Dominican Republic Visit
Go to week 2.
24 August to 7 September 2013 - week #1
24 August 2013 - I arrived in Samaná, Dominican Republic after three flights from my home city of Vancouver, BC, Canada. After the first two flights - to Montreal via Winnipeg - yesterday, I stayed the night in an airport hotel at Dorval. I had only booked this holiday at the last minute - my itchy feet spurring me to get away, despite the lovely hot summer we'd been having in Vancouver. My travel agent had me convinced to go to Cuba on Saturday, but on Sunday I had decided instead to go on a cruise to the Caribbean via Carnival. However, by the time I met him in his office in the afternoon, the cruise was fully booked, so I had to re-think strategy. I had been to Cuba before, but I had not yet been to the Dominican Republic, so we looked up Air Canada Vacations and found the appropriate hotels, but then they were not available for booking until Monday. Consequently, I had to wait yet another night to find out if I could get what I wanted. Finally, all was booked on Monday and I began my holiday preparations. It was the first time I had taken a non-cruise holiday for some years and had only experienced the all-inclusive hotel-type vacation once - a week in 2000 in Veradero, Cuba in a not-so-great hotel - so I was somewhat unsure of what to expect.
The Air Canada representative in Samaná, Joel, picked me out from the crowd right away as I was the only one travelling on my own - the rest were all couples or families. On the bus, on the way to the Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa, where we were all staying this week, Joel presented to us what to expect, (though he forgot to mention an essential quirk of developing countries in that all toilet paper is to be put in the waste paper baskets provided beside the toilets, because the unsophisticated plumbing systems cannot deal with paper and tend to explode when blocked.) I found out that everyone else had booked just the one week of holiday and were going back to Montreal the following Saturday. I had booked two weeks, but I was going to another hotel, town and province for my second week after hoping to accomplish seeing and doing everything there was to see and do in Samaná. Not one to stay at a hotel all day or on the beach sunbathing, my goal was the excursions, so I was quite pleased that Joel presented them in order, i.e. Monday was ATVing, Tuesday was a horse ride to Limón Falls, Wednesday was a jungle safari, Thursday was a boat trip to Haitíses and Cayo Levantado, and Friday was ziplining. From Joel's descriptions, all the excursions sounded a lot of fun, so I listened carefully to the instructions of how to book and when Joel would be at our hotel, etc. Once we arrived at the hotel at around 8 p.m., we were encouraged to go straight to dinner after our welcome drink of fruit punch laced with rum, but I'd had enough food for one day, so I hopped into a golf cart with my luggage and a bellboy drove me down the hill to the private bungalows in the more secluded area, and after a brief unpacking, I went straight to sleep.
25 August 2013 - Today was Sunday, a somewhat dead day. By 9 a.m. I had reserved my four evenings at the hotel's à la carte restaurants. They had one Italian, one fish, one gourmet and one other that was unfortunately closed for renovations, so I chose two nights at the fish restaurant and one night each at the other two. Next, the local “Privilege Club” representative roped me into a presentation for 9 a.m. Monday morning, in exchange for a free pair of sunglasses, which I did not need, so gave away later, and the promise of a free t-shirt and a free 60 minutes of massage. However, as it happened, my Monday excursion left at 8:45 a.m. so I had to forego the presentation and the free stuff. It seems I was lucky - more about this next week. I then explored the rest of the hotel, the two beaches (photos below) (the main beach was accessible from the hotel via an exclusive elevator since the hotel itself was built on a cliff) and the town of Samaná.
