Santo Domingo is full of surprises, if you know where to look for them. On the surface, the capital city presents itself as a one that never sleeps, where the volume cranks and the sun always blazes, where the urge to rush overcomes drivers once they’re at the wheel of a 2-ton vehicle. But there are some tranquil places in this Caribbean city. A handful maybe, if I’m being generous.
One of those is Los Tres Ojos (Three Eyes) National Park, a deep, mysterious and calming collection of subterranean limestone caves and lakes nestled in a corner of Mirador del Este Park in Santo Domingo Este, the side of town densely packed with impoverished barrios.
Some Dominicans, aware of the precautions they must take to avoid crime in a developing country, advise against venturing into that side of town, but for the adventurous, a fairly short cab ride will get you there no problem.
The Park, Yesterday and Today
Los Tres Ojos was once a religious site for the native Tainos, and is also rumored to be the location of filming for Tarzan movies and Jurassic Park, though these things are hard to verify without sitting down to watch all of the films.
Nowadays, the park is a must-see on the list of every tourist who visits the city, almost surely because it’s one of the only nature-inspired destinations within the metropolis.
Descending the steep, uneven steps into the shady open-air cave is akin to walking into one of Europe’s massive, ornate cathedrals. You can’t help but to fall silent so as not to compete with the echoes from footsteps and soft, whispered voices.
Cast your gaze far out and you’ll see some still water hiding in the shadows. Look up and see stalagmites and stalactites, mineral formations that look more like artful sculptures. Santo Domingo goes about its usual business aboveground – swarms of traffic, bachata on full blast – but down here, it’s purely spiritual.
Guides offer their services before you enter the site, but if your Spanish is shaky like mine is, it might be best to wing it. A level, wooded area serves at the entry point, from which a rather strenuous series of stairs will guide you down to three subterranean treasures: Aguas Azufradas, La Nevera and El Lago de Las Mujeres. All three lakes are fed by Brujuela, an underwater river.
Through the crystal-clear water, you can spot a few large rocks, and Aguas Azefradas even has a few tiny fish, visible when you squat close to the water.
But the main attraction at Los Tres Ojos, and the one that doesn’t technically qualify as one of the “ojos,” is Los Zaramaguyones. For a nominal fee, a dispassionate man will pull you across the dark, terrifying section of La Nevera on a sort of homemade floating vehicle.
You’ll disembark on a small dock and follow the steps – only lit by sunlight – to a final set of stairs down to the most stunning of the lakes. A broken, lopsided bridge lets you get close enough only to get a glimpse of a portion of the lake, a deep, watery recess carved into the earth.
Big City Oasis
On the day I visited with Karen, Hector and Francisco, we found ourselves fighting thick humidity and the overwhelming urge to take a dip in the mirror-like waters. In one of their usual displays of love for all things pacifying, the guys self-baptized in one of the lakes, dipping their heads in the water and staying silent and humble during their spontaneous ritual.
A strange thing to witness, but our visit took place near the end of our 5-month visit with the guys, when all four of us were in need of a bit of rest, recalibration and commune with nature.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into the moment. Maybe Hector and Francisco were just hot and wanted to cool off – watch the video and judge for yourself. Either way, the serenity of the place grabbed hold of us and entranced us for most of our park tour. We spent maybe an hour there, whispering to each other occasionally, but mostly honoring the mood of the site and staying completely silent.
Exploring the Area
After getting a thorough tour of the cavernous portion of the park, it’s worth popping up to the explore the grounds around it, which feature sculptures, a walkway completely surrounding the park (which allows unbelievable views down below, especially of Los Zaramaguyones) and a stone-paved path further out that winds through a thickly wooded area, inhabited by tiny animals that scurry when they hear your footsteps.
Though anyone who visits Los Tres Ojos should probably spend the entire day there relaxing, there are a few notable attractions nearby for a quick side trip, like the Faro a Colon, or Columbus Lighthouse, a looming eye-sore of a monument to Christopher Columbus. I’ve never personally been, but I have been to my other suggested attraction, Boca Chica, a happening beach town that’s easier to reach once you’re on the east side of town.
Finally, if there’s one thing you can’t miss while at Los Tres Ojos, it’s the freshly sliced mango, pineapple and banana plate prepared by the vendor right at the park gates. He charges twice what the fruit vendors charge back closer to the city center, but his fruit seriously hits the spot on a humid day – and is one of the few other natural attractions you can find in the city.
Los Tres Ojos, Mirador del Este park
Avenida Las Americas,
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic