Cuando Regrese a la Republica Dominica
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
Before life got crazy with two babies, my husband and I took pride in the fact that we traveled authentically, or experienced different cultures through local immersion. For example, staying in a vacation rental in a neighborhood instead of a resort, or at least getting off the resort to try the native cuisine and partake in activities that weren’t engineered for tourism.
For this particular trip to the Dominican Republic last autumn, we were two tired, non-Spanish-speaking parents in need of a lazy vacation, minimal planning and a moderate budget. So, we decided to book an all-inclusive resort with another couple (who are also normally authentic travelers, but graciously went along with our plans to spend time with us ☺️) and treat the trip as a reconnaissance mission for when we return to the Dominican in the future.
I had no idea what to expect when we arrived. My husband had visited the Dominican twice before, and he warned me that it was still very much a third-world country and we needed to be careful about our belongings and mind our environment. On a smaller threat level, he and his family had been overcharged for a taxi in the past, so he was determined to get a fair price this time around to our resort.
My first impression was that the airport was incredibly clean and modern; far from what I was expecting. As we walked through the terminal toward arrivals, I became overwhelmed with the various taxi companies soliciting us, even in the customs line! It felt disorganized and even intrusive, but we eventually chose one man at a stand after realizing most were offering the same price.
For the Future
In the future, I would arrange a shuttle service ahead of time to avoid this mess at the airport. Also, manage expectations for the ride – Dominican street laws (if there are any?!🤷🏻♀️) are not often followed! We had a nice Spanglish chat with our driver and arrived safely, even though his driving was questionable.
I took six years of Spanish in high school and college but did not use the language at all while living in Hawai‘i after university for eight years. I’d like to brush up on my verbal skills before returning for a smoother experience, although we did travel with two fluent Spanish speakers, one who grew up in Colombia.
In our initial research, we found one bread and breakfast on the eastern side with local hosts that would cook indigenous cuisine. While appealing, this type of trip would have required more planning than we were prepared to do with a newborn. It also didn’t include alcohol costs, and we knew those would add up.
We chose to stay at the Melia Caribe Tropical (MCT) all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, and it did not disappoint. For just under $200 per night, we felt that the value was incredible. We received a complimentary upgrade to The Level ($40+ per night value), VIP status that granted us a room closer to the beach and access to more restaurants and adults-only areas. The resort was right in the middle of stunning Bavaro Beach, which made for lovely morning beach runs and breakfast overlooking the ocean, mimosa in hand.
Although MCT was under major construction, the grounds were still gorgeous with marble structures and impressive tropical landscaping lining the paths throughout. And there was plenty to do, with several pools, a swim-up bar in the center of the action and free rentals for non-motorized water sports like SUP and kayaks. The resort oddly enough did have any hot tubs besides the hot and cold plunge pools at the spa, where we enjoyed a couple’s massage. An incredible-looking kids water park was being remodeled and set to open in early 2019.
The restaurants at MCT featured cuisine from all over the world and the staff provided impeccable service. On different nights we tried a traditional Dominican meal, Italian and Thai food. For those who weren’t as adventurous, there was always an Americanized buffet open with burgers, pizza and other “safe” options. We would usually go this route at lunch time to grab a quick bite to eat while on the beach. I really enjoyed the traditional Dominican cuisine, which usually consisted of a lot of plantains for all three meals! The booze was also steadily flowing for our group– all well liquor, house wine and Presidente beer.
The only thing that disappointed me was the lack of high-quality seafood. I imagined amazing seafood would be easy to find on an island, but it is apparently very expensive in the Dominican on any resort. There was a lobster and steak restaurant on our resort for an additional price. There were some restaurants and clubs in Punta Cana town nearby, but it didn’t seem frequented by or inviting to tourists (except for the Coco Bongo, which we were too tired to stay awake for!). If we had spoken the language better or were familiar with the area, we may have explored a bit more.
For the Future
The all-inclusive option was convenient and perfect for us at the time. It was hard to justify eating out when we had free food and alcohol at the resort and were not in walking distance to the main town. However, I feel like we missed out on so much of the local culture because we were tied to the resort. It left me wanting to know more about the real Dominican.
If we returned for another beach vacation, I would stay in an airbnb in Bayahibe, a quaint, colorful fishing village near La Romana in the South where our sailing excursion launched from to Saona Island. If we brought the kids with us, I would still feel more comfortable in a resort community, so we’d probably stay in this area at Hilton La Romana so we could still explore Bayahibe.
For more of an urban/historical-focused stay, Santo Domingo would be an ideal destination. This was three hours from where we were staying; if we had been on holiday longer, it could have been an interesting day trip.
To pursue adventure and more ecological experiences, I’d recommend staying in Puerto Plata in the Northwest (also a beach town) or in towns in the western mountains by Armando Bermúdez National Park.
When I lived in Hawaii, I was used to being able to go on our own to waterfall hikes, lagoons and other natural wonders the Islands provided. Near Punta Cana, it seemed like all the eco-experiences on the eastern coast had been turned into private ventures that jacked up the price for tourists and to some extent, ruined the natural appeal of the sites. For example, a natural blue pool and lagoons were turned into Scape Park “natural” theme park in Cap Cana. The owners took what was a natural scape and added in zip lines, stairs, rails, etc. that to me seemed disingenuous to the land (it did look like a blast, despite my eco-conscience).
Instead, we chose to spend our excursion budget on a catamaran ride out to Saona Island, a protected oasis of white sand beaches within the East National Park, which I researched in advance. It was a 2-hour bus ride from Bavaro Beach to Bayahibe, where our speedboats departed from (we returned on a catamaran). In all honesty, it was poorly organized, and we felt like cattle boarding the boats. I don’t even think we were on the correct vessel of our original operator. But once we stopped at our first snorkel spot and began drinking Dominican rum, everyone’s nerves seemed to subside. The views and the untouched beach were absolutely worth the chaotic trip of getting to Saona Island.
For the Future
As mentioned before, most of the hiking and eco-adventure activities take place out in the mountains on the western part of the Dominican. However, if we stayed on the southeastern portion of the country again, we would try out the Scape Park and book directly through the operator versus through our hotel, as it was MUCH cheaper. I’d also like to visit the public ecological park for some bird watching, light hiking and education about the island’s habitat.
In closing, we have a great desire to return to the Dominican to explore the country in a deeper dive than the all-inclusive experience. It feels like we just reached the tip of the iceberg in this amazingly unique country with so much to offer. One thing we would not change in the future is our choice of travel buddies – the couple we traveled with were fantastic companions, and we hope to visit Colombia with them later this year. Stay tuned!