Here began our tour of the contrasts of the Dominican Republic as we cruised from small fishing villages to bustling cities (published August 2016)
Departing Ile ‘a Vache Haiti, we sailed 140 nautical miles along the southern coast of Hispaniola to make first land in the Dominican Republic (D.R.) at the island of Isla Beata (“bee-AHH-tah”). One c
annot clear into the Dominican Republic at Isla Beata but the Armada (The Dominican Republic’s navy) maintains an outpost here. Shortly after we anchored, a fishing boat brought the Comandante de Puerto, dressed in the standard issue beige camouflage fatigues and tall laced boots, along with a tee-shirted M-2 Intelligencia officer (we knew he was M-2 because it was on his baseball hat), to our boat. They were very cheery and helped us work through their brief questions as we referred to Kathy Parsons’ Spanish for Cruisers (a must have item if you don’t speak Spanish fluently). Understanding that we would clear in at Barahona, we were welcomed and told we could stay and visit the island for as long as we wished and were told to, “Please use your dinghy”.
Once we were ready to depart, the Comandante, raised a closed fist with thumb extended and pointing to his mouth, asked “Whiskey?” We obliged with three bottles of one of our home town beers. Offering one to each of the men, we quickly learned that there is a hierarchy and it was up to the Comandante to later share the propina with the M-2 officer and their boat driver. These small tips, or propina, are part of the culture and the economic system.
It was a windy afternoon with a pretty good roll in the anchorage so after the 29 hour sail we decided to put off launching the dinghy until the next morning. There was plenty of coral around Isla Beata stepping down to a narrow band of sand a few hundred feet wide which offered good holding off the beach at the northwest end of the island. Another step is found just a few feet from the beach so dinghies were best held off the shore with an anchor and a line to shore, just as the fishing boats are found. At the Comandante’s post, we were offered a line to shore for the dinghy.
The shoreline backs to steep rock walls leaving a narrow strip on which are found countless small fishing huts. Some of these are Colmado, small stores selling basic groceries and supplies to the fishermen and woman on the island. Some of these small huts, which serve as homes, have utilized the rock wall to create large natural fireplaces for cooking.
As we walked down the shore, we were invited many times to sit and visit with the fishermen and women. We met Ramon and his cat, and chatted as best we could as he ate his fish and rice. Ramon sent a young man down to his boat to fetch fish from the coolers there. Ramon then filled a large plastic bag of small yellowtail snapper for us, smiling the whole time, and demonstrated with his pocket knife how to clean the fish. We offered a few dollars in payment, which seemed to surprise Ramon. We think he intended to gift us the fish, as he commented that what we offered was “mucho dinero” and then proceeded to put even more fish in the bag. Back on board, and after cleaning the fish, we found we had enough for at least four meals. The first meal was consumed immediately and it was among the best tasting fish we had ever eaten.
One curiosity of the fishing on Isla Beata is that although traps and nets were used, each fisherperson seemed to have a specialty fish and all the fish they were cleaning, drying or cooking was of that one species. How they got traps or nets to catch just one kind of fish defied explanation.
Ramon’s simple lifestyle and love of life was a delight for us to experience. And we could see amongst the other fisherpersons on Isla Beata the same sort of happiness with their lot in life. An outsider might label this as “poverty” but the people of the Dominican Republic do not see it that way. It was explained to us that no one here is going to bed hungry and most enjoy large extended families and groups of friends to be happy with.
Sailing on to Barahona, we were hit head-on with the contrast of a busy, dirty and noisy city. However, the officials who visited our boat were just as friendly as the ones on Isla Beata. There were no extra fees and no need to have an agent handle our clearing in. We were done in less than 20 minutes, after giving the Comandante de Puerto and the Immigration agent a ride back to shore in our dinghy. By contrast, others coming from the east told us of paying up to three times as much as we did to clear in, convinced by the marinas that the process was complex, difficult, and time consuming.
One thing we looked forward to in Barahona, in addition to super marcados, was a most exciting market. This market, open in places and enclosed in others, meandered through an area of several city blocks. Motorcycles ran down the narrow corridors of the market bringing people and products to and fro. One can, and
should, bargain for all purchases here. Countering at one third of what is first asked is not at all unreasonable. We found all the vegetables and fruits we bought at the market to have much more flavor than the ones back home grown on chemical fertilizers. Barahona also introduced us to the Dominicans’ love of loud music, to which crowds often sing along. This began at sunrise with exercise classes in the park and went well into the wee hours of the night from the shore side bars and dance floors.
Now that we were cleared into the D.R., we had to secure a despacho each time we moved from one port to another. This was simply a matter of visiting the office of the Comandancia de Puerto and telling them where you wanted to go next. The information was slowly entered into a computer and the despacho printed. Another five minutes passed while the form was taken to a commander for a signature. No fees or propina were requested in Barahona. Note that the despacho will only be issued within a few hours of one’s intended departure. At Barahona one can at 4:00 p.m. request a despacho for a departure planned for the next morning. Some ports will not allow this and will only issue a despacho for immediate departure.
A hop of 111 nautical miles brought us to Boca Chica where we picked up a mooring ball at Marina Zar Par. Coming into this bay is a bit dramatic with waves crashing over a reef just to the right of the red markers. After that point, a bit of local knowledge was required which went like this, “To avoid running aground, stay close enough to kiss the ships and yachts docked on your left as you go in.” With that information in hand, we had no problems but we did see a number of other boats, who apparently did not get the word, come in and run aground.
Marina Zar Par is actually a bit west of Boca Chica proper. In between is about three quarters of a mile of beach with lots of small food vendors who will deliver your meal and drinks out to the tables and chairs lining the shore under thatched roofs. Several of these vendors have the obligatory loud sound systems and apparently take turns as to which will be the loudest for the afternoon or evening. On the weekends the “Dominican Navy,” the fleet of local motor boats of all sizes, comes out to anchor in the bay and play their own music, some with very impressive systems including underwater light shows. Most nights the boats returned to slips around 10:30 p.m. and one could get some sleep. Oddly, enough it was a Monday night, and not a holiday, when the music went until 3:00 a.m.
Using Marina Zar Par as our base, we visited the nation’s capital city, Santo Domingo, about eight miles away and went inland to the “Dominican Alps” to the mountain town of Jarabocoa where Jill and I were the guests of cruising guide author, Frank Virgintino, and his wife Clemencia, at their family retreat. The rides to both places were adventures in their own rights.
Franklin, a former Santo Domingo bus driver, served as our taxi driver for the several hour drive to Jarabacoa. This is normally about a two hour drive but we had to stop along the way to shop for tires for the taxi. The right size and price were found at the sixth stop where the car was jacked up, in the traffic lane, Indy pit stop style, with Jill and me still in the back seat, while the tires were changed, as we looked at each other and laughed. The ride continued through Santo Domingo where we learned that turning right from the leftmost of six lanes, and left from the rightmost of six lanes, both in the same intersection, while the lights were still red, was just how it’s done here. We were glad we did not rent a car.
Coming back involved Franklin stopping for a beer (a grande Presidente no less), to be consumed on the mountain road down, a stop to fill the trunk of the car with full stalks of plantains which we were told were much cheaper here than in town, followed later by a stop for the driver to relieve himself roadside and toss his beer bottle into the woods.
It was disappointing to see the amount of trash that is found roadside not only here on the side of the highway but on most roads and streets we walked. A large portion of this is disposable Styrofoam food service containers, an unfortunate yet common sign of growing affluence in the country.
Towards Boca Chica, to circumvent the traffic of the Friday evening rush out of Santo Domingo, we were taken down unpaved lanes barely wider than the car with the occasional house door opening into the street, requiring the taxi to stop suddenly.
On Sunday, allowing a day to recover from the trip back from Jarabacoa, Jill and I decided to make it on our own to Santo Domingo to visit the Colonial Town, Chinatown and seek out some Carnival activity. We took the public bus. To do this properly, one must flag down a bus going in the wrong direction and stay on as it goes to the end of the line and comes back in your intended direction. When asked to pay, simply say, “No, para Santo Domingo”. The bus will make any number of flagged stops until it is full, which never happens since folks also get off at requested stops. Somewhere along the way the bus goes into a terminal where you are pointed to an “express bus” to Santo Domingo, which also makes lots of flagged stops. This time when requested to pay, produce 60 pesos ($1.33) per person and let the conductor know where you would like to get off. It was helpful to have a map of Santo Domingo in hand so we could follow our progress and move forward on the bus as our stop approached. (A taxi would cost about $40 each way). Coming back from Santo Domingo involved finding the bus terminal for Boca Chica and camping out in a seat on an air-conditioned bus until it received its complement of 30 passengers. Fortunately, this terminal was very close to where we exited the bus.
The Colonial Town was developed by the brother and son of Christopher Columbus and shows both Spanish and French influences in the architecture. Many firsts for the Americas are found here including the first cathedral, the first hospital and the first university. One can hire a tour guide or ride the “Colonial Chu Chu” to get filled in on the history of all the notable sites here.
