The Dominican Republic: What A Pleasant Surprise!

We are planning a move out of the US sometime in the next 12-15 months.  We’ve considered several countries in South and Central America and although most have been wonderful places to visit, we’ve found enough reasons to think “but we wouldn’t want to live there.”   Our most recent trip to Colombia is a perfect example: we absolutely loved the country, but the government is not making it easy for foreigners to take up residence.

We recently shifted our focus to the Caribbean and specifically the Dominican Republic.  Having never been there, we researched as best we could the cost of living, healthcare, safety … all those things you need to think about when contemplating a move like this.  On paper, the D.R. looked promising.

Tuesday – Shorthorn It Is

Our flight left from Orlando at 5am, too early to make the drive from Okeechobee that morning.  We drove up the evening before and stayed the night at the Hyatt inside the airport.  And I mean literally inside the airport – an escalator ride down from the lobby and you are at your gate!

relaxing in our room at the Hyatt Orlando Airport

Santo Domingo is a short two-hour flight and we were outside waiting for our ride in no time.  First surprise:  we had been warned that the “touts” at the airport are relentless, constantly harassing you to carry your bags or get you a taxi.  Not one person bothered us as we waited for our driver, Michael.

Santo Domingo airport

Michael took us to the Radisson Hotel, our home for the next five nights. 

Radisson, Santo Domingo

It is a lovely hotel with attentive staff, spacious rooms, and a wonderful breakfast buffet.  It is located in the central part of Santo Domingo, convenient walking distance to many of the areas we wanted to explore.    

Radisson lobby

TG had created detailed routes that included things like checking out the local grocery stores.  He had also found restaurants we’d hit each day around lunchtime.   Today we headed towards the Botanical Gardens but first zig-zagged our way through every aisle of a National (grocery store) and Pricemart, which is like a big Costco.

Tuesday’s route

We found the prices slightly less than the US, and the stores carried most everything we’d want.  We continued our walk past the “Jardin Botanico Nacional” – a beautiful park I could spend years exploring.

Jardin Botanico Nacional

The streets were relatively clean, for the most part.  There was a lot of traffic, but the drivers were courteous and more often than not, stopped to let pedestrians cross the street. 

selfie outside the Jardin

Our first impressions of Santo Domingo:

No one stares at us – people are friendly and helpful

Low pollution

Very few loose dogs (we did see a few but not like in Ecuador)

relaitvely clean streets with very few loose dogs

By now we were getting very hot, tired, and hungry.  And the Mexican restaurant TG had picked out was closed!  As vegetarians our options were limited.  We kept walking, hoping we’d spy something suitable.  A steakhouse “Shorthorn” was open up ahead.  It looked cool and inviting and we thought surely they’ll have something we can order.  The menu offered a veggie parradilla, which we assumed was some sort of shish kabob.  It was actually a table-top hibachi, piled high with still-steaming vegetables: tomatoes, onions, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, and eggplant.  Washed down with an ice cold El Presidente beer, it was perfect.

our steaming hot veggie parradillas

Refreshed and ready to go, we found our way back to the Radisson.   Total mileage:  13.8 kilometers.

wall art along our walk

Later that evening we walked to a Mediterranean restaurant for dinner.  The food was delicious, but it was the sign across the street that caught our attention.  Yes, we both did a double take!

“The Cool Donkeys”

Wednesday – Fat Bottomed Girls

Today’s plan was another full day of exploring. Unbeknownst to us, Tuesday was a national holiday and the energy level this morning was considerably higher. 

Santo Domingo on a busy weekday morning

There was a lot more traffic, including ever-present motorcycles zipping between the cars, paying no attention to the rules of the road. 

watch out for the motorcycles!

There were also a lot more people out and about, but no one seemed to give us a second glance as we wound our way towards the Zona Colonial. 

no one paid us any attention as we walked along

The Colonial Zone is the oldest European settlement in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  A pedestrian-only street is lined with tourist shops and stalls selling amber or larimar jewelry, gaudy artwork,

Zona Colonial street art
Zona Colonial book vendor

And Dominican cigars.

