The DR has fabulous caves and cenotes to explore, especially in Cotubanamá National Park. The first, Cueva de Chicho, is a short one kilometer walk in from the parking lot through a picturesque forest. Bring your snorkel gear, or if you dive, hire someone to take you down. I’ve been slowly getting into caving during my travels and I’m trying to stop being afraid of the harmless dark so I can do more adventuring. This darkness had an added challenge since I don’t really care for the water to begin with. Swimming into crevices and or into corners and seeing the ground drop off into black pits of nothingness added another fear factor. After venturing around the dark a few times, we were lucky that a group of divers came because their lights illuminated the rock formations beneath the surface as I snorkeled on top.
The second cave here is Cueva del Puente. This is about a three kilometer walk in and the trail, while obvious, is somewhat rough, so there aren’t many other people here. This cave is spectacular. It’s around 1,000 feet long and has openings in the ceiling where roots are coming down from trees. It ends at one such massive opening, which looks like a portal to another world. But the best part is, right before that big opening, if you crouch down and crawl into the openings along the wall, you’ll actually end up in another massive chamber that goes on and on, opening into additional chambers. It’s wild. These additional passage ways have clearly been explored and charted, but you feel like you’re discovering new underground worlds all on your own. And here again, I got to practice beating my fear of nothing. I knew where I was, I was with someone else, I wasn’t going to get lost, but even so, I could only venture so deep before that irrational fear of the nothing creeps in. It’s a safe environment to force yourself to face it and push forward and I enjoyed this exploration very much.
The Communication Problems
If you are familiar with Spanish varieties, you’ll know that Caribbean Spanish is the hardest to understand. People in this region speak extremely fast and they drop a lot of letters. On top of that, there are Creole and Arawak influences, and words that you don’t find in other Spanish-speaking countries. New to me were chinola (passion fruit), guineo (banana), colmado (corner market), and zafacón (trash bin).
Something else that struck me was the expression ¿sólo esto? from cashiers before they ring up your purchase. I’m used to hearing the more direct English translation ¿algo más? (anything else?) instead of “only this”? To my English brain, ¿sólo esto? sounds like they are disappointed or surprised I’m not buying more, but I’m sure they only mean it like ¿algo más?
All that aside, Dominicans have a bare communication style that often led to missed information or frustratingly drawn out conversations. They aren’t big on proactively supplying the answers to logical follow up questions. For example, when I asked at one park trailhead if there was a fee for entry, the employee answered “yes”. That’s it. My obviously implied next question was “how much” but he wasn’t going to answer that question until I explicitly asked it. I had this type of interaction a lot and found it very frustrating. Technically, they answered my question every time, but come on.
The Friendliness Dichotomy
The Dominican Republic wins the prize for the nicest immigration officer I have ever encountered. When I arrived, the lady I spoke to was all smiles. Most of her questioning was done in Spanish, but after she stamped my passport, she handed it back to me with another huge smile and said in English, “Miss Swallow, Welcome to Dominican Republic!” It was so charming. Besides that interaction, I had a number of interactions with people – mostly women – who were over-the-top friendly.
But the friendliness seems to be all or nothing. If they aren’t over-the-top friendly, they are almost surly. Not quite as full-on surly as people in Jamaica, which wins the prize for my second least favorite country, but not pleasant at all. There is no friendly “hi, come on in” or “hi, welcome” and no smiles when you walk into stores or restaurants. I get that life is hard there and Americans are known around the world for being ridiculously smiley, so this isn’t a criticism, just an observation. And interesting to me that I experienced this in another Caribbean nation, rather than somewhere else in the world.
Cats Over Dogs
There are stray dogs in the DR, more so in the rural areas, as is normal, but the cats are the animals to watch out for. The stray dogs really don’t care about humans. They ignore you and do their own thing. But the cats are aggressive little buggers. They will sit next to your chair during your whole meal and meow incessantly until you feed them. And they are everywhere.
In the big tourist areas, like where the boats dock in Bayahibe for Isla Saona tours or on the beach at Playa Cayo Levantado (also known as Bacardi Island), men walk around with exotic animals. They hold parrots and iguanas and offer them up for drunk tourists to manhandle and take photos with for a small fee. It’s awful. Those animals must be so stressed out and who knows how they are treated out of sight of tourists. I don’t blame the Dominicans. You have to do what you can to make a living, but the tourists who engage this opportunity disgust me.
