Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The "Discovery" of the Dominican OR Into the "Unknown" OR The Conquistador Special

It must have been a terrifying thing to be an explorer in the time of Columbus. There were no Lonely Planet guidebooks, TripAdvisor, Carribean Vacation magazines, or travel blogs to provide the adventurous with suggested itineraries, phone numbers, websites, price lists, warnings, or the "Top 10 Best Beaches". Traveling into the "unknown" takes a special kind of spirit and courage. I'm not sure if I would have made a good first mate to Columbus or not - I like to think that I would have - but I know that travel agents today have the easiest job in the world, except for the fact that their signing up other people for exciting vacations and don't always get to go themselves. I loved putting our week long itinerary together for the Dominican Republic - it builds anticipation and excitement and allows for seeing more in less time; but despite having a wealth of resources to go through in my planning I could not have envisioned the incredible adventure that unfolded for me and Erin during the last week in February. I suppose that's why I love to go even more than I love planning to go - it's the things you don't read about in the guidebooks, or see pictures of online, that make the trip worth taking. The "unknown" is why we go.

We took off from Curacao around 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, February 22nd and the first leg of our flight took us over the heart of the Caribbean to Saint Maarten, where we captured a few great photos from the plane as we came in for a landing and left again. After about an hour sitting on the plane, and trading some of our old passengers for new ones, we hit the skies over the Caribbean again and made our way over the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and into The Airport of the Americas just outside of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I have not had many opportunities lately to practice my spanish so I was looking forward to this weeklong spanish class, and put it to the test as soon as we arrived. I discovered I wasn't too rusty after all and we successfully changed some money, made our way through the airport, into a cab, and down the Avenida de las Americas to the Caribe Tours bus station without any problems. I purchased 'dos boletos' to Jarabacoa (a small, mountain town 3 hours from the capital) for 250 Dominican pesos (a little less than $8 US), and since we had an hour or so to kill we walked around the Santo Domingo neighborhood looking for something to eat. Since it was Sunday most of the restaurants and shops were closed, but we came to a corner store where a couple of Dominicanos were relaxing, drinking some Presidente (Dominican beer), and watching Titanic on television. We thought that was an amazing combination so we stepped in, laid our backpacks down, bought some chips and a Presidente of our own, and sat down with our new friends to laugh at the plight of the gringos aboard the Titantic (actually, I think Erin was crying). The young clerk working the store was very impressed with my spanish and kept telling Erin and I how smart we were and about all the great things to do in Santo Domingo (mainly, going to Boca Chica which used to be the high end resort beach in the Dominican but is now old, run down, and a little seedy - all of the high end resorts have moved out to Punta Cana or the North Coast). We finished our beer, threw our backpacks on, and hustled back to the bus station to catch our ride into the heart of Hispaniola. Our first night in the Dominican town of Jarabacoa happened to be the country's opening celebration of Carnaval, so we dropped our bags at the Jarabacao Guest House (a great place if you want a cheap room for a night and a wonderfully helpful host) and headed into town to join the fiesta. The music was loud, and the clothes revealing, but despite the temptations we were more interested in relaxing - we grabbed a table on a balcony at a cozy Dominican restaurant overlooking the small plaza known as Plaza Duarte and absorbed the colorful blur that is Carnaval. We talked about our plans for the week and appreciated the novelty and excitement of sitting side by side in a place we had never been before. As we walked back to the Guesthouse under a cloudless and star-filled sky I couldn't help but feel a sense of great fortune and gratitude - how many people get to live the life of an explorer?


