Tour Dominican Republic
Palm beaches, tropical rainforest and humpback whales
There is a lot to explore in the Dominican Republic for people who are willing to leave the luxury resorts on the coast: cowboys on horseback with cow herds, tropical rainforest, waterfalls, mangrove, rice paddies, fruit plantations, whales and dolphins. Tour of Punta Cana, Miches, Jarabacoa, Cabarete, Las Galeras and La Samana. And of course there are palm beaches everywhere as well.
Travelogue & photos: Marianne Bekkering
Bright white sand, coconut palms and a blue sea
After a direct, ten-hour flight from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, we land at 6:30 PM in Punta Cana on the eastern edge of the Dominican Republic. It's around 25 degrees centigrade when we leave the airplane and there is a nice warm breeze.
Because it will be dark soon and we don't know the place, we booked a transfer to our hotel, instead of picking up our rental car at the airport. It's a half hour drive and on the way it begins to drizzle.
We stay in one of the big resorts on the north coast near Punt Cana. In the room we are welcomed by a pretty swan, made of folded towels and decorated with flowers. We feel ambivalent about the luxury in the resort, because we know how much poverty there is. But tonight we don't want to think about that.
Next morning bird chirping wakes us at 6 AM; at 6:30 it's light and we get the first look from our terrace of the wild sea, the surf breaking on the coral reef. To acclimatize, we have a lazy day which we spend on the beach. We swim, sit in the sun or read underneath a parasol of palm leaves. The beach at Punta Cana is crowded, because of the many hotels, but it still is very beautiful. Kilometers of bright white sand, lined with coconut palms and a blue sea.
In the evening we have dinner in a Mexican restaurant. During dinner three power outages occur; eventually the waiters bring candles to the tables. We assume we'll be able to find our way back to our room in the light of the stars and indeed, there is a beautiful starry sky.
Next morning I go to the beach early to take pictures of the still empty beach and see a huge rain shower approaching over the sea. It's a wonderful sight: the rain falling on the sea and next to it the sun behind the clouds.
During breakfast the tropical rains have reached our roof. It's a flood from heaven. It remains rainy all day long. Luckily we brought a lot of books and it is warm and dry on our terrace. At 3:30 we pick up our rental car in the village.
Little rivers and colorful wooden houses
Today we begin our tour in the hinterland. Punta Cana is nice, but it has little to do with the real Dominican Republic. It is a very pleasant, but also touristy place, with lots of luxury all-inclusive resorts. Most tourists hardly leave the complex.
It's about 120 kilometers to Miches, on the north side of this part of the island. We assume we'll be able to drive 40-50 k/p/h on average.
The roads in the Dominican Republic - and certainly in the hinterland - are generally very bad, with large potholes and high and badly indicated speed ramps in towns. On top of that, the style of driving here is - to put it mildly - chaotic, so one has to take time to get from A to B.
It's a sunny day. At a gas station we buy a detailed roadmap and then we're on our way. We drive in the direction of Higuey and turn east near Otra Banda.
The first part, from Punta Cana to Otra Banda, is a rather dull, flat and not particularly pretty landscape, but then we enter the foothills of the Cordilla Oriental mountains and it gets much more interesting.
It is hilly, with wonderful views, many little rivers and lots of green; along the road are colorful wooden houses. On the way we see some real cowboys on horseback, who are rounding up a cow herd.
We take roads 104 and 105, which partly run along the coast and within three and a half hours we arrive in Miches. We knew that Miches itself is not that great, but the drive to it is worthwhile. We see Hotel La Loma from afar, because it sits on a hill top and has a wonderful view of the bay below. La Loma is Spanish for "the hill".
The two girls at the reception, who seem a little bored, don't speak any foreign language, but we manage with our Spanish and succeed in getting a room. We booked through the internet, but apparently something went wrong.
The view from our room with terrace is great: it looks on the bay and the town.
Later it turns out that the Swiss owner spends most of his time in the bar of his own hotel and doesn't pay much attention to his business.
The room is a bit of a dump and hasn't been cleaned in a while. But it's only for one night and we knew in advance that it wouldn't be great. The hotel certainly has potential but is neglected.
Today we wanted to take a tour by boat of the mangrove, but somehow it's not happening. The hotel manager is supposed to arrange it, but he is nowhere to be seen and the girls can't help us either.
So, instead we drive to the beautiful, kilometers long, palmtree-lined beach of Miches. We walk along the sea and have lunch in a beach restaurant, with delicious garlic shrimps, fries, a salad and two ice-cold beers.
The orange African tulip tree blooms everywhere
We expect a long day on the road (330 kilometers at 30 k/p/h) and leave early. After a breakfast that matches the rest of the hotel, we leave for Jarabacoa, in the center of the island.
The first part of the route, to El Seibo, is magnificent. We cross the mountains and have beautiful views of the bay of Miches. The road is terrible. We can't drive faster than 30 k/p/h, but we have all day.
