The Dominican Republic
Being an American tourist in the Dominican Republic is interesting. You don't meet many others like yourself there. In fact, you might not meet another American during your stay. The second largest nation in the Caribbean - to Cuba - the Dominican Republic is the number one tourist destination in the Islands with three million visitors a year, despite receiving very few visitors from the United States. The country teems with Germans and Canadians, mostly Quebecois, and has tourist facilities as highly developed as anywhere in the Caribbean. But no Americans. It was a puzzle that I hoped to unravel after two weeks of exploring the North Coast of the country, the prime tourist destination.
I could understand why Americans didn't visit Cuba. Our government doesn't allow us to. The Dominican Republic, though, has a friendly government and a stable democracy. The spectre of the dictator Trujillo has long since vanished from this land, and few Americans, if pressed, would be able to remember that the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in 1961. Hostile locals? The Dominicans of the North Coast are a thorough mix of African and Spanish blood, have radiant good looks, and in my experience have a personality that combines the romanticism and passion of Latins with the easy-going hospitality of the islands. The societal delineations of white and dark that are prevalent in so many parts of the world seem absent here, because people have mixed so much that every shade of the spectrum is represented under the same label: Dominican.
Some suggest having Haiti as a neighbor carries over a bad image. Though Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic occupying the lion's share of the island, the two countries are so vastly different culturally, politically, and physically that it's easy to forget that they are neighbors. From one hundred feet below sea level in the crocodile sanctuary of the saltwater Lake Enriquillo to the 10, 128 ft high Pico Duarte in the Central Mountain Ridge, from the 979 miles of Caribbean coastline and reefs to mangrove lagoons and cactus deserts, the Dominican Republic is a fascinating study in diverse microclimates.
The international airport at Puerto Plata was undergoing a major renovation, and the temporary facilities gave a new meaning to the word makeshift. Immigration and customs were swift and easy, though, and as long as you kept the clamoring "baggage helpers" away from your belongings, you could make it over to the rental car area without anyone demanding money from you. Rental rates in the high season are a bit steep, $350-400 per week, so an affordable alternative for the single and adventurous is renting motorcycles, available from many small rental companies in Puerto Plata, Sosua, and Cabarete. Reasoning that Puerto Plata was overdeveloped and overcrowded, I rented a car and headed in the other direction on the coastal highway, toward Sosua.
The history of Sosua is somewhat interesting. A small town composed of two distinct communities on either side of Sosua Bay, it was settled by Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who began arriving in 1940. Two years earlier the Dominican Republic had made a commitment to take in refugees fleeing from the oncoming Holocaust. The new immigrants, many of them professionals, artists, and academics, started an agricultural community that thrived and now produces some of the highest quality cheeses and sausages in the country. Recently, though, Sosua has burgeoned into a party town for young tourists, and features the accompanying advantages and ills of that type of place.
On the east edge of the bay is El Batey, the main tourist area, a bustling little maze of shops, hotels, and restaurants. Almost everything is overpriced here, by Dominican standards, which only means that the prices are roughly equivalent to what things would cost in the United States. A gorgeous beach and the calm water of Sosua Bay divide El Batey from Los Charamicos, which is where most of the locals live, and which has more of the feel of an authentic Dominican town. There are fewer hotels and restaurants over here, but it is home to much of the partying, with a plethora of bars and discos. It is also home to more prostitutes per square yard of pavement than I have seen anywhere.
After a night and a day in Sosua, I could see that it would be a pleasant enough place to stay for a package vacation, but had neither the bargains nor solitude I was looking for. I drove on to the next town, Cabarete, which is a small coastal village that has become a windsurfing mecca, and hosts a windsurfing World Cup event each year. Brightly colored sails stood lined up in rows all along the beachfront, and tourists were abundant here as well. The town only existed on either side of the road for a few hundred yards, though, so in comparison to Sosua it was relatively quiet. Life completely revolved around the beach, which was huge and extended for a mile in either direction. Most of the beachfront businesses were either windsurfing rentals, bars, or hotels, and the atmosphere was decidedly low key. On the main beach people lounged in the sun, learned to windsurf, played volleyball, or had drinks in the shade, while out on the fringes others went for horseback rides, walks, and practiced tai chi.
Though the town offered nearly everything I wanted, in terms of restaurants, accomodation, and location, I still didn't want to be compressed into a cluster of people. Unfortunately, all the places in between Sosua and Cabarete that I had seen were gigantic resorts that took up acres and acres and catered to the complete package vacationers. I remembered something about accomodation that had been written on a sign two miles before Cabarete, but I hadn't seen anything to go with it. Driving back to it, I found an archway at the front with the faded letters Villa Tranquila. It had the right name for me, because a tranquil villa was just what I was looking for, and it turned out to be everything I wanted.
