Dominican Republic: Bayahibe, Santo Domingo, Las Terrenas and Punta Cana. December 2017

17 December – arrival in Bayahibe. 8 and a half hour flight from a miserable sludgy grey sky and dreary rain… to 29 degrees and sunshine. Landed in Punta Cana airport at 7pm where we joined one queue to pay 10 dollars tourist entry fee, another queue to have our passport stamped, another queue to get our luggage and another queue to have our suitcases checked against our passports to make sure we weren’t walking off with those other than our own.

Christian, the German owner of Bayahibe guest house, was there to meet us and by 9pm we were reunited with our Canadian cousin John and wife Julia who’d flown in a few days earlier to meet us. Producing a bottle of pink champagne, they toasted the double whammy of meeting up again and our 23rd wedding anniversary, then out in to the streets of the small fishing village Bayahibe where locals were blasting reggaeton from huge speakers in the back of a car and dancing in the streets. Fantastic!

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The trees of the local park were wrapped with thousands of multi coloured Christmas lights, a boat with its sail lit up in red, blue and white lights and painted ‘Feliz Navidad’. After a short wander we were sitting with our feet in the sand, having a drink whilst over-looking the Caribbean ocean.

18 December – Bayahibe. Breakfast at a small harbour side Cafe watching the taxi boats and all inclusive day excursions arriving in droves to go out on booze cruises and diving trips to Saona Island. Everything we ordered for the four of us wasn’t available but we got some food in the end. Ordered the fruits plate, told it wasn’t available then the next table was served with a plate of pineapple and bananas. Asking for that we were served one. There’s a definite cultural trait here which sees service staff not seeing beyond the literal.  It’s a little bemusing at first but once you’ve realised, you factor it in and ask for things. It’s always a long wait and things are often forgotten. Had a wander in the spartan local supermarket, very little of interest to buy but we got some milk. Being an island I imagine it depends on imports; which in small places like Bayahibe would be very expensive.  I chatted to some of the local kids, shy but thrilled to have their photos taken. A little girl called Juliette was drawing a monster with huge teeth on a till receipt.

We walked through the colourful streets of the town near where we were staying to a small natural beach.  Opposite lay a graveyard of discarded boats and engines including a forlorn catamaran called Popeye. Quiet, hardly anyone around and loads of washed up conch shells on the shoreline amongst the rocks….great beachcombing.  Lying in the shade under trees looking up at dazzling sun filtering through the leaves with the ocean in front of us, only about 15 people on the beach. We went in to the sea, very rocky underfoot but a dazzling clear blue.  Sadly we didn’t have snorkelling gear to see the fish. Local men with much older western women made a small fire and cooked at the base of a gnarled wind silvered tree.  We passed several hours relaxing and wandering looking for shells…Julia trying to get comfortable amongst the tree roots where she’d thrown her towel down on the sand.

Wandering back we passed by a simple white wooden shack with blue windows, allegedly the first building erected in Bayahibe now selling ice creams.  Men gutted freshly caught fish under the shade of the trees. We showered back in our rooms and met up for dinner of perfectly grilled steak at Chiky Blu.

19 December – Bayahibe. Breakfast; today cereal was available but cornflakes soggy in cheap strawberry yoghurt…but fresh pineapple juice was delicious. A light rain refreshed us as we watched a European wedding party dressed in turquoise and white manoeuvre an elderly man on crutches and a frail very thin lady on to a large boat with a steep ladder. We walked to the main marina through an old park with an abandoned school, a small wooden clapperboard church; the simple dark green wooden building had been shipped from the US.

A local dog followed us everywhere and a fisherman cast his simple hand line from where he was seated on the rocks. Heavy brain corals scattered the ground around us, too heavy to take back to keep.  A wrecked boat lay crumbling in the weeds.