The DR has lots of Spanish, Italians, and French living there full time, as well as a sizable Chinese population. But why do the foreigners own everything? One friend that came down there with me is a diver and all the dive shops he used around the country were owned by Europeans. They don’t even seem to be giving jobs to Dominicans, at least the one shop I went to with him only had foreign staff. This makes me sad. My friend also spent a day with real estate agent but she was French. I guess the government wants foreign investment any way it can get it, but when I see kind of takeover, I understand why people (and countries like Bolivia) get nationalistic.
Reverence to Columbus
Parts of Christopher Columbus are supposedly buried in the monstrosity that is the Columbus Lighthouse on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. No, I didn’t visit it. But it is controversial. This article has an interesting analysis of why Dominicans still seem to revere the man and are reluctant to cut ties to this legacy. Most of the author’s argument is around needing to maintain ties to white Europe and the money those ties generate in a country where most people are African descendants…their ancestors brought over as slaves as a results of Columbus’s exploitation. It’s complicated.
Did you know that Haiti once occupied the Dominican Republic? Between 1800 and 1844, there were numerous takeover attempts. The differences between these two halves of the island are stark, especially now as violence has escalated in the last two years since the assassination of the president. Concerning which, by the way, arrests were recently made. PBS has some good videos (click here and here) about just how awful things are there right now – gangs, cholera, starvation. It must be terrifying to simply try to exist in Port-au-Prince. The Dominican Republic is even building a wall to keep Haitians on their side. So it’s kind of hard to imagine Haiti having the upper hand.
The Cave of the Winds Sandals
For three summers, I was a tour guide in Niagara Falls. I drove a 24-passenger bus and shuffled tourists around to the Maid of the Mist boat that takes you up close to the Horseshoe Falls and the Cave of the Winds tour that lets you walk up close to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. On the Cave of the Winds tour, they give you green, white, and navy blue sandals to wear so you don’t soak your own shoes. You can see them in the photos on this blog. After three years in a row of seeing my tourists in those sandals, I would recognize them anywhere.
After the tour, you can leave the sandals in a bin to donate to charity, which most people do. I never knew exactly where they went, but I saw people wearing them in the Dominican Republic. This makes me happy. It’s always good to get validation that a charity drive is not fake and our single-use wasteful American habits are doing some good somewhere.
On a side note, it is not advisable to wear sandals if you visit Dunes of Baní. You will scorch your little feet. But the place is worth a stop if you’re driving west from Santo Domingo toward Haiti. You can see lots of goats and iguanas, and also go to the old salt mine at the pink lake.
The Beach Situation
Beaches in the DR are hit or miss. I’m sure the beaches are Punta Cana are incredible, or they wouldn’t have built resorts there, but I would never go to such an intensely touristy area. The ones along Cotubanamá National Park are lined with jagged rocks that will cut you if you try to get in the water. You have to pay for a boat out to Isla Saona or Isla Catalina for nice beaches. Same deal if you are in Samaná – take a boat out to Isla Cayo Levantado. The beach there is crowded but lovely and all the beach chairs are free and you can rent kayaks, which seem to be non-existent in other places like Bayahibe. Sadly, there are the guys with the animals walking around asking for money to pose for a photo with a parrot and the souvenir shops are a major hassle. But the best part of Isla Cayo Levantado is that when you order a piña colada, if you want alcohol added, they just hand you the bottle of rum and you add as much as you want, for no extra charge than the non-alcoholic version.
Stats show that 26.26% of major league baseball players come from the Dominican Republic. So I thought I’d see baseball diamonds everywhere and that it would be a big pastime. Nope, not at all. And not even soccer. Basketball is the thing. Basketball courts are everywhere, real ones and makeshift ones in the streets. People know the American teams and the players and talk about it a lot. Baseball, not so much. Maybe it’s because you need more equipment and space for baseball. Or maybe it’s because Sammy Sosa wasn’t as a great a role model as people wanted, though they did name a highway after him. Who knows. Cock fighting is also a thing, though my friend and I thought this would make a better wrestling ring.
Some Things are Universal
Nobody likes paying taxes. In theory, credit cards are accepted most places in the Dominican Republic, but in practice, places prefer you pay in cash. If you pay with a card, they have to pay taxes and they would prefer to not do that. Everyone is cheating the man, and simultaneously complaining about the lack of government services, like trash collection and lighting along the highways. The highways that have tolls (which are very high!) are well lit and cared for though.
Not that I think Dominicans should start following the straight and narrow. Not at all. I’ve certainly avoided paying taxes in my life as much as possible, especially when I worked for cash as a waitress and tour guide. Even if they paid their taxes they likely wouldn’t get services due to massive corruption among high-ranking officials, and Sammy Sosa.