It was owned by a French Canadian couple, Andre and Francoise, and consisted of an L-shaped building of eight or nine units around a swimming pool. The rooms were modest, clean and well furnished, with high ceilings and fans. There was no air conditioning, but that was hardly a worry with the circulation the trade winds brought in during the day, while the nights were cool enough to warrant a blanket. In the inside corner of the L there was a bar along with a two table dining area, the latter used for breakfast and dinner. The dinner menu changed every day, and the meals ($7 US, which included the main course, dessert, coffee, and tax) were a reliable, quality alternative to dining out. The best part of it all? The rooms were $20 a night for a single room, or $35 for a suite (a large room with two beds and an equally spacious master bedroom with a double bed).
I had assumed that the restaurants in Cabarete would be no better in value or cuisine than those in Sosua, but under the wing of some newly acquired French Canadian friends, I was quite happily proved wrong. The group I dined with nightly were all expatriates who had lived in the Dominican Republic for a number of years, including Marko, who was one of the nine partners who owned the Villa Tranquila, Louise, manager of the Banana Boat Hotel in Cabarete, and Yvon, who had a house out on the Samaná peninsula. Our first night was at Leandro's, a good Dominican restaurant on the west edge of town that specialized in seafood, with excellent grouper ($5-6 prepared a variety of different ways). I dined here many times during my stay, and the waiters were terrifically friendly. After a few nights you feel like a local. Just a short distance down the road is the Hotel Ka-o-ba, which has a Chinese menu, where most prices run $4-6, and the food is excellent. The won ton soup with shrimp is especially recommended. The ambiance is worth the price alone, set amidst luxurious tropical foliage and colorfully lighted, and the back of the complex looks out onto the Cabarete lagoon.
Undoubtedly the finest dining experience came at Chez Michel, a small restaurant on the other end of town, which offered a different menu every night. Michel, the owner, carefully kept an eye on everything going on at his place, and was an extemely gracious host. The night I dined there the menu was as follows: Toasted Bread and Mixed Salad, Grouper Grilled With Garlic Butter, Brussel Sprouts, Banana Crepes in Chocolate Sauce, Coffee or Tea, and a shot of Sweet Liqueur. Every part of the meal was excellent, and the total price was an astonishing 100 pesos, or $8 US.
There were a few easy day trips possible from Cabarete, and the first one I chose was an adventure through the Cordillera Septentrional, the mountain ridge closest to the coast. After driving east to Gaspar Hernandez, a new road leads up through the mountains toward the town of Tenares in the Cibao Valley. (Warning: The old tourist map put out by CODETEL is confusing and inaccurate, and a new B & B map is so bad it should have never been marketed. The only accurate map I came across was one available from McDeal rent-a-car.) The temperature drops a few degrees as you climb, and the lush, verdant forests are a combination of banana trees and palms mixed in with old growth. A winding, pleasant drive of an hour and a half brings you back down into the dry valley into Tenares, and from there up the highway to Moca.
I did not find much appeal in the valley towns, and passed through Moca to join the road to Jamao del Norte, a town on this other road through the mountains that led back to Cabarete. A steep climb up the face of the mountain ridge brought me to El Molino de la Cumbre, a restaurant perched near the top of the face with a panoramic view of the Vega Real Valley. My lunch there confirmed the restaurant's reputation as one of the finest on the North Coast, and though I never had the chance to return at night, I understand that the view of the lights of all the valley towns is breathtaking. Just up the road I came across a group of schoolchildren who shyly made a gesture asking for a ride, and I loaded them all into my truck and took them to their afternoon session at a school deeper in the mountains. They were all smartly turned out in their school uniforms, laughing and friendly, and curious as children everywhere. I assured their leader, Mercedes, that I was enjoying their country, and they wished me well and all thanked me before they trooped into school.
By the time I crossed the Rio Jamao I had picked up and dropped off two more sets of hitchhikers. They each shared a mild surprise at meeting an American, and were delighted to find out I spoke their language. It had been raining on and off, and as we turned a corner one of my passengers cried out happily at the arco iris, or rainbow, whose one end was shining brilliantly on a patch of forest a half mile away. There were hiking trails at a few different places throughout the ridge where tour buses were stopped, with group tours trekking through the tropical cover. I arrived back in Cabarete worn out and satisfied. (To reduce one's travel, I would suggest simply taking the road up through Jamao to El Molino and then back again.)