Back to the other side of town where we passed the small baseball pitch again. A line of players were sitting on a wooden bench wearing full kit receiving instruction from their Coach. I waited patiently to ask for a photo and when the Coach saw me, he asked all the players to stand and pose. BayahibeDR2017People2baseballsmallIt was a genuinely heartfelt gesture and the players beamed as I took their photo. A wander along the beach further down to the rocky wilder side. No people here at all and it was beautiful. Holes in the dead coral with the sea rushing up sending spray in frothing white gusts making crabs scuttle in to niches. Rock pools of clear sea water with small fish. Beachcombed for smaller brain corals, disturbing the tiny geckos with black and white bodies and unusual curled pale orange tails which darted for cover under decaying leaves.

A delicious lunch in a small bodega called La Bodegita back in town of imported salami and cheese. Dropped our beachcombing finds back in our room and with John and Julia walked through the town again, stopping to photograph more of the colourful buildings, a group of men in a local bar waved me in to chat and take their photo.

15 minutes later we arrived at the local national park where I wanted to see the caves I’d read up about. The short walk from the town runs alongside a busy main road to the simple park entrance and 200 DR pesos entrance fee per person. A solitary young guide called Raymond walked us along a narrow winding path of rock hard coral peppered with tiny succulent plants. Huge cactus reminiscent of cowboy movies towered above us as we brushed past palms and agave plants. Bright yellow and black butterflies flickered through plants, the occasional orange and black butterfly settling amongst them. The dead coral underfoot hard and unrelenting dating back thousands of years to when this area would have been under seawater.

Finally at the cave a steep wooden staircase, slippery and old, leads down to irregular rock steps. Raymond shines a small torch and John and I clamber down after him using an iPhone torch because stupidly we left the proper torches back in the room. It’s pitch black and what at first looks to be a long descent in to darkness takes us by surprise when Raymond stops us to throw a stone and it ripples across a perfectly clear area of water, 8 metres deep. Many people swim here even though it’s pitch dark without torchlight but we’re chasing the sun and don’t want to risk a walk back along the rough coral path in the dark. It would also be difficult negotiating the rocks to get in to the water in this darkness but I regret not allowing myself more time to do it.  Walked back to town, showered and met up at Saona Cafe, a lively restaurant in town with a large tapas style menu. The sticky barbecued chicken wings were delicious. We swapped memories of traditional childhood Christmas past and made plans for Santo Domingo where we head to in the morning.

20 Dec – Drive to Santo Domingo. Breakfast at Saona, way better than the previous breakfast place for food, but took an hour to come out and they totally forgot my order…but it’s not like we’re in a massive rush and the food was great and we sat with views of the harbour. Packed up by noon and in the car to the Colonial city of Santo Domingo 2 hour drive further up the coast.  20 minutes in the car was rolling along the motorway rather than actually driving and Alberto explained we needed fuel. Managed to reach the gas station where he filled up with propane gas by attaching the gas line to a connector in the middle under the back bumper. The car is duel fuel, standard petrol or propane. For some reason Dave and I were asked to get out of the car but john and Julia were left sitting inside. Never figured that one out as they didn’t understand when we asked. 20 minutes further along the motorway with huge lorries barrelling by at crazy speeds, the car cut out completely and we rolled on to the hard shoulder, conveniently across the carriageway from a police patrol who were quick to come over to help. Alternator wasn’t firing apparently so the battery had died. Alberto rang his cousin who lived nearby, he rocked up in his car, we got out and Stoddard in a ditch whilst they took the battery out of the new car, fired up ours, put it back in his cousin’s car…and off we went. Couldn’t believe how it got sorted so quickly but figured luck was on our side.

Arrived in Santo Domingo, found our Air B&B down a beautiful narrow street in the zona colonial area and met our fantastic German host, Susanne. She opened the door to let us in…and our jaws collectively dropped. The house is incredible, designed by her architect partner, it is an architecturally unique gem. Huge double height ceilings, exposed brick arches, gorgeous tiled floors throughout, brick and wood built kitchen, private garden with plunge pool, bbq and palms. The pictures just can’t do it justice. One bedroom downstairs and ours up another level with a massive en suite bathroom and dressing room. A metal spiral staircase leading all the way up on to the roof terrace with outdoor sofas and great views across to the convent. All this for around £140 a night for the 4 of us for 7 days including Christmas. We are understandably thrilled.