The next morning we woke up to a rooster crowing outside our window and beautiful blue skies. Our host, and owner of the Jarabacoa Guesthouse, had us sit down for a feast of eggs, toast, jam, fresh fruit, coffee and juice - and then we were off to find a ride to La Cienaga, the small village that sat at the entrance to the Dominican Republic's largest National Park and base of the trail that led to the top of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean at 3,087 meters (over 10,000 feet). The mountain, like the central plaza in Jarabacoa (and many other roads and landmarks across the country) takes it's name from Juan Pablo Duarte - one of a trio that are credited as being the "founding fathers" of the Dominican. We wove through town and pulled over on a bustling commercial street where we found the public transport to La Cienaga - a small 4x4 truck meant to carry at the most 5 people but we were told would carry at least 10, along with the day's supplies for the town of La Cienaga. While we were waiting to leave we met a young man by the name of Abellito who introduced himself as a guide for the trip up Pico Duarte (note: every male in Jarabacoa introduces himself to obvious tourists as a guide for the trip up Pico Duarte). I quizzed him for a few minutes in Spanish (he spoke no English) over his experience, qualifications, cost, etc. and tried to crack a couple of jokes - he laughed at them and quoted a fair price (3,000 pesos, or about $90 US, for a guide and 2 mules for 3 days) so I decided he was a winner. We made arrangements for me to ask for him as our guide when we arrived in La Cienaga, and then we loaded up to make the trip into the mountains. The ride cost 100 pesos ($3 US) each and would take about an hour up a windy mountain rode. It was actually an absolutely beautiful drive - one minute passing by small shacks and huts along the side of the road and the next staring up onto the side of a mountain where a wealthy Dominican had built a vacation estate. By the time we reached La Cienaga there were no less than 14 people who had shared the ride with us, including a group of 4 Haitian immigrants and 3 old Dominican women who wouldn't stop talking whether you understood them or not. I spent half of the trip sitting in the bed of the truck with the Haitians and the various boxes and bags - hanging on for dear life as our driver, Kico, skirted around corners and left me with a bird's eye view of the river valley below. The entrance to the Armando Bermudez National Park, where we were dropped off, was an absolute oasis. On the outskirts of a poor, rural mountain town of small tin-roofed shacks stood a well constructed and beautifully landscaped office and lodge complete with clean bathrooms and picnic tables, not to mention a pleasant wooden bridge built over a cool mountain stream that marked the beginning of the trail. If this was a fair representation of what was in store we were certain we were in for a treat. The gentleman who was overseeing affairs in the office that day (which meant he was doing nothing because we were the only ones there all day) greeted us and asked us if we needed a guide. I explained the deal we had made with Abellito and he walked into the village to notify him for us. We relaxed by the stream until Abellito arrived and then went with him into town to pick up the food we needed for the trip at a "Colmado" he promised would give us the best prices. There are only a few Colmados (small shacks that sell basic groceries) in La Cienaga but we still felt like insiders with Abellito. We picked out our food for the next few days, paid up (about 900 pesos, or $27 US), and headed back to the National Park office to wait for Abellito to prepare the mules that would be carrying our gear (and our guide, as we later realized) throughout the journey. When Abellito returned to the office it was already after 3 p.m., but that left us plenty of time to walk the first 4 km to the first camp along the trail, Los Tablones. We made our way up a muddy, and relatively flat, mule-trodden trail for about an hour - stopping to take pictures at locally crafted bridges that fell over the river that we were following. We passed by the old lodge and Abellito brought us to the new one - complete with toilets and running water. We set up our tent on a piece of flat ground and as soon as Abellito had tied up the mules and unloaded their cargo he set about making a fire and getting dinner started. "Con-Con", a typical Dominican dish, was on the menu for that night - a simple mix of rice, beans, and seasoning that I had 3 large plates of. We had been told we wouldn't have much company on the trail, as no one had gone up recently before us, and there weren't any other groups expected at the office until the following afternoon, but it turned out we had some guests for dinner: as we were eating a clan of local farmer's dogs came to beg for food (I was too hungry to share) and then a small Dominican man in charge of keeping up the lodge arrived. We shared our Con-Con with him and began talking about various aspects of life in the Dominican Republic. Eventually, the topic of conversation turned to machetes, which was of course the natural direction the conversation would turn since nearly everyone we had seen in La Cienaga was carrying one - including our guide, Abellito, and our new friend. I began to ask about what they used them for (they are really a Dominican version of a Leatherman, used for virtually everything - can opener, nail file, screw driver - you name it), where you can buy one, how much do they cost? As soon as I asked that last question I knew what was coming - "Quieres comprar esto?" There I was in the middle of the tropical forest with my wife and 2 guys who spoke no English, sitting around a campfire, and buying a machete. 170 pesos, or about $5 US, left me with a white-handled, recently sharpened machete with the cool limited edition leather carrying case. You can't find a deal like that on E-Bay. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to get it back into Curacao, but I was willing to cross that bridge when I came to it. I took the machete, and said goodnight - and Erin and I crawled into our tent to spend our 2nd night in the Dominican.


