After three months of cruising through the Bahamas, past countless white sand shores, aquamarine harbors and secluded isles, I begin to wonder if I am being confronted with some kind of beautiful ‘Spot the Changes’ game, where the only difference from one island to the next is the number of palm trees on it.
Our cruising friends in the Bahamas are making plans to move in one of two directions – back north towards Florida or, like us, south to the Caribbean. Most are surprisingly uninterested in stopping in the Dominican Republic. “I’ve heard it’s dirty,” they say, and set sail for Puerto Rico.
But I’m curious about this expansive Caribbean island with a ‘dirty’ reputation and want to see for myself what it is really like.
When I finally step foot on shore in Luperón, after a 34-hour sail from Little Inagua, I am reeling from exhaustion and nearly fall asleep in the airless sauna of an immigration room where I’m writing down my boat’s name, registration number and crew details for what feels like the tenth time, each time shelling out another ten-dollar fee.
Eventually, with stamped documents in hand, I wander aimlessly out of the customs office in search of a cold drink, trying to shake off the salt from my long journey. And as I enter town, I am immediately smacked in the senses by loud, Latin music; quick Spanish chatter; jagged green mountains; motoconcho drivers yelling in my direction; the sticky scent of overripe mangoes and dogs scratching at their fleas as they roll around in the middle of the road.
It is overwhelming. And, yes, it is dirty. Because the Dominican Republic, wonderfully, has dirt.
After a day and a half sail, suddenly, my barren, bird-less Bahamian surroundings are replaced by deliciously gritty, musical streets full of Dominicans chattering and hanging their laundry from brightly-painted cinder walls; friendly passersby stopping to help me find my way (“Are you looking for Wendy’s Bar? Free WiFi?”) and more animal life in one neighborhood than in the whole of the Bahamas.
It is sensory overload, and I am so energized by it, I practically squeal with delight as I kick off my deck shoes, throw my charts in the air and start running for the hills. Well … not really, since I need my charts and I don’t wear deck shoes. But I do trade my flip-flops for running shoes as soon as I discover how many hundreds of miles there are to explore by car, foot, Guagua (local bus) and motorbike in the Dominican Republic.
So, once I’ve had my fill of Luperón, I hit the road and head for towns like Cabarete. Here Dominicans and expats from all over the world gather to go mountain climbing or take to the water surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding and paddleboarding. I drive a motorbike along the coast to Rio San Juan, where I drop in to beautiful beaches populated by Dominican families, jump off cliffs into cool spring waters and paddleboard around winding lagoons.
My travels take me to the heart of rural towns to chat with Dominicans over cold Presidente beer and the soundtrack of Salsa, Bachata, and Merengue.
The cruisers who avoided the Dominican Republic were right. It is nothing like the Bahamas. The Dominican Republic is dynamic, loud, sporty, tropical and inexpensive. So inexpensive I can eat out every night, take Spanish classes and kiteboarding lessons and not break the bank.
Sure, in the Bahamas I can anchor anywhere, near any island, and everything I care to see is within walking distance or a dinghy ride from the boat. And I am always guaranteed a white-sand-and-crystal-blue-water view from my cockpit while I sip sundowners and eat home-cooked meals on board made with canned goods from Florida.
But here I have the opportunity to get off the boat and push my mind, body and senses to their limits by diving into Dominican culture, practicing my Spanish, taking up surfing and kiteboarding, eating mofongo and exploring this vast country by hiking and driving long distances.
To see the places this country has to offer, though, I have to spend a good amount of time away from my boat, which isn’t very cruiser-like. But after six months of living in a closet-sized space with my husband and our two cats, I realize I am more than thrilled to leave the boat and explore land to my heart’s content.
In essence, the Dominican Republic is a different kind of cruising ground. It’s not one where you can sail from island to island in just a few hours, or find a safe anchorage anywhere. In fact, there are few anchorages along the coast. But it’s a destination that offers a rich, dynamic experience for those who dare to get off the boat.
Visit Tasha’s website: www.turftosurf.com
Tasha Hacker has traveled the world teaching English. She co-founded the ESL teacher training school, Teaching House (www.teachinghouse.com), with her husband, which has allowed them to travel and work from their catalina 34 sailboat. For more info, visit: www.turftosurf.com.