LA ROMANA'S CAVE OF WONDERS:
"Welcome to the Dominican Republic and La Romana! The mill opposite your cruise ship inspired our city's name. We first exported sugar to Rome or Roma…so our city became La Romana," grins tour bus guide Miguel. "See those pleasant homes? Romana Company provides these to many of its eighteen thousand workers. This mill and cattle ranches once supported our city, La Romana has now blossomed into a resort area. And many, like you, go to explore our Cave of Wonders.."
Beyond the bustling city, emerald green trees, brush and fields of grass cover a rolling countryside. Within half an hour we stand in the interpretation center of Cueva de las Marvillas- Cave of Wonders. A huge wall mural depicts its early Taino settlement. Native gardeners tend manioc, (starchy edible roots) and nicotina, (leafy tobacco plants). We see that while others dance and cook, their religious leader, the shaman sits cross-legged smoking. Nearly a thousand years ago, we learn such Taino shamans used this cave for religious rites, most often for funerals.
Endemic vegetation lines the concrete pathway outside. "This tree's bark creates a Viagra like tea. This next tree's black nest of termites was brewed to cure colds," Miguel notes and then points out a shrub. "Tainos brewed its spiky leaves to induce abortions. After Columbus arrived, mothers refused to give birth to children who would become Spanish slaves."
The path descends downward to a small, inconspicuous cave entrance. Miguel says, "A group of boy scouts discovered this cave in 1926. They were amazed! You will soon be too!" Inside, indirect lighting enhances soaring stalactites and plunging stalagmites. Everyone gasps at its unexpectedly airy immensity and dream-like beauty.
"Over thousands of years rainwater seeped slowly downward, creating acids carving out this 800-meter long limestone cave," our guide says, adding, "Look closely at its formations." She points out rock shapes resembling a grey bear, white lion and giant ochre hummingbird, among other animals. It's easy to visualize those early natives sitting around campfires that bathed the walls in otherworldly shadows.
Hearing faint high-pitched squeaks and whisper of fluttering wings, we see small bats from dimly lit areas near us. Several land upside down above, clinging with others in one of the many small cavities dotting the ceiling.
The last section of the publicly accessible 200-meters encloses over 500 Taino petroglyphs. Using animal blood and charcoal, Tainos likely used their artwork to converse with the underworld spirits. These explain aspects of their culture, including their belief in reincarnation. Two stick figures represent the deaths of a chieftain and his favorite wife. They're shown decapitated with wispy spirits released to flow into new bodies.
Emerging from the 25-metre depths by an elevator, we proceed to the iguana sanctuary. Once considered chicken of the trees and hunted near extinction, the iguana is now protected. Here, the Dominican Republic's distinctive rhinoceros iguanas bask safely in sunshine. These rusty-brown, gray-green adults weigh from five to nine kilograms. Horned protrusions on snout and head provide males a Jurassic splendor. Ready to fight over territory and comely females, these large males attack aggressively, biting and ferociously striking foes with their thick tails. Today, these dinosaur-like lizards swagger about and sprawl languidly inside two large enclosures.
On our return, dark clouds cover the blue skies and pour new life into the already lush countryside. These torrential rains change La Romana's city streets into rivers. As the tropical rains subside, our bus stops at Central Park's open-air market. Browsing among stalls of ceramics, local crafts, hand-rolled cigars, woodcarvings, and vibrant paintings of Caribbean life, one vendor offers thimble fulls of local mamajuana, considered a local remedy for numerous ailments. This rum-herbal concoction proves tasty and potent.
One Dominican pleads grinning. "Look at my stuff amigo! Like that landscape? It's a bargain: $150!" I show zero interest. He persists, "Okay, $80 for you..."
A bandstand quartet plays lively merengues using a traditional button accordion, guiro, metal scrapper, tambora (small flat drum) and cajon (wooden box). Dressed in red, white and blue, dancers blithely step and whirl.
Life-size statues of baseball idols line park sidewalks. Some are posed pitching and batting, others are catching and sliding into base. Many represent gifted Dominicans like Filipe Alou, Sammy Sosa and Juan Marichal. Several had played for La Romana's Bulls in a baseball stadium passed earlier.
Aboard our Carnival Freedom ship, we sip tea and chat about those honoured baseball players. Were these famed Dominican athletes merely mill workers' sons? Could they be reincarnated Taino warriors?
IF YOU GO:
Carnival Ships depart Fort Lauderdale with stops at Dominican Republic, Grand Turd, Curacao and Aruba. Find out more at: www.carnival.com
PHOTOS by Rick Millikan
1.Cave of Wonders is surprisingly large and fascinating.
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