It is an invigorating experience to wake up and step out of your tent into the fresh, mountain air. Our 2nd full day in the Dominican, and our first full day on the trail, was going to be long and challenging, but even though we couldn't claim the best night's sleep we were ready for the mountain. We prepared our breakfast, loaded up our gear and packed it onto the backs of our trusty mule, Moreno, and headed up the trail. At first it was pretty easy going, and we climbed at a steady but kind pace on a well groomed trail. We made our way up and out of the narrow valley, away from the cool mountain stream that we had followed the afternoon before, and onto a ridgeline that would carry us up and around the first mountain in our way. We were treated with beautiful views of the valley below, and could see the farms and shacks that made up La Cienega sitting at the feet of the mountains that poked into the vibrant blue Caribbean sky. Surrounded by both jungle and pine forest at the same time, it was difficult to say whether it was more like walking through the Yucatan Peninsula or Eastern Tennessee. As the cool mountain morning gave way to the midday sun the temperature began to rise and we shed our extra layer of clothing. At the same time the hike became more and more vertical and the trail became littered with loose rocks that forced us to take our eyes off of our surroundings and focus our attention on where we placed our feet. From 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. we hiked close to 12 km and climbed over 1,300 meters (or about 4,500 feet). For 3 km of the trip we were on what is known to the locals as the "Walk of Repentance" and we thought it was well named ... I certainly needed a trip to confession after all the mumbled curse words I let out on my way up. Yet regardless of how difficult it was (and we couldn't really complain - a mule was carrying our load for us), it was exceptionally beautiful - every 20-30 minutes we would stop and look out over the valley and marvel at how quickly we were climbing higher into the sky. These mountains are called the "Roof of the Caribbean" and I appreciated the fact that so few would ever imagine you could be lost in the middle of 10,000 foot mountain peaks surounded by pine forest and with no glimpse of the ocean or a coconut palm or a white sand beach and be traveling in the Caribbean. After doing what we thought was going to be the hardest stretch of the day (me and our guide, Abellito, had different plans for the afternoon) we stopped to rest at a place called Aguita Fria, a small cold-water mountain spring that serves as the "birthplace" of the countries two most famous rivers, Rios Yaque del Norte and Yaque del Sur. Clouds were beginning to crawl over the mountain tops in front of us and cooling down the afternoon, and we enjoyed a pleasant 3 km stretch that was mostly downhill. It was during this short section of trail that we got to witness the level of destruction that had taken place during a massive forest fire in the park in 2003. Acre after acre was charred and the mountainside was littered with baby pine trees that were just a few years old. By the time we arrived at La Comparticion the clouds had rolled in to take away our view of Pico Duarte, and we relaxed for a minute and explored the camp that we would call home for the night. I thought our hiking was over for the day and that we could spend the last few hours of daylight reading and exploring this cool little mountain "villa", but Abellito had different plans and told us he thought it would be a lot better if we made our ascent this afternoon, so that getting down the next day wasn't such an arduous task. I was a little hesitant: my legs were jello and I really wanted to sit at the top of Pico Duarte just after sunrise, but Abellito was insistant that waiting for the next day to go up would mean a hellish trip back down the mountain. My superwife said she was "up for it" so I was left without a choice - to the top! We left our mules and equipment tied up at camp, and began the final 2 hour stretch to meet Senor Duarte at the top of his mountain.


