¡Que Viva Puerto Rico!

SV Sanitas has arrived at our final country for this cruising season! We’ve been exploring for the past two weeks as we slowly cruise east along the island toward our goal of Fajardo for hurricane season. Our first stop was La Parguera, or as I like to call it – the Jersey Shore of Puerto Rico. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, just as things were getting hopping, and we dinghied in with SV Sava to check out the town. The waterfront is lined with colorful wooden house boats that make me want to move to La Parguera. Jose, from the Puerto Real marina, had given us a tip that we could tie up to “Frank’s” dinghy dock (just ignore the Privado signs) so we quietly did so.

La Parguera was a bit of culture shock after a month in the Dominican Republic. CocaCola and Medalla beer signs everywhere, a pervasive smell of fried food, and everyone dressed for fun – in tight clothing and lots of bling. We made a lap of the entire town in about ten minutes, and then gave up our search for culture or history, and just joined the party.

First stop- El Karacol, a world-famous cocktail bar, known for their fresh fruit mojitos. Forget boring old lime mojitos! Our group was evenly split between coconut lovers and passion fruit lovers.

We sat at picnic tables outside a restaurant filled with local families. However, the smell of old fryer grease was a bit overwhelming. I excused myself for a moment, just to check out the menu at Moons Tapas Bar a couple of block up the hill. Oh yeah! Now this is where we need to eat! Apparently, the rest of our group agreed, because soon we left the grease haze below us, settled in on a breezy patio, and tasted six different flavors of homemade sangria before deciding on a pitcher of Arancino flavor. The food here was the best I’ve had since Florida – grouper ceviche, chimichurri skirt steak, lobster tacos wrapped in taro root tortillas…. nom,nom,nom!

Capt. Mike was obsessed with this old fashioned, hand-carved horse racing game called Pica. Because it was all in Spanish, we didn’t really understand how the betting worked, or even how to tell which horse had won – the track was a circle, and there was no obvious finish line. But everyone who threw down a dollar was so enthusiastic, and everyone was cheering, jumping, and shouting, so the game was impossible to resist. After watching a long time, Capt. Mike thought he had it figured out, and threw $1 down on his lucky number 3. The carny slapped a double 3’s domino down to keep it from blowing away – more lucky threes! We crossed our fingers, and held our breath, and cheered and encouraged….. and horse #3 won! Mike’s $1 bet nabbed him $20 and the most excited face I’ve seen in a very long time! We went right back to El Karacol for another one of those delicious mojitos!

After our big night on the town, we kept it quiet on Saturday. Explored the mangrove rivers by dinghy, hoping to spot an elusive monkey, but no luck. We snorkeled a bit too, but there were only a few small fish hiding in the mangrove roots. By early afternoon, we raised anchor to move the big boats east to an anchorage closer to the Bioluminescent Bay. However, when we rounded the corner and caught sight of Cayo Caracoles, Capt. Mike shouted, “We are missing out on one heck of a party!” I poked my head up into the cockpit and saw that he was absolutely right. At least 50 powerboats were moored and anchored in the shallow waters just off the Cayo, some with flags flying, loud salsa music blaring, all with a drift of floating partiers hanging out in the pool formed by the circle of boats. Well what’s the point of being a cruiser on no particular schedule if you can’t change your plans? So we threw an anchor down right there, piled in our dinghies along with Sava, and floated over to join in the fun. We enjoyed meeting local Puerto Rican boaters, including two who keep their boats in the Puerto del Rey marina where we’ll be storing Sanitas. We also had the chance to talk a bit with folks who had lived through hurricane Maria in 2017 to learn firsthand what life in Puerto Rico had been like without water or electricity for months after the storm, and how many villages are still struggling today.

On Sunday, as the weekend was winding down in this party town, Sava continued sailing eastward but Capt. Mike and I stayed put. We had one item left on our La Parguera bucket list – visiting the bioluminescent bay. There are several bays around the world where the conditions are just right to grow a high concentration of microscopic dinoflagellates and therefore, for the salt water to glow at night when agitated. Puerto Rico is lucky enough to have three of these magical bays. We were excited to visit the one near La Parguera, because you are allowed to swim there. So we moved the big boat again, for the third time in three days, close to the mouth of the bay. That turned into more of an adventure than expected. We’d followed a tip on Active Captain (sort of the Yelp reviews of the sailing world) recommending a safe anchorage that did not appear on any of our charts. We discovered the risk of believing “some guy” over believing the charts, because when we approached the coordinates he’d provided, we suddenly found ourselves in super shallow water. So Capt. Mike slammed it into reverse, and we circled looking for a deeper anchorage. I dropped the anchor in a small sandy patch, but the anchor rode immediately fouled on a craig of Rock that surrounded it. Poor Mike had to dive to free the chain and it was almost sunset before we found a safer anchorage nearby.