After Hator Mayor we drive on a "red" road, in a much better condition, to San Pedro de Macoris. The landscape is very different here. Flat, with large sugarcane and rice fields, all the way to the capital Santo Domingo on the south shore.
Santo Domingo is a big, hot and crowded city with 3 million inhabitants. We don't want to enter the city, but unfortunately we can't drive around it. Luckily our map has a detailed map of the city on the backside, so it takes us only half an hour to drive through it.
Soon we are in a mountainous area again. Nature here is overwhelming; the bright orange African tulip tree, which blooms in this time of the year, is everywhere. It's a gorgeous sight against the background of the dark mountainsA.
The road is fine now - because it's a highway - and we travel fast. We arrive in La Vega already by 1 PM, four hours earlier than we thought. Along the road between La Vega and Jarabacoa we buy a piece of "concrete cake" in a food stall. Tasty, but heavy on the stomach.
We arrive at hotel Gran Jimenoa in Jarabacoa around 2 PM already. We booked a room through the internet. It's a nice hotel, good atmosphere and quiet, just outside the village. It is everything we hoped for. Our room looks directly on a river with rapids, just like we requested.
Because it is still early, we visit the waterfall, 6 kilometers away, today. It is the Salto Jimenoa and is supposed to be the prettiest in the area. The route to the waterfall is beautiful, the waterfall itself a little disappointing.
Back in the hotel we drink a delicious local beer (President) and in the evening we have dinner on our terrace on the water.
A cow herd chills in the rapids
We begin our day sitting in the sun on our large terrace above the rapids in the river. A cow herd is chilling in the river. A little later a cowboy on horseback arrives with dogs, to herd them back to the bank.
After breakfast we leave for Cabarete on the north shore. First we drive back to La Vega and then to the Santo Cerro, where we have a wonderful view of the valley. It's a little hazy today, but still the panorama is stunning.
We drive to Moca via secundary roads. Here we get lost and end up in Villa Trina, a little east of our planned route. Extra kilometers, but very pretty ones, along beautiful mountains, overgrown with blooming African tulip trees.
I am thrilled every time by the wonderful views.
Eventually I ask some guys for directions and yes, we have to go back alle the way to Moca. This is a big and crowded city with hardly any signs, like everywhere else. Bukt eventually we find the right road, # 21.
It's a beautiful route throug mountainous landscapes. It has been described as one of the prettiest routes in the Dominican Republic and we can only agree.
We have lunch at the high-lying Rancho La Cumbre, half-way between Moca and Cabarete. It is an open-air restaurant with a great view of the surroundings. Their stuffed crepes are tasty and we enjoy the view.
We continue our drive on backroads to Cabarete on the coast. Entering Cabarete is off-putting. The village is one through-road and at first it seems very crowded and touristy, with many honking cars, but fortunately we booked a room on the beach, away from the crowded and noisy street.
We unpack our suitcase and have a cocktail in one of the cozy outdoor bars on the beach. The beach is deserted, the cocktails are tasty.
In the evening we take a walk on the beach, looking for a nice restaurant. We end up in La Casita de Alfredo and order Papi's delicious gamba pot with potatoes, and a salad as a first course. It's nice on the beach, under palmtrees and a starry sky. Very romantic.
Next day we go to Rio San Juan to take a boat trip in the mangrove woods, on the Gri-Gri laguna. It's less than an hour's drive from Cabarete.
Rio San Juan is a crowded, not very inspiring town, like most towns here. Because of the strong wind today, the sea has enormous waves and part of our trip is canceled. The mangrove is nice to see.
On our way back to Cabarete we have fish for lunch on the beach near Playa Magante, a beautiful, deserted beach, lined with palm trees.
There are only a few tables with parasols made of palm-leaves and the atmosphere is wonderfully relaxed. We order a fried red snapper with fries and for dessert we have the best "banana flambee" we ever had.
Back in Cabarete we're not hungry, no wonder after a lunch like that. But a drink on the beach is always a good idea. At Casanova there are torches at night for lighting and we sit on the sand, under the palmtrees.
Away from the noise of the street, only the surf, the palmtrees and the starry sky.
A Caribbean paradise on La Samana peninsula
Today we drive to Las Galeras, our promised Caribbean paradise on La Samana peninsula.
The first part we already know, because our route passes Rio San Juan. It is a beautiful route. We stay near the coast, with its pretty beaches and lots of coconut palms. The peninsula itself is gorgeous: hilly and thickly overgrown with palmtrees and views of the coast everywhere.
In Sanchez we have lunch on the water. Then we continue our trip to Las Galeras and our hotel Villa Serena. It's a dream come true. A wonderful, laid-back, small hotel in Victorian style at a beautiful location, directly on the shore in a pretty garden. Opposite the hotel is a coral reef with palm trees, on which the waves break in wonderful surf.