Most of you know that I'm a type 1 diabetic, and while I do my best to not that let stand in my way of doing all of the crazy things I love to do (or eating ridiculous quantities of food) it became clear that this final 5 km push to the top was going to push my body to it's limits. I know, it's only a 10,000 foot mountain in the relative warmth of the Caribbean climate - there was plenty of oxygen and no perilous glaciers to cross, but I am just in the beginning stages of my mountain climbing training and even the most seasoned climbers won't typically take on over 20 km and this serious of an elevation gain in just one day. Erin and I had both pushed ourselves (and we would be feeling it the rest of our vacation), but we knew we could make it - we knew we had to make it. The mule we had brought as an "ambulance" was tied up back at camp - even Abellito had to do this stretch on his own. You would have thought that the first stretch of the ascent would have been a relief - mostly flat, or even a gentle downhill, for about 1.5 km; but in actuality it was completely discouraging. To be going down when you know you're going to have to go up is not satisfying. "Why can't we just save the easy part for tomorrow!!" was all I could think to myself. So at first we strolled, and later we pushed, through a beautiful landscape of low lying ferns, mountain shrubs, young, visibly energetic pine trees, and tall lingering corpses of the pine forest that used to be here. The clouds that had once been wisping by overhead were now eerily playing amongst the tall, dead pines. After an hour and a half we finally emerged onto a plateau, or short flat stretch called the Valle de los Lilis (Valley of the Lillies), to a view of the peak, or actually 2 peaks. To our right was La Peloma, Duarte's sister peak and just 5 meters shorter. Directly in front of us was the ridgeline leading up to Pico Duarte. A newfound energy flooded out of my heart and into my legs - only 30 minutes and we would be the highest people in the Caribbean (at least in one sense of the word). We scrambled up and around the boulders that stood between us and our ambition until we finally reached the summit - a rock outcropping with a small cross and a bust of Senor Duarte. From the east the clouds danced over our shoulders and a stiff, cold wind encouraged us to find refuge on the westerly side of the peak. We found a comfortable seat at the base of Juan Pablo's memorial and tried to revel in our glorious achievement. We were alone with our guide and a memory of Juan Pablo Duarte at the very top of the Caribbean. The beautiful beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, celebrity villas, the salsa and merengue, the poverty stricken hillside pueblos painted in blues and yellows and greens, the sounds of Bob Marley, and the smell of freshly lit marijuana - the first cities of the New World, the lost tribes, the pirates' bounty, the Spanish Empire's Glory, the slave revolts, the curious meeting place of 4 continents - all of this was at our feet, stretched out below us and beyond us in more ways than we will ever understand. I wish these were the thoughts I had at that moment of 'glory' - while I sat and embraced all that it meant to climb this mountain - but honestly, all I could manage was "*&$!, where's the friggin' mule when you need him."

We made it back to our camp that night at La Comparticion just as the day was coming to a close, and were surprised to find out that we would have some company for the evening. Two groups of hikers had made the climb up to La Comparticion behind us that day and had decided to wait until morning to go for the summit. I had to admit I was a little jealous that they would be on top for the sunrise, but privately thanked Abellito for pushing to go this afternoon. Both groups would be waking up at 4 a.m. for a quick breakfast and cleanup of camp before setting off for the peak - once they arrived shortly after sunrise they would have to begin the trek back down to La Cienaga - 23 more km that while mostly downhill were no "walk in the park." While Abellito got dinner ready I quickly set up our tent and sleeping bags and Erin got cleaned up. I joined the 2 groups by the campfire and listened contently as the conversation moved from Spanish, to Italian, to English, to German, and back to Spanish again. One of the groups was a a mix of an Italian man and his wife, and a funny, sarcastic guy from Germany. The other group was made up of 3 Dominicans, who were happily passing around shots of the whiskey their mule had carried up the mountain for them. They offered me some, but I politely declined, trying to hint at the fact that we had a lot of work left to do the next day (and so did they). They shrugged, and the linguistic feast continued until dinner was served. The other groups had obviously paid the $300-400 USD per person that different tour operators charge for the trip up Pico Duarte, and so their guides had brought up chicken and ribs to cook along with their seasoned rice. Everyone was in a sharing spirit so the feast was passed around for everyone to enjoy. We all sat around the campfire and things grew quiet as we filled our hungry stomachs with this delicious meal. It didn't take long for the food to settle, and Erin and I said our "Good nights" and climbed inside our tent for our 3rd night in the Dominican.


