Busses and taxis and trucks, oh my!

From the moment I first saw the silhouette of the mountains of the Dominican Republic far in the distance as we sailed toward them at sunrise, I KNEW I wanted to hike them! Easier said than done. Pico Duarte mountain in the Jose Armando Bermudez National Park is more than 130 km from our anchorage in Luperon. And you can’t just show up and do the hike. Park regulations require you to hire a guide and mules, and the hike is long enough that you need to plan to spend at least one night near the trailhead the night before and the night after, and one night camping near the summit. So I set to work researching my options, and eventually booked an organized trek through Rancho Baiguate in Jarabacoa. But once I had booked this epic trip which was definitely NOT within our usual cruiser budget, I was NOT going to hire a car and driver to take us there at ridiculous cost. Instead, it was back to the internet to research busses on Spanish language websites that challenged every bit of my (and Google’s) translation skills. But we did it! And here’s how that journey across the Dominican Republic went down….

At 6:30am, our friend Brian of Tanda Tula kindly ferried us to shore in his dinghy, so we wouldn’t have to leave ours unattended at the government dock for days. Then we hauled our bags about a kilometer across town to the taxi stand to catch a Guagua, or shared taxi. This mode of conveyance (named after the sound of an old timey car horn) is a cheap way to travel within a town or between towns. It cost us 65 pesos per person to cram into a propane powered sedan to travel to the next closest town of Imbert. Including the driver, they wait until they have three people in the front seat, and four people in the back seat, and then they take off!

Once we arrived in Imbert, we simply crossed the street to the Javilla Tours bus station and looked for the boleteria, or ticket window. These van-sized busses only go one place – to the next biggest town of Santiago, so buying a ticket was easy. 130 pesos each and we were on our way! It was surprisingly organized. They gave everyone a deli counter number, so there was no rushing for the next bus. Everyone just lined up politely and got on in numeric order. But then we ran into our first problem. Capt. Mike was trying to track our progress with Google off-line maps and he had just said “We’ve got about 15 minutes to go” When I said “Wait! Isn’t that the Caribe Tours bus station? ” Darn Google! We traveled about half a mile in the wrong direction because neither of us knew how to ask the bus driver to stop in Spanish. Finally I decided it was better to embarrass myself than to keep going the wrong way, so I jumped up in the aisle and started waving my arms and saying stop until the bus pulled over. Phew! Now we just had to reverse our track on foot back to the big yellow bus station.

Caribe Tours busses connect the big cities of the Dominican Republic, and they are more like Greyhound – air conditioned with WiFi and toilets and even a movie. Heavenly! It cost us 100 pesos each ($2) to catch the Caribe Tours bus to La Vega. After that, the busses to the mountain resort town of Jarabacoa are few and far between, so we had a while to wait in the La Vega bus station. Plenty of time to explore the various food shacks around the block and to decide that our best options for a gluten free lunch, with our limited Spanish, was to point at whatever was left on the breakfast buffet. We ended up with the rest of the fried eggs and a huge scoop of mashed potatoes with pickled onions for each of us. The woman who served us was very patient, but everyone in the kitchen stuck their heads out the kitchen window to watch the crazy gringos try to order breakfast, lol.

I stuck to my theory that it was better to embarrass myself than to miss my bus, so every time a new bus pulled into the station I’d pop out of my seat and ask at the ticket window, “Jarabacoa?” They took pity on the poor gringo and told me when the right bus arrived. Another 100 pesos each, and we climbed aboard our final bus. All that planning worked out, ’cause if we missed that one, we wouldn’t have arrived at the lodge until after dark. Once we arrived in the resort town of Jarabacoa I fought the cell phone service and my own terrible Spanish and finally got through to the lodge who sent a truck to pick us up.

