Travel with patience in Dazzling Dominican Republic
“Please wait here for two minutes for your guide.” … “Dominican minutes,” the man at the front desk added with a smile. We were at the Twenty Seven Waterfalls of Rio Damajagua in the northern part of the Dominican Republic. The place is NOT a geological wonder of cascades of giant waterfalls, but a natural waterslide operated by an adventure company. Dominican time seems to differ from regular time, running slower, and for a European like me, it is best always to add a few minutes – or more – to any agreed time, rather than getting impatient. So, my husband, our two teenagers, and I waited. And while we were waiting, we saw local visitors coming back from the waterslide, wet, happy, and noisy.
It was Sunday, which explained why Dominicans outnumbered the tourists. Finally, our guide showed up and handed us helmets and life vests. After a little walk through the rainforest, the adventure started: We climbed through seven of the twenty seven small waterfalls (the rest were closed during summer), and then we slid/jumped back down. Very amusing (apart from my water-in-the-nose-phobia), not least to be surrounded by squealing and giggling Dominicans who couldn’t swim and, apparently, didn’t come for the scenery, but to have fun!
At one point, we spotted a snake in the water, and although it caused more screaming and splashing, I believe the snake was more scared than the crowd. It desperately writhed out of the water and onto some rocks.
Sosua – nice beaches, murky bars
Our trip started in July, in Sosua, where we arrived with Tui Airlines directly from Amsterdam. We had wanted to avoid Punta Cana, the most touristy part of the country dotted with all-inclusive resorts. Instead, we chose the north coast. Snorkeling should be good, according to internet reviews, and the city and natural port of Puerto Plata, founded by Christopher Columbus, 24 km from Sosua, sounded interesting. We had read that Jews, fleeing from the Nazis during WWII, had established a community in Sosua (As one of very few countries, The Dominican Republic accepted mass Jewish immigration in the late 1930s). We had also noted that expat communities were located near Puerto Plata. This is usually a good sign, as expats often choose (and can afford) to live in the best locations.
Sosua turned out to be an uninteresting beach town with a few prostitute bars. However, we steered easily clear of the suspicious places and found some nice restaurants. Our hotel, Sosua by the Sea, came with the package and was worn down. Toilets were leaking, and there were many mosquitoes. Nevertheless, the location was fine, right on a secluded white sand beach. This beach was, apparently, only frequented by guests from the three hotels enclosing the cove. It was open to public access, but we didn’t see any locals.
The popular beach was 1-2 kilometers away. Here, Dominican life was fully enjoyed: People in beach chairs, in the ocean, in small boats, on paddle boards; colorful shacks in the shade of tall trees, offering souvenirs, beach toys, clothes, paintings, drinks and food. We went there for an afternoon walk, and some gangster-looking guys attracted our attention, especially when two armed motorcycle police officers arrived. Apparently, the police had been summoned by a café owner, who approached the officers. We never found out what the fuss was about, but we liked the atmosphere (despite gangsters) and agreed to come back after dinner for a drink. The beach turned out to be deserted at night, all sheds closed. Obviously, nightlife was not here, but in the murky bars in town.
Apart from a tiny Jewish museum, we did not notice the Jewish community in Sosua, and I later found out that the majority of the Jews had relocated to Florida or Israel.
Our plan was to stay in Sosua the first two nights, and then move on to new adventures. Accordingly, we had booked a rental car, despite warnings from travel agencies, magazines, and travel blogs saying that Dominicans drive recklessly, and that foreign tourists are held responsible in traffic accidents.
Motorbikes are popular and often heavy loaded. Car drivers don’t care much about lights and license plates: One on the front or on the back is regarded plenty. Anyway, our car journey went well, not much traffic, and good roads.
Puerto Plata is situated in a bay that provides a natural harbor. It is one of the country’s most important trading ports. Next to the city is a mountain, Isabel de Torres, rising 800 meter above sea level.
There is a cable car to the peak, but it wasn’t running, so we drove up, and enjoyed the spectacular view over the bay, while standing next to a smaller version of the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio de Janeiro. There was also a lovely botanical garden. At the parking lot, we noticed a space giving priority – not to disabled people, but to pregnant women, judging from the signs. Never seen that before!
