Chapter Two - A drive through the D. R.

Trip Start May 09, 2012
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Trip End May 14, 2012


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What I did
Cueva de las Maravillas

Flag of Dominican Republic  , La Altagracia,
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thu. 10th. Day 2

The breakfast at our hotel is surprisingly good with plenty of coffee and tropical fruits.

We had left our car in the street the night before and were really happy to find it still there in the morning with all four tires, windscreen wipers and headlights.

We start our excursion by driving east along the Malecón and through the residential area of Gascue. Up to now we have seen the poorer parts of town and now we can see how the other half lives. As we meander down tree shaded streets lined with exotic mansions and elegant high rise apartment buildings, it seems to us that wealthy Dominicans live very well.  

We return back through the colonial sector and over the Ozama River past an unusual monument commemorating the sugar cane industry, looking for the ubiquitous Columbus Lighthouse, known locally as El Faro. It was completed in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery". Within this mammoth, cross-shaped concrete edifice stands the Baroque mausoleum of Christopher Columbus, which supposedly holds his bodily remains (Seville Cathedral makes the same claim).

It's a pretty ugly building (in my view at least). Travel and Leisure includes it in their list of the world's strangest buildings. Our Rough Guide calls it a "bombastic eyesore", and says it resembles an "immaculately scrubbed penitentiary". The lighthouse's most impressive feature is a 250-laser cross of light that projects on the night sky. We did not see this in operation, but it is said that whenever it turns on, the electric lights dim in villages across the country.

The highway along the south coast is a fast dual carriageway with few intersections. We are soon at our first stop of Boca Chica. Bryan had stayed here some years earlier at an all-inclusive hotel, and had enjoyed it immensely. Although the web site makes it look heavenly, we arrive at the beach front to find it completely blocked by commercial enterprises and aggressive hawkers on all sides insisting we park in their spot. Maybe we took the wrong entrance, but the whole experience is so unpleasant that we do a quick U-turn and leave back to the highway.

Let's see what the next place along the coast is like, Juan Dolio. What a difference!

"Hey! We can actually see the beach here" We chorus.

A couple of indolent attendants supervise the tiny municipal parking space, and we are charged the princely sum of RD$ 50 (US$ 1.30) for the privilege, and even given a receipt. The car is facing a beautiful white sandy beach in a bay the form of a half-moon of calm turquoise water. It's lined with white tables and chairs shaded by colourful umbrellas. It is by all means, an idyllic sight.

"It's Presidente time" I tell everyone. "Let’s bag a table on the beach and get some nice cold liquid refreshment."

While the girls are setting things up, I wander over to the point, looking back over the perfect crescent of the bay. I begin to get form an opinion that the Dominican Republic as a developing nation is extremely disorganized. Perhaps Boca Chica would have looked like this if we had managed to barge our way past the touts and blatant commercialization on the shore. Fortunately here there are still some openings giving us easy access to the gorgeous Caribbean shoreline.

I return, but don’t see anyone sitting at the table.

"We’re over here!" shouts Miryam from a beachfront café. "They wanted US$ 7.00 to rent the table all day. The waiter called us over to his bar. Here’s your ice cold Presidente."

I guess it’s not a bad idea to set up tables and rent them for the day. They do similar things on most other beaches; even South Beach in Miami has lounge chairs, parasols and cabanas for rent.

We pass quickly through San Pedro de Macoris. Pretty much it’s only claim to fame is that 73 major league baseball players came from this town. Other than that, it’s pretty unexciting. We drive along the half-built malecón lined with fishing boats past a pretty Victorian church and into an area so dubious that Miryam is scared we will get mugged. Though it is obviously a poor section of town, at no time do we feel at all menaced.  Eventually winding our way on narrow half-paved streets we get back on the south coast motorway and speed on to our next stop, the remarkable Cueva de las Maravillas (The Marvellous Cave).    

This immense cave system was only rediscovered in 1926 and contains over 500 remarkably pre-Columbian pictographs painted by the Taino people almost a thousand years ago.      

It’s extremely well administered, with artfully illuminated pathways and lights that go on and off using movement sensors. The lights illuminate the beautiful groupings of limestone stalactites and stalagmites, Visitors are accompanied by a guide who points out the unusual formations. We are impressed by the efficiency of everything and when we are told that it is run by a private foundation, we understand the good organization and rather steep (by Dominican standards) US$ 7.00 entry fee.

Next stop, the legendary Casa de Campo Resort. We are looking forward to a grand lunch at Altos de Chavon, a reconstructed medieval village high up on the cliff-like banks of the Chavon River where there are designer shops and elegant restaurants.

Arriving at the gates to the resort, we are directed to the administrative offices where we can pick up a pass. Inside there is one attendant who seems to be busy selling a timeshare to a couple, so we wait patiently until there is a break in the pitch.

“Can we get a pass to visit Altos de Chavón?” I ask.

“That’s US$ 25.00 each.” I’m advised by the somewhat irritated female.