As I walked down the hill into town from the hotel, many young men on motorcycles offered me rides into town (the going rate is US$1.00) but I politely declined each, informing them that I preferred to walk. Moreover, none of them was wearing a helmet, nor did any of them offer helmets for passengers, so there was the whole safety question. In the town, most businesses were closed and, disappointingly, by the time I arrived at the church in the afternoon, it was closed too. However, some of the restaurants were lively and were blaring loud music over an acceptable decibel level. I walked back up the hill to the hotel in time to meet Joel at 4 p.m. so I could reserve my 5 tours, one each week day this week, as described above. My tour tickets in hand, I relaxed a bit on the balcony of my hotel room and contemplated a run, but opted instead to read and then later ate the third meal that day at the buffet. Both the food and choices were good, but I figured I'd be tired of it if I had to eat there 3 times a day 7 days in a row, so was glad to be offered the variety of the à la carte restaurants. It was dark by the time I came out of the restaurant, so I walked down the hill to my villa, opting to get the exercise in lieu of a golf cart lift.
26 August 2013 - Monday was the ATV tour - my first time in an ATV - an “all-terrain vehicle.” Being the odd person out, as it were, I was given the choice of either driving my own vehicle, of which there was a choice between a sort of bike and a buggy, or being driven by one of the young men from the outfit. As I had the intention of filming the activity with my GoPro helmet camera, I accepted to be driven by a young man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. (I do remember our main guide's name, though - Roberto - as he was a bit of a character). Our buggy was at the back of the pack, so we could see what was coming up - paved road leading to gravel road, which changed to puddles and rivers - so we were thoroughly splashed with mud and even got caught in a couple of showers, consequently learning that the trick is to wear clothing that you won't need for the next couple of weeks, if you don't intend washing it.
The disconcerting thing was that we had what was called a paparazzo following us on his motorcycle, driving ahead of us all at several points and getting off his bike to photograph us, thus recording the whole tour with the intention of selling us a DVD of our individual photos afterwards for about US$35.00. Unfortunately, I missed the point of this, thinking it would be put into video form and that the actual photos would not be extractable, and as I intended on doing my own filming and photography, I declined the offer of this souvenir, thus denying the young man, Nathanael, I learned later, his chance to earn a small commission for his work that day of about US$5.00 - the rest went to his boss, who did the editing, and to the ATV outfit, who got their slice of the pie for allowing the photographer to join the tour and to record it!
There were various stops along the route. Our first pause was a visit to a farm where they demonstrated various home-grown produce, including coffee, chocolate, coconut, and their pride and joy Mama Juana, a potent brew comprised of a mixture of various herbs and roots - the mysterious part of the potion as no one I asked could actually list which herbs and roots these were - soaking in about equal parts each of honey, rum and red wine. The drink was purported to cure such things as sinus problems, kidney failure, stomach aches, ulcers, venereal diseases and impotency. We were all encouraged to try a spoonful of bananas in raw grated chocolate, some locally produced coconut oil on our skin and of course a wee dram of Mama Juana to help us to have many children! The second stop was at a beach where I watched some fishermen put a fishing boat into water while the other ATVers went off to swim. The third visit was to a small clear stream where we also had the chance to bathe if we so desired. You will see bits of my trip in the below videos, each filmed on a different camera, and will see what I mean about the mud and the paparazzo but you will also realise how bumpy the ride was and gain an idea of the countryside. The creature on the road that we stop for is a snake whose head was unfortunately cut off by being driven over by one of the ATVs ahead of us. In these two videos, you will also see the entrance to the ziplining activity, where I would be on Friday.
At the end of the ride, we drove back into town for the ATVs to be washed and were led to a store selling artwork and local jewellery. We were dropped off at the hotel in time for a late lunch at the buffet restaurant which was luckily open until 3 p.m. I then looked into scuba diving lessons at the beach, but decided it was expensive and not worthwhile as I was here for a holiday and not to study a manual and be tested on it.
