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Dominica: Exploring the Mysterious Indian River

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Dominica’s Indian River Tour

At the end of a near-perfect 36-hour passage from Bequia to Dominica, I lowered my mainsail and started sailing into Prince Rupert’s Bay under staysail alone (it was a bit gusty). A small pod of dolphins came by to greet me, darting back and forth in front of my bow and around the sides. Then I spotted the boat boys. Oh great.

St. Lucia is probably the worst. St. Vincent is pretty bad too. They come out to your boat while you’re still miles out, some even paddling, and won’t leave until you’ve agreed to buy something from them. They fight over you. Some have the nerve to ask for a tow back to the harbor! Even at small Union Island, boat boys compete with each other trying to force you into services like moorings, fuel, food, ganja, etc.

But what I didn’t know coming into Prince Rupert’s Bay, near Dominica’s second-largest town of Portsmouth (pop. 3,000), is that the guys in the boats at the entrance of the bay are all certified tour guides. The government makes them take tests, a unique qualification in these islands. And they’re all part of an association of tour guides that has them taking turns to greet incoming boats. If they don’t have a good local reputation, they’re not allowed in the association. It was Bonty’s turn when I made my approach.

portsmouth dominica“Hey mon, how’s everyting?”
“I’m good, pretty tired from a long sail.”
“Alright, welcome to Dominica! First time here?”
“Yes, it sure is.”
“Welcome. Would you like to tour de Indian Rivah?”
I didn’t really have to think about this. I knew I’d only have a few days here and the Indian River was the one must-do on my list. “Yes, of course.”
“Ok, what day is good for you mon? We need a group to go.”
“Any time after tomorrow would be great.”
“Ok, I find some other people to go and let you know when we go. My name’s Bonty. Remember.”

I gave him a thumbs up and as he started to drift away he made a motion of smoking a cigarette. I didn’t have any cigarettes but I did have some Cuban cigars I wasn’t going to smoke so I offered him a few. Then he was off. And that was it. He didn’t push anything else. I was pleasantly surprised.

Bonty later found my boat in the anchorage and said we’d go in two days at 9am. We would have gone earlier at 7am to see the parrots, but he had an earlier commitment as water taxi. The price would be EC$60, which comes out to about US$22. And I wouldn’t even have to take my dinghy to shore; all of these guys pick you up at your boat for any of their tours and other events.

You do require a Dominica National Parks Pass to visit the Indian River. You can get them at the entrance to the Indian River, or what I did was buy one at the gas station I passed between the Indian River and Customs & Immigration when I did my clearance paperwork. I bought a week pass for EC$32 (US$12) but single-site passes are available for US$5.

Up the Indian River

I was the last passenger to pick up (there were six others for a total of seven yachties plus Bonty). The entrance to the Indian River is a short five minutes from the main anchorage. About 30 yards past the entrance, you go under a bridge and after that engines are no longer allowed. Bonty shut it down, set up the long wooden oars, and started paddling.

indian river tour

indian river crabs

The Indian River is lined with ferns, hibiscus, and coconut trees. It appears wide at first but it quickly gets engulfed in the canopy. The water is just clear enough to see schools of fish swimming past the boat. The mud banks have giant holes drilled in them, and if you’re lucky you can see crabs wandering in and out of these holes. Keep an eye out for the many bird species too – hummingbirds, egrets, herons, and warblers are common throughout the day. In early morning, the two parrot species endemic to Dominica make an appearance to feed.  Iguanas ran into the bush and a few wild dogs watched us from shore.

Not far past the entrance, we made a detour up a side fork. This section was completely dark and mysterious, totally enclosed in trees. It reminded me of that part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland where you go through the river swamp. And as a matter of fact, we quickly came to a small hut built for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Keeping this set intact has generated a lot more tourist interest in the river tour.

indian river hut

indian river

We then continued up the river at a leisurely pace. The further up you go, the bigger the buttress roots get, some reaching across the river and scraping the bottom of the boat. This part of the Indian River used to be the site of a Carib Indian settlement, and up until fairly recently too. A hurricane wiped it out and now most of the Indians live in the Kalinago settlement on the windward side of the island.

indian river bush bar

After about an hour we arrived at the end of the navigable part of the river, also site of the Indian River Bush Bar, a cute little wooden & thatch bar that blends into the jungle perfectly. From here, a hiking trail continues along the Indian River for quite a ways. I hiked about twenty minutes upstream but didn’t want to be left behind, so I turned around and headed back to the bar. We had some beers, their signature rum punch, and some fresh plantain chips before heading back downstream.

indian river

indian river

indian river

Bonty grabbed some coconuts for the way back and we all passed them around while drifting downstream, drinking the coconut water. When the water was exhausted, Bonty broke them into pieces and we all snacked on the coconut meat. So good!

The Indian River tour is definitely a “tourist activity”, one of the top things to do in Dominica. I’m not particularly fond of being crowded in with cruise ship passengers, but the Indian River tour was nothing like that. The tour boats are small enough (you don’t need a group so long as you pay a little more) and the small number of tour boats keeps the crowding down. Aside from the sounds of the birds, it’s completely quiet. It caters to tourists without catering to tourists, if that makes any sense. It has a genuine feel to it.

Next time I’m back, I’m going at dawn to see the parrots!

indian river tour

David Goetz

Friday 15th of December 2017

Nice post! I was there almost 30 years ago. The boat boys were much more aggressive then, a few things disappeared when we were greeted. We hired one of the more well spoken and less untidy young men to watch our boat and to be our river guide. He actually sailed our boat back and re-anchored (we were clearly in a different spot) when the anchor dragged. The island is steep-to, with amazing wall diving. He arranged our diving gear as well as our taxi tour of the island. Although inexpensive, he was the best money ever spent. Back then there was virtually no tourism on the island. That week there were we 7 Americans, 3 Germans and a ABC news crew as the only tourists. There were 2 men rowing the homemade boat on our tour, the owner and builder and our guide, the oars had been "whittled" with a machete, there was no motor. The 2 begged our pardon for a few minutes on the tour, to take advantage of the fresh water for a quick bath. They crushed the leaves of a fleshy plant, creating a sort of natural soap, it was quite a sight and I am certain was not intended to be part of the tour. An incredible country. Thank-you for the reminiscence.

John Peltier

Friday 15th of December 2017

Wow David that sounds amazing! I wish I could have seen it back then. Portsmouth is full of moorings now and they're always occupied by cruisers. Good for the economy and the locals are embracing it, but I would have loved to visit when you did!