It was worth it though! On a Sunday evening, there were only about three other small boats in the bay after sunset and before moonrise. We anchored the dinghy and took turns jumping in. Mike made “snow angels” in the water, trails of phosphorescence following his arms and legs. I pretended I was Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, shooting streams of sparkles out of both hands like a wizard. And then spinning around in circles, gazing through my snorkel mask, feeling as though I was inside a snow globe. Sorry that there are no photos of this magical phenomenon, but the bioluminescence doesn’t show up in pictures or video. If you see it in advertisements, it’s been photoshopped! (Now you know) So if you want to experience this amazing natural wonder, you’ll have to add a visit to Puerto Rico to your bucket list, and come see it yourself!

Our last stop in the Dominican Republic – Los Haitses National Park

The whole time we were in the Dominican Republic, we’d been hearing folks rave about the huge, wild national park located on the south side of the Bay of Samana. So although I still firmly believe I could have happily lived the rest of my life in the Puerto Bahia Marina, we tore ourselves away for a couple of nights to sail over to the park. Making it even more fun, our friends Damon and Marcie from Denver sailed over with us on SV Wanderlust.

For the first time in ages, we found ourselves on a broad reach and had a lovely downwind sail across the bay. In no time, we reached the park and anchored next to the sort of dramatic, verdant, craggy island that I’ve previously only seen in photos of Thailand. Thanks for the gorgeous photo of Sanitas, Marcie!

After ensuring we were safely settled in to the anchorage, we all hopped in the dinghy and set out to explore the park’s famous mangrove rivers. Mangroves are an important part of the marine ecosystem. They filter pollutants from the water, protect coastal areas from erosion during storms, and they provide a habitat for many species of animals and birds. And they’re beautiful! This park has a particularly lush mangrove forest that was lovely, cool, and mysterious in the dappled afternoon light.

After a dinghy ride down one of these winding streams, we came across a small wooden dock, and stepped ashore to explore the Cuava de La Linea. Since we came to the park after the busy Easter holiday weekend, we had this massive cave all to ourselves. I toddled slowly across the uneven stone floor in the dark and used my cell phone flashlight to illuminate a huge collection of ancient petroglyphs drawn by the Taino indigenous tribes. My camera didn’t do them justice, but it was awe-inspiring to look upon the artifacts of an ancient people and to try to imagine their lives.

Marcie treated us to a fabulous gourmet meal aboard Wanderlust that evening, and we had a chance to catch up on each others’ lives. We met Marcie and Damon in Denver in 2016 at a meetup for YouTube video blog celebrities “Chase the Story” It was lots of fun to meet like-minded, adventurous people and Marcie and Damon blew us away by sharing that they had already bought a sailboat -IN TURKEY- and they were getting their lives in order and preparing to fly there and move aboard before spending a couple of years cruising in the Med. Wow! So real people actually do this kind of stuff? And therefore, maybe WE could actually do it? At that point, buying a boat and cruising the sea was still just a faint dream for Capt. Mike and me. So basically, they were our first ever cruising friends, and we really enjoyed Seeing them years later in the Dominican Republic and hearing their stories of cruising in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Croatia and then crossing an ocean to reach the Caribbean.

The next day, we set out to do more exploring by dinghy, hopefully with a little bit of hiking thrown in. We saw gorgeous white herons, and heard countless smaller birds singing in the shadows of the mangroves. Eventually, we beached the dinghy near colorful park headquarters and paid 100 pesos per person entry fee.

A park guide showed us around a second cave. This one didn’t contain petroglyphs, but lots of stunning rock formations. Some were natural:

And some formations had a little help from humans (those Taino tribes again)

I’m not sure we understood all of the details from the guided tour. The guide only spoke Spanish, we speak English with a few words of Spanish here and there. But through recognizing a few words and basically playing charades, we got the gist of it! From the mangrove river, we hiked past cow pastures and rice paddies to visit the Eco Lodge Paraiso Cano Honda. This resort looks as if it sprang from the mind of a creative mad genius. All of the buildings are constructed from local golden stones, mosaicked into patterns and swirls and animal shapes. I don’t think there’s a straight line anywhere on the property. A series of “natural” pools flow one into the next via mini waterfalls. We wandered for about an hour, soaking it all in. It would be a very fun place to fly in guests to visit Sanitas!