Another funny thing for a “Viking” like myself was to find an amber museum in Puerto Plata. According to my childhood learning, amber is golden fossilized resin from pine trees in cold climates like Scandinavia. But, I learned that Dominican amber is something special, and that it can be both golden and blue. Besides the amber museum, Puerto Plata had some nice colonial buildings, but the town was easily seen in a day.
On the road to Samará Peninsula
We drove along the north coast, passing several beach towns, including Carabete which is known as a the best place for wind surfing and kiteboarding. Three hours later, we arrived in Las Terrenas on Samaná Peninsula, and checked in at the most beautiful hotel on the beach: Playa Colibri, with pastel colored apartments, a lovely garden pool, and best of all: Breakfast on the beach, cooked and served from a tiny stand. Postcard beautiful views, good snorkeling, and a nice stroll to restaurants.
Naive and colorful paintings were sold from stalls in town. The same motives recurred; black people working in the market or in fields. We found this peculiar, since most Dominicans have light brown skin. Black people in the Dominican Republic are, typically, illegal guest workers from Haiti.
The history of the Dominican Republic is messy, with changing regimes and upheavals. The country has a strained relationship with its neighbor, Haiti, partly stemming from the Haitian invasion in 1822. And today, Haiti’s black population is poor, while the Dominican Republic is richer and more well-organized. Especially Las Terrenas has a French/Italian flavor, with many properties and businesses owned and run by Europeans.
Although July is not whale season, we decided to visit the whale-watching town Samara. The town itself was not very interesting, so we continued to Las Galeras and Playa Rincon, which was supposed to be the most stunning beach, according to guide books. An exaggeration, in our view. The cove was beautiful, but unfortunately, people – including the owners of the only beach restaurant – had unloaded waste everywhere.
On our way back to Las Terrenas, we saw a sign for canopy tours. Of course, our teenagers wanted to go, and my husband went with them. I followed on the ground with my camera (tried it before, in Costa Rica, the original country of canopy). The route and lines were fine, and the guides were fun.
Dominicans are festive people. One day, we met with an Italian real estate agent in Las Terrenas, and he asked if our hotel was ok. “Hopefully not too many Dominican guests? They can be very noisy,” he said. We replied that we had noticed a bit more noise during the weekend, and more local guests, but that it really did not bother us, on the contrary! On another day, we were eating dinner on the beach, and four locals were hanging out by some beach chairs next to our table. They were drinking wine, and after a little while they started, spontaneously, to dance Bachata in the sand, without any music. A sight you would rarely come across in Europe.
Historic flavor in Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo
From Las Terrenas, we made a trip to the capital, Santo Domingo, on the south coast. It took about two hours to cross the country on the new toll highway between Las Terrenas and Santo Domingo.
We stayed in Hotel Palacio, a nice little boutique hotel with an inner yard and a tiny roof top pool. The hotel was situated in Zona Colonial, the old town centre, worn but charming, with colorful details like paintings on lampposts, cosy evening atmosphere on the sidewalk restaurants, and a few interesting museums within walking distance.
We visited Museum of the Royal Houses, which was built in the sixteenth century to house the administrative offices of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. We mistook this museum for another, Alcazar de Colon, a little further down the quay, which used to be the residence of Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego. Probably just as well, for at that time, our teenagers had had enough of museums!
Back to the north coast – and to waterslides
Our two weeks’ vacation went fast, and unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the mountains and national parks in the west and southwest of the country. Instead, we returned to Samaná Peninsula and the north coast for the last few days of our trip. That’s when the Twenty Seven Waterfalls of Rio Damajagua came into the picture!
Although the Dominican Republic is not much larger than Denmark, it has a varied geography and wild life. This makes it an extraordinarily interesting country to visit, with plenty to see and do, and certainly enough for a second trip for us. I can’t wait.
A few tips:
- Travel all year round: Temperatures are stable, between 25″C (77″F) and 28″C (82″F). Most tourists come in the winter to watch whales out of Samaná Peninsula.
- No need to pre-book accommodation in the summer, except for weekends, when hotels tend to fill up.
- A nice and calm place to dine near Las Terrenas is Atlantis hotel and restaurant, on Playa Bonita’s sandy beach. The French chef Gerard Prystasz was chef to former French President Francois Mitterand.