Friday, July 20, 2012

Dominican Republic - 101 kilometers in the countryside

Of all the various tourist activities available in Punta Cana, we decided on something that seemed more complex, with enough “local flavor” unique to the area.  As such, we eliminated a few off the top:  

  • Zip-line.  One can do that state-side as well (maybe not necessarily with a lush tropical forest beneath, but still…)
  • Swim with the dolphins (this was one of those “no discount” deals); $150 per person, 10 people 30 minutes in the water with one dolphin.  Plus $30 for the parent to “watch” and another $30+ for the DVD.  The math works to $200+ for 3 minutes with the dolphin per individual.  I think I’ve paid less for prostitutes (and didn’t even need the whole 3 minutes!)…  Actually, I’m pretty sure I didn’t… Joke, people!  Joke.  That was a joke.  A     j o k e.
  • Saona Island.  Didn’t seem like paying $90+/pp to get on a big catamaran and go visit a “deserted” island (along with a few hundred other “castaways”) was money well spent, especially when we had [smaller] catamarans, exotic beaches and free drinks right at our fingertips…
  • Dune buggies.  Might as well call ‘em dumb buggies, for it’s a dumb idea to be in an open cart that travels through sand dunes… especially when you’re not the first cart ;-)  Incredibly enough, I’ve seen people pay money to do this.  Not anyone I’d like to socialize with, of course!
  • Santo Domingo day trip.  Visit the old town and tour the well preserved edifices of the first Spanish settlement in the New World.  This would have been interesting, but not for the kids, and the 3.5 hour trip each way seemed long (and would not leave much time for sightseeing)
So you get the idea.  Plenty of stuff to spend money on if you’re really looking to get out of the resort.  In the end, we settled for one that seemed to include a little bit of everything, and it turned out to be well worth it.  Jeep Safari Adventures was called (or something like that) and seemed like the best deal for the money (including some “priceless” lessons for the kids, like how poor people live in certain parts of the world, and how good it feels to provide charity to those less fortunate).

So here it goes: the story of 101 kilometers through the Dominican Republic country side.

The drive from Iberostar to the departure point reminded me of some of the gipsy villages back in Romania thirty years ago.  Or even better, some of the darker corners of 2 Mai or Vama Veche (given the proximity to the sea).  Again, pictures “explain” it better…

the "bank" (the little box with orange letters - Banca Real)
the grocery store 
the mall
the family vehicle of choice (we've seen as many as 4 on a motorcycle)
the outdoor dried-meat market !
"fresh-or-so" caught crabs

... and other commercial establishments...

The caravan was comprised of a dozen or so Suzuki Jimny SUVs.  Mom rode with a couple from Connecticut.  Laura and I plus 3 kids had our own “wheels”…

First stop: a sugar cane plantation.  Interesting experience for everyone; tasted the raw stuff… very sweet, of course.  Learned that harvesting is only done manually and it pays $3 per ton.  Even then, it leads to a lot of immigration problems, for the majority of the work is done by illegals from Haiti (people from the DR mostly work in tourism-related jobs).  DR is one of the major sugar cane exporters, and this crop is the second revenue generator behind tourism.

From there, off to a tobacco museum to learn a bit about cigar-making.  Now, they claim Cubans are best, but the same type of tobacco grows in the region, in the same type of conditions.  So in the end, it’s up to the manufacturing process.  Dominican cigars can be just as good, if not better (for those in the know).  Just don’t be fooled by really low prices found on beach shacks and other shady “retail” areas.  You’ll end up getting “burned” with “cigars” made out of dry banana leaves.  Right, Bogdan?

... to the finished product 
from leaves (DR are the biggest ;-)

Another local staple – found in most tourist spots – is Mamajuana: a mixture of dark rum, wine and honey that gets poured over tree bark, herbs and twigs.  The liquid tastes quite pleasant (almost like a sweet port) but once mixed with the rest it turns pretty nasty, although they claim it has Viagra-like properties…     

But let’s keep going.  Thirty minutes or so later we arrived at this local farm up in the mountains, where we spent a good part of the afternoon.  On the way, we passed numerous little villages where the kids could get an appreciation of what it means to be poor.  They instantly realized how good they have it!

We had made some sandwiches (about a dozen) to have for the road… we ended up giving them away to the village kids.  The pure joy in their eyes as they grabbed the food was priceless.  And the lesson for our kids equally important: it does feel good to help others in need.  The reality that kids can grow up without basics (let alone video games, TV, ToysRUs and Justice) was quite humbling…

one of the local schools
the corner cafe
one of the nicer looking homes
a colorful village-center

the local Disco, and next to it...
...the outhouse (his and hers)

this guy substituted the machete for the weed-wacker
At the farm, we got to fully experience cocoa (the membrane surrounding the seeds in the raw fruit tastes a bit like mango, with a nutty hint of vanilla to it; quite interesting).  The sun-dried seeds had a strong chocolate flavor (of course) and the hot cocoa with fresh cow milk was phenomenal.  The kids asked for seconds, then thirds!

Baby bananas
cocoa and coffee
Cocoa pod (fruit)
the raw stuff

under the cocoa tree
The local coffee we sampled was good also; so was the Mamajuana.  And the fresh fruit was yummy.  Learning a bit about how it’s all processed was very educational.  Apparently 40% of the cocoa imported by the Swiss chocolate makers comes from the DR!

Next, we got a quick taste of something we’ll never see in the US: a cock fight.  Apparently it’s the second “sport” on the island (after baseball) and people make or lose fortunes betting on the little roosters.  This version, however, was “PG” (no betting allowed, it only lasted less than 30 seconds, and their spurs were covered to prevent serious injury and blood-spill).  The kids, however, got a picture-taking opportunity with the combatants afterwards.

 for some... a pet
After that, off to get geared up for zip-lining; a first for most of us, from “Jackson” (who all of a sudden HAD to go to the bathroom as we were walking up the scaffold) to mom (who at 65 got to check off this activity – as well as horseback riding – from her “bucket list” ;-)

Let me tell you, as scared and reluctant the kids may have been going up, they didn’t want to take off the harnesses afterwards… “Can we go again? Please? Pleeaase?  Pleeeaaase?”  It is a lot of fun, indeed!
From there, lunch with a little local flavor and a short session on horseback.  Granted, by this time, the poor animals – already skinny-bone for the most part – were pretty tired.  Again, the kids seemed to enjoy themselves.

Next, back in the jeeps for another 30 min trek through local farmland and villages, with Macao Beach as the final destination.  This is one of the locals’ beaches in the area – some surfers, although the conditions were calm – with no “commercialization” nearby.  So we got a little taste of an unaltered tropical beach.  Enjoy the pics!

child's play

Presidente - the local beer
From there, back to the origination point, and on to a bus that dropped people off to their resorts.  Ours was last, unfortunately, but we got to see what most of the other resorts looked like – which is why I stand by my claim that Iberostar was one of the nicest…

All in all, it was an excellent way to experience some of the local flavor, although for the most part it was touristicized [just invented a new word] to make it more appealing, perhaps… Regardless, we all took some mental images and learned some valuable lessons that will remain engrained forever.  Would I recommend this to anyone vacationing on the island?  Absolutely!

Macao Beach panorama


  1. how much did the trip cost per person? Also, do you know if all of the resorts in the area had the trip to offer?

    Please respond to my email.

    Thank You,
    Alan Schachter

    1. my email is: