After spending nearly two weeks in the shelter of Puerto Rico, the day arrived to cross the notorious Mona Passage. The Mona Passage lies between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic and is given its name because of the uninhabited Mona Island in its center. Like the Gulf Stream, it can be calm, but it can also be very rough without notice. This is caused by the deep waters of the Puerto Rico Trench, more than 5 miles deep, coming up on a large shelf only 200 feet deep called the Hourglass Shoals. The cruising guide says that for Cabo Engano (Cape Cheat) “the currents are so complex that you can literally be pushed onto the shoals and not realize it until you sense that you are getting thrashed.” Diana and I had monitored wind and wave reports for several days and decided that Friday-Saturday would be a favorable time for crossing. We left the harbor at Puerto Real at 7 am and anticipated arriving by 9 or 10 am the next day. We alternated in 3-hour watches to get plenty of rest so that we would be alert.
Our crossing turned out to be pleasant, maybe even a little boring. We gave Cape Engano a wide berth and Mona was behaving. Wave heights were usually only 2 feet and never exceeded 5 or 6 feet. Winds were much lower than they had been all week, so we motor sailed to maintain at least 5 knots. We averaged 6 knots, so the 150 mile passage took about 25 hours. We saw only two boats during the day, both of them cargo ships, but at night we were entertained by thousands of stars above us and bioluminescent waters below us. The moonless sky made the stars seem all the brighter. The bow wave coming off the boat set off sparks in the water like a grinding wheel against metal.
We arrived in Samana Bay with no incidents to report, and were glad of it. We sailed by the gorgeous beaches of Levantado Island and docked at Puerto Bahia Samana, a marina and residence resort. We chose Puerto Bahia for its convenient location but were pleased to find that we had stumbled into the lap of luxury. The resort offered free use of its two infinity swimming pools, its gym and spa, its billiard hall, and most of all its gloriously strong WiFi. We were connected again! Emails were flying! All the knowledge in the world was at our fingertips with just a few clicks! Life was already good, and now it was great.
Our friend from Toronto, Roger Harris arrived on Saturday afternoon and we spent the rest of the day catching up and planning our Dominican adventures. On Sunday we went into the nearby town, Santa Barbara de Samana to visit a historic church and sample the local culture. Culture started happening as soon as we left the resort and caught a ride on the high-way in a motoconch, a small three-wheeled motorized rickshaw. These local taxis provide maximum exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells of the highway and the town. Wind in our face, the incessant high-pitched buzz of motor bikes that swarmed the streets like bees at a hive, the roar and clanking of trucks shifting gears up and down the hills, people walking along the highway and stopping to chat without bothering to move off the street, houses crowding the streets, brightly colored laundry arrayed on whatever was handy, palm trees and lush foliage everywhere, Latino music floating in air, and the aromas of exhaust fumes, flowers, and wood stoves mixing into a ubiquitous concoction. Yes, culture was all around us.
Since we had been introduced to the frenetic and chaotic life on the streets of Samana and had survived, we decided to up the stakes and rent a car. We set off for Las Terrenas in a very nice propane-powered Samsung sedan, but first we had to fuel it. After searching for a propane station with no success, we enlisted the aid of a young man on a motorbike who led us through town to a propane station off the highway down a dirt driveway behind a building–a perfectly logical place in the order of things here.
The drive to Las Terrenas was beautiful. We went up and over the mountain range that dominates the peninsula that creates Samana Bay. In every direction we saw the makings of picture post cards with hillsides covered in palm trees, brightly painted houses crowding the road or tucked into the hollows between hills, and children walking to school or home in their school uniforms. When we reached the town of Limon it was common to see people riding horses on the highway. Limon is the starting point for the trail leading to a 150-foot waterfall in a national park, and a two-hour ride on a horse or donkey is the way to get there. We pressed on to Las Terrenas, which is the Daytona Beach of Dominican Republic. The long beach is lined with restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops. The most unusual aspect of the town is two office buildings built in the shape of cruise ships. You won’t see that in Daytona!
It’s hard to describe what it is like to drive in Dominican Republic. It’s not just that traffic regulations are disregarded–life itself seems to be disregarded, especially by the young people on motorbikes. They weave in and out of traffic and may pass you on either side. They come out of nowhere and squeeze through the tiniest openings between vehicles. They may drive on either side of the street, or both sides. On the motorbikes
they carry propane tanks, large coolers, doors and construction materials, and sometimes families of four or five people. At night many of them do not have lights or even reflectors. Imagine trying to see a dark skinned rider in black clothing on a black bike with no reflectors on an unlit highway. Then add traffic going both ways, vehicles stopped on the road, and people congregating on the road or walking across it. That’s driving in Dominican Republic. I can’t wait to add city traffic!