Dominican cigar roller

This street spills onto a main square, bordered on one side by the impressive Catedral Santa Maria la Menor, built in the sixteenth century and the first cathedral in the Americas.      

the Catedral Santa Maria la Menor
the Catedral Santa Maria la Menor

It was a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and we were ready to sit in a cool spot and relax for a bit. 

the plaza in front of the cathedral
enjoying a cup of delicious Santo Domingo coffee

Even in this busy touristy area there were very few “touts” – no one bothered us after our simple “no gracias.”  Once again, the restaurant we’d picked for lunch was closed so we headed south towards the Malecon.

heading towards the Malecon

The Santo Domingo Malecon starts at the Rio Ozama and continues west for over 14 kilometers, bordering the Caribbean Sea the entire way.  The sidewalk is wide with plenty of areas to rest and so beautiful you’ll forget the bustling traffic beside you on George Washington Avenue.

the Malecon
TG dodging traffic to get the below shot
obelisk on George Washington Avenue

We stopped at Adrian Tropical for lunch.  This restaurant sits overlooking the sea, with good food and even better people-watching. 

Adrian Tropical restaurant
guanabana (L) and mango (R) sorbet while we people-watched

It was here that we finally took notice of an interesting aspect of Dominican culture:  the appreciation of feminine curves.  Even I was impressed and gave TG permission to stare!

Yes, ok to stare

After lunch we headed north to check out a language school and then zig-zagged our way back to the hotel.  There is a bit of garbage on the streets and in the ocean.  But as TG said, no worse than New York City.  And due to the constant ocean breezes, very little smell.  Total mileage: 14.8 kilometers.

Wednesday’s route

Craving traditional Dominican food, we ate dinner at Pepito’s Arepa Bar – a delightful spot close to the hotel with plenty of vegetarian choices.

avocado and black bean arepa from Pepito’s

Thursday: Beaches and Whales

Roughly the same size as the state of Georgia, the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer.  The middle of the island contains the highest mountain in the Caribbean and the north coast has some of its most beautiful beaches. In addition, humpback whales gather in Samana Bay during the winter months to mate and calf. 

Samana town with whale sculpture

Today we had arranged for Michael to drive us to Samana Bay and the northern beach of Las Terrenas.

on the road with Michael

It was a beautiful drive through the mountains, with very little traffic and excellent roads.  With an 80 kph limit (and hefty fine for speeding), no one goes very fast.  We arrived in Samana in a little over 2 ½ hours.

the road through the mountains

If you aren’t going out on a whale excursion there isn’t a whole lot to do in town.

Samana Bay pano
Samana whale excursion boats

After taking a few photos we headed towards Las Terrenas.  This is a typical touristy beach town, with plenty of shops, hotels, vacation rentals, and people.

the beach at Las Terrenas
the beach at Las Terrenas

Even so, we found a quiet spot for lunch.

our lunch spot

On our way back to Santo Domingo we stopped at a beautiful mirador to admire the northern coast.  While we watched, a whale splashed his tail in the water far below us.

the north coast of the Dominican Republic
selife at the mirador

Michael dropped us off at the Radisson around 5:30pm after another full day.

Friday:  Santiago es Arte

Today we drove north through the mountains to Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city in the D.R.  It was a beautiful drive and gave us a taste of interior of the country. 

the road to Santiago
the road to Santiago

Santiago is one of the D.R.’s cultural, political, industrial and financial centers. Due to its location in the fertile Cibao Valley, it also has a robust agricultural sector and is a leading exporter of rum, textiles, and cigars. 

Catedral de Santiago, built in 1895
plaza next to the cathedral

We found it to be a vibrant bustling city, full of beautiful murals on its buildings, walls, and fences. A poster exclaimed “Santiago es Arte!” And as we drove around it certainly seemed to be.

murals all over the city
Santiago is Art!
murals on every street

Although we liked it very much, we determined it was not quite right for us.  We prefer to live along the coast and the Santo Domingo Malecon was calling us.

Saturday: The Accidental Hagglers

On our last day, we decided to re-trace the same route we took on Wednesday but walk the Malecon first.  The ocean was calm this morning and that impossible shade of blue that is the Caribbean Sea.

the sea was an impossible shade of blue

We zig-zagged our way though the neighborhoods, past small houses with windows open to the street, beautiful high-rises, and private homes hidden behind high walls.

window washers on ladders (!!) approx 20 stories up

We hadn’t planned on too many purchases, but I always like to pick up a little something for our dog-sitter.  We headed back to the Zona Colonial with its many tourist shops. 

pano of the old city wall of Zona Colonia
more street art in Zona Colonia

I wanted to buy an amber necklace and some mamajuana, the local drink purported to have all sorts of medicinal properties including being an aphrodisiac.  TG was taken with the local baseball team, Los Tigres del Licey, and wanted a cap. 