27 August 2013 - Tuesday's tour involved a horseback ride to Limón Falls. The equines were all led by their individual owners, who were all volunteers, we were told, and expected to be tipped afterwards. As our jeep approached the ranch, we saw various young adults on horseback riding toward the meeting place. Having clicked with the photographer, Nathanael, yesterday, I was delighted to see he was also on our trip today. I mentioned to him that I was a bit perturbed by the fact that the horses would all be walking in line slowly, as I liked a bit of a challenge on a horse and wanted to canter and gallop. He said he would have a word with his friend, who had a good horse and would look after me personally. His friend was called Reyes de Mago (Kings of the Magi), as he was born on the 6th of January. He was tall, a father of a little boy and a bit of a prankster, hence the appropriateness of the “bad boy” t-shirt he was wearing (see photo). As an example, he would make sudden loud noises to scare the not-so-experienced riders - though the horses did not flinch, probably being used to it. He was very courteous to me and although we started at the end of the pack, as he was the one organising who would sit on which horse, we managed easily to overtake the entire group along the hilly path and I had many opportunities to trot and canter - even up-hill though I felt sorry for the horse having to hurry uphill as I hate uphill running myself. Incidentally the horse was called “Dinero” (meaning Money). I remember Reyes telling me that the mouths of people in his country were larger than average. When I asked why, he said, “Because we are a happy people, always smiling!” I certainly met a lot of smiling, happy locals over the two weeks I was in the Dominican Republic.
As I mentioned above, Nathanael (photo below right) was our paparazzo once again, but he had no horse, and no motorcycle this time either, so he had to walk fast or run to get ahead of the group (or we had to stop and let him catch up) so as to photograph us on horseback, consequently a much tougher job for him than yesterday. Reyes also had to run after his horse whenever I had the opportunity to canter, but you will see in the video that he also ran in front of it at times. He was very fit and had no problem keeping up. Once we arrived at the top of the falls, we dismounted and descended on foot to the base, where there was a lovely natural pool for swimming. There were groups of tourists and horses there ahead of us, and other groups following us. Most riders took the opportunity to bathe in the falls while the locals watched. It became quite crowded obviously, but the locals were all very friendly and helpful and Reyes and I took photos of each other (below). Passing ahead easily, we were also the first of our group to arrive back at the ranch, hungry for a delicious luncheon of rice and beans, chicken and fruit, etc. The video below shows some of the ride but the waterproof casing over my GoPro lens gradually misted over with the humidity, so the visibility is a bit compromised and I had to switch over to the Nikon.
28 August 2013 - Wednesday was the Jeep safari, which was to include a visit to a school, a tour of a produce farm, lunch at Rincón Beach and a short stop at an iguana farm. It was another fun day as once again Nathanael joined us as the tour photographer and, as the various stops were quite a distance from each other, I had plenty of opportunity to talk to him and find out more about his work and his hopes for the future. The school visit was a bit disappointing as the children were very quiet and there was no interaction, though we were welcome to take as many photos as we liked. I was about the only one taking photos as the others on my tour seemed reluctant since photographing random school children in our countries is a practice much frowned upon, to say the least. The children warmed up a bit and even began to smile at the end of my shoot. On our way out, we stopped at the main school gate to listen to a man sing us a local song while accompanying himself on a guitar.
Our guide, Segundo, explained to us that there are not enough elementary schools in Dominican Republic, so the children are consequently divided into two shifts. They come for either 4 hours in the morning or 4 hours in the afternoon. As a result, they have far fewer hours of learning that we do in the developed world. However, it seems that the current President of the Dominican Republic is doing something about this lacuna and has begun building more schools, even going so far as to provide each school child with a mid-day meal. Moreover, each school child is given a uniform that is the same across all public schools here, consisting in a blue shirt and a khaki skirt or pants. Nevertheless, we were also told that Dominican Republican school children in general are undisciplined, so that the teachers spend most of their time trying to get the children to settle down and do not have much opportunity actually to teach them anything! When I started corresponding with Nathanael later on via Facebook, I realised he had not learned how to write Spanish properly - but perhaps that is more a failing of the young people in general today as they appear to text to each other using the simplest spelling possible. For instance Nathanael uses a “k” instead of a “qu”.