We woke up the next morning to the sound of hungover Dominicans grumbling about having to get up so early. We were both happy to be able to lie in our tent and catch a couple more hours of sleep before our trip back down the mountain. When we did finally emerge from our tent around 7 a.m. we quickly packed our things and sat down around a glowing fire to eat our healthy breakfast. Abelito was still packing up the mules when we finished, and he encouraged us to begin our trek. So we were off down the mountain - exhausted from the previous days challenge, but soaking in the glory of our achievement. We made it all the way back to the little spring - the birthplace of the Dominican's two major rivers - before Abelito finally caught up; we had conquered the only significant uphill climb we would encounter that day and spent the afternoon skipping down the loose gravel and rocks that littered the trail. We came across a few small groups of hikers on our way down the mountain and finally landed back at base camp in La Cienaga. As soon as we arrived the skies opened up and it began to pour rain, and we couldn't help but think how wise Abelito had been to have us summit the previous afternoon, and how wise we had been to listen - and those poor souls who were somewhere halfway between the "Roof of the Caribbean" and us, trudging through mud and sliding down rocks as they cursed themselves, their guides, and probably, their mules. We relaxed to the sound of raindrops landing on the spanish style roof and the wind howling through the tall pines and waited in peace for our driver from Jarabacoa to arrive. We had made these arrangements with the driver when he dropped us off, but I wasn't quite certain if we could trust him to be back to pick us up, but sure enough, and only 1 hour behind schedule (which means he was early in the Caribbean), Kico arrived to take us back to Jarabacoa. We made it back the Guesthouse around 5 in the afternoon, managed to get cleaned up and make our way to dinner, and then crawled back to get into bed. This day was incredible, but of all the days of our adventure, it alone stands out as a blur. Maybe I was just so drained of all energy that I couldn't focus in on the details, or perhaps I was just so proud of me and my wife for conquering Senor Duarte's mountain, but even now I am impressed not by the vivid details of our trip down the mountain and triumphant return to Jarabacoa, but rather by a dull, glowing, feeling of satisfaction. I remember going to sleep that night and holding on to that feeling - letting it tuck me in, and put me to bed.

Thursday was going to be our travel day, and we knew that a travel day in the Dominican could be painfully slow, but that it would be outrageously cheap. We woke up a little late, around 8:30, and enjoyed our breakfast at the Guesthouse. When Tim, the owner arrived, we settled our bill with him (2 nights + 2 breakfasts for $50 US), and headed off to catch the gua-gua (local bus) to La Vega - the largest nearby city. It was a 45 minute trip, but the 9 passenger mini-bus was filled with 18 people, and Erin and I were the last ones on so we were stuffed into opposite corners with our backpacks. At least we had window seats and we spent most of the ride hanging out the sides of the bus. Once we reached La Vega we boarded another gua-gua headed for San Francisco. This ride was much more comfortable (not nearly as crowded) and took us through some beautiful countryside. This was about an hour trip, and we were beginning to think how lucky we were to be moving through the country so quickly. When we arrived at the Caribe Tours bus terminal in San Francisco around Noon our luck ran out - the next bus to Samana didn't leave until 3:30. We walked around for a bit, but finally settled in at the terminal to wait for our bus. We enjoyed some local food and shared some of our candy (I had brought a big bag of Now-n-Laters for a sugar supply on the mountain) with a 10 year old boy with club foot who was trying to sell his own candies in the terminal. I never bought any of his candies, but he really enjoyed our Now-n-Laters and we practiced our Spanish and taught him a little bit of English. He had to either walk with a cane, or hobble around on one good foot, but he never quit smiling. I had recently been learning more about club foot because Erin's father, Leon, had just traveled to Central America where he met a woman named Robbie who works to cure club foot throughout Latin America. Coincidentally she had just transfered to Santo Domingo to work in the Dominican Republic, and even though we never had the privilege of meeting her face to face we began to exchange emails and I told her about the boy. Who knows, sometimes coincidences aren't always the coincidences they seem to be. We had to say good-bye to our new friend when our bus