The next day I drove an hour east to Playa Grande, a one mile strip of sand wedged in between cliffs that is considered one of the treasures of the North Coast. It is still pristine but for the food vendors who occupying the parking area on the east end, and a great place to lounge, bodysurf, or snorkel. At the west end a large resort is going up, with a planned 27 hole golf course, of which eighteen holes will be along the cliff edge of the sea. Though this will certainly diminish the serenity of the spot, the boundaries of the resort are such that it doesn't touch upon the beach. And for those looking for a secluded beach of their own, there are many more of them along this stretch of coast. (A great one is at Cape Frances Viejo, looking out upon the awesome cliffs upon which the lighthouse rests.)
Though I was anxious to go whale watching out on the Samaná peninsula, it was still a bit early in the season to be assured of a sighting, so I headed inland instead. I wanted to visit the high mountains of the country, the Cordillera Central, where Pico Duarte towered above the landscape at the rarefied height of 10,000 feet. During the winter it is not uncommon for the temperatures to drop down to freezing in the higher elevations of the range. I took the Jamao road in through Moca and on to La Vega, just before which lies Santo Cerro (Holy Hill), where Christopher Columbus planted the first cross in the New World in 1492. It was given to him by Queen Isabela, and he placed it on a hill overlooking the Vega Real Valley, where he proclaimed: "It is the most beautiful place that human eyes have ever seen." A piece of the cross has been preserved, not in memory of Columbus, but as a tribute to the suffering and eventual annihilation the Spanish inflicted upon the Taino Indians of the island. The Dominicans can afford to be so generous. They recently spent $70 million on a monument/museum for Columbus in Santo Domingo.
After some misdirection from my bad maps, I found the road to Jarabacoa - it's off of the La Vega-Santiago road a few miles north of La Vega - and drove up the smooth, winding highway through dense pine forests toward the mountain town. Jarabacoa itself turned out to be an uninteresting place, but it was surrounded by an incredible landscape. The town lay along a small river between a pair of ridges that followed an east-west line, the southern one extending further on to the east, and the northern one petering out at the foot of the town. From up on Pico Duarte, the Rio Yaque del Norte began and flowed through a canyon between the ridges down to Jarabacoa, turned north and flowed into a mountain lake and out the other end, was boosted by the convergence of the Rio Bao, took a westerly turn in Santiago, and flowed as the country's largest river along the entire length of the Cibao Valley to empty in the Bay of Montecristí, near the Haitian border.
The road out toward Pico Duarte remained paved for another mile or two and then gave way to dirt. It snaked its way along the edge of the southern ridge, plagued chronically by washouts from water draining down the face, with terrifyingly sheer drops to the river along most of the route. Recent rock falls from above lined the inside edge. After five hair-raising miles I began thinking that I had definitely hit upon the road less traveled. Still, it could have been worse. Road crews were strung out along the length of it constructing a drainage system to stabilize the runoff, clearing the rock falls, and filling in sections to keep it passable. Apparently someone had decided that it wasn't much use having the tallest mountain in the Caribbean and a massive National Park system that covered most of the Cordillera, unless tourists had a reasonable way of getting there.
I made it as far as Manabao, the last town before the park entrance at La Cienega, and decided that the storm clouds moving in might completely wash out the road if I didn't get back in time. Though I could clearly see Pico Duarte looming up ahead, I was disappointed to find out it was still 33 km to the summit from where I stood. One must have a guide in the National Park, and the expedition to the summit is best done as a well-planned affair over a few days.
Back in Jarabacoa, I stopped at a tourist information booth and asked about the nearby waterfalls. I was given directions to both the Baiguate and Jimenoa waterfalls, the former being the closer one. Having seen that tour groups were visiting it, I continued my adventurous ways and chose to visit the other. Five jarring kilometers later along a very steep, twisting dirt road up a mountain side, I came to a small parking area with a crude sign pointing to the waterfall. The enterprising family who lived by the parking area charged 25 pesos, or $2, to let people park there. They weren't getting rich.
Declining a young boy's offer to guide me, I descended the trail into a pine forest that grew increasingly tropical the further I went down. The trail was extremely steep, and I took a good bit of care to keep my footing. My first view of the waterfall made me scramble faster. Funneling in between a pair of massive cliffs, it poured handsomely down into a green pool. It was an idyllic setting. When I got to the bottom, I saw that the pool ran along the edge of one cliff and emptied over a set of terraces into the river below. The Rio Jimenoa then flowed with relative tranquility down to converge with the Yaque. On the cliff edge by the minor falls were hundreds of honeycomb structures, which upon closer investigation revealed the presence of thousands of wasps. They kept to this area, thankfully, and poised no threat. I spent an hour or so exploring the rock formations and enjoying the way the afternoon sun lit up the falls, before I made the arduous trek back up the path. It was like climbing the stairs to the top floor of the Empire State Building.
