It’s my turn to write about our Dominican experience… and as I do so, we’re about 30,000 feet over the Caribbean Sea on our way to Havana via Panama.
I had been to the Dominican Republic before, in 1999. Back then, we had booked us into a relatively new all-inclusive resort in Luperon, west of Puerto Plata on the North Coast, and did (multi)day trips to the peninsula of Samana, into the interior and to Santo Domingo. The route I chose, this time, covered a different part of the Dominican Republic, starting in Punta Cana in the east, travelling north along the coast to the Bay of Samana, then south-west to the capital, on to the far west (almost to Haiti) and then back to the capital… taking all sorts of transport: gua-guas (usually ramshackle mini-buses packed full with people and luggage of all sorts), moto-conchos (motorbikes that are equally packed – we saw a family of 5 on one), normal ‘1st class’ buses and taxis (including the one to the airport this morning that scared the s#$t out of me).
For most tourists coming here, Dominican Republic is equal to all-inclusive resorts. Many don’t see much else of this half of Hispaniola (how the whole island is called). But the Dominican Republic is (fortunately) so much more. It has 25 or so National Parks and Nature Reserves, protecting 10% of the country for future generations and visitors who venture away from the touristy spots to explore more of its natural beauty.
Expectations are not always met
Coming here the second time, I hoped I would encounter some of the things I remembered from my first visit… hearing Merengue and Bachata 24/7, even out of the most basic hut, smiling children, friendly people, colourful villages, beautiful landscapes, palm trees, turquoise water and white-sand beaches.
As one may imagine, some things are still the same, others not… the colourful villages and beautiful landscapes (in many parts) are still there. I heard less Bachata and Merengue this time and more Hip Hop and RnB. Smiles were less common, rude or indifferent service though was experienced more. The further away we travelled from the touristy spots, the more friendly people seemed to become. I noticed significantly more rubbish… particularly on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, some of its beaches and in rural areas. People would just throw their empty water bottle or food carton on the footpath; dried-out river beds would become rubbish dumps. I hope the Dominican Republic finds a way to clean itself up. The tourists in the resorts likely won’t see these sores… but I hope there will be more varied tourism over time… and people interested in the country’s flora and fauna do mind.
Which brings me to a second point: investments in Ecotourism. After being spoilt with enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides in the Amazon, we experienced the total opposite in Los Haitises National Park – a guide whose English was only marginally better than my Spanish and who had hardly any knowledge about the park, its history, fauna and flora. We were just unlucky in this case as our initial guide (who spoke English very well and would even carry an encyclopaedia of the local fauna around in case someone had a more detailed question) changed at the last minute. It may be a sign though that there is a shortage of good, multilingual guides in the National Parks in general.
Dancing the night away
We danced less than I (and probably Paul too) expected. The dance schools and bars/clubs in Santo Domingo we had looked up didn’t exist anymore. We stumbled upon a nightclub in Santo Domingo (early on a Friday night) that played Zouk, Bachata, Merengue and other tunes. We also happened to crash an election campaign party in Barahona on a Saturday afternoon. Well, it looked like a beer garden to us with a live band and people enjoying a drink and a dance… so we just walked in. Barahona doesn’t see many tourists… let alone two ‘gringos’ who are up for a dance. Needless to say, we were in the spotlight from the moment we walked in. People were friendly, though, welcomed us and were cheering us when we got up and danced. The Bachata we dance is quite different from the one danced by the locals (also different to the one taught in Sydney as Dominican style Bachata). People don’t dance as close and dance moves are less fancy, hardly any turn patterns and more basic. We may have started a new trend as some of the guys pulled their partner closer after they saw us and tried some more sexy moves. Anyway, we had fun… dancing and watching, and I’m sure the locals had too 🙂
Gatecrashing an election party
Being in a country during an election campaign was an experience in itself. Presidential elections are still two months away but it seemed to us as if it was next weekend. Every house puts up posters and banners of the candidate they support (something quite impossible in Germany), people drive through the streets with loudspeakers and sirens in support of their candidate, street parties are being held (including ‘our one’) and politicians are spending money on infrastructure improvements to help the people who are still undecided make up their minds. It’s refreshing to see people being so passionate about politics.
What else can I write about? Well, I mentioned we got almost to Haiti… we were actually only a few kilometres away. On Sunday, we had organised a day trip to Lago Enriquillo. Usually a small group, it ended up being just the two of us plus guide (a down-to-earth, friendly and knowledgeable Frenchman in his 20s) and driver (Paraiso’s Bachata vice-champion as he told us proudly).
The lake is a huge salt lake, stretching from the coast 200km south-west of the capital all the way to the border with Haiti. It’s the lowest point in the Caribbean (the lake is 30m or so below sea level) and used to be part of the Caribbean Sea until the mountains around it rose some 10 million years or so ago, closing off its access to the sea. Usually, the lake is calm and flat. Of course, the day we did our trip it was rough as… metre-high waves. If you like roller-coaster rides you’d enjoy that sort of boat trip.
Well, roller-coasters and I don’t do well together. The boat was a small aluminium boat with the engine at the back. Each wave saw me jumping 30cm or so into the air. I was scared to end up being thrown overboard, and my breakfast would have seen the daylight very quickly too. Rather accepting a wet bum and some bruises, I sat on the floor squeezed between the seats. We didn’t see any crocodiles that day (it was too bumpy even for them) but we saw some big iguanas (including a species with red eyes that is endemic to the island in the lake).
Being back on dry land, we visited another cave with Taino carvings (we had seen some petroglyphs and pictograms in Los Haitises – the Tainos were indigenous people who inhabited the Caribbean before Columbus arrived) and a freshwater pool where locals spent their afternoon lazing with friends and family, accompanied by cold beer and hot Latin rhythms. Why wouldn’t you 🙂 Paul and I joined them… sticking out as the ‘white gringos’ once again.
Our last day in Santo Domingo was also memorable. We went to a few museums including the Casa Reales which was once used as the seat of the Spanish colonial governor. We learned a lot about Columbus, other conquistadores of Latin America, about the (mal)treatment of the indigenous people and the support the Indios received from the missionaries, about slavery, etc. Santo Domingo played such a big role in the conquering of the New World… I had no idea. After sunset, we continued just strolling around, watching neighbours chatting, kids playing… Santo Domingo’s historic centre turned into a village.
We had come here for the dancing but ended up learning a lot more about the country’s rich and very significant history.