The house is in a great location with the main shopping streets and restaurants a 10 minute walk away.  Just around the corner is a beautiful old church with a wonderful bronze statue outside of an anonymous swathed figure sleeping on a bench. A nativity scene made from rusted metal is eye catching in its creative construction.

We go to the local supermarket, passing a gaggle of tourist guides waiting under the trees in a small square; explaining to Prospero that we’ve only just arrived and have no idea what we’ll be doing or when. It’s a small area easily covered on foot and the laminated proffered card showing photos of more caves and car journeys isn’t an enticement… so we politely extricate ourselves, walk on passed an unexpected Peruvian cafe and find the supermarket on the lively Main Street. Fantastic supermarket, pretty much everything we’d need/want…made even better by the small band of local musicians wandering the aisles playing traditional songs on local instruments….so uplifting and unexpected that I dream of the day this could be introduced across supermarkets everywhere. Next time I’m in there I swear I’m starting a conga; airport staff aside, everyone in the Dominican Republic is quick to smile…I reckon they’d be well up for it. We stock up, walk past the painters selling their huge brightly coloured canvases and the guys selling bits of bark in wine, ‘Viagra’ apparently…and drop our shopping back at the house. We go back out (Prospero launches again) and eat pizza (selecting the ‘Mega’ size 12 slice) and are served by the lovely Joel whilst sitting outside watching local life on the main square. A girl walks by with obvious bottom implants, a new bride in 5 inch heels totters behind her photographer, a golden retriever tongue lolling happily, has his Santa hat adjusted by his owner, a group of men under a tree opposite erupt in to a huge argument over the board game (possibly draughts) that they’re playing…local guys sitting on the nearby bench quick to take sides. The argument goes on for a good 10 minutes, subsides then starts afresh when one of the bench guys leaps up making gestures to show that he’s keeping a close eye on one of the players.

Leaving the pizza place we walk down the main shopping street as it gets darker. Chess players huddled over a bench balancing the board playing against the clock, amazing wigs in a salon…hairdresser Riki coming out to chat dapper in his waistcoat and suit showing off one of his recently styled customers and encouraging me to go in. A bureau de change under a colourful parasol, the local artists packing up their canvases, teen beauty queens tripping along the cobbles in strappy silver high heel shoes, lines of kids at a chain take-out place specialising in French fries; the young guy in the green lit health place next door looking bored behind a counter with no customers. Dave and I got ice-creams and we all meander back to the house, along narrow pavements with very high kerbs, poking our heads in to a church en route to see a lady rehearsing her soaring operatic voice. At the house we open up the huge iron grill doors and sit in the garden drinking wine.

21 Dec – Santo Domingo.  A lazy day spent lounging around the house, ate a big breakfast, figured out the washing machine…had to move all the laundry inside when a heavy tropical downpour blew in. Whiled away the morning until lunch time when we set up the table again with fresh baguettes, Italian meats and mozzarella cheese; the local supermarket a blessing after the barren shelves of Bayahibe.   We walk to the Parque Indepencia and enter through the main gate Puerta del Conde named after the General who saved the city from British invaders during the siege of Santo Domingo.  It was at this gate in 1844 that the first Dominican flag was raised. The area inside the gate is flanked by two rows of busts depicting important participants in the history of the Dominican Republic through the years, many of which are women.  These busts face each other and lead up to the steps of the Altar of The Nation or Tomb of the Patriarchs.  Here lie the remains of Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sanchez and Ramon Matias Mella…moved from their original resting place in the cathedral in 1943 by Trujillo.  The current structure was an update in 1976 built in white marble and stands imposing at the top of a flight of steps with a solitary bored armed guard alone at the entrance. He smiles when we say hello but it must be a thankless task standing here for hours on end.  Duarte, Sanchez and Mella, immortalised in white marble, stand over their tombs with an eternal flame burning in the centre of the mausoleum.  Exiting back through the main entrance you cross the road straight on to the main street Calle el Conde.