Could it be that she hasn’t sold enough today and is taking it out on us?

“We don’t want to use the facilities, just visit Altos to have lunch and do some shopping.”

“That’s US$ 25.00 each.” She repeats. 

I’m somewhat annoyed. I don’t feel like paying US$ 25.00 for the privilege of visiting a fake medieval village, which according to my guidebook is overpriced and overrated. Sour grapes? Perhaps.

We drop Casa de Campo, leaving it for the 1%, and continue on to the village of Bayahibe.

A wining tree-lined lane leads us to a charming colourful village situated amongst tiny sandy coves bathed by the glorious blue Caribbean. It’s everything we had hoped a Caribbean village would be. We park (for free!) and slip into Captain William Kidd’s Pizzaria and Restaurant, right on the waterfront facing a lovely calm beach. No touts, no hawkers.

“My goodness, it’s so cute.” declares Cecilia. “Who needs Altos de Chavón?”    

The Italian chef prepares plates of fresh grilled fish and salad, a feast beyond compare as we gaze across the pretty harbour with multi-hued fishing boats bobbing in the azure water.

“”I’m afraid we don’t accept credit cards.” I am advised. “There’s a cashpoint at the supermarket just up the road.”

I wander along the narrow winding street and find the tiny grocery store, but cannot locate the ATM.

“It’s just outside by the bank” I’m told.

There’s a tiny one-room bank beside the market, and the attendant points out the smallest ATM I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless it works perfectly, so the axiom “size doesn’t matter” is bourne out here.  

Pleasantly satiated we are now good to continue our journey to Punta Cana. We drive inland through interminable sugar cane fields. Higüey is our destination, a nondescript town principally known as the dormitory for the thousands of workers from the all-inclusives along the eastern coast. The Hard Rock Hotel alone employs almost two thousand people. The only building of note is the huge Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Altagracia, the country's most important religious site. You can see it from all over town and it is in fact the tallest carillon in the Americas.

Here the road to Macao Beach, where the Hard Rock Hotel is located, branches off the main highway. After about twenty minutes we arrive at a road junction. To the right is Bávaro, left is Uvero Alto and straight ahead is Playa Macao. When we finally arrive at Playa Macao we are disconcerted to see no hotels in sight. The road literally ends on the open public beach.

“Where’s the Hard Rock Hotel?” we ask the owner of the local fish shack.

“No! no! Not here! Go back to Uvero Alto. Many hotels there”

We drive back to the junction. There are around half a dozen small motorcycles gathered under a tree. In the Dominican Republic the cheapest and most common form of public transportation is the motorcycle taxi. They cover the streets in swarms, they sit in gangs at intersections, outside of supermarkets, in front of bars, near the beach. The cost is cheap — well under 50 cents to US$ 1 for most rides — and the service is exceptionally convenient.

“Hotel Hard Rock?” we ask.

They don’t look too pleased. There are four prospective fares sitting in this car.

“Si, si. Muchos hoteles.”

The road winds through low hills and gets progressively worse. Pot holes are so deep we start scraping our chassis. I have to keep my eyes skinned to avoid them. We finally arrive at the entrance to a hotel. Club Nouvelles Frontières.

“Hard Rock Hotel?” we ask.

"No, no! Not here. Go back to Macao.” We are told. OMG, this is a nightmare!

Another man comes out of the resort.

“Parlez-vous franҫais? He asks. No but we speak Español!

“Ah ha! You are looking for a hotel.”

“The Hard Rock Hotel”

“Oh, no wonder. Everyone still knows it as the Moon Palace. It only changed two years ago. I used to work there. Didn’t you see the big guitar on the way?”

Big guitar?

“You have to go back to the Bávaro road. You should have seen the sign on the way. It has a big guitar.”

Either we are all going blind or we are in a parallel universe. We saw absolutely no signs indicating the Hard Rock Hotel, or even the Moon Palace Hotel, let alone a big guitar!

“Go back the way you came to Bávaro. You can’t miss it. I just don’t know how you could have ever passed by the giant guitar beside the road.

Mystified, I negotiate back along the pot-holed road past the bevy of smirking motorcycle taxis and arrive at the Bávaro junction. No guitar. No sign.

“Hey! Look up in that corner!’

It’s a large sign advertising a popular music concert. Up on the top left hand corner of the sign is a tiny icon of a guitar indicting that the event is being held at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Hardly a giant guitar.

At least we now feel we are going in the right direction, and within a few minutes we finally espy the fabled giant guitar on our left indicating the entrance to our lodging for the next few days.

Thinking back, we realise that 99% of the guests arrive at Punta Cana Airport, just twenty minutes south of the resort. Virtually no one drives all the way from Santo Domingo through Higüey, hence there are no signs on this route. Even the man at Nouvelles Frontières had thought we’d come from the local airport and had driven right by the resort without seeing the sign.

We check in to our lovely rooms and now we can start the relaxing part of our holiday.
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