge the moisture accumulated during the hours of high sun and intense heat.
Carlos delivered us back to Casa Bonita well before that afternoon's downpour.