Drinks back at Parque Colon again watching the local musicians and an artist who was presenting his painting to a table of women who he must have painted whilst they were seated. I don’t know how much they paid for it but to say it was in the ‘naive style’ was being gracious. A few tables down a young guy in a cap with a red star on the front and a huge beard was definitely working the Castro look. He wandered under the tree where the artist was sitting next to a dark skinned girl with white stripes painted across her face.  Meanwhile the young guy with the beard was happy to be photographed; I complemented him on his ‘revolutionary appearance’ and Ricardo happily chatted, telling me of his relative studying in Oxford. He waved when he left the cafe later with his friends.  Everywhere we go men on the street playing dominoes, chess and other board games.

22 December – Les Tres Ojos. We got an Uber from Zona Colonial area, very cheap and efficient and only a 20 minute drive to the city outskirts. Paid 100 Dominican pesos each entry fee to the park, politely refused the guides and walked a few metres to the steps down in to the limestone cave area. These have a sign at the top and there are handrails and proper stone steps. They can be wet and slippery (you are in a cave system so it’s humid) so hold the rail. Just a few steps down and you are rewarded with a jaw dropping view. It’s a huge cavern with sparkling blue water, tropical ferns, stalacmites and stalactites and some fish swimming which can be spotted in the clearer parts of the cave ponds. There are clear signs and walkways directing the route to all three of the cave areas so you really don’t need a guide.  It’s really well laid out and maintained, with guardrails etc all painted brown and green to blend in with the natural plant habitat growing here.  An underground river feeds in to the ponds and the larger lagoon.

Most of it is open to sunlight, the only darker area is where you take a small launch across the second lake across to the large open lagoon, the fourth part of the cave system to visit called Los Zaramagullones. Because this is open and not underground it is not considered one of the Three Eyes but in my opinion it is the most beautiful. The boat is an hand pulled launch, you’re on it for approximately 5 minutes and it is 25 pesos per person for the short trip to the other side. The two guys working it were great fun…charming and chatty, we gave them an extra tip.  The main open lagoon area is surrounded by limestone cliffs which have naturally eroded and from which trees and ferns grown creating a tangled root system. Branches hang with vine creepers and moss and the water is a deep green here in contrast to the blue of the water inside the cave areas.

Once we’ve seen the lagoon we go back to the landing stage; the boat guys can see you waiting and are constantly ferrying people from one side to the other. Once back up the steps and on the surface it’s well worth spending another 30 to 40 minutes exploring the park and viewing the cave system and lagoons from above. We didn’t see any bats, if there are any I imagine they’re tucked away further inside. Might be worth applying bug spray but we only got a couple of negligible bites but it rained heavily before we arrived. Back at the entrance car park we easily got another Uber cab within 5 minutes. We stopped off at the huge Columbus memorial on the way back, another must see.

23 Dec -Santo Domingo.  We walked up to see The Basilica Catedral Santa Maria de la Encarnacion (Catedral Primada de America).

Later in the afternoon we meet with Pedro, one of Dave’s work colleagues in town visiting his family. He drives us out of Santo Domingo to nearby Boca Chica and Neptunos Beach Club; a glamorous beach setting of well dressed moneyed locals, speed boats, poseurs…wealthy young Dominicans celebrating birthdays at three separate tables, waiting staff playing local instruments, singing and placing a large flare like candle in front of each of the birthday guests.  The staff move from one birthday table to the next, the gusto of their performance waning by the third rendition of happy birthday which takes over 5 minutes each time. It’s amusing and noisy and inclusive as other guests applaud and sing along.  A glorious sunset dipping in to the sea and we drive back in to town to eat at a typical Dominican restaurant called Meson d’Bari.

24 Dec – Santo Domingo.  Lazy morning, Dave still feeling pretty bad with a cold. John, Julia and I wandered around further up Zona Colonial to Plaza Espana but a sudden downpour of rain chased us to shelter under slim archways over ancient doorways.  The sun came back out and we explored the streets; found a security guard watching over an abandoned hotel building which he invited us in to explore. Through the unassuming doors on the street, stepping through litter and fallen masonry it opened out into a shady inner courtyard. Ruined old buildings amid neglected plants; vines tumbling from trees, stone steps leading up to a wider higher level.  Beauty in the neglect.