I’m really glad we made time to stop in this gorgeous park and to explore another off the beaten path area of the Dominican Republic. And the timing was perfect! Our 30-day cruising permit for the DR expired on the day we left. Thanks for the beaches, the friendly people, the yummy food, and of course, the pineapples! We had a wonderful month exploring this beautiful island nation.

Sensational Samaná

I’d heard so much about Samaná…..that much of the peninsula is National Park. That the most beautiful beaches in the Dominican Republic can be found here. That this is where Dominicans come to vacation. So I was really looking forward to seeing it for myself! From El Valle, it was an easy trip around the Samaná peninsula to the Puerto Bahia Marina – we even got to sail downwind for a change!

We checked into the marina and took a look around, and I was blown away. This is easily the most beautiful marina Sanitas has ever visited, and at $1 per foot, it’s the cost of a dump in Florida. I seriously contemplated giving up our cruising plans for the rest of the season and moving in permanently, taking up residence by the infinity pool.

But I can’t laze around forever. While staying at the marina, Capt. Mike and I did get some good boat projects done. He equalized the house batteries to improve their charging performance, and I put a couple more coats of cetol on the teak in the cockpit. We also explored the town of Santa Barbara de Samaná, shopping in the lively markets and walking the Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge was built back in the ’70s to connect two small islands to the mainland in support of a restaurant and casino complex. Well the money must have run out, because nothing ever got built. Leaving the most amazing pedestrian bridge I’ve ever seen that provides no real purpose except exercise and beauty. If we stayed close to town, I’d have walked it every day!

We went in with a few other cruisers to share a rental car for the week. On our day to use it, we joined Carl and Ardys of SV Northernstar and went on an excursion to see the waterfall of El Limon. We’d heard that the touts here were aggressive, but the reality was a bit ridiculous. As we approached Limon, a guy on a motorbike latched onto us and wouldn’t let us out of his sight until we stopped the car at his family’s business. I know what you’re thinking – why didn’t you just ignore him? But wherever we drove, he zoomed out in front of us and “led” us to the next turn. When we passed the waterfall and kept on toward town hoping he would get bored and give up, he didn’t. He followed us, explaining the various trail heads and park entrances and tagged along again when we turned around. Oh well, we had to park somewhere, so it might as well be his lot. Ardys loves horses, so she and Carl decided to ride to the waterfall. That looked like fun, although we had to laugh at how huge Carl looked on his little bitty horse.

Mike and I hiked, which was beautiful but somewhat challenging with short but steep ups and downs. Or perhaps we really are that out of shape. At the top, we paid 50 pesos each to enter the park and climbed down a steep flight of stairs to the pool at the bottom of a huge waterfall! Gorgeous! We had a great time swimming in the pool and ducking under the waterfall spray. Although, I couldn’t remember the last time I swam in fresh water – you don’t float nearly as well as in salt water. I almost drowned while trying to take a floating selfie.

After lunch in Limon, we continued north to explore the beaches around Las Terrenas. The map described a fishing village, but now I think they make their money by catching tourists! We drove through a super busy small city with hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops everywhere. After a few wrong turns and one-way streets, we finally broke free from town and with relief, pulled over to park on the side of the road at Playa Las Ballenas, or Whale Beach. We had started to get spoiled by the beauty of Dominican beaches, but this one was particularly nice! The perfect blend of soft sand and calm water, with a line of sophisticated beach bars calling to us when we got tired of walking and swimming.

I cheated on my pina colada pineapple with a coco loco. You gotta mix it up every now and then 😀

We Conquer the Mountain

After a great night’s sleep at Rancho Baiguate, it was time to get to work! Along with our guide, Misheal, we drove about an hour through the gorgeous mountains to get to the Jose Armando Bermudez National Park. This region is extremely fertile land, and we passed farms growing tomatoes, squash, bananas, coffee, and cacao. Once we arrived at the park, we paid our 150 peso entry fee, and registered by signing into a very official spiral bound school notebook. We laced up our shoes, grabbed our packs, and checked out the park maps to figure out exactly what we were getting ourselves into. Basically, 23.1 kilometers to the top, and over 2000 feet of climbing.

Next we met our pack mules and their handlers (or as Misheal called them, our “country guys”) The park requires you to hire a mule and a guide, but I think our tour company had very little faith in our fitness and abilities – because we had six mules. This was enough to carry all of our food and camping equipment, as well as a couple of extra mules with saddles just following behind and waiting to rescue us if needed. They were very cute and patient, and they loved to eat our pineapple rinds.

