Looking for paradise?
Try Google Images. You will get thousands of pictures of white sandy beaches fringed by wind-swept coconut palm trees and washed by turquoise water. Cliché? Perhaps.
But it seems a fact that the vast majority of web users identifies Caribbean scenery with the idea of ‘paradise’. I certainly felt I had entered a parallel universe when, after an 8-hours flight from London Gatwick, I found myself swimming in the Atlantic Ocean after a stroll on Bavaro Beach. I must admit I didn’t know much about the Dominican Republic before we booked this last-minute escape to the Caribbean. All we wanted was sunshine, fresh fish for dinner, and blue waters to swim in.
The Dominican Republic seemed to tick all of those boxes, and more: you can be on a beach literally fifteen minutes after leaving the palm-roofed huts of Punta Cana Airport.
I was relieved to see the sun shining through the cloud; the weather forecast had not been particularly favourable, but I have learnt not to be put off by the yellow lightening symbol on a Caribbean weather chart. Tropical rain is warm and the storms rarely last more than a couple of hours. The proof was we used up our full supply of sunscreen within five days.
Glad to be on the other side of a recent rough patch, my travel companion and I decided to treat ourselves to a luxurious all-inclusive stay for the first leg of our journey. This kind of accommodation is, perhaps, the closest we can call a modern-day utopia, with all the perks that capitalism can offer to the Western consumer: unlimited supplies of succulent fish and tropical fruit; freshly-made cocktails on demand; smiling staff ready to help. Could this be paradise? In many ways, it is/was. We felt privileged. So why did I also feel guilty? My feelings echoed Hanif Kureishi‘s article on his stay in St. Lucia:
The well-off of the first world have always used the third world as their playground, brothel, resource and factory. And the middle class of the third world – usually living elsewhere – have always been happy to sell off their prettiest things. This mild and often comic recreation of colonialism for the European elite, this suspended piece of the past – where ordinary whites can pretend to be aristocrats for a week – makes one wonder why there isn’t anything more fruitful or intelligent for willing workers to do. (The Guardian, 25 January 2014)
Perhaps the truth is that there is not such a thing as a guilt-free paradise. But you could also argue that foreign investments of this kind also boost the country’s economy and create employment. Leaving politics aside, what I really enjoyed about my stay in Bavaro Beach, was that, although the beach is largely dominated by all-inclusive resorts catering primarily to foreign visitors, the sandy shores are not the sole privilege of tourists. Indeed, on Easter week-end, local people appeared to enjoy their holiday on the beach as much – if not more – than the visitors. Large groups, often comprising several generations, crowded the public stretches of the long beach, come from nearby villages for a paddle in the sea, the children in their underwear, the elderly fully clothed. Some of the adults, less interested in the beach, gathered in the dancing clubs until the early hours of Easter Sunday.
Banana Boats and More: Water Sports in Bavaro
We knew that Christ had risen when we saw banana boat streaming fast across the bay.
The Dominicans treat the Holy Week (Semana Santa) very seriously; we were told – rather apologetically – that the banana boat and the inflatable donut – ‘Big Mable ‘ – would not be available until Easter Monday, when we inquired about water sports. We were not too fussed; there were plenty more attractions than bouncing over a rubber dinghy chasing a speedboat. In fact, speed was precisely what I didn’t want from my holiday. It was a time to follow a more natural rhythm of life. Our days often started with a barefoot run on the beach, which left us with very stiff calves on the first two days (you’re not supposed to run for more than 15 minutes, the first time you try out a sandy terrain!) or an early-morning swim. After breakfast, which for me consisted of lechoza (papaya), oats, and a pastry, we spent more time in the water, windsurfing, or snorkelling.