Next day we take it easy. After breakfast we take our books into the garden to work on our tan. Reading, sun-bathing and swimming in the pleasant and very clean sea. Lunch in the garden and then we repeat the whole thing.
In our hotel we book a trip for tomorrow with marine biologist Kim Beddall to watch whales in the bay of Samana.
Later in the afternoon we stroll into the village Las Galeras, which is rather pleasant. We look for nice restaurants and drink a beer. We are accompanied by a dog who - after we pet her twice - doesn't want to leave our side. She follows us everywhere, until she sees her dog friend from the beach.
In the evening we have dinner in the village in Chez Denise: tasty fish in coconut sauce and a crepe for dessert.
Their enormous tails rise from the water
At night it rains so hard that we wake up. But in the morning the sun rises in a cloudless sky. We go to Samana to see the humpback whales. It looks like the perfect day to do this: sunny and a calm sea.
It's a nice boat trip and we see lots of whales, among which a mother with calf. It's a great experience to see these enormous animals (up to 16 meters long and weighing 35 tons) from this close by. They are curious and swim close to the boat.
The whales stay here from December to March to mate and have their calves. They take last year's young with them. The rest of the year they spend near Iceland and Greenland, so they travel about 4000 kilometers every year.
During the summer they fatten up with around 1.5 tons of fish every day, but during the mating season they don't eat at all and lose 20 percent of their body weight. While the mother is nursing, it gets worse: a calf drinks over 200 liters of mothermilk per day.
Pregnancy takes a year. One year the mother is inseminated, the next year she has her baby in the bay. After the second winter the calf is abandoned and has to fend for itself. The cow is available again and ready to mate.
The males compete for the females' attention: they perform all kinds of stunts with their tails and jump out of the water. Unfortunately we don't see jumps, but we see their tails rise from the water.
Adult humpback whales can stay under water for 40 minutes. Baby whales increase the amount of time under water with a minute per week. So it is dangerous to go fast with ships here, because their propellors could easily wound mothers and babies. They have to remain just under the surface because the young have to come up for air often.
I think I take at least a hundred pictures today. The camera is on "sport setting" so I can take pictures continuously. It's a wonderful sight how gracefully these huge animals come up and dive back into the depths.
On the way back a few dolphins accompany us. The view of the coast is gorgeous: beautiful, palmtree-strewn hills which almost reach the sea.
Kilometers of white beach and nobody to be seen
Next day we tour Samana peninsula. We take the road to Playa Rincon, a wonderful route trough a mountainous landscape, ending at a coconut plantation.
The beach is everything we hoped to find here. A completely deserted, kilometers long, white beach, lined with palm trees, and a crystal-clear blue sea.
Apart from coconut plantations, there are lots of papaya and pineapple fields. We drive to the El Portillo beach via Limon. Again a beautiful, kilometers long, white beach with noboday there. El Portillo borders on Las Terrenas, which is much touristier, but not less beautiful or pleasant. Again a dream of a beach, but one with many terraces.
We have lunch at a picnic table under the palm trees on the beach. Every now and then a fisher passes with his catch, which he wants to sell to the restaurant.
Back to Punta Cana
Palm plantations, rice fields and sugarcane plantations
A long drive today, from Las Galeras back to Punta Cana. It's a distance of 500 kilometers and it takes us almost 10 hours. The alternative would have been to spend the night in a hotel on the way, but we wanted to spend one more day in Las Galeras.
We take the highway as much as possible today. The first part, to Santo Domingo, goes well, but in the city itself it's a disaster. It takes us almost one and a half hours to get out of the city. While we're sitting in traffic, a bus hits us from behind. Not hard, luckily, and there is no damage, but fun it's not.
Our drive takes us along vast palm plantations (Samana peninsula), rice fields (before we reach Santo Domingo) and sugarcan plantations (near Punta Cana). The country seems to be able to take care of its basic needs. Rice and potatoes, many different vegetables, platanos and bananas, an enormous variety of fruit (pineapple, papaya, banana, melons, and even apples, pears and strawberries in the mountains near Jarabacoa).
We see pigs everywhere, so there also is enough pork, chickens and their eggs, cheese and milk from the cows, the sea is full of fish and there is ample rainfall which, if collected (but they don't) would supply the island with enough clean water for the whole year. Electricity can be generated with the waterfalls, which is done. Potentially a country that has everything, but unfortunately there still is a lot of poverty.
We're back in our hotel in Punta Cana a 5:30 PM. We have seen so many beautiful things over past few weeks and we return safely and without a scratch on the car to our point of departure.
On our last they we return the car. We enjoy the beach one last time. When I swim a little away from the beach, a pelican dives into the sea at a distance of two meters from me to catch a fish. After it has eaten, it stays next to me, floating on the waves.