My Dominican daydreams began long before I boarded a plane for Santo Domingo. I dreamed of the crumbling stone Ciudad Colonial and the soft green unfurling of the mountainous countryside, the wood smoke drifting from tin roofs and the sea salt whipped off the break, the cacophony of dusty public bus yards and the bongo-heavy bachata spilling from tinny windowsill radios, the sweet hot oil of fried plantains and the pale malt of a cheap national lager.
My partner, Lois Parshley, and I had less than two weeks, and we wanted to see it all: town and country, highlands and coast, coffee farms and fisheries. And we wanted to prove Lonely Planet wrong. “The DR isn’t an especially great destination for shoestring travelers,” said the travel guide. It went on to highlight the country’s reputation for cheapo all-inclusives, which monopolize long stretches of coastline and offer airport-to-resort shuttle service, Brobdingnagian walls topped with concertina wire (to keep the jungle elements out and you in), meticulously raked white sand, and all the watery liquor your distended stomach can hold. Also: water aerobics, 4 p.m., west pool, BYO floatie. In short, gated fantasylands whose fantasies we wanted no part of.
I had my eye instead on a small thumb of land, the Samana Peninsula, in the northeastern corner of the island. I imagined a tropical Maine: few roads, plenty of beach and blissful isolation. On a map, my finger made a northward traverse of the country, tracing what promised to be a study in opposites, from the sprawling, boisterous capital of Santo Domingo to a tiny dot at the peninsula’s farthest tip, the seaside town of Las Galeras.
The Zen shoestringer’s ethos, “Wherever you go, there you are — and take your sweet time getting there,” is well suited to Caribbean living. The Dominican Republic’s famous north coast is served by several regional airports, but flying into Santo Domingo — the first viable European settlement in the New World, founded in 1496 by Columbus’s younger brother Bartholomew — allows you to spend a day exploring the old Spanish city and observing the fault lines created by rapid economic development. Here, colonialism is still hard at work in the form of Ferragamo boutiques, BMW dealerships and McDonald’s franchises. (The project of postmodernity is apparently to recast the entire developing world in the image of South Florida.)
And while 500 years of earthquakes, hurricanes and battles for independence — from Spain, from France and, finally, in 1844, from Haiti — have exacted a toll on the urban architecture, small pockets of Santo Domingo retain their original quiet grandeur. Leafy cobblestone alleyways and flowering courtyards whisk you back several centuries. Pastel arcades line the streets, and wrought-iron balconies billow overheard.
Multilingual tour guides do a steady trade in the walled colonial quarter, or you can simply ruins-hop — reading plaques, chatting up guards and poking your head into half-closed doors. Dominicans like to say that their capital is a City of Firsts: the first cathedral in the New World, begun in 1512, with a 19th-century cannonball still lodged in its roof; the first university; the first hospital, sacked by the pirate Francis Drake in 1586, rebuilt and now fallen again to elegant decay; the first military fortress; the first royal palace; the first paved street, Calle de Las Damas, commissioned by Columbus fils, Diego, so that his wife could take walks without dirtying the hem of her dress.
For a few pesos, a sleepy security guard allowed Lois and me to slip through a gate into the scattered remnants of the New World’s first monastery, later an insane asylum and now an empty shell of bricks perched sternly above the central Parque Colon. Pigeons exploded out of crevices in the walls where timber beams once rested, and stray dogs haunted the shadows. Even in collapse, it was a place of sanctuary. Traffic was a distant howl.
Back along Calle el Conde — a bougainvillea-draped thoroughfare that once served as the commercial heart of the port — we found empty stools in a narrow hallway cafe. Little of La Cafetera Colonial’s decor seems to have changed since the 1930s and ’40s, when exiled Spanish intelligentsia held court there, and the espresso had the rich, dark bite of chocolate and plum. (I opted against trying a latte made with boxed milk.) From behind the counter, our barista hassled his regulars, flirted with Lois and pulled out his iPhone to show us photos of his 13-month-old daughter. Cute kid, we told him, and ordered smashed egg sandwiches.
Like Hispaniola itself — geography-bee losers, recall that the island is stitched together from Haiti in the west and the DR in the east — Santo Domingo is awash in startling contradictions and disparities. The beautiful and the profane are both impossible to ignore. Driving to our guesthouse in the Gazcue neighborhood, we took a detour along the city’s winding Malecon, the seawall and waterfront park, where dispossessed junkies and young lovers shared the benches and old men with fishing poles cast off from the jetty’s slick riprap. On the western edge of town, a collection of hourly love motels with names like Kiss and Yum that looked like neon-lit self-storage lots competed for pre-, extra- and non-marital affairs. In the new commercial heart of Santo Domingo, we passed a colossal Ikea (Latin America’s first, per usual) and an unending string of Outback Steakhouses, drive-in liquor stores and sleek, glassy megamalls. Heavily tinted Escalades and Porsches purred in long lines outside clubs. Motos darted against the flow of cars.