arrived and we boarded the large, and comfortable bus for the 3 hour trip to Samana, a small town on the mountainous peninsula of the same name in the Northeast corner of the Dominican Republic. The drive to Samana took us past some interesting sights: within 15 minutes of leaving the terminal a huge ball of flames caught our attention and to our surprise a small mini-bus had exploded on the side of the street in a small town outside of San Francisco. The bus drove right past, checking with the spectators that the "Bomberos" had been called, but then continuied on its way to Samana. We drove along the northern coast through a city called Nagua and I spotted what looked like some potential surf spots there. We made our way through some mountains covered in lush vegetation and coconut palms and finally caught a glimpse of Samana Bay, the home of the humpback whale reserve, and the reason why we had made this long journey. Someone had given the bus driver a copy of Terminator to put in the DVD player so my attentions drifted between Arnold "The Governator" trying to destroy the world and the beautiful colors of the jungle on one side and the Caribbean on the other. We pulled into the town of Samana just as the sun was going down, and you could tell that what used to be a quiet little fishing town had remade itself into a tourist hub. We later found out that cruiseliners had started stopping here to let their passengers visit the famed Cayo Levantado. We were immediately haggled by taxi drivers when we got off the bus and rather than search for a gua-gua (the last one to Las Galeras, where we were going, had actually just left anyway) we decided to pay the $20 for the 1 hour taxi ride to our destination.

Las Galeras is an ideal destination, and while I haven't visited the more well known spots of Puerto Plata, Cabarete, Punta Cana, among others I would have to recommend this little beach town to anyone looking to get away from the tourist centered existence of the other destinations and wants to see a bit more of a truly natural and authentic Dominican Republic. Quite a few Europeans (mostly Italian and French, with a few Germans) have made Las Galeras their home, but it only adds to the charm as the main street in town (and the only actual street) is home to several authentic Italian and French restaurants. There are a couple of beautiful all-inclusive hotels on the beach if that is what you're interested in, but we happened to book 3 nights at the most charming little house we have ever seen. Words will not do the Chalet Tropical justice - you need to see it for yourself. From the hand-crafted wordwork and incredible attention to detail, to the stone shower, to the wonderful loft with a king sized bed, to the humungous toads that live in the yard, this place was as ideal as we could have hoped for (http://www.chalettropical.com/). It's only a short walk from the main street and an even shorter walk to a beautiful secluded beach, where coconut palms lean out over the shallow waters of a protected cove. The house includes a full kitchen with a great antique gas stove, and Erin and I were able to prepare many of our meals at home. The owners, Mateo and Sara, from Italy, were so helpful and pleasant - and made sure our short visit to Las Galeras was remarkable. They even showed us the inside of the two chalets that they are building on the adjacent property. Each chalet has it's own unique personality and was designed by Mateo and his father. One of the new ones is more fit for a couple's romantic getaway while the other has been built with a family in mind. We were so impressed with the location, and the Chalet, that I was already concocting plans to build a school in the hills above Las Galeras and create residentials dorms modeled after the little house. As soon as we arrived at our Chalet on Thursday night we knew we were in for a treat.


I suppose that our "discovery" is not all that different than the one Columbus is credited with making over 500 years ago. Sure, he didn't really know where he was (and still thought he might be just off the coast of mainland Asia) and he couldn't even begin to speak the language of the native people, and he had to travel weeks on a rickety old wooden ship with a bunch of rowdy and foul-scented sailors; but all in all he arrived in a place he had never been before and we also arrived in a place we had never been before. We crossed rivers and climbed mountains, and walked along beautiful, secluded white sand beaches for miles without seeing anyone else; we even slept out beneath the star speckled night sky surrounded by the Caribbean's tallest peaks; our trip was full of glory, terror, flames, confusion, history, swords (actually ... machetes), friendship, and betrayal; we went into the "unknown" and we conquered it, or at least fell in love with it.