This week the Island Runaways duo is writing to you from beautiful Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. One of us (Zickie) has explored this interesting Caribbean country on previous visits for work, but it’s my very first time here. I did know that “the DR” is located on the island of Hispaniola, and shared a border with Haiti; Cuba and Jamaica lie to the west.
The country produces coffee, rum, and sugar, but its most valuable industry in recent years is tourism. Back in our Island Runaways headquarters in south Florida, billboards and advertisements broadcast the attractions: soft sand beaches and aqua-streaked ocean. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we’re always game for a tropical getaway.
Have you ever had to buy a plane ticket close to your departure date? If so, then you know that prices can get downright insane. With direct flights to Punta Cana almost four times the cost of flying into Santo Domingo, the capital city, we chose what seemed like the more sensible path: arrive in Santo Domingo, rent a decent-sized vehicle, then enjoy a leisurely cruise through the country before reaching our destination.
What I can report: the Santo Domingo airport was modern, clean, and seemed very organized. Immigration was a breeze, and all our luggage appeared on the conveyor, no problem. Renting a car? Quick and easy. With our Google Maps directions printed out, a free paper map of the major highways, and Google Maps functioning on the iPad, we confidently set out on our way.
The major highway heading east was in very good condition. An American on the plane had warned us about the driving speeds: cars may go up to 100 miles an hour, while little mopeds, sometimes with a few passengers clinging to the back, might be puttering along at a mere 30 miles an hour. My seatmate (thank you, Randy!) turned out to be absolutely correct: we watched in terror as a BMW and a Porsche flew by so fast they had to be doing at least 90. Then we had to quickly decrease speed for very slow-moving vehicles.
The green, lush countryside seemed very undeveloped, with occasional herd of cows grazing peacefully, but otherwise, only sparse signs of human inhabitation. Large banks of clouds hung on the horizon.
The time passed quickly, and after around two hours, we saw signs for Punta Cana, and more specifically, for Bávaro, which is a beach area slightly north of Punta Cana town proper.
The GPS directed us down a series of streets. Little restaurants, bars, and shops lined the road; Dominican families walked the sidewalks, going about their business. Eventually, a few entrances to various resorts popped into view. The sun was still in the sky, we were almost at the resort, and "Soon," I said happily, “We can watch sunset by the water!”
What we had not counted on was our GPS being 100% WRONG. As in: it led us to the end of a dead-end street, beside the guard gate to one resort we'd never heard of -- while our hotel was nowhere in sight.
In broken, stumbling Spanish, we asked the security guard how to find our place. He scratched his head. “Can you give us directions?” Zickie asked in Spanish. The guard scratched his head again. “Is it far?” Zickie said, this time a bit more anxious.
“Not too far,” he said, “pero…” The man appeared either unable or unwilling to give us advice. But he had a friend – Miguel – who suddenly came up to the window. Miguel had a moped and could lead us to the hotel. “For four hundred pesos.”
My brain tried to calculate that in American dollars. “Eleven bucks!” I said. “With the best exchange rate…”
Despite the fact that it seemed pretty steep to pay 11 dollars to travel a few hundred feet (or so we assumed), we agreed. Anything to reach that beach!
So we made a deal to pay him the money once we got to the hotel. Then Zickie turned the car around and set off. Unlike a few other mopedists we witnessed, Miguel drove slowly and carefully. He signaled us left when we needed to head left, right when we needed to go right. Slow down, his hand gestured, when we reached a traffic circle. After five minutes, I expected to see the name of our hotel in big, bold letters at one of the extravagant guard gates and entrances that all the resorts in this area seemed to have.
After ten minutes, it began to become clear why the security guard could not possibly explain how in the heck to reach our place. Because it was very, very complicated. Even had we spoken fairly decent Spanish, finding the route would have proved extremely difficult.
We drove onwards, and onwards. After 15 minutes of twisting and turning, we both agreed. “Miguel deserves every peso!”
After 20 minutes, I was swearing never to trust a GPS again. How far out of our way had we driven? The sun began to set. Lights across town illuminated. Miguel’s single moped light served as a beacon, taking us – we hoped – closer and closer to our hotel. “I’m assuming he’s not going to take us down some alley and rob us,” I joked, with a slightly nervous laugh.
At last, we spotted the words! Not just any Bávaro resort, but our Bávaro resort! “Thank goodness,” I exclaimed, exhaling with relief. Miguel pulled up at the guard’s station, and spoke to the security man in Spanish. The employee asked to see our reservation, which came as a surprise. Apparently, they take security seriously. Once he’d confirmed with a switchboard that we did indeed have a reservation, he nodded and raised the barrier.
“Muchisimas gracias,” we told Miguel repeatedly, handing over a little extra cash because we so were relieved. Both of us realized that we might have been driving around for hours. If we’d called the hotel and gotten directions, it still would have been nearly impossible to find it, with the sparse or non-existent street signs and night-time making navigation that much more difficult.
Miguel shook our hands, and grinned as we told him how grateful we were. Then we entered the compound of the resort, and once again, found ourselves disoriented by a series of roads and traffic circles, but at last we discovered the lobby and checked in. It was too late to watch sunset or even see the water.
But the following morning, coming out on the balcony, we saw the gorgeous, clear Caribbean sea. That’s the moment when you know: it was totally worth it.
(Photos 1 & 3: Joe deSousa; Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Flickr license here.)