On the way home, I gave some more rides to hitchhikers, including a gregarious female teacher who gave me an earful about the country's politics. She was also a political activist, it seemed, working for one of the opponents of the incumbent president, and she was the chief organizer of women for her party. We mixed our conversation in Spanish and English, and I laughed when she used a few choice words in Spanish to describe her impression of how the poor in her country were faring. She apologized for her vulgarity, but told me it had to be said. I was reminded of a surprisingly candid section of the national tourism guidebook, La Cotica, which explained:
"...in protesting we tend to use methods that differ greatly from those observed in a protest in Switzerland or the United States. While people there are accustomed to walk slowly and stopping in front of a given place, generally in silence, using a written sign which expresses their feelings, we tend to shout, make abrupt gestures and run from one place to another in order to call attention to our protest. While a demonstration here may seem like the beginning of a violent struggle, to visitors it breaks up in a half hour and everything goes on as if nothing has happened. This loud form of protesting, which goes in accordance with our lifestyle, I believe, has not been understood at times when sketching on a Dominican protest."
She told me she had known some Americans who were Peace Corps volunteers at her school, but that I was the first one she'd met since they had left. Answers to my little mystery about the American absence still weren't forthcoming, but I didn't mind. I was having too good a time. Also, it was funny to hear expressions of embarrassment from German friends about how some of their fellow countrymen conducted themselves. Another nationality had taken the place of the stereotypical ugly American.
I finally made the drive out to Samaná, having been advised by Louise and all of my other Quebecois friends to seek out a boat run by Kim Beddall, because she was said to have the most whale friendly operation. Since Louise was the unofficial Greenpeace representative in the Dominican Republic, I took her word for it. The wide, recently paved highway out to Samaná was in excellent shape, and it was an easy three hour drive through a wide variety of scenery. (Recommended as a luncheon stop on this trip is the Restaurant Dorado in Cabrera, on the highway.) Social life in the Dominican Republic takes place on the road, so one has to be careful while driving. People sit down in groups on the pavement, and drivers park in the middle of the road to carry on extended conversations. Patience is a must.
I found Kim Beddall at her office in Samaná, just after a rain storm had abated. A lanky, outgoing woman with a twinkle in her eye and a raw enthusiasm for whales, she signed me up for an excursion on her boat and fielded questions from me about the whales in between the endless phone calls that kept pouring in. It had been a long day. As soon as she hung up the phone, it rang again. She paused for two rings to establish composure, and answered.
"Good morning, Victoria Marina."
She broke down laughing, realizing her effort had failed.
"Good afternoon, I mean. Jose! Buenas tardes."
She carried on the conversation in smooth, slightly North American-accented Spanish, and after hanging up fielded a few questions. The first humpback whales to put in an appearance at Samaná had showed up around the New Year, when a mother and calf were sighted. Each year, the humpback whales of the western North Atlantic, from the Gulf of Maine up through Iceland, came down to shallow tropical waters to breed. The majority, up to three thousand at the peak of the season, congregated on the Silver Banks some forty miles to the north, while another thousand visited the Bay of Samaná during the season. The mother that had shown up at the beginning of January had undoubtedly mated early in the season the year before, had her calf on the Silver Banks this season at the end of her eleven to twelve month pregnancy, and brought her calf down to the calm waters of Samaná to nurse.
As Kim described it, her involvement with the whales of Samaná happened completely by accident. Shortly after she moved to the area, local fishermen began telling her about the whales that appeared in the bay during the winter, and at first she reacted in disbelief. When she saw them with her own eyes, though, she fell in love with them and started whale-watching expeditions. Suddenly, in the midst of her enthusiastic sharing of information, her face clouded over.
"Oh, no! My parents! They're coming in tomorrow and I don't have a plane for them."
Francoise, her new assistant, who had with great relish taken on the role as the voice of Kim's conscience, reminded her:
"And you're not even going to be here to meet them. You're going out on the boat tomorrow."
I showed up at the docks at eight o'clock the next morning, just as Victoria II was being backed in to be fueled and loaded. By quarter past eight, Kim showed up and explained that the plane bringing the tour group from Puerto Plata had taken off 45 minutes late, so that we'd be a bit delayed getting underway. Soon enough the last of our passengers arrived, and we headed out of the harbour into the bay and on toward the open ocean. Aside from a family of Spanish tourists and myself, the remainder of the passengers were all German.