We checked into our hotel and ducked around the corner to a colmado. The street was dark save for the small store’s fluorescent lights, which cast their glow over a group of men sitting on milk crates in the doorway, like a Dominican rendering of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Lois asked for “un litro de Presidente,” the DR’s beloved green-bottled beer, and the owner popped the cap and wrapped the bottle in una vestida de novia, a white napkin wedding dress, in one motion. We drank it Dominican style, out of flimsy plastic cups, on our second-floor balcony and listened to the city’s nocturnal orchestra.
In the morning, we escaped for the coast. Caribe Tours offers the country’s most reliable first-class bus service, and at midday the station was a riot of passengers and packages. On the departures board, an English translation read, “Destiny: Santiago. Destiny: Puerto Plata. Destiny: Rio San Juan.” Sometimes it feels that way.
Our bright yellow coach was comfy and air-conditioned to the point of refrigeration, and across vast stretches of the interior the same violent movie showed twice. Lois slept, and I studied the distant mountains, which rise to more than 10,000 feet at Pico Duarte, in the country’s navel.
The bus went as far as Samana, a sprawling port of call halfway out the eponymous peninsula, and dropped us in a crowd of touts promising low room rates and generous portion sizes. We sat on our packs along the side of the highway until a guagua, a white pickup already full of passengers, slowed down just long enough for us to be pulled into the bed.
Making judicious use of the oncoming lane to avoid potholes, the truck climbed a low pass into the mountains; as we began to descend, a cooling afternoon thunderstorm unfolded across the sky like a black carpet. Through the rain and breaks in the rolling jungle, someone pointed out Golfo de las Flechas (Bay of Arrows), the cove where Columbus was said to have skirmished with the indigenous Ciguyaos in a bartering session gone sour. On the horizon, the bright white Norwegian Dawn cruised toward Samana, as massive and otherworldly a mirage as the Santa Maria must have seemed.
By the time we arrived on the outskirts of town, the wind had whipped our clothes and hair dry. The highway turned to dirt, and then to sand, and then petered out in a stand of worshipful palms.
Las Galeras has so far been spared the boomtown development afflicting its north-coast neighbors. By day, the barrio carried the sounds of pots banging on stoves, roosters crowing, dogs brawling and cellphones chirping. Young boys sold gasoline in old Presidente bottles to moto drivers while their older brothers lounged in the shade, catcalling at passersby. By night, the slap of dominoes — perhaps the third- most-beloved Dominican pastime, after beisbol and something else — ricocheted up and down the alleys like gunfire. Curvaceous women in drainpipe jeans, lamé halter tops and stilettos strutted in the rough gravel outside the colmados. Couples flirted and fought over the strains of sorrowful bachata on the radio, and Sunday night at the pool hall promised no less raucous a party than Saturday.
Lois and I hired a moto driver, Rodrigo, to take us the 40 minutes to Playa Rincon, one of the many half-moon beaches that dot the peninsula’s lush coastline. Rodrigo had been an extra in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” shot on location around Las Galeras, and now operated a one-man taxi service in town. He easily navigated the unmarked spider web of roads that cut their way across the campo toward the ocean, swerving to avoid washouts and mottled chickens, often steering with one hand and texting his girlfriend with the other.
The earth was copper red but fertile, giving rise to pineapple and banana plantations. Long-horned cows grazed in stick-fence pastures, silently watching our passage. Rodrigo slalomed through one final stretch of boulders and dropped us on the sand, as soft and white as sugar. We gave him half the total fare — a down payment on the gas needed to pick us up — and he promised to return at sunset.
The surf at Playa Rincon was more green than blue, inky in the farthest depths and a brilliant topaz in the shallows, shot through with crystalline columns of sunlight. Tiny-footed sandpipers played tag with the sea foam, and steely-eyed frigate birds, their tails forked like devils’ horns, hunted silverfish from on high. At the farthest end of the beach, where the jungle once again closed in, a tin cook shack provided lunch to the crew of “Survivor Colombia,” who were waiting for a shoot to begin. On camera, Rincon makes an exceptional desert island.
We walked down to the water’s edge and found shade beside a pile of driftwood. I pulled out a novel, but instead fell to watching a small wooden fishing boat, painted daybreak blue, make its way along the shore, paying out a large pile of net. The sight of the three sinewy fishermen bending over their hand-hewn oars, swallowed by and then reappearing through the swells, would have prompted Winslow Homer to pull out his paints. When they made land and hauled the net in, the sand shimmered with their catch. “It’s hard work,” one of them said. “But it’s easier when you know you’re pulling in money.”
Rodrigo reappeared as the last light of the day stretched its fingers across the water, and played with his phone as we took one last swim. On the ride home, the cool air was thick but welcome, and the silhouettes of skyward palms exploded like asterisks. I wrapped my arms around Lois, and Lois wrapped her arms around Rodrigo, and sweaty, salty and sandy we hugged him all the way back to Las Galeras.
Redmon is a Washington writer and independent journalist working on his first novel.