We found a shop selling everything we wanted.  The shopkeeper gave us a price, saying “todo” or “all.”  TG gasped, misunderstanding her and thinking she said “solo” for just the necklace.  She asked well what do you want to pay?  Again, assuming it was for just the necklace I quoted what I thought was a fair price.  After some furious pecking on her computer she agreed to a new, much-discounted amount. 

shopkeepers in front of the mamajauna display

We drove a hard bargain without even realizing it. We would have paid her original price had we known it was for everything!  Total mileage: 16.6 kilometers.

the accidental hagglers

For our last night in the D.R. we had dinner at the hotel restaurant.  It was my birthday on Sunday so of course TG told them.  They brought a little cake with sparkler and the waitstaff sang “Feliz Cumpleanos.”

feliz cumpleanos!

Happy Birthday indeed.

my birthday dinner at the hotel restaurant

Sunday:  Home Again Home Again

Sunday morning, we were up bright and early for our 7am ride to the airport.  It was an easy flight home and we pulled into our driveway in Okeechobee at 1:30pm. 

waiting for our flight (and checking birthday messages)

The Dominican Republic surprised us:  the friendly people, the solid infrastructure, the ease of getting around, and the security and well-being we felt walking through the different neighborhoods.  It’s a beautiful country with so much to offer in terms of natural beauty:  ocean, beaches, mountains, and whales!  It seems everyone has a friend or relative who has either lived in the US or is married to an American.  In our experience walking for three full days and driving for two, we found that Spanish is a must – perhaps 5% of the population speaks English with any fluency.   Even so, there is a strong tie between our two countries and the people seem genuinely pleased to see “Americanos.

beautiful young girl in the Zona Colonia plaza

We are hard-pressed to think of a good reason to NOT move there!

Cuenca Walkabout (November, 2011)

Cuenca: the whole world!

Saturday  

We have traveled to Quito so many times in the past year that it is easy to breeze through customs and we are at our hotel in no time.  We are hopeful that tomorrow will be clear.  Our flight to Cuenca does not leave until 6:30pm.  We have the whole day and want to visit Teleferico, a cable car attraction that gives visitors a breath-taking view of the city and surrounding mountains.

Quito from the plane

Sunday 

We are not disappointed.  The day is sunny and bright, with a clear view of the snow-capped peaks.  We are the first to arrive at the base of the mountain.  There is no line and we hop on the first cable car available.  

cable car up to Teleferico

It is a long way to the top:  Quito sits at 9,000 ft.  The base of the park is at 10,000 and by the time we exit we are 12,500 ft above sea level.  It is hard to breathe at this altitude but the view is spectacular.  We can see all of the surrounding peaks:  Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe.  

view of Cotopaxi from 12,500ft
TG

We hike up the hill.  The Cruz Loma crater, part of a still-active volcano, is three miles further along the steep path.  Horses are available for hire but TG chooses to wait while I hike for another twenty minutes.  

horses for hire
Cruz Loma crater

The volcano is no closer and the thin air makes me short of breath.  I turn back.  A family has stopped along the side of the path.  I say “Es difícil respirar.”  It is difficult to breathe.  “.”

It is a short, one-hour flight to Cuenca and we can see the mountains clearly from the plane window.  Even from this height they are massive. We collect our bags and arrive at the Hostel Chordeleg by 8pm.  This will be our home for the next six days.  We walk to the main square for dinner. 

Volcano Cayambe

If you travel to Ecuador for peace and quiet, you will be sorely disappointed.  It is many wonderful things but it is never quiet.  The streets are crowded and bustling, with every car beeping its horn as often as possible.  Street vendors loudly hawk their wares and fireworks ka-boom at all hours of the day and night.

the Cathedral at night

Monday 

We are awakened by sunshine pouring through the slits in the wooden shutters and the sounds of traffic on the street below.  We walk south, towards the river.  The city is still waking and the stalls in the square are not yet open for business.  The market, however, appears to have been bustling for hours.  

produce market
produce market

We wander through aisle after aisle of produce: mountains of bananas, mangos, strawberries.  The meat counters overflowing with slabs of thick red meat, piles of plucked yellow chickens, and cakes of white lard.  A pig hangs from a steel hook.  We are astounded at the variety of it all. 

meat market

Upstairs we share a table with another couple while we drink our coffee.  The people-watching is incredible and we try to be discreet as we take our photos.  The upstairs vendors sell cooked foods: beans, corn, and sheets of chocolate.  Later we will learn that city women buy their beans pre-cooked to avoid the long soaking process.   And the chocolate sheets are bitter:  you must add sugar and milk to make hot cocoa.  But for now we are content to just sit and soak it all in.

meat market from our second floor perch
you wonder: whatever his story it must be very sad
beautiful women and children
so much variety!

