We’re on the Thorny Path Now!

After two and a half weeks in Luperon, we finally had to drag ourselves away from the cruiser-friendly, super-fun community. After clearing out and getting our despacho paperwork from the naval commandant, we had an early night because we planned to leave the harbor before daybreak. This would become a theme for the rest of our sailing season. Why? Because we are far enough south now to be affected by the trade winds – the prevailing easterlies that blow 15-20 knots pretty much constantly, unless they are disrupted by a storm or other natural force. For the rest of this season we will always be trying to travel east, and sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind. We have the option to tack back and forth in a zig zag pattern to make progress eastward, at least doubling the distance we need to travel, or we wait for weather windows of light winds and calm seas and motor like heck as far as we can until that window closes. Also, we’ll start most of our travel days in the dark, because land creates a night lee of calm wind close to shore, disrupting the flow of the trade winds until the sun heats up the land and wind and waves return in the afternoon. If this sounds complicated, it is! Most of us sailboat cruisers have been poring over the same guide book, treating it like the bible for sailing in these waters; “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South– The Thornless Path to Windward” by Bruce Van Sant. We’re all, “Van Sant says this” and “Van Sant says that” as if we are members of the same cult. If you’ve read this far, you may have drunk the kool-aid 🤣

So anyway…. five boats left Luperon harbor around 5:00am, all heading east toward Samaná, more or less using the Van Sant method. The weather report predicted light winds, but we were seeing 15 knots directly from the east. We motored straight into it until the beautiful town of Sosua, where we picked up a mooring ball, ate lunch and took a good nap, planning to head out again after dark. Around 4:00, a dive boat pulled up and made us leave. (This sounds simple, but it actually required many hand gestures, the use of Google Translate, and futile attempts to negotiate to let us stay just a little bit longer) We picked up another ball nearby, only to have the same thing happen about 45 minutes later. Our buddy boats were getting kicked out as well, and several of them said “Forget it!” and just started out a few hours earlier than planned. However, as soon as they left the protection of Sosua harbor, we heard them on the VHF radio complaining of high winds and rough seas. One boat actually turned around and came back! Capt. Mike and I decided to slow roll our departure, so we hove-to and basically drifted very….slowly…. toward the mouth of the harbor then turned around and drifted very….slowly…..back. This got old, so at 9:00pm we headed out.

Outside the protection of the harbor, winds were still strong, and waves were big. Not dangerous, but because they were working against us they slowed our forward progress so much that we were only making 3 knots. Yep. We could have walked faster. We decided we couldn’t make it to Samaná at this rate, so we made a Plan B chose a closer anchorage instead and settled in for our night watches. On the positive side, after two years we finally figured out how to use our radar system! So we used the radar to stay about half a mile off-shore, or in 120 feet of water. Steering to those parameters kept us each busy and entertained during the night – almost like playing a video game.

Around 2:00am the seas finally laid down and Sanitas picked up speed. Hooray! On our next change of watch we came up with a Plan C to split the difference and travel to the harbor of El Valle. Decision made, I went below to try to sleep. When I woke up at sunrise, Capt. Mike was in a bit of a frenzy. He’d noticed a vibration in the steering wheel and a laboring noise from the motor and was attempting to troubleshoot. After checking the belts, the motor mounts, and the rudder shaft and finding nothing wrong, it was time to get serious. Capt. Mike was going into the water (in the middle of nowhere, in infinite depth) to check it out. We dropped all sails and turned off the motor, but we were still drifting at almost 1 knot. We pulled out a spare line to tie around his waist, dug out snorkel fins and mask, and put out the swim ladder. I told him I loved him, and he jumped in. After a deep breath and two exploratory dives, Capt. Mike surfaced yelling, “Hand me the knife on the steering pedestal!” I had it to him in a flash. Another couple of breaths and he grabbed the side of the boat and tossed a big mess of orange canvas and blue rope aboard. This pile of abandoned fishing junk had been wrapped around the prop, preventing it from turning and messing with our ability to steer. Scary as it was to get into the water while at sea, at least Capt. Mike had quickly found the smoking gun and fixed it. Ten minutes after we stopped, we were back underway.

Finally, around mid-afternoon we approached the harbor of El Valle. It had been a long couple of days, and we were ready for a rest. As we approached the anchorage I couldn’t help but exclaim over and over again, “This place is gorgeous. Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful!” The vibrant green mountains were steep as fjords, and we were headed straight for a sandy beach rimmed with palm trees. We had found a perfect tropical paradise for the night as the reward for all of our efforts!

From a distance, our paradise looked deserted. But as we got closer, I noticed a small thatched roof shack. And couldn’t help but hear the loud music. Although we’d been awake all night, I couldn’t just cook dinner and go to sleep without exploring! So I convinced Capt. Mike to swim ashore with me to avoid the trouble of putting the dinghy in the water. Great decision! It felt wonderful to stretch our legs on the sandy beach, and to climb and play on the rocks. And then! We rewarded ourselves for our successful long sail with fresh pina coladas. Served right in the pineapple! Yum, yum, yum! Did I mention how much I love the Dominican Republic? ♥️🇩🇴

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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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!!!