Snorkelling is like entering another layer of paradise. Of course it’s just great to be able to swim in the sea, but when you can see what goes on underwater, you really feel like you’re in a dreamscape. Talking with a diver we met on the boat trip that took us to the reef, we agreed that the reef was not as spectacular as in other parts of the world (Australia and the Red Sea came to mind), but it was still worth exploring. And when you don’t think the bottom of the sea offers anything interesting, you just need to sharpen your eyesight to spot sandy coloured sting-rays lying still on the sea bed. Or look up, close to the surface, and you will spot tiny needle-fish swimming all around you. On our first trip, off Bavaro Beach, the sea was very choppy and it was difficult to get a close look of the reef. Nevertheless, we did see plenty of fish and coral.
Leaving the Compound: Samaná
When we finally decided it was time to leave the safe and comfortable of environs of the all-you can eat/drink/enjoy resort, we rented a car and started exploring the island. Our first stop was Samaná, the narrow peninsula that juts out of the north coast of the country. Our journey took us across the country, as we drove from Punta Cana to Las Terrenas via La Romana. It was an eye-opener, in many ways. The wetter climate in the north means that the vegetation is lusher and the climate more humid, though not uncomfortably so. The vast expanse of land on either side of the road was thickly covered in vegetation, and, occasionally, a small flock of colourful birds would fly above us.
It made me think of what Europe must have looked like before ‘civilisation’, when large areas of our old world would remain untouched by concrete and technology. It’s not being conservative about progress, but an exercise in time travel. Driving through the country also gave us a first glimpse of what we already knew.
A large portion of Dominicans still live in very simple conditions, at the other end of the accommodation spectrum than what an all-inclusive resort might offer. Wooden shacks scattered on either side of the road gather small villages, communities whose subsistence relies on the mango, coconut, cocoa and coffee. By the coast, of course, fish is plenty, too. Samaná felt instantaneously more chilled than Punta Cana. Fewer buildings, fewer people around. The beaches we went to, Playa Coson, Playa Madám, and Playa Frontón all felt secluded, even though their reputation is widely spread among visitors. Even Playa Rincón, reputed to be the most beautiful beach in the world by some, was hardly crowded.
The friendly German tour operator we met in the fishing village of Las Galeras, told us this is low season. Most European visitors tend to come in the heart of winter. Well, we felt privileged to be there at the right time, with few other lucky travellers. The most spectacular snorkelling experience was, undoubtedly, off the coast of Cayo Levantado (the famous Bacardi island of the 1970s advert), we were rewarded with beautiful red starfish, giant sea urchins and a thousands of fish (I’m not exaggerating).
Post-snorkelling refreshments consististed of a fabulous lunch of langostines accompanied by coco loco (coconut milk, granatine, rum, served, of course in a green coconut shell).
Beyond the Beach
But the peninsula offers more than sandy shorelines and turquoise waters. The National Park of Les Haitises is a protected area best visited by boat. One of the highlights of the park is the mangrove swamps, which fringe a large part of the coastline.
These amazing plants, whose roots have a sophisticated filtering system that extracts salt from saline water, are responsible for the delicate equilibrium of the park’s ecosystem. The complex root system helps the environment in two ways: first, it prevents erosion; second it offers a suitable environments for several marine creatures, including lobsters, oysters, and crabs.
The 365 islands of the park also conceal several caves, many of which can be visited for their Taíno mural paintings.
The subjects of these paintings are largely taken from the natural surroundings, which, thanks to conservation efforts, would appear to have changed little since the civilization became extinct in the 16th century, after the Spanish colonisation. So there is an interesting continuity between the paintings of whales, plants, and birds, and the scenery outside the caves. We saw a crane bird in the wild, literally minutes after seeing it painted in one of the caves.
Another spot worth a visit is the Limón waterfalls. A recommendation from our hotel in Las Terrenas, we started our horseback treck from Santi’s Restaurant in Limón. The ride was, perhaps, more interesting than the waterfall.
