The horse’s name is Mantequilla, Spanish for butter. 
But as smoothly as she moves, the path we’re treading is a pockmarked, mud-splattered mess, a serpent linking bumpy hills and rocky knolls that are woven together in a topsy-turvy topography of contours. Everything around me radiates green: waxy leaves and ferns, dangling moss-covered lianas, glossy emerald thickets. It’s with some vague notion of communing with the creeping tangles of photosynthesis that Mantequilla and I are here, forging our way up this forested mountain.

I’m on Samaná, a rugged peninsula in northeastern Dominican Republic, riding through the jungle looking for a (supposedly) nearby waterfall. Before coming here, I’d heard Samaná was a secret subtropical paradise, a Hispaniolan hideaway for eco-explorers, an antidote to the usual beach-and-bachata fluff. But I didn’t realize this 50-kilometre-long peninsula is an outsize orchidaceous rain forest with almost preternaturally gorgeous landscapes. No one told me it would be this raw.

Fishermen at work near Playa Rincón.

After grinding along for almost an hour, rounding yet another bend, Mantequilla and I emerge into a clearing on the mountain’s summit. An undulating vista spreads out on all sides: countless palm-crowned hills framed by an aquamarine sea. In the distance, I spy rocky islets covered with red-throated frigate birds. Across the bay, there’s a biosphere reserve full of petroglyph-decorated caves and mangrove habitats.

At the end of the trail, where a wood cabin overlooks a ravine, I dismount and start descending a staircase carved into the cliffside. There are so many steps I start thinking that I’m entering an ancient Taino temple. Reaching the bottom, I finally hear it: Salto El Limón. Scaling one last hillock of verdant density, I arrive at the base of the falls, which, at 50 metres in height, is one of the Caribbean’s most exalted displays. Spring-water torrents tumble over the edge high above, plummeting down in vectors of froth, trailing a million mini-rainbows. I peel off my shirt and shoes and dive into bracingly cool water. The waterfall rains onto my shoulders; it’s like being massaged by a giant.

Full bar service with a full smile on the beach at Playa Cosón.

To recover after my jungle trek, I spend a few days chilling on Playa Cosón, an untrafficked setting that topped Luxury Living’s Top 10 list of beaches to live on. CasaCoson is a stylish, laid-back hotel owned by Marzia and Yvan Magnien, two former fashion designers from Paris who retired here after popularizing leggings. There are barely any other buildings around. “Every morning, you open the window and see the postcard,” says Marzia, spreading her arms.

Breakfast of tropical fruit at CasaCoson hotel.

I head out in the early afternoon for a walk. Soon I reach a place simply called the Beach Restaurant. I sit down, admire the royal palms scattered throughout the manicured grounds and order spaghetti alle vongole. When the clams arrive, they rival the best I’ve had in Rome or Venice.