From the Colonial Town, we walked north to the adjacent Chinatown for lunch then south again, skirting the Colonial Town to pay our respects at the tombs of the founders of the D.R., Duarte, Sanchez and Mella. We made our way to the Malecon which runs along the coastline the full length of Santo Domingo. We were told that on any Sunday afternoon in February one would find plenty of Carnival goings on anywhere along the Malecon. We walked for a few miles and, to our disappointment found none, but did see several memorials and parks that were worth the walk.
CASA DE CAMPO
We were ready for a break from the busy towns and loud music of Boca Chica so we headed 48 nautical miles further east to Casa de Campo, a luxury resort community with what is hailed as the largest marina in the Caribbean. We radioed for guidance to the fuel dock and a dinghy was sent out into the surf to guide us in, but we were told the marina was overbooked so we could not stay. Oscar, the marina manager, had to meet us and collect our despacho before we would be allowed to take on fuel. Understanding that we had nowhere to go, he took me for a ride in his golf cart to show us where we could anchor within the marina. He explained that the people spending three million dollars on a house around the marina really don’t like looking at boats so he had to limit the number of boats that could anchor out. There was no charge for staying.
Casa de Campo is as big a contrast from the cities of the D.R. as one could imagine. We rented an electric golf cart, drove around the community and visited Altos de Chavon, a recreation of a 16th century mediterranean village overlooking the gorge of the Chavon River. Imagine Epcot on European steroids. This place is magnificent and, unlike Epcot, made of real stone. It is billed as an artist’s village and there are several galleries and workshops there. The central fountain alone is worth the visit. The Romanesque amphitheater is also a sight to see. But the pièce de resistance is the view from the terraces overlooking the river with the mountains of the D.R. in the background. And unlike the cities, there is not a piece of trash to be found running free anywhere in Casa de Campo. We were told that this is a must-see and we agree.
We entered the D.R. at a small island and our final stop in the D.R. was to be a small island, Isla Saona (“ SAH-ohh-nah”). One cannot however check out of the country from Isla Saona so instead we secured our international despacho for Puerto Rico at Casa de Campo, not mentioning our intention to visit Isla Saona. Upon reaching Isla Saona, we immediately brought down the dinghy and motored over to visit the Armada station there to humbly greet the Comandante with a request to visit until the winds improved for our transit to Puerto Rico. We were told that others who did not “check-in” in this manner were chased off. The Comandante welcomed us to stay as long as we liked. Isla Saona is a quiet island that supports tourists visiting for a few hours each day from the mainland. The rest of the time the beaches are great for solitary walks and the mangrove lined shores north of the island are worth exploring by dinghy. We anchored off the northwest beach wholly expecting a deluge of catamarans and motor boats around noon the next day. As luck would have it, most of them proceeded to beaches further south on the island with only a few boats visiting “our” beach. By 3 p.m. everyone was headed back to the mainland and the island, and the song of the birds there, was left for another 21 hours to the few sailboats anchored.
WHY PROPINA IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC?
Americans are often taken aback by the tradition of tips, or propina, requested by government officials and often consider these small payments to be “bribes” or “graft”. Frank Virgintino, author of almost a dozen free cruising guides to the Caribbean (www.freecruisingguides.com) explained it to me this way: “It is important to understand how different countries work. In the U.S., we are directly taxed. We pay our income, property and sales taxes and the government pays their employees a fair wage. In the Dominican Republic, and some other countries, the tax is more indirect. Yes, the government pays their employees a wage but it is a bare minimum. Tips or propinas are expected from those who receive the services. This practice apportions the costs to the recipients of the service. In the end, you probably pay less in immigration fees here than you do, for example, in the Bahamas.
Now there are some port captains who are taking advantage of this, and Luperon is perhaps the most famous example, but by and large the port captains, immigration and M-2 officers are just seeking small tips for their time and service. Above all, it is important to never get angry. Anger is not part of this culture and it is not well received. You can always just say “no” and smile. They will not arrest you or toss your boat. It is worth noting though that when leaving for the U.S., such as to Puerto Rico, that the U.S. requires the Dominican officials to conduct drug searches with dogs, which are not required for despachos to other countries, so expect to tip those officials for their special expenses, sometimes traveling a long way, at their own expense, to come to your boat.
Over the last several years we have watched Pete and Jill Dubler’s restoration and refit of their Pearson 424. In December, they began their new life as cruisers aboard S/V Regina Oceani.