During the stop at the farm, we were joined by another group with a far more extroverted guide than ours and he gave us a thorough presentation of produce originating in the Dominican Republic, holding up three similar types of bananas and asking us which of them was plantain and holding up three different-sized brown coloured root vegetables and having us decide which was sweet potato, which was yam and which was yucca. We were also offered a taste of bananas in raw chocolate once again and the ubiquitous Mama Juana, and I include above a photo of the bottle with just the roots and herbs. This farm was one of a cooperation and the various members took turns as to which would be available to tour groups on different days. The little girl in the photo above was a member of the family that owned this particular farm and after the presentation we were led into their fields where our guide identified avocado and mango trees, pineapple plants, yucca leaves and various other crops.
The beach we next visited was idyllic and the man on the street's idea of the Caribbean, though it was in fact the Atlantic Ocean in this part of the country. Nonetheless, graceful palms on the shore bowing over the turquoise waters were very restful to the eye and many of our group went in swimming after a copious lunch where lobster was an alternate option to chicken and fish. I wandered along the shoreline looking for sand dollars, as two Canadian sisters from Ontario that I had met last night at dinner had recommended, but apparently my solo wanderings were not approved of by a worried elderly man on a motorcycle. He cautioned me that the area was dangerous and accompanied me on his bike as I slowly wandered back to the other end of the beach where our group was still sunbathing and I was obliged to sit in the shade and read while waiting out the allotted time here. Then we were driven to the other end of the beach anyway for a second stop, where there was a cool stream flowing out into the sea in which I dipped my feet and some people swam.
Our last stop was an iguana farm and there were three or four different sizes kept in different areas behind cages. I suspect some of the larger ones were quite colourful as hints of green and turquoise were just about visible under their rusty-brown mud-coated bodies. The best time to visit is apparently in the rain when the mud gets washed off and their true hues are revealed.
29 August 2013 - Nathanael told me he would not be coming on our Thursday tour to Haitíses and Cayo Levantado today as he did not like this tour. As the tour progressed, I understood why. It was not that interesting to me either. Although we had an excellent tour guide in the person of Achi, a Pakistan-born middle-aged man who'd studied many languages and spoke them all quite well, it was a bit disorganised and too much time spent on a small boat. We motored first of all over to the National Park of Haitíses, known for its limestone islands and hordes of birds, though we saw only pelicans, brown boobies, frigates and turkey vultures, and for its caves, in which there was a fair amount of drawings made by the original inhabitants of this area, the Taino Indians, who were unfortunately made extinct by the diseases carried over to the New World by Columbus, his crew and other explorers. Below, you will find photos of some of the cave art, as well as of a stone sculpture, which was part of their religion. I suppose, if you were an aficionado of spelunking, you might find the caves themselves interesting, but all in all I was disappointed by the visit in general.
In the early afternoon, we motored over to Cayo Levantado, an island on about half of which a sister hotel of the one we were staying in - the Grand Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado - was located, with the rest of the island given over to a public beach, with masses of touts selling paintings and souvenirs to tourists. Nonetheless, they provided us with a nice lunch and, again, if you like sunbathing and sand, this was the place to be. If you don't, then it was two or three hours too long here, and I and a few others couldn't wait to leave. Isael was the name of today's photographer and Nathanael must have let him know I was not keen to be photographed in general, as he did not take any images of me with his camera, and instead kindly offered to photograph me with my camera, but I did not take him up on it.
30 August 2013 - Walk the Plank Ziplining was run by an Ecuadorian called Mario and we were lucky in that he was our guide this morning for this half-day tour, to which I had been looking forward, in some trepidation mind you, all week. We had passed it on the ATV tour on Monday and I had met others at the hotel who had already experienced it. One couple from Alberta I had met on the horse riding tour on Tuesday had done it on Monday and was going back on Wednesday to do it again! Ziplining had never before been on my bucket list, but I thought this one might be worth a try as it was ranked number 1 of 15 attractions in Santa Barbara de Samaná on Trip Advisor and consisted of 13 stations and 12 lines, with the first zip line being over 1,000 feet long. With a total of over 7,400 ft of zip line, and starting at 400ft up, it is supposedly the longest zip line in the Caribbean. Currently, the longest in the world apparently (I looked it up) is in Sun City, South Africa with a 6,500-foot ride. So who is right? Of the five tours this week, it was also the most expensive, so I had very high expectations.