25 Dec – Santo Domingo.  Christmas Day. Breakfast and a walk along the waterfront/ Malecon. It could be a stunning area if cleaned up… palm trees and azure ocean waves crashing against the rocks. Carefully framed photos can hide the truth. Sadly it has become a dumping ground as well as a wash up area of ocean waste plastic. A small sandy inlet was covered in plastic; a couple of local guys sifting through looking for anything of interest or value. Whilst we were watching a young shoe shine guy walked along the top carrying a full size shell-cased suitcase which he lobbed down on to the beach; turning after he did so to give us a huge smile. It’s devastating in its carelessness and naivety of the damage they’re inflicting on their own country. There is so much plastic here; in the supermarkets and all the take away places…discarded styrofoam take out food packing is a common sight.SantoDomingoDR2017Malecon6small

We continued walking to the obelisk of the Mirabel sisters, a monument to 4 remarkable sisters, three of who were assassinated in 1960 for activities against the Trujillo regime. We saw a rain cloud coming in and hurried to a nearby Bodega called New Jersey and decorated with portraits of American Presidents; Trump notable in his absence, his place taken instead by an image of Hilary Clinton. Wishful thinking perhaps. I successfully started a Conga! The locals laughing and joining in the fun. The owner encouraging us to keep the party atmosphere going. Had a drink and chatted with some people before heading back in blazing sunshine to the house along littered pavements past artistically graffitied buildings to start cooking for our Christmas dinner.

Dave managed to sync his Netflix account with the house TV and we watched The Blues Brothers which is just as much fun now as it was in the 80s.  John fired up the BBQ and made a fantastic alternative Christmas dinner of steaks, mushrooms, baked potatoes.

26 Dec – Santo Domingo.  Walked to the market, I bought dominoes stamped with an image of the Dominican flag…Julia a bright wooden parrot swinging in a ring. Bargaining wasn’t very difficult; trade was slow and the guys were dropping prices by the second without us even asking.  I felt sorry for the traders, so many of them and most selling the same stuff; there were only a couple of other tourists in here at the time of our visit. We walked around the outside of the market where the basket weavers were, fruit and vegetable stalls, spice shops selling huge sticks of cinnamon. Mobile street vendors selling snacks, fruit and drinks.

From there we wandered back towards Calle Damas, walking down steeply tiered streets past brightly painted buildings tangled with telephone and power lines, colourfully painted street signs, along by the ruins of the old hospital building, past the museums to the small boutique shop we’d stumbled on the day before with a lovely little courtyard cafe.

A lazy afternoon back at the house where we cobbled together a lunch of pretty much everything left in the fridge, trying to use it all up before we leave the next day. A huge tropical downpour hit, instantly cooling the muggy temperature by several degrees. I stood out in the garden in the pouring rain, enjoying the sensation of getting soaked to the skin in warm temperatures; feeling refreshed and cleansed from the combined stickiness of suncream and sweat of the morning.  We spent the rest of the day chilling out; the rain was torrential on and off throughout the rest of the day. Later in the evening the guys went up to the plaza Colon to pizzarelli to buy take out pizza after I failed hilariously to try to order by phone. We ate pizza, watched Robin Williams in stand up on Netflix before heading to our rooms to pack and sleep. A local band was playing somewhere close by…amazing traditional music and had we felt a bit more lively we would have gone to investigate. Instead the earplugs were squashed in as far as they would go and we fell asleep undisturbed.

27 Dec – Las Terrenas.  And so we say goodbye to this welcoming city; we spent a week in Santo Domingo and though you possibly don’t need as long as that to enjoy it and explore, it has been a great experience having the house, the time to relax in to local life a little and meet some of the city’s people.