Moreno and Colorado, our horses for the afternoon, looked both rather thin, and I had my doubts about them making it up the hill, especially after the filling lunch Santi had cooked for us as part of the deal. I was proved wrong; not only did our steeds deliver us to the waterfalls in good time, but they also raced each other along the path. Our guide, who travelled alongside on foot, showed us the plants of cocoa, coffee, and even small pineapples sprouting on the forest floor. I never realised how beautiful the banana flower is.
On our way back toward Punta Cana, we explored the south of the island, though we gave Santo Domingo a miss this time; we opted, instead, to spend a couple of days in the Bayahibe region, an area densely populated and visited by Italians, as many of the restaurants testify; we had the most romantic meal under the stars in one of the secluded gazebos of Tracadero, one of the most upmarket seafood restaurants in Dominicus. During the day, we took a boat tour to the Parque Nacional del Este, and stopped in the Saona Island, where we visited Mano Juan, a small fishing village. The villagers appeared happy to see tourists, if nothing else because of the florid souvenir tourist trade.
Walking through the village, however, I had mixed feelings about those visitors in our group who magnanimously gave away pastries smuggled out of their all-inclusive breakfasts to the beautiful indigenous children. While everybody took photographs of the posing children, my travel companion spent some time chatting to a disabled child, aptly hidden from the other children on display.
No trip of this part of the country should omit the star attraction of the region, La Cueva de las Maravillas, ‘the cave of wonders’, easily accessed from the highway between San Pedro and La Romana. This is a wonderful complex of caves, only 30% of which is accessible for conservation purposes. We were lucky to visit the cave last thing in the evening, on an ad-hoc private tour. Maria, our guide – despite the fact that her tip was inevitably going to be smaller given the reduced size of the group – made sure we got the most out of our tour. I have seen my fair share of stalactites and stalagmites in the past, but there was something special about the concretions of Las Maravillas. Perhaps I was influenced my recent snorkelling experiences, but I did feel the cave looked like an upside down ocean floor, with corals and seaweed hanging down from the ceiling. Truly magic.
If you are into wildlife, you will enjoy the iguana sanctuary which is attached to the cave complex.
Sex, Drugs, and Merengue
At the end of the tour, our guide asked us for a lift; she had missed the last bus to La Romana. During the short trip, she told us about the difficulties faced by young women in the Dominican Republic, a society largely dominated by discrimination and patriarchal attitudes towards women. Domestic violence is endemic, as is female unemployment. Trapped in abusive marriages, and unable to find a job to support themselves and their children, women often have nowhere to turn to. This is, it would appear, a country which still regards women for their beauty and youthful appearance. If you are over 25 and larger than a size 8, you may not be able to apply for a job in a bank or an airline. For years, Maria was tied to a boyfriend who kept her and their children, while cheating on her.
In the end, I got him to pay for my degree, found a job, and left with my children. It’s a struggle, but I’m free.
There is a dark side to paradise, after all. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the popularity of the country as a sex tourism destination. It was no coincidence that in Las Terrenas Viagra was on special offer at the chemist’s where I bought coconut oil. The local pub we went to for a drink on our last saturday night, had rooms upstairs where local girls took their European clients and their blue pills. It would seem that even if you are pretty, you may not get that office job after all.
Despite these incidents, one the whole the island felt like a safe place to travel. The locals are very friendly and, although their economy relies heavily on tourism, we were never treated like ‘walking wallets’. On the contrary, Dominicans love a party. At night time, the local rhythms – merengue, bachata – blare out of ghetto-blasters, car stereos, even petrol stations. In Bayahibe, we stumbled upon a ‘fiesta patronal‘, a village fête which involved, needless to say, a lot of dancing.
After their show, the dancers got off stage and invited some of the guests to dance with them. I was picked by a handsome dancer for a round of merengue. I hope he still has all his toes.
The Dominican Republic was well worth a visit, and driving around the country allowed us to explore the natural beauty of the country beyond the packaged image offered by all-inclusive holidays. Just remember not to park your car under a coconut tree. The insurance will not cover any damage caused by free-falling coconuts!