Suddenly, we were transported to paradise! The lodge is set in a lovely wooded glen filled with flowering tropical plants designed to attract butterflies. There’s a river, and a swimming pool, and even miniature horses wandering through the grounds on their own. The restaurant is open air with a tin roof that goes “BANG!” every time a mango drops from a nearby tree. Those street shack eggs and potatoes seemed like a long time ago, so we browsed the lunch buffet and found salad! and vegetables! and roasted eggplant! and chicken. Oh yum. This is the first night we’ve spent away from Sanitas since the beginning of November and I reveled in the queen size beds. Capt. Mike was equally excited about the hammock on the patio.

Grand totals for this day of travel adventure:

    Travel time = 7 hours
  • Cost= 960 pesos (including lunch) = $19 for the two of us
  • Experiencing the country like a Dominican = Priceless

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A Day in the Life of Luperon

I’m starting to understand why some cruisers come to Luperon, Dominican Republic for a week and stay for years. Its residents are so friendly and even take pity on the stupid gringos who can’t talk right, figuring out how to communicate. Food and drink are ridiculously cheap compared to in The Bahamas, even reasonable compared to the US. It is kind of nice not to be worrying about what it’s going to cost every time I step off the boat. And the expat community is made up of quirky, kind individuals who welcome us visitors and make us feel quickly at home. Some highlights of our stay so far:

Luperon Free Yoga

Veronique lives on one of three boats rafted together and anchored just off our starboard bow. She’s from the Mauritius Islands in the Indian Ocean, and her husband Bruce is from Zimbabwe and they’ve lived here for 35 years and raised a family here. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Veronique hikes up the dirt road behind the marina to the ruins of an abandoned resort overlooking the harbor and leads a free yoga session for whoever shows up. The setting is beautiful – in a gothic, crumbling kind of way. And it’s a wonderful way to start the day relaxed and centered. Oh! And on Wednesday, the fruit and vegetable guy will be at the marina right after yoga with his truck full of tropical goodness for sale.

Shopping

For such a small town, you can get almost everything you need here in Luperon. (And if you can’t find it here, Puerto Plata or Santiago are only a short drive away). There are grocery stores, MANY small fruit and vegetable markets, barber shops and salons, housewares, banks, cafes, a shop that sews sails and upholstery, used boat parts stores, cell phones and electronics stores, a dentist, a free medical clinic….

Fun fact about shopping in the DR: everything is priced separately. What do I mean by that? In the market, an egg costs 5 pesos. Doesn’t matter if you buy a dozen eggs or two eggs. A can of beer costs 50 pesos. Asked the shopkeeper how much a case of beer costs. He pulled out a calculator and typed in 24 x 50 = 1,200 pesos.

Lunch at the Chicken Shack

We’ve rarely cooked dinner since we’ve been here. There are many, many small independent restaurants, cafes, and takeouts around town and the Plato del Dia (meal of the day) is always about 130 pesos – less than $3. My favorite so far is the Chicken Shack (actually named Pico Pollo Luisa – most restaurants are named after the chef!) There’s no menu. The girl at the counter just tells you the two or three things they are serving today. When they sell out, they close up until tomorrow. After a tricky conversation, trying to get across that Mike and I are allergic to wheat (alergico al trigo) we ended up with a huge spread of food: beef strips cooked in a sauce with bell peppers and onions, rice, beans, cabbage salad, and mixed vegetables. The bill came to 250 pesos for the two of us – $5.

For that same 250 pesos, you can buy a whole marinated, grilled chicken from the sidewalk chicken man. Literally. He just has a charcoal grill set up on a sidewalk one block off the main drag. When you walk by it smells exactly like the fireman’s barbecue fundraisers they have on summer weekends back in New York State. We’ve been twice, and he already recognizes us. Doesn’t ask now if we want the sauce because the first time we said no.