An eventful day which turned in to a comedy of errors. John and Julia left in their Uber back to Punta Cana for their last night before flying back to Toronto and freezing temperatures. Susanne arrived at the house for our checkout and shortly after our Uber arrived for the three hour drive to Las Terrenas. There was some confusion as we tried to squash out suitcases in to a tiny car boot already packed with pushchairs when the driver announced that he had no intention of driving us so far. Apparently the Uber app didn’t show him the destination we had entered. Luckily Susanne knew a driver called Jesus. He arrived 20 minutes later (in the rear view mirror he looks like Obama) and we set off in pouring rain on our $170 drive…way more expensive than anticipated but apparently there’s a lot of extra costs from the toll road.SantoDomingotoLasTerrenasDR2017Obamacab

Around 2 and a half hours later we reach the signpost we’ve been directed to follow by the Gilles the French owner of the gorgeous Casa de Gilles where we’ll stay for the next 6 nights. A really steep access road with deep rain gulleys on either side was wet and slippery with recent rain and humidity as we are in a rain forested area. Jesus struggled with the car as the wheels started to slide….we slid slowly backwards, dipped to one side and the back wheel of the car firmly got stuck in one of the rain gulleys. A passing English guy who lives here said his truck wouldn’t be able to pull us out and there are no local tow trucks…instead we’d need around 7 men to lift and bounce the car back out. He offered to take Dave, me and our bags the rest of the way up to the guest house leaving poor Jesus with his car. As we were transferring vehicles the local security guard who mans the entrance to the area with a hand gun in his trouser pocket, slipped on the road and fell in to a rain gulley on the other side of the road. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Once dropped off with Gilles and his dog Clifford, we are shown our beautiful room high up in the trees with a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean…Gilles showing us how to close the curtains, lock the safe etc when he suddenly asks about our car. What car?…we don’t have one, a driver dropped us off. Turns out it’s 8km to the nearest place to eat and other than breakfast no food is served at the guest house. We are effectively trapped in paradise, taxis don’t come up here! For some reason we hadn’t known this when booking so with Gilles’s help, Dave jumps in to his car, heads down to the town to get the last available vehicle at the local hire car place. He returns a couple of hours later during which time I’ve been ‘chatting’ with Francis through google translate on my iPad; I really need to learn Spanish the amount of Spanish speaking countries we end up in. We now have a Suzuki jeep which we used pretty quickly to go in to town to eat as we’d had nothing since early morning. Parked up at the side of the main road which leads in to the town, but we stopped to eat at the beach at a great looking place called Porta.  It’s been a pretty funny day and we can happily report than Jesus, or his car, was indeed lifted out of the gulley by 6 or 7 local guys, within 30 minutes of driving in to it.

28 Dec – Las Terrenas.  Casa de Gilles is truly an incredible place – we love it, it will be very hard to leave here! And even though I have now gone down with Dave’s cold lurgy, I’m perfectly happy in paradise on top of a hill looking out over the treetops and stunning scenery towards the sea. By bizarre coincidence, there’s a couple staying here from Sweden, he was actually born in Uganda in exactly the same area where my father lives now. It is indeed a small world.

This house must have been a labour of love for Gilles, built as it is on top of a very steep hill…the transportation of materials for the build must have been a logistical nightmare.  But here it is, a stunning slice of designer paradise looking like it’s straight out of a stylish interiors magazine. And it’s fun, his humour can be found everywhere in the blow up bright pink flamingo guarding over the kitchen/living area, lovely little old french wooden toys tucked away on shelves and in bookcases, quirky ornaments and the odd nude fashion photo…and so many books which you are welcome to browse; from architecture to photography, literature and art. Built as his home and now with 4 rooms renting out, this is an exceptionally beautiful and personal place to stay.