After four days in the marina we left to go whale watching near Isla Levantado. We didn’t see any whales as it was already near the end of the season, but we had a pleasant sail. We anchored for the night in the bay between Santa Barbara and the “bridge to nowhere.” It’s a very substantial half-mile bridge that connects the town to an island with literally nothing on it but trees. Whose brother-in-law got that contract?
We sailed about 12-14 miles across the bay to Haitisis National Park
which is known primarily for its pre-Colombian cave drawings. A short dinghy ride up a creek through the mangroves took us to where a trail led to the caves. I call these etchings drawings rather than art because I think if it’s something I could do, then it’s not art, and these drawings were primitive, rather juvenile in fact, well within the range of my aesthetic skills. After the cave we went joy-riding in the dinghy through the maze of small limestone islands. We spent a peaceful night at anchor.
After a lazy morning on the boat we sailed back across Samana Bay to Puerto Bahia. Puerto Bahia Marina & Resort was having a regatta on Saturday and enticed us to enter by offering two free nights in the marina and no entry fee. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Race day was beautifully sunny and the sea was calm but winds were quite variable from 3 to 18 knots, usually 8-14. It was a Round Robin Regatta among four cruising boats, an Amel Super Maramu 52, a Jeanneau 519, a 40 foot catamaran, and us. We beat the Jeanneau and the catamaran, but lost to the Amel due to an egregiously bad start. So Escapade took the 2nd Place trophy and enjoyed the after-race party with live music by the pool.
On Sunday it was time to tempt fate by crossing the Mona Passage again. This time Mona was ready for us. We had 5-6 foot waves most of the way as predicted and the largest 6 foot waves were about 10 feet high. Against the glow of towns on the shore it looked like 18-wheelers driving along the horizon. True winds were only 15-20 knots but somehow they created confused seas which were very uncomfortable. Brooding clouds covered the sky most of the day and seemed to thicken by night time. I like sailing at night, but not in the dark. You can’t distinguish a horizon, you can’t anticipate the waves, and it just feels spooky. The occasional lights along the shore ten miles away gave some relief, but it still wasn’t an enjoyable sailing night. Mona could have treated us more unkindly, so I don’t plan to tempt her again.
By daylight we were nearing the island of Saona at the south eastern tip of Dominican Republic. It is a low island covered by palm trees and rimmed with sandy beaches. It has very little permanent population, all fishermen, but each day tour boats bring a thousand tourists to enjoy the beaches and parties on the beaches. Most of the boats are foot-in-face catamarans loaded with 40 to 60 passengers. They arrive with music blaring and well-oiled tourists ready to hit the beach. We witnessed the spectacle and chose to anchor off a deserted beach a little farther down the coast. When we went ashore we found out why the tour boats skip this beach. A very primitive fishing camp populated by rough looking men and nervous dogs was nestled under the palm trees a little back from the beach. We had a short conversation with the men in our best bad Spanish and decided to dinghy down the coast to a tourist beach. We didn’t feel threatened but it was awkward that we had intruded into this world that was so different from our own privileged world.
The tourist beach felt much more familiar to us–lounge chairs, barbecues, picnic tables, souvenir stands, and laughter everywhere. We lingered longer than the day trippers until we had most of the beach to ourselves. Finally we returned to Escapade to enjoy dinner and a night swinging at anchor on the soft breeze.
The next day we sailed north to the town of Bayahibe, a town described as a sleepy little town when the tour boats are gone. We worked our way through a large anchorage filled with many mooring balls and a few tour boats to find a place in 20 feet of water where we could anchor. While we were relaxing and trying to gather the energy to launch the dinghy and go into town, we began to experience the vibe of this Dominican Riviera. Tour boats started zooming in all around us to return those day trippers from the beach. It was like being in the middle of a buffalo stampede. Tour boats with partiers still in their stride to the left of us, to the right of us, in front of us, behind us. Music and laughter and outboard motors all around us. We didn’t have to go to the party–the party came to us. We took a lot of photos and then decided to join in. I put Springsteen on the stereo and turned “Badlands” up as loud as it would go on the cockpit speakers. We gringos could hold our own when it comes to music, but we couldn’t match the Dominicans when it came to dancing and drinking. They really know how to party.
Casa de Campo is a very posh resort only 4 miles from Bayahibe and barely out of our way so we motored into the marina and looked at all the fancy yachts there, mostly big motor yachts, the largest 200 feet long. After a glimpse of the high life, we sailed on to the Marina Zar Par in the decidedly downscale tourist town of Boca Chica about 15 miles east of the Dominican Republic’s capital and principal city, Santo Domingo.