Misheal told us “You go at your pace. I’ll come behind slowly.” Yeah, right. Our lazy butts haven’t climbed a hill in five months and our pace is slow as molasses, so Misheal was right on our heels the whole way. The first few miles were smooth and gradual. But then things got real.

After Los Tablones, the climb started. And I learned that Dominicans don’t believe in switchbacks. When they make a trail up a mountain, they just go straight up the mountain 😳. And when you’ve gotten into a groove, and started to get used to the climb, then you hit the mud. Not “oh dear, my shoes are going to get dirty” mud but “oh my gosh, I’m going to fall and slide down this mountain on my behind” mud.

By the time we reached Alto de la Coterra we were ready for a break. Each of the significant landmarks provides a small shelter with a roof, a wooden table, and a few benches. Great for resting, and I’m sure very welcome in the frequent rain storms. Our “country guys” weren’t quite on the ball. They were supposed to have gotten there before us to get lunch ready. Instead, we waited for then for about 20 minutes and got pretty cold before lunch arrived.

Sorry about all the mule pictures, but that face!!! About that lunch, Mike and I have to eat gluten free for medical reasons – no wheat, barley, rye, or oats. I’d communicated this ahead of time to our guide company. So they didn’t pack the usual sandwiches and cookies. But they didn’t really replace them with anything. So our meals turned out to be more like snacks: cheese, pineapple, juice. I’m glad I packed several Rx Bars and Kind Bars, as well as nuts and electrolytes.

Misheal had packed a couple of Milky Way chocolate bars for each of us, and I have never tasted anything so delicious in my entire life! When’s the last time this girl ate TWO candy bars in one day? Try never!

After lunch, we tackled the steepest part of the climb – and the rockiest. We’re talking Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania rocks. Big rocks, little sliding gravel rocks, baby head sized rolling rocks. Super tricky footing for most of the rest of the climb. Look who blended right into the rocks:

We finally made it to the camp site at La Compartacion around 3:00 and we had a decision to make – continue the final 5k to the peak (and then back down to camp), or stop here for the night and make for the summit at sunrise.

We dithered a bit, and then the light rain stopped, the clouds parted, and I decided we should go for it! We told poor Misheal, who was already getting comfortable, and he said “Ok! Vamanos!” So back to the climb. In my head, 5k would be easy. But we’d already hiked about 15 miles, and this was the steepest trail yet.

It was so steep, and I was so tired, I had to count my steps to distract me enough to keep on walking. I was allowed to stop to catch my breath only after 200 steps. Misheal didn’t have much faith in me. He had one of the country guys follow behind us with a mule just in case….

Finally, I caught a glimpse of the monument at the rocky peak. Hooray! Finally! The good weather held, we had amazing views from the summit, and there was much rejoicing!

So the final 5 kilometers back down to camp weren’t easy either. I encouraged myself out loud “Just watch your feet. Don’t trip now. Just a little bit farther” and finally made it back to camp. Camp was interesting. Basically just a muddy field with a whole lot of mule poop and a cabin where everybody sleeps on the floor.

It gets pretty darn cold at that elevation! It was in the low 40s according to the thermometer on the tree. Good thing there was a fireplace in the hut and a huge bonfire outside. Misheal was very apologetic for the country guys who never could get their act together to make hot soup. But eventually, they produced a yummy pollo guisado and rice and plantains over a wood fire, with a bottle of Brugal rum to wash it down. Again, there was much rejoicing!

I put on every piece of warm clothing I had (wool tee shirt, wool long sleeve, wind breaker, fleece top, sweat shirt, hat, gloves tights, rain pants) and sat by the campfire. A group of Dominicans were celebrating a birthday, and they drank and danced and sang all evening. I couldn’t follow the Spanish lyrics, but I understood the vibe and the fun, and soaked it all in.

After a chilly night on the floor with an air mattress that leaked, we packed up and headed back down the mountain. Now you’d think down would be easy, but today our legs were no longer fresh, and down is actually really, super hard! All of that mud, and all of those rocks are just as hard in the other direction. Plus these old lady knees can’t handle down! But the skies were blue, the views were gorgeous, and eventually we made it.

When I heard the roaring of the river I knew we were close. Phew! In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves back in park headquarters in the middle of a school camp trip of chatty teenagers who all smelled a heck of a lot better than I did. Misheal herded us back to the Rancho Baiguate truck, stopping to take a group picture with our guide crew! Back to the hotel for as much lunch as I could fit into my tummy and one more night in a bed before reversing the whole truck – bus – taxi thing back to Luperon and to Sanitas. We did it!

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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