One day last week, we tried to eat lunch at the Chicken Shack, but we were too late and Luisa was sold out. So we walked back to Wendy’s Bar to ask Watchie the bartender for another recommendation. “Stay here, we’ll order lunch for you” he said. Another tricky conversation about being allergic to wheat. Next thing you know, both Watchie and Wendy’s mom are on their cell phones, calling various restaurants, asking whether the Plato del Dia is fried chicken or roasted chicken. I kind of lost track of what was going on at that point, but soon multiple delivery people showed up on foot or on motorbikes with takeout containers. Watchy spoke to them in Spanish, paid them, and brought us plates and silverware. We ended up with a plate of black beans and rice, one of white rice with a cup of habichuelas (ranchero beans) and a side salad of shredded lettuce and tomatoes. After about 15 minutes, another bowl appeared, full of roasted chicken in a savory sauce. Now, I’m speculating here. But I think what happened is that Watchie and Wendy’s mom felt bad that they hadn’t found us any gluten-free Chicken. So Wendy’s mom brought us some from her own kitchen! It was delicious, and we made sure to stuff a couple hundred pesos in the tip jar to cover it. How amazing is that?

Transportation

For such a small town, there’s every sort of transportation available. The most popular are small (but extremely loud) motor bikes. Some operate as taxis, and motorconcho corner is the loudest part of town. Of course, there are plenty of cars and trucks. The water delivery truck always seems to be filling up the road wherever I walk. The shared taxis (or guauguas) are a cheap way to get between towns. They’re regular sedan cars that don’t leave the taxi stand until they’re full. And full means the driver plus two passengers in the front, and four passengers in the back. Good thing it’s not a very long ride! There’s a big modern passenger bus that travels between Luperon and Santo Dominingo twice a day. When you see it coming, it seems impossible that that behemoth will actually fit down the narrow street, and will make the turn around the corner without taking down part of a building. At the other extreme, some people still ride horses or donkey, and use them to carry impressively massive loads through the center of town. Which then adds poop to the mud in the middle of the street. I might need to throw away my flip flops after a few weeks in Luperon.

Speaking of Wendy’s Bar….

It’s kind of the cornerstone of the expat community in Luperon. We think Norm is married to Wendy’s sister and he is one of the admins of the Cruiser’s Net. You’ll run into everyone who’s living on a boat in Luperon at Wendy’s eventually. And you’ll definitely see them there for the free movies on Monday, or at the dance classes on Wednesday, or at karaoke night on Fridays. In addition to serving the coldest beers in Luperon, you can ask the experts how to get around, where to buy something you need, how to say something in Spanish – you get the idea. Norm’s brother-in-law sells homemade mozzarella cheese for $2. The peanut girl comes by with a bucket filled with delicious salty snacks for 10 pesos a bag, and can also get you homemade natural peanut butter. There’s a lending library filled with sailing books, and the WiFi is fast and reliable. There’s a water bowl for dogs and always a few friendly strays wandering through wagging their tails and hoping for a kind word or your lunch scraps. What else does a cruiser need?

Exploring the Gringo Trail – Waterfalls and Cable Cars

On our first full day in the DR, we joined forces with Nick and Sara of SV Borealis and rented a car to explore. Papo set us up with a car for $25 plus gas (I’m pretty sure it was his brother’s car. There was a kid’s sandal under the seat, and some games in the trunk) Thank goodness Nick drove, because I’m pretty sure I’d have had a nervous breakdown navigating the construction zones, big trucks, and hundreds of motorbikes somehow sharing the narrow road.

First stop – the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua. Although apparently there’s a drought. So we only got 12 waterfalls. Which was plenty. For $11.50 per person, we were given helmets and life vests and matched up with a guide. We hiked a couple of miles up the river valley which was a great chance to stretch our legs after so long in the boat. Then things got interesting. Sara and I both had the same expectations of this trip – we’d go on a lovely walk, take pictures of waterfalls, and cool off with a soak in a swimming hole. Well, not exactly.

Instead, our guides hearded us into the narrow river where we started to wade and swim our way back downstream. Through a few colorful canyons and next thing you know, we’re all standing next to a wooden platform on the edge of a 15-foot cliff. In broken English, the guide told the first person in line “stand here, hold here, let go, 1..2..3..jump far.” The first person does not jump. The guide tries again. Capt. Mike announces to anyone within hearing, “Jenn is never going to do this.”

