As I picked my way over hot rocks and bubbling mud in the pouring rain, I realized Dominica was not for the faint-hearted. I was hiking to the Boiling Lake, a bizarre cauldron of steaming-hot water, 200 feet across, and one of the strangest sights on this rugged and beautiful Caribbean island.
The hike is a six-hour round trip that runs through dense rainforest and over mountain ridges before emerging in the Valley of Desolation - an eerie, treeless swath of volcanic devastation striped black and orange with mineral deposits and swirling with mist and steam. Like so much in Dominica, the journey takes effort - but it's worth it.
This jagged, densely rainforested island, about 29 miles long and 16 miles wide, is located between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean, 375 miles southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A poor country of 71,000 dependent on agriculture and tourism, Dominica brands itself the Caribbean's "Nature Island," and the name is justified.
Visitors will find exceptionally friendly people, all-but deserted black-sand beaches and a mountainous interior of dense rainforest, clean rushing rivers and jungle waterfalls. Even for a halfhearted hiker, it is inspiring - almost any walk can end with the chance to swim in a river pool beneath a sparkling cascade.
"There is such a delicate balance of nature here," said Jem Winston, an enthusiastic Englishman who runs 3 Rivers Eco-Lodge, an environmentally friendly retreat near Dominica's wild east coast. "We've got everything - heavy rain, heavy sun, volcanoes, earthquakes."
My friends and I based ourselves at 3 Rivers, the rough-and-ready resort Winston has carved out of a former banana plantation.
Winston fell in love with Dominica years ago as a young backpacker and worked as a taxi driver back in England to raise the money to buy his piece of the island. Opened four years ago, 3 Rivers consists of four simple wood chalets, with beds and mosquito nets, kitchen and bathroom. Each has a hammock-slung balcony overlooking lush green grounds, paths lined with mango, guava, star fruit and papaya trees, and forested hills. Four even more secluded cabins nestle in woods above the main site.
The lodge takes its environmentalism seriously, and has a clutch of international awards to prove it. Electricity and hot water are solar-generated, and Winston is installing a hydroelectric generator to boost the site's power supply. His pickup truck runs on cooking oil. The cabins have showers, but guests can also take the locally made biodegradable soap provided down to an idyllic swimming hole in one of the site's eponymous three rivers.
The onsite restaurant provides hearty meals, with fruit and vegetables drawn from 3 Rivers' own organic gardens.
"What I loved about here compared to other countries was that the people cared about the nature," Winston said. "They want development, but they don't want to destroy the land to do it."
After a night at the lodge, we decided to tackle the hiking opportunities offered by Dominica's wild, mountainous interior.
Much of it falls within the 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the park is home to freshwater lakes, rivers, mountain pools and numerous signs of the volcanic activity lurking beneath the island's surface - especially the Boiling Lake, a volcanic fumerole flooded with roiling, boiling water heated by the molten lava beneath.
The trail to the lake begins alongside a rushing river before arcing upwards through the rainforest. Our guide pointed out the fauna and flora of the forest: the Mountain Whistler, which mimics other birds; giant gommier trees, used by the island's native Carib people to make dugout canoes; the tree called bwa bande, whose allegedly aphrodisiac bark - peeled and soaked in hot water - is known as "forest Viagra."
The trail emerges into clearing on a mountain ridge, more than 3,000 feet above sea level, where views extend to the coastal capital, Roseau, and the Caribbean Sea beyond.
From there, it's a steep descent to the Valley of Desolation - a desolate expanse that looks more like Iceland than a tropical island. Barren of trees, the valley is littered with rocks in black, brown, yellow and orange; crisscrossed bright blue and milky white streams; and dotted with jets of sulfurous steam and hot water bubbling from the earth.
Over one more ridge sits Boiling Lake, gray-blue within its circular crater, its surface shrouded in steam.
Dominica authorities have worked to ease the journey - the trail, though often steep and wet, is well maintained, with wooden steps in parts. A new picnic shelter has been built, from wood hauled up to the site by foot, just before the trail's final section.
The return journey is easier, and our sense of triumph at having reached the lake was only slightly dampened by the rain that began as we arrived and continued for the next three hours.
Relief was at hand as we emerged, limping and wet, from the forest. At the trailhead is Ti Tou Gorge, where a natural pool provides the chance for a revitalizing dip. A short swim, against the current, through a narrow ravine and you emerge in a sun-dappled canyon where a waterfall plunges into a rock pool.
We ended the day exhausted but refreshed.
The next day, we were ready for another hike - but a shorter one. Fortunately, the area around 3 Rivers offers many opportunities for walking, river swimming and exploring.
Winston recommended a truly off-the-beaten-track destination, a secret beach just a 10-minute drive from 3 Rivers.
Getting there involves a walk through the woods, followed by descent of a 100-foot cliff face, aided only by a fixed rope and some sturdy tree roots. At the bottom is a deserted beach pummeled by a spectacular waterfall that arcs from the cliff-top straight into the sea. It's a stirring sight with the chance for a refreshing shower before tackling the climb back up the cliff.
Locals have received funding to replace the rope with a rope ladder that will make it slightly easier to reach this beautiful spot. Dominica is making some concessions to tourism - but don't expect the luxury treatment just yet.