Our room is tucked away separate from the other rooms and the main house… down some steps with its own private terrace and gorgeous views.  It is imaginatively decorated with local artworks, sanddollars, a large bed and bathroom and windows along the front that slide open to the glorious view.LasTerrenasDR2017CasaGillesHouse27ouroomsmall

Even the occasional downpours are wonderful.  I love it; the rain freshens everything up and the tropical vegetation glistens. The hummingbirds come out when it stops and flit between the trees. Gilles, the owner, and I chatted and discussed favourite photographers. He loves Salgado. I showed him Graciela Iturbide who he likes too.  We drove down the steep hill around 5 for late lunch/early dinner to the beach bar (not serving food) and back to Punta (setting up for an event) and eventually wound up further down the road, narrowing as it gets closer to town, in an Italian restaurant called which was great.  I had Shrimp bisque followed by spinach and ricotta ravioli, also good. Dave had a huge portion of risotto. There’s a large ex pat community of French and Italians in the area so the food is excellent.  Back in the room we chilled out, read and then the frog chorus started…..earplugs in, lights out.

29/30/31 December – Las Terrenas. Lazy days, relaxing, trying to kick this cold. Eating, playing dominoes, lounging by the pool…hanging out with Gilles and Arthur and Elin.  A local lady came in to cook chicken rice and beans which was delicious and full of flavour. Foxy the cat found a huge colourful caterpillar and Clifford the dog patrolled the grounds or lolled with us on the decking.

And then it was New Year’s Eve…and what a fantastic night. Gilles and Elin in Chef’s hats cooking pasta.  The Austrian couple came to join us and threw themselves in to dancing.  Gilles got Dave to line up some traditional Dominican music to teach us how to dance the Bachata. Klaus hurled himself in to ever more exaggerated dance moves. Arthur persuaded Haitian night watchman Harold to keep mixing his lethally delicious cocktails.  Foxy the cat looked smug, Clifford the dog looked guilty.  At midnight we all leapt on to the sofa for a group photo. One of the best New Years Eves ever in truly great company…it won’t be forgotten.

1 January 2018 – Las Terrenas.  Arthur and Elin left and we were so sad to see them go. Gilles, familiar with where they were heading to next, made fun of the eco-lodge they were moving on to saying they’d get bitten to pieces by sandflies and kept awake by mice running through their roof.   5 minutes after they left I got bitten on the chin by a mosquito and it swelled up into a huge white bump.

2/3/4 January 2018 – Punta Cana. Then it was our day to leave this incredible place. Goodbye to Gilles and Aracelli, Foxy and Clifford. Packed up and ready, breakfast, a few minutes in the room on my own ….and my eyes welled up. Looking out across the tree canopy and realising what an incredible planet this is when we really look at the natural wonder of it. I hope we can all meet again one day…it’s amazing the close relationships you can make so immediately.

Jesus had sent his cousin to pick us up, from the park entrance as they were too scared to risk the hill again…funny. Gilles drove us down with Clifford clambering around inside the car excited about his morning run on the beach. We said our goodbyes to Gilles…it was really tough.  6 days with this wonderful human and his gorgeous home. Clifford ran off in to the trees and leaving the park in Henry’s car we watched as Clifford chased a cockerel round and round in circles and called back to Gilles who was still looking for him.  And so on to the motorway to start making the way back home; a four hour drive to Punta Cana to be near the airport for our last two nights. In retrospect we regretted not having a 7th night at Casa de Gilles, but with the knowledge that things can happen at a snail’s pace in the Dominican Republic and their driving is pretty erratic, we decided not to risk being so far from the flight home. Once out of Las Terrenas it’s a long stretch of motorway all the way to Punta Cana; you have to loop back to Santa Domingo as there’s no other route. The tolls are heavy…it must have been about $30 in tolls, stopping around 8 times to pay at different sections of the motorway. Henry the driver had a large stash of coins stacked up. The roadside scenery not far from Las Terrenas is stunning, sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, red rocks, low mountain ranges, beautiful trees; the vista opening out in lush moments of wonder in the breaks in the trees. We drove past acres of sugar cane crops, rice paddy fields with men bending their backs to the searing heat of the sun as they planted out new crops, slugging knee-deep in mud to lay out perfectly neat illuminous green shoots of rice. Heading closer to Punta Cana swathes of short Palms heralded the start of vast fields of palm oil plantations.