I always rise to the challenge, so on my turn I only took two “1..2..3..jump’s” to gather up enough courage to “jump far.” A rush of adrenaline, a swoosh in the stomach, a slap against the surface of the water (note to self – next time keep your legs straight), a big gush of water up the nose, and I break the surface. Alive! I gotta admit, it was pretty exhilarating.

For the next hour and a half, we alternated between wading and swimming, jumping off cliffs, and sliding down natural rock chutes into pools of cool water. All in all, a great adventure, and well worth the price of admission! But 12 was enough. By the end, I told Capt. Mike “I’m getting tired of people pushing me off things.” And Sara thought she’d never get all of the water out of her nose.

Afterwards, we dried off and got back in the car to head to the touristy beach resort of Cofresi, near the Ocean World complex. Another cruiser recommended a Mexican restaurant near the beach, so we sought it out for lunch. A beautiful location, but overpriced compared to what we’ve become accustomed to in Luperon, and the Dominican interpretation of Mexican food is definitely not something to write home about. Good margarita though! Here in the DR, they make them with fresh squeezed juice from tiny little limes, and that alone makes them delicious.

Next stop on the must-do tourist path in the Puerto Plata cable car. In the US, we never ride the cable cars – we always hike to earn the great mountain views. But here, riding in a 40 year old Italian gondola – the only one in the Caribbean – was part of the experience. As was watching the faces of the riders as the car rocked and swung, and sometimes swooped straight up.

The botanical gardens at the top are lovely, and we thoroughly enjoyed walking through the cooler misty mountain park, soaking in the flowers and tropical vegetation and turtles and lizards.

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here’s a concrete structure at the top of the mountain that used to be a military pillbox during the Trujillo day’s, and has now been transformed to an image of peace and topped with a replica of the Christ the Redeemer statue. Stunning!

I wish we hadn’t eaten too much mediocre Mexican food at the tourist restaurant, because a Dominican family was having a barbecue at the top of the mountain and they offered us heaping plates of chicken and rice that smelled delicious.

On the way back to Luperon, we stopped at one of the many roadside stands selling tropical fruit and loaded up on coconut, mangos, and bananas. I think we got slightly ripped off and charged the gringo tax, but everything was so ripe and tasty and still cost less that in a grocery store at home, so I barely minded. The next morning’s mango/banana/coconut granola was AMAZING!!!

Welcome to the Dominican Republic! Buenos Dias!

When sailing from the Turks and Caicos to the Dominican Republic, there are two main options of where to stop first to clear into the country:

  • Ocean World in Cofresi which is a world class resort and marina with security gates, electricity at the docks, a theme park, lots of pricy restaurants and bars.
  • Or Luperon, a very protected harbor and a fishing village with a small expat community, inexpensive mooring balls, very few English speakers, and the chance to experience the real Dominican Republic.

Two guesses which we chose!

After a very smooth 24-hour passage from Provo to the DR, we had to actually slow down, to ensure we didn’t arrive before daybreak. We could see the outline of mountains and could even smell land from about eight miles away. We were nervous about finding our way through the shoals into the harbor, but the channel was extremely well marked – a piece of cake! We hailed Papo on VHF channel 68 and soon were safely attached to a mooring ball at a fee of $2/day. We raised the yellow quarantine flag and tried to figure out how to clear customs. We’d heard all kinds of rumors about the nightmare of clearing in at Luperon: “An army of people will board your boat, and they’ll all demand a tip!!!” “You never know what it will cost – you have to keep saying no to all the extra fees!!!” “You need a ‘zarpe’ paper proving that you cleared out of the Bahamas or they won’t let you into the DR!!!!” I think most cruisers skip Luperon just because of these horror stories.

But in our experience, clearing in was quite smooth, although time consuming and requiring some patience. After tying up to the dinghy dock, we walked up to a row of construction trailers and proceeded to work our way down the row: $80 to clear the boat into the country, $10 per person for a tourist card, $10 for Luperon harbor use fee. Now it’s true that not every official spoke English, and my brain wasn’t working very well on no sleep and no coffee so my Spanish was nonexistent. But we figured it out. After a final trip up a dirt path at the top of the hill past the cows to see the Navy commandant, we were checked in and officially in the DR!