We were picked up at our hotel in a jeep and driven to the site and up a mountain, at the top of which we had to relinquish our backpacks (and towels for those who wished to swim afterwards). I took out two of my cameras and between the chest halter and the helmet strap I was advised to use the helmet strap as they had special hooks on their helmets to keep the camera on with. We walked up the hill and ascended a ladder into the first station where we were given an explanation of what to do and what not to do. We were told our glasses would be safe, even if we chose to zip upside down. We were asked to sign a waiver (which seems to be pretty much par for the course for any adventure tour these days - I'd had to sign one for the ATV tour and for the horse tour, but not the countryside jeep tour or the boat trip) and assured that this zipline system used the latest, safest technology and that already thousands had experienced the thrill, thus hopefully brushing aside any last minute concerns we had, and we watched the first victims get strapped up and zip off. The reason why it is called “Walk the Plank” is that at every station there is a platform gently sloping downward for the ziplining person to walk down and step off into the void.
The first line, being the longest, was the most challenging to venture into, but once we'd managed that, the rest was easier. The lines got shorter as they zigzagged across the valley, and the wait also got shorter. By the end, we arrived at one end of the platform and immediately left at the other end, whereas in earlier stations we arrived, lined up behind 4 or 5 others and waited for them to be sent on before it was our turn. Once again, my GoPro casing misted over the lens as we got closer and closer to ground level, so I was unable to record the whole 12 lines clearly, but you should get more or less the right idea of what it was like from the video. At the final platform, we were led down a path and toward Lulu Falls, where there was a pool to swim in and a rocky bank to jump off for those who wanted to, and offered a choice of beverages. The curious thing about the video below is, no matter how many times I watch the full GoPro clip I recorded, I only count 12 stations and 11 lines and not the 13 stations and 12 lines that they advertise as having.
After the swimming session, Mario then walked us over to his new project, an eco-friendly tree tops hotel that was under construction, and into which the entrance was either by zipline or by walking up a path from the road. It had no wheelchair access, however. He encouraged us to take photos and advertise it for him. Back in the jeep again, we were taken to another Dominican Republic produce presentation. This time we had a demonstration of cigar rolling (see video below), which we had not had on Monday or Wednesday, along with our token spoonful of bananas in chocolate powder and our token swig of Mama Juana.
As it was only a half-day tour, we were back in plenty of time for lunch at the hotel and, as it happened, I shared a table with Joel's 83-year-old mother. Originally from Spain, but spending most of her life in Quebec, she was in the midst of moving to the DR for good, as she had become a widow only the year before and was staying in the hotel while her new house was being renovated. A brave move, I thought, at her age! Then the two Canadian sisters, whom I had originally met at the hotel's à la carte fish restaurant on Tuesday, and with whom I had gone to see the hotel's Michael Jackson show on Wednesday night and dancing on Thursday night, had invited me to walk the “bridge of no return” adjoining the hotel with them. So we did that, in the rain, as the older sister was on a quest to find starfish. I confess that we did not know then that starfish do not survive out of the water for more than a minute at a time and the young local boy she had asked to find a specimen for her to photograph did not tell her either, so, I'll leave you to surmise the unfortunate result.
The kids in the last photo were playing in the sea on the beach below the hotel on our return from the bridge walk.