The last toll paid, Henry got a little lost trying to find the entrance to the resort area where our Westin Hotel is situated. We don’t like resorts but as a base for the last two nights just 2 miles away from the airport (but no visible evidence of it) it’s convenient. PuntaCanaDR2017resort3smallThe area is a huge sprawl dedicated only to the different resorts laid out along the coastline; golf courses, restaurants, a ‘Punta Cana Shopping Village’, all accessed by hourly looping shuttle buses and golf buggies crammed with tourists. The Westin isn’t awful but this would never be my choice; but there’s nothing else here, Punta Cana only seems to exist as a resort area with no central town. Not being used to these places it feels odd. Henry has to drive around in circles along featureless landscaped roads all with identical entrances marked by a large rock displaying the different resort names, Easy when you find them but the sign posting for this massive area is dreadful and after trying to enter through a staff service entrance and being turned back and asking several security en route, we finally go down a private golf cart track and find the entrance. If you were dumped in here blindfolded with no knowledge of how you got here, you’d be absolutely clueless at to which country you’re in until you start meeting the staff. It might just as well be Florida; it’s almost entirely devoid of any Dominican cultural references…bland crappy artwork on the walls where they could be showcasing the vibrant art sold on every Main Street in the country, Bob Marley cover songs being played by the pool in a country that has the most infectious rhythmic music in merengue, salsa and bachata. I understand that for many people this is an easy option to just escape the daily grind of everyday life and dreary weather but if I had to spend two weeks on a package in a resort like this I’d go insane. There is no walkable ‘exit’, if you walk out of the front of the hotel it’s simply miles of perfectly manicured road leading to other resorts or the airport. I find it quite surreal. The upside is I don’t even feel the need to unpack, I wear the same sarong and t-shirt until we leave in the knowledge that there’s really nowhere to go. We eat at the beach restaurant adjoining the restaurant, the food is good, the service inattentive but we get talking to the couple on the table next to us who’ve been waiting for their drinks for 30 minutes (the waiter forgot), she is Canadian and he a Moroccan geneticist….both are fascinating people. We tell them to seek out Casa de Gilles next time they visit the DR!

Room service breakfast….and the service is way better than the restaurant. We load ourselves up on fruit, granola, yoghurt and juice. Later at reception we contemplate taking the shuttle to the shopping village but instead spend some time chatting with Francis one of the luggage porters who speaks fluent English eloquently and is teaching himself Russian from hand written notes in his book as he awaits the arrival of new guests and more luggage.  We abandon the idea of shuttling to a fake village leaving it for tomorrow when we will need something to do to waste the time until 6pm. We walk along the beach to the right of the resort, wandering in to a golf resort area and what look to be some luxurious private beach front properties. There are no other people here other than golf carts and their attending staff and golfers; we are wary of flying golf balls  and realise that we possibly aren’t supposed to be wandering here so we head back to walk the beach in the other direction. Less than a kilometre from the large semi circular bobbing blue water barrier demarking the Westin Hotel beach plot, we are turned back by a security guard who advises us that we cannot pass as it’s a private area. Showing my amazement at this ridiculous rule, he laughs and bends forward in an embarrassed motion, shaking his head in agreement. No morning beach exercise then…I’ve never heard of a place where you can’t walk the length of the beach.

So our last day and another room service breakfast. The music by the pool gets switched on at 9am without fail every day. Won’t leave here til 6pm so we waste time going to Punta Cana Village – there’s really nothing there. It’s a small area built like and American strip mall. One clothes shop, a chemist, a small supermarket and a couple of places to eat and that’s eat. But you wouldn’t want to eat here amongst the concrete and the fakery. We don’t even wan t to wait an hour for the next shuttle bus back so we get ripped off in a cab for $20 for an 8 minute ride back to the resort. We while away the day reading in the hotel bar, leave at 6 in a taxi, have a delay on the flight but it’s not too bad and before we know it we’re back in London thankfully in brilliant sunshine.PuntaCanaDR2017flyhomesmall

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