We spent the next morning cleaning and straightening up the boat before Roger’s wife, Chiara, arrived from Toronto. There was only a little time for greetings and visiting before we went into Santo Domingo to tour the colonial zone with their close friends, Don Jose and his wife, Sandra. Santo Domingo is not only the largest city of the Caribbean with a population of more than 3,000,000 people, it is also the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus, the younger brother of the better known Christopher Columbus. The Zona Colonial is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with fortress walls, museums, government buildings, churches, etc. that date all the way back to the early 1500’s, much older than any European settlement in the USA. We were thrilled to see all the historic buildings and even go inside some of them. The most impressive was the Cathedral of Santa Maria, a huge but graceful structure built entirely of hand hewn stone. We marveled at the engineering required to design the expansive multi-vaulted roof, the craftsmanship required to cut these stones with amazing precision, and the sheer strength and ingenuity required to fit these stones into place.
Santo Domingo’s colonial zone is very old but very alive today. It has large plazas that were filled with couples strolling, children riding bicycles, friends gathering, and families enjoying the festive evening. This week happened to be Semana Santa, which is Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday. Holy Week is the biggest holiday in Dominican Republic, even bigger than Christmas or New Year. All schools and many businesses are closed all week. Those that are open are operating with a skeleton staff, except for the restaurants and bars which are throbbing with business. It seemed that all of Santo Domingo was out late eating, drinking, dancing, and celebrating. I don’t think it takes much of an occasion for Dominicans to eat, drink, dance, and celebrate, but Semana Santa is a celebration on steroids. It is an ironic twist that heavy drinking and driving increases so much during Holy Week that police set up emergency stations on the highways to handle the predictable surge in highway casualties.
Dominican Republic is probably best known for its golf courses, beach resorts and baseball players, but it also has the distinction of having the highest elevations in all of the Caribbean. Mount Duarte, named for the country’s founder, is over 10,000 feet, all the more remarkable for an island that is slightly smaller than Maine or South Carolina. We rented a car and drove to a mountain only slightly lower near the village of Jarabacoa. The foliage began to thicken and resemble a tropical rain forest. Banyan trees with roots taller than a human and stands of giant bamboo were mixed in with banana trees and a wide variety of palm trees. In some places the trees arched over the road and created a tunnel with pale green light filtering through the leaves. When we left the highway, the road became dramatically steeper as we climbed up to the Hammock of Heaven. The Hammock’s restaurant had a breathtaking view of the valley a few thousand feet below. The air at this altitude was chilly so we were glad to have jackets and sweaters with us. Any excuse to stay and enjoy the view was a good one, so we ordered tiramisu and flan and got out our cameras. While we were admiring the scale of this vantage point, a trio of hang gliders floated by and started tantalizing us by swooping toward the dining balconies hanging over the valley. What a thrill and what great timing!
We still had the car for another day, so we drove into Santo Domingo and went to a supermercado, an actual real supermarket! It’s easy to take the well-stocked and aesthetically pleasing grocery stores at home for granted. This particular grocery had a Barnes & Noble style bookstore connected to it, so I browsed while the ladies shopped. The best thing I found was a beautiful little Dominican girl sitting quietly reading a book in the children’s section.
After shopping we went to lunch at a restaurant on a cliff along the malecon in Santo Domingo. Our table was on a balcony projecting out over the rocky sea shore. Dominican architects have a knack for using balconies in scenic locations. We used the remainder of our energy to tour the impressive National Botanical Garden where the highlight was an extensive and exquisitely manicured Japanese Garden.
On our final day before the dreaded Cleaning and Packing Day we visited with more of Roger and Chiara’s friends, Hector and Helen, at the nearby Club Nautico. Hector and Helen are officers in the Dominican Coast Guard Auxillary and they were on safety patrol for this holiday weekend. When they came to our marina in their uniforms and asked for us, the marina personnel thought they were coming to arrest us! No, nothing that dramatic. They visited with us on Escapade for a while and invited us to come over to the Nautico. It is a Yacht Club in every sense of the word. It has a modern clubhouse with glass floors where it stretches over water, meeting rooms, a restaurant and a casual beach bar, an infinity pool, a beach, and beautiful sailing and motor yachts at its docks. We enjoyed the best hamburgers we have ever eaten while Hector told stories and gave us good advice about connections to make. He summarized Dominican culture by saying it’s all about rum, cigars, and bitches. I’m pretty sure that’s how he pronounces “beaches.”
What did we learn about the Dominican Republic and its people? In addition to rum, cigars, and bitches, they love loud music, late nights, and anything-goes driving. Music boomed from the thatch roofed palapas that lined the beach of Boca Chica until very late at night, even when Semana Santa was over. You would think it was Spring Break at Daytona, but the party is every week, all year long. Driving in the DR takes nerves of steel and quick reflexes. But what comes easy is admiring the beauty of this country and its people. As I have described, the country has world class beaches, majestic mountains, lush and verdant foliage, and clear waters that have every shade of blue and aqua. Many of the people are strikingly good looking, both men and women. Their Hispanic facial features, dark hair, and caramel skin tones are the stuff of Hollywood stars. Dominican Republic is not without its problems, deficiencies, and aggravations, but there is much there to love and to return to. ~ Larry Caillouet