The afternoon has grown warm.  Before we left home the forecast for Cuenca was overcast, drizzly and 60’s.  We brought long-sleeves and down vests.  But it is sunny and in the 80’s. We return to the hotel to cool off and plan the week.  There is a tour company across the street and we sign up for a day hike in the Cajas National Park tomorrow and a city tour on Wednesday morning.

street vendor
flowers against a wall mural
the river walk

Tuesday 

The bus picks us up at 8:00am.  Cajas National Park sits just outside of Cuenca.  The highest elevation is 14,000 ft, at the continental divide.  Even though it is only 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, all waters east of this point flow across the continent of South America to the Atlantic Ocean.  The national park land was formed during the ice age by glaciers moving across the mountains.  There are over 320 lakes in the region along with beautiful “paper” tree forests, whose bark is so thin the Incas used it for paper.  The micro-climate is called a cloud forest because of all the vegetation that grows at this altitude. 

the start of our hike: Three Andrean crosses
Cajas lake
Cajas lake

We did not know what to expect.  The tour operator said a “short walk through the hills.”  We hike, some of it quite arduous, for three hours.  But are rewarded with one incredible view after another.  The guide warns us to stay with him.  It is easy to stray off the path and lose your way.  Every year people are lost on the mountain after dark and die from hypothermia.   It is sunny and warm again today but at this altitude once the sun sets temperatures will drop quickly.

Cajas cloud
JET
Cajas lake

Ten miles later, we finally arrive back at the bus.  We are taken for a traditional Andean lunch: potato soup and fried trout.  The soup is delicious.  The trout is presented with head and eyes fried along with the rest.   We are no longer hungry.

no thanks!

Wednesday 

Our guide, Juan Carlos, meets us promptly at 9:00am.  He takes us to the Homero Ortega panama hat factory.  

Homero Ortega panama hat factory

Cuenca is the birthplace of the panama hat and we learn much on this tour.  Hats are still made as they have been for centuries: by hand.  Local craftswomen deliver the hats to the factory where they are sorted by quality.  The finer the straw, the better the weave, more expensive the hat.  Each hat goes through a process of bleaching, pressing, and shaping before it is ready to be sold.  

hats are handmade by local craftswomen and delivered to the factory
hats are bleached and then dried in the sun

The factory walls are lined with photos of celebrities: Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts have all worn Homero Ortega hats. This is the largest exporter of panama hats in Cuenca: they export over 600,000 annually.

the finer the straw, the better the weave, the more expensive the hat

After the tour we drive across town and up the hill for a view of the city.  Cuenca is very red – the clay used for much of the building materials and tiled roofs is from the local hillsides.  We stop at Eduardo Vega’s studio.  He is the premiere ceramicist in Ecuador and I instantly recognize his work.  I purchased some of his pieces the last time I was in Quito. 

Cuenca is very red
view of the red city

Juan Carlos drives us back into town.  We start our walking tour.  We visit the Museum of Modern Art, where we find the hummingbirds and gardens far more interesting than the art. 

Museum of Modern Art
hummingbird in the Museum of Modern Art gardens

We walk through the market and Juan explains the various fruits and vegetables.  He points to a narrow passage and tells us that is the best place to purchase handicrafts and panama hats.  He takes us to the cathedral.  Until this point it has been a dominating force in the center of town but we have not gone inside.  We stand in awe.  He describes in detail the history of this beautiful building, the story of each stained glass window and statue.  The church comes alive and we will visit it often during our stay this week.

the Cathedral
stained glass window
inside the Cathedral facing towards the alter
the alter
rosaries, crucifixes, and candles sold on the Cathedral steps

We visit the flower market where discreetly tucked in one corner is the entrance to the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion.  There is much mystery surrounding the monastery, home to an order of cloistered nuns.  Even the locals tell conflicting stories.  We hear somewhere between 16 and 18 nuns, all university graduates who must first serve as a novice for somewhere between two and nine years.  Once accepted, they will never leave the monastery and can never be seen again.  If they have visitors their faces are covered with a thick veil.  They raise money by making various products. Juan Carlos tells us the pigeon jelly (geletina) cured his daughter.  We purchase as much of the locion for sore muscles and crema for dry skin as we can carry home.  