The next order of business was to get some pesos. Cruisers previously had to take a bus to another town to find an ATM, but now there are several right in Luperon. Life hack: walk right past the bank ATM and use the one at the grocery store next door. It lets you withdraw 10,000 pesos for the same fee that the bank charges for 5,000. Score! (See the kind of tips cruisers give to help each other out?) Next, a stop at the Altice store to buy a sim card for internet access. Only $15 for 15 days of high speed unlimited data is not bad! Now Mike can have access to social media and funny cat videos as often as I can, and we can even stream Netflix from the boat.

Now that all the chores were done, it was time to celebrate with a cold beverage at Wendy’s. No frostys here! Wendy’s Bar is the expat hub of Luperon. You can’t miss it – literally. It sits on the Y of two streets as you walk into town from the dock, with both sides open to the sights sounds and smells of the town. The beers are cheap and cold. And big! They’ll give you a bamboo mug to keep your $2 liter of Presidente cold while you pour a small glass at a time. Since we’re allergic to beer, Capt. Mike and I ordered rum and club soda with glorious ice, also for $2, or 100 pesos. On a different visit to Wendy’s, we channeled our inner rock stars and ordered bottle service. For $10 you get a bottle of Columbus rum, a cute little ice bucket filled with ice, and you can mix your own drinks. How fun is that?!

And if you’re wondering why I keep telling you the price of everything, it’s because it is such a refreshing change from the crazy high prices of food and drink in the Bahamas. I understand why American expats visit a beautiful, friendly place like this and decide to never leave. Our cruising budget stretches a lot father in Luperon!

We had the best intentions to return to Wendy’s that evening for kareoke but after being awake for 30+hours, we just couldn’t do it. Luperon would still be there the next day.

The Highlights Reel

I apologise, Dear Readers. Since my last blog post about Georgetown Great Exuma the Bahamas, SV Sanitas and her crew have sailed to:

  • Conception Island, Bahamas
  • Long Island, Bahamas
  • Mayaguana, Bahamas
  • Provodentiales, Turks and Caicos

and we are now in Luperon, Dominican Republic. But so much time has passed, and so much has happened that I’m not feeling inspired to write about those lovely places. However, I am giddy with delight soaking up all that the Dominican Republic has to offer in terms of natural beauty, culture, and new experiences. So, with your permission, I’ll share a few of the best pictures of the out-islands of the Bahamas and then jump right into stories of our Dominican Republic adventures – the first time in this cruising year that we really feel we are in a new country and a new culture!

Sailing from Exuma to Conception Island was one of the best sails of the season. Truly fair winds and following seas, averaging almost 6 knots!

I never took the “gin blue” waters of the Bahamas for granted, and the waters off Conception Island were some of the most beautiful of them all.

We ate well off the grid in the National Park on Conception Island. Sharon and Drew on Z-Raye had caught mahi, tuna, and amberjack, so we had a ceviche and mojito night with a different recipe for each fish. Then baked gluten free blueberry bars for breakfast. Yum!

So this may sound terrible to land lubbers, but we learned a new way to deal with our glass trash. On the islands, there is no recycling, so everything goes to the landfill. But when you are far out to sea, a glass bottle filled with sea water and sunk will eventually turn back into sand….(Don’t worry. We would never do this with plastic)

Capt. Mike’s first fish! Thanks to Nathan who brought us new lures on his visit, we finally caught a beautiful mahi with enough meat for several meals.

Then even though we had a freezer full of fish, we couldn’t resist buying the biggest lobster ever from a fisherman on Long Island. Soooooo gooooood…..

We rented a car on Long Island with Dave and Michelle of SV Half Baked and explored. Best quote, “I’d forgotten just how long this darn island actually is”. The conch salad at Max Conch stand is the best I’ve ever had. Max is a true artist. And the sangria wasn’t bad either!

We enjoyed the opportunity to visit another of Father Jerome’s churches in Clarence Town, Long Island. Remember Father Jerome who designed his own retirement hermitage on Cat Island? This was a beauty, with twin towers that you can climb “at your own risk” for a windy view of the island.

Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island is one of the deepest in the world, and the Guinness World Record for free diving (without scuba tanks) was set here. Also, at least 15 people have died here attempting free dives.

The Columbus monument at the northernmost tip of Long Island is very near the spot where the Santa Maria ran aground in 1492. We treated that point of land with great respect! The monument is a memorial to the peaceful Lucayan indigenous people who were victims of the European explorers.

When I come back this way as a rich tourist instead of as a cruiser, I’ll definitely stay at the Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort. It’s lovely, and understated, and peaceful, and at $400 per night, definitely outside my budget.

Capt. Mike and I celebrated our 22nd anniversary on Long Island at the Sou’ Side Grill at a cruisers’ happy hour.

And I fell in love with a baby goat named Billie at the local Farmers’ Market.

I’m a sucker for a good beach bar, and Tiny’s Hurricane Hole is a darn good one!

After our stay in Salt Pond (aka Thompson Bay) Long Island, the islands get farther and farther apart, and the passages get longer. At a speed of 5 or 6 knots, we can’t get there in the daylight, so overnight passages are the rule. I prepped for this passage with plenty of food, so we wouldn’t have to cook underway.

Four boats sailed together from Calabash Bay Long Island to Mayaguana. It’s great to stay within radio contact of other cruisers so that if anything goes wrong, we can help each other out. This was a long one. We started out at 5am and had two sunrises and one sunset at sea, before we reached Abraham’s Bay in good light so that we could avoid the coral reef.

Not a good picture, but a good story…. pretty darn sure this “package” is drug smuggling. A bale about the size of a sofa cushion, wrapped in white plastic and in a green net, with a line dangling off it with a float marking it. We sailed right by to take a closer look, but it was too heavy to hook and bring aboard without losing the boat hook. Plus, I didn’t want drugs on the boat as we cleared customs. But now I wonder….what if it wasn’t drugs? What if it was millions of dollars in cash? Only Neptune knows.

There’s not much on the island of Mayaguana, but it’s exciting because it’s our last stop in the Bahamas.

We cleared out of the Bahamas, got our paperwork and everything. But no one seemed to care if we actually left. So we took a tour of the island first. What do you do when the restaurant doesn’t open for another hour? You buy all the cold beers that the next door neighbor has in his fridge.

Then you admire Freddy’s super bling Huffy bicycle.

Our explorations of Mayaguana also included a trip to see the wild Flamingos. They stand knee-deep in the waters of a shallow bay until we get too close. Then, they walk away from us, through the water, grumbling in annoyance in a sort of slow speed chase. When the water gets deep enough to wet their bellies, they finally lift off in a group and fly.

After flamingo viewing, we stopped at “The After Work Bar” so named because Patrick only opens it after he gets home from his real job. Capt. Mike celebrated his birthday here with dominos and tequila shots.

Finally, we got good weather to head south. Goodbye Bahamas! Another long overnight passage from Mayaguana to Turks and Caicos with another beautiful sunrise at sea.

Arriving at Turks and Caicos, we cleared into a new country for the first time since January 8. Good thing because our Bahamas courtesy flag is in tatters. Captains went ashore to clear customs, and we are official!

We had to enter the channel of Southside Marina at high tide to have deep enough water, so we all headed in at the same time in a line like little ducklings. We don’t usually sail so close to our buddy boats – I promise!

The Southside Marina was lovely and “islandly” Only $50 a night (reasonable in pricy Providenciales) and we had to tie up with a Mediterranean mooring. The showers were open air and built right into the cliff.

We had a great group of cruisers staying here, including the crews of: Willfull, Half Baked, Tanda Tula, the Orange Boat, and Zoe. Had a lovely music-filled happy hour on the waterfront, and a farewell drink at Bob’s Bar. After this stop, our group will split up and sail off in different directions.

We didn’t have much time to explore Provo, but the north coast is lovely.

Finally! Another good weather window allows us to leave Turks and Caicos and continue our journey to the Dominican Republic!