Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dominican Republic Family Vacation 2011 "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"

Thinking of the Dominican Republic, what comes to mind are idyllic beaches, waterfalls, and lush tropical forests. It's true...the Dominican Republic does have all of that, and we did find some of it. But, getting there was the hard part. Our flight arrived at the airport near Santo Domingo. Natalie and I made it through customs and immigration without a problem, only to find out that my parent's flight was delayed a couple of hours. We had planned to meet them at the rental car desk and get on the road before dark. Our Villa on the Samana Peninsula was a 2 1/2 drive away and we had heard about the notoriously bad road/driving conditions. Darkness would only serve to make things worse.

My parents flight arrived and we loaded up the Ford Explorer with luggage as darkness fell.  Stopping for gas, we asked the attendant for directions to the new 'autopisto-grande' that would quickly get us to the other side of the island where our Villa awaited. Did I mention that none of us speak Spainish...at all.  The only thing I was somewhat sure of is that we needed to take a right turn somewhere toward the Samana Peninsula. And, of course, we passed right by it.  No worries, we just needed to take the next exit off the highway. Turn around and head back to get on the correct road.  6 miles later, we were still on the wrong highway with no exit in sight. I felt like the "Grizwalds" from "Family Vacation in London" when they got stuck in the 'roundabout'.  Finally, we found an exit and headed back towards the highway we wanted, only to discover that we needed to go down what looked like a drainage ditch into the ocean. Scary! Followed by a short drive down the wrong way on a 'one-way' and we made it. A stressful start to our so-called "relaxing vacation".

The 'New' highway to Samana was straight and in fair condition. However, cars were passing me going at least 30km over the speed limit. They passed on double lines and on curves. Motorcycles and mopeds were traveling on the shoulder while the oncoming cars flashed their lights at me constantly(even though my brights were not on). Never could figure that one out.  Oh, and the new highway has some toll booths on it.  The last one was not operational. But, there were a half dozen men in Army fatigues waving around M-16's gesturing for us to pull over and wanting me to get out of the car to open the back door. So, at gunpoint, in the middle of nowhere, and in total darkness, I had to open up some of our luggage for...what? Not sure, but it was a frightening experience. We definitely were not getting off to a good start and not liking the Dom.Rep.

Once we exited the highway and got on the secondary roads, things didn't get much better. Road conditions made Costa Rica and Mexico look like 'Beverly Hills 90210'.  Did I mention is was Saturday night too. People were all over the roads and moto's whizzing around everywhere. Life must be tough for these people as they seemed to have a 'death wish' by stepping out in front of us and cutting us off with their moto's. Adding salt to our wounds, I went down a 'one-way' for a quarter mile and was finally stopped by the federales, yelled at to turn around. Then, we got totally lost and yelled at each other out of frustration with our situation. Tired, hungry, and irritable, we finally made it to our Villa only to discover that we needed 3 guards with shotguns and steel bars on all the doors and windows for our protection at night. WTF!

Anxious to experience some of the Dom.Rep. that the brochures advertise, we headed off to 'Salto del Limon' waterfall nearby. Our plan was to get some exercise by hiking the trail for about an hour to get to the falls. The most common way to get there is by horseback. So, we decided to support the local economy and 'eco-tourism' by going along with 'equine' tour option. The horses were small and looked frail to me. We each had a horse-guide that walked beside us as we ascended the rocky trail. Not the kind of horseback riding I'm use to. We made it to the falls only to discover it was a bit of a 'circus' atmosphere with all the other touristas from the several different tour operators in the area. My sister, her boyfriend, and Natalie were first in the water while I scouted around for the right angle to get good pictures. As soon as I got into the water, Natalie led me under the falls to an alcove where it was possible to sit on a rock ledge and enjoy the experience. She told me that a local had shown her the way under the falls only to try to kiss her once they got under there. She was really freaked out by it. I asked her to show me the 'dude' so I could give him a big kiss on the lips with my fist! Luckily, he wasn't anywhere to be found because It could've been an ugly scene. The horse guides hurrried us back to descend the trail back to their camp for lunch that was included in the price of the tour. We offered the horse guides a tip when we got back to the base camp and they argued that it was not enough money(even though it was more than 15% of the cost of the tour). We felt like they were way too pushy! It was a very uncomfortable experience. So much so, that we decided to 'get the hell out of there' and skip the lunch that was included. This really put a damper on our whole day.

The next day, we decided to drive a couple of hours to the small fishing town of Las Galleras where we hired a boat to take us to Playa Rincon. It's the beach that earned "2nd best beach in the World by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine". Our boat ride was 20 minutes to one of the nicest beaches I've been to. It was totally worth the trip and I highly recommend it!  Pristine, white sand with rock outcroppings and coconut palms overhanging the beach. There was one restaurant/bar at the far end of the main beach where we ordered some ice cold 'Presidente' beers. I only wish we could have stayed longer for the sunset. Finally, we had a good day!

The exchange rate for 1 US dollar is about 38 Dominican Pesos. But, we found that food, drinks, and services are not as cheap as some other countries like Mexico and Costa Rica that we've been to. There's a 16% tax on all purchases and a 10% service charge at all restaurants. However, that service charge doesn't always make it to the actual servers. So, you're expected to tip your servers regardless. So the Dom.Rep. is not without some corruption as well.

One day we drove about a half hour down the road to Playa Bonita. It was a beautiful beach to swim and lounge under the palms. I purchased four coconuts from a local guy who sliced off the tops with a machete' so we could drink the milk and he chopped up the 'meat' for us to eat. Man, it was so good! The 'meat' of the coconut was especially good. I could eat one of those everyday for sure. That satisfied my fresh coconut quest.

Our last day in Dom.Rep, we booked a tour to Parque Nationale de Los Haitises. It's across the Samana Bay by boat. Our guide spoke very good English and was very knowledgeable about the flora, fauna, geology, and indigenous people. We explored caves to see stalagtites/stalagmites and Taino indian petroglyphs and rock carvings. The Mangrove Forest was huge! It was one of the coolest parts of the tour for me. We all had a good time on this tour.

The Dominican Republic is a place I'll never forget. For good and bad reasons. If nothing else, it was a good adventure, and we'll have good stories to tell. The best part was getting together with family and spending time together in a new place.