We picked up two more passengers on Cayo Levantado, a tiny, picturesque island that lies just south of Punta Balandra on the peninsula. The island is operated under the auspices of the National Park system, and is relatively unspoiled but for a small hotel and cabañas nestled near the dock. Kim explained that Cayo Levantado has the last remnants of virgin forest in the Samaná area, because all the forest on the peninsula had been cut down and replaced by coconut palms.
The swells gradually picked up as we passed out into open ocean, out of the protected lee afforded by Punta Balandra and Cape Samaná. Eager eyes searched the distance in 360 degree circles, hoping to catch first glimpse of one of the giant creatures. An occasional school of fish would prompt frantic waving, but nothing more. A large school of thirty to forty dolphin garnered some excitement, and we followed them for awhile. Since I didn't appear to be paying much attention, Kim grabbed me and ushered me over to the side for a view as we passed by them. Much as I love dolphins, I have seen them in vast numbers in the tropical oceans I have traveled around the world. It was whales I was looking for, and I kept scanning the surrounding waters for humpbacks while everyone else watched the smaller mammals.
Eventually we moved on, as our time was running out before we had to return. It looked like the day was going to be a bust for sightings. The quantity of "hopeful" sightings made one realize just why so many people see the Loch Ness monster. While scanning the area back toward Punta Balandra as we slowly idled in a northerly direction, I saw a black shape break the surface at least a half mile away. I hesitated until I saw what looked like a tail flip out of the water as the whale arched its back and dove (the maneuver which gives rise to the humpback's name).
"Whale. Nine o'clock!" I called out, dutifully following Kim's directions on how to announce a sighting.
Our boat turned and accelerated, but after five minutes of cruising toward the sighting there was still no sign of the whale. Kim seemed slightly skeptical and asked exactly what I'd seen. My description increased her skepticism and she announced to the boat the golden rule of whale-watching:
"If we don't see a spout, we don't see a whale."
After seeing the school of dolphin again, I reluctantly concluded that perhaps even my ocean-acclimated eyes weren't above playing tricks with me. It was possible that I'd seen the dolphins frolicking from a long distance and mistaken what I'd seen. We were poised to head homeward when the humpback broke the surface three hundred yards away. I was vindicated.
Because we didn't know where the whale was after our second sighting, Pimpo, our young Dominican captain, put the engines in neutral and we waited for our cetacean romantic to make another appearance. He surfaced again scarcely seventy yards away, and slowly rolled his way into a dive, flipping up his tail at the end. The tail of the humpback is their fingerprint, and the College of the Atlantic has cataloged and named hundreds of Gulf of Maine whales by pictures of their tails. I asked Kim if she could recognize any by name now herself.
"No, because you really have to know the catalog well to recognize them. We just send our pictures up to Allied Whale in Maine and they send us back a wealth of information about the whale. They've got the system digitized on computer now so that they can scan the picture through and have the nearest ten tails in appearance come up on the screen. It makes it a lot easier on the person cataloging them. They used to do it manually, and there was a girl there named Lisa Steffi who did all the cataloging of all the pictures that were sent in. She came down here once, and she was amazing! We'd be out here and she'd be looking around saying, 'oh, there's Trunk, that's Iona over there, and hey, there's Kennedy'. She had instant recall for hundreds of whales, right off the top of her head."
After we watched one final surfacing, we waved goodbye to our whale and cruised back toward Cayo Levantado. For the remainder of the afternoon, we were dropped off on the island to do what we pleased. Most of the island's interior was under a canopy of huge ficus trees and gumbo limbo, and there were palm-fringed beaches on either end of the island. The snorkeling was passable, and it was a fairly pleasant way to spend a few hours. In the peak of the humpback breeding season, it is possible to see whales frolicking within sight of Cayo Levantado.
When we got back to the dock, she gave us all a big "thank you" for coming out on the trip, because, she said, every set of tourists that went out showed the people of Samaná that they had a valuable natural resource which people from all over were coming to see, and they needed to protect that resource.
I had one more day before I had to fly back to the US, which I spent exploring the beaches on the north side of the Samaná peninsula, around the resort area of Las Terrenas. The beaches around the town weren't that impressive, though the vast tracts of shallow reef offered nice snorkeling. Down a hellish dirt road to the south lay Playa Bonita, though, a Caribbean paradise. Some of the better hotels in the area were located here, and the road was so bad that the only people around were those staying at them.
I never did solve my mystery about why Americans weren't coming to the Dominican Republic. The only thing I could figure out was they just didn't know anything about it. Any one of the places I visited, I could have happily spent a week in, and there were a half dozen of those within reasonable driving distance of Cabarete. And that's just one fifth of the entire coastline of the country. The mind boggles.