the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion
locion and crema

Thursday 

Today we look for panama hats.  Buying the right hat takes patience and stamina.  We walk from one store to the next.  Nothing speaks to Tall Guy.  We end up back at a shop we visited on Monday.  I like a blue hat with blue band I find laying on the table.  We explain to the clerk what Tall Guy wants:  a good-quality weave, black, with narrow (pork-pie) brim, green band, size XL.  They can make it.  It will take about an hour. 

the panama hat store

While we wait, we happen upon the Cuenca Zoo.  It is no more than a storefront, with cages and tanks full of all manner of strange reptiles and insects.  It is fascinating and ever so campy. There are two albino things in a water-filled tank.  I am obsessed with finding out what they are.  I can hardly believe that they are real. The docent speaks no English.  I get (somehow) that they are juveniles as he shows me a photo of an adult.  Ah!  Definitely some sort of lizard (thing).  We turn a corner in the tiny room and are surrounded by snakes including a thick python. Most are sleeping with their heads away from us.  But a yellow one dances in front of the glass while we take photos. 

python at Cuenca Zoo

I am so mesmerized by the snakes that I almost miss the green iguana sitting on a tree next to my head.  He is not in a cage.  Up a flight of stairs and I am looking down at a 6 ft crocodile, sharing his pen with a small Galapagos tortoise.  The next room is full of slimy snails and spiders.  We are happy to escape this strange little place and spill back into the bright sunshine on the street.

Cuenca street
flowers everywhere!

Our hats are not yet ready.  We are brought upstairs to a balcony with a beautiful view of the city.  We wait high above the street and traffic.  It is worth it:  TG’s hat is exactly what he wanted.

panama hats!

Hats on head, we walk back to the flower market.  We did not have time yesterday to take as many photos as we wished.  The perfume from the flowers fills the air.  We sit in the shade and enjoy the beautiful colors and smells.

the flower market
the flower market
the flower market
the flower market

Today is Thanksgiving.  Someone tells us that a restaurant is serving a traditional American dinner: turkey and all the trimmings.  We stop in to confirm.  “Yes!”  they tell us.  “Wonderful,” we say, “we will be back for dinner!”  I have the pasta primavera and TG the mixed grill.

Happy Non-Traditional Thanksgiving!

Friday   

We have reservations at the Piedra de Agua thermal hot springs & spa, a short ride outside of Cuenca.  We arrive when they open at 9:00am.  There is no one else here.  We are treated to a 15 minute eucalyptus sauna, followed by cold rinse, and then repeat. We are coated in red mud, baked in the sun, rinsed, coated in blue mud, baked in the sun, and rinsed.  We are brought into a small cave.  At the bottom on the steps, lit with small candles, is a thermal pool of very hot water.  We soak for ten minutes, and jump into a freezing cold bath.  We sit for two minutes, gasping for breath, and then repeat the whole process three more times.  David, our attendant, asks if we would like a glass of wine.  “Si.”  After wine, we are encased with only our heads through a round opening at the top of a wooden steam box.  A Canadian sitting next to us jokes about the James Bond scene in Thunderball when the box is jammed shut with a mop handle and the steam turned on full.  We laugh, nervously.

TG at Piedra de Agua

It is time for our massage.  TG is on the other side of the screen from me and we finish at the same time.  After lunch it is time to head back to Cuenca.   We are utterly relaxed and our skin is baby soft.  We were at the spa for six hours and the total cost was only $80 per person.

all that for just $80 each!

Saturday 

The office calls and TG must crunch numbers.  I go for one last walk around Cuenca.  I am drawn to the cathedral, the flower market, and the monastery.  I try to absorb everything, not knowing when we will be back.

one last visit to the Cathedral
beautiful bread lady

We have a five hour layover in Quito.  We have checked our bags straight through to Miami and have plenty of time to go to the market.  We are almost there when a horrible hail storm hits.  The hail is the size of gumballs, pounding against the taxi.  We dash into the market, seeking cover in the narrow aisles of the stalls.  This is awful!  It is wet and chilly.  We head back to the airport.  Traffic is backed up and the streets are flooded.  They are shoveling the hail like snow.  We are grateful we gave ourselves plenty of time.