31 August 2013
- When I had arranged for a taxi driver - a friend of Nathanael's - to drive me from my hotel in Samaná to its sister hotel in Punta Cana today, I had mentioned the sightseeing I wished to be included in the price I had bargained down with him. It was rather an expensive transit, though I had done my homework on line so knew what the expected rate was. I had mentioned at the time that I knew we would possibly be passing through Santo Domingo, the capital, and Higüey, the largest city in the nearby province. Nathanael had also mentioned to me earlier in the week that Las Terrenas and Las Galeras on the Samaná Peninsula were both worth seeing, so I told the driver that I expected the route he took to Punta Cana to include stops in these areas as well. Seemingly, however, the driver promptly forgot all about these suggestions and it was only on insisting when we got near Higüey that I would like to see something of this town, at least, that he reluctantly agreed to show me the main Basilica, Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. He did try to get me to pay him extra at this point, but I put my foot down as the trip was expensive enough!
I had invited Nathanael along on the drive, thinking it would be a treat for him, as he had told me earlier in the week that he had not travelled much in his own country, and on the Saturday morning I found that the driver, too, had invited another friend along - someone who worked in Higüey as a bus driver, so knew the area of Punta Cana, which was our destination. The interesting point about this latter young man is he liked to bet and he was using his cell phone in the car to make various bets as we drove along. All along the route, both sides of the road were dotted with little huts that called themselves banks. When enquiring about them, I found that they were in fact little betting shops, offering prizes like a lottery. Most of them belonged to various consortia, and in view of their numbers, I could tell that there must be a reason why they were able to survive. The poorer were always hoping to win the big one but were getting poorer, whereas the rich, already able to afford to run these consortia, were merely becoming richer!
I had thought that the entire trip would take about 3.5 to 4 hours including visits to the previously mentioned sightseeing areas, according to information on line, but although we left at 9 a.m. and did not make any stops except for a couple of bathroom breaks and a short visit to the Higüey Basilica (but no stop for lunch, which I had also suggested during the trip negotiation), we did not arrive at the Grand Bahia Principe Punta Cana, where I would spend the next week of my holidays in Dominican Republic, until after 3 p.m. The driver did ask me to recommend him, so I am putting his contact information below, but he certainly did not do what he was asked, though he was a good and careful driver and his 7-seater white SUV was very modern and comfortable.
The first photo below shows a typical motorcycle ride in the Dominican Republic with three - sometimes four - people on it and no helmets in sight. The second is the inside of the Basilica in Higüey and the third is of the threesome who were my travel companions today in front of the Basilica. The driver is on the right in the yellow shirt.
After checking in to the Grand Bahia Principe Punta Cana and finding my room, which was luckily not too far from the lobby, I headed toward the only venue in the massive hotel complex I had now arrived in that was open for meals at 4 p.m., located beachside. I then walked the extent of the white sand beach belonging to the hotel and eventually returned to the lobby to try out the internet facilities. I decided that once again I did not need dinner, having eaten lunch so late, so retired early for the night after booking my four à la carte restaurants for the week and finding out when I could meet the Air Canada Vacations representative, Vanessa, tomorrow in order to book my excursions for the week. I could honestly not see myself spending much time at the hotel complex, its vastness creating an impersonality so different from the relative intimacy of its sister hotel in Samaná. Whereas I had gotten to know the names of quite a few of the staff at the hotel in Samaná, and they knew mine, I do not believe I saw any single member of the staff at the hotel in Punta Cana twice, let alone got to know any of their names! For instance, I had many long chats with the two security guards at my villa in Samaná. Oscar worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Efraín, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. I learned that they earned about 8000 pesos per month (9000 pesos for the night shift), which is equivalent to about US$200/225 a month and from that they had to pay for a dormitory in town to sleep, yet still had enough to send to their families back in their home towns. Due to family reasons, Oscar had, in fact, given up a previous job in tourism (his English was excellent), in order to move to Samaná for this security job. It had been a much more lucrative career, one that had earned him 24,000 pesos a month (US$600). Yet, out of that salary, he had then had to give kick-backs to various people, as I understood it.
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All the above photos are copyright Angela Fairbank. Please contact the photographer for usage rights and/or copies.