Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dominican 2009 - Mon Jan 26

Monday in Santo Domingo we woke up to marching bands and loud noises coming from outside the hotel. I got outside and it is Duarte Day in full swing....and as we are across the street from Duarte Park the festivities are starting here: generals, soldiers, politicians, and speeches. It was a small affair and it was reassuring to see that the soldiers were unenthusiastic about the whole thing.

Today we were headed for a traditional Dominican lunch and with all the aniticipation went overboard when we got to ordering. It was a lot of food and it cost as much as our hotel room. Those big piles are mashed plantains and we ate both plates along with everything else washed down with lots of Presidente beer. How come on vacation you can drink beers at lunch time like it was Saturday night? Back home it would be nap time.

So we decided to stay on longer in Santo Domingo and decided to check out another hotel.
The Hotel Riparbelle, in the Gazcue neighborhood is maybe 15 blocks from where we were staying now but worlds away. For $25 US a night it was total opulence compared to our current place: large room, big bathroom, tons of hot water, big bed with sheets that fit properly. It was a street mixed with residences and small hotels, but it had stores and restaurants close by, and we decided to move in that day.

We checked out of the Hostal Mundial (we had paid for tonite already) and hiked our way back to the Gazcue with our stuff. Once arriving we noticed that the biggest difference was that we were in a real hotel now and it was full of travellers from all over: conversation, tips on places to visit, and all very friendly.

For dinner
we ate in a tourist joint on Calle de Monde called Le Grande and had the Le Grande Sandwhich (that's what I call it). Huge sandwich, two big beers, all for 550 peso.

That night we headed for the big hotel casinos and won 300 peso at the slots. It seemed like robbery to take the money, but we cashed out and headed back to our big comfy bed and BATHROOM.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dominican 2009 - Sun Jan 25

Today we walked all over our corner of Santo Domingo. It was Sunday, and it was a long weekend so we practically had the entire city to ourselves. I woke up at 11:30 in the morning and, after pulling my earplugs out (how else to sleep in?), we started the day by doing laundry in our hotel sink. After hanging the clothes to dry we walked the 4 or 5 blocks to see the ocean.

he Malecon is the name of the road in any Domincan city which travels along the ocean. Here in Santo Domingo it is pretty well a 6 lane freeway separating people from the water....with no stoplights in sight.....so we dashed across as fast as we could.

There is not really a beach in our area, a
nd the waves crash against what looks like volcanic rock. It is nice, but the 'freeway' just behind us with tons of traffic ruins it.
We understand that there are
very nice beaches just a few miles west of where we were, but we didn't go there to check it out.

So today we just walked and walked around town; for miles and miles, and hours and hours. We went through mostly high-end residential condo neighborhoods and government buildings. It was Sunday, but I am sure no one else was out walking but us.

After about 4 hours of this we remembered that we should probably eat breakfast (it is like 5PM now) and s
o we stopped for chicken and fritos at one of the many Chinese fried chicken restaurants. In fact where we ate, there were 3 of these restaurants all in a row.

Now we are starting to realize that we have been eating Dominican food all along on our trip......fried chicken, pizzas, sandwhiches, and fritos and french fries. Of course there is more then these things only, but these are definitely solid parts of the Dominican food culture.

Gua-gua transit
At this point I had enough walking so we hopped on a gua-gua to take an impromptu tour of the city. These are great little buses that drive a set route around town. You just wave one down when you see it (and they come by very often) and hop on. Sometimes it can be crowded, but there is always a seat and they are inexpensive to ride; about 15-2
0 pesos to go a couple of miles. When you want off, you just yell at the 'conductor' and he bangs on the side of the bus or mini-van to let the driver know to stop. It's fun and the best way to get around.

Our first conductor (in the photo with the glasses) was so funny...and he yelled at all the girls to hop on his bus....and when we got off and paid with a $50 peso note and waited he turned around and said to the driver "these $@#@ Americanos want some !@#ing change". We winked at him, told him we were Canadian, and let him keep the whole thing and he smiled so much. The only way to travel is by gua-gua....

On the way back we stopped at the Pan Villar Pandecera,
which is a pretty good bakery with a restaurant and take-out deli. This is middle-class Domincan territory and the food is pretty good. We loaded up on food for the hotel (I really like rice pudding) and came back here the next day for lunch.

We went back to the hotel to check on our clothes that we had hung up in the our hotel courtyard. That night it was really busy out, Duarte park was really hopping, and we just chilled out with some beers in the park and made it an early night.... This is not a photo of the park, but it is our "courtyard" at the Hostal Mundial.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dominican 2009 - Sat Jan 24

Santo Domingo is the largest city in the Dominican with over 2 million people. We were going to be here for 4-5 days and intended to just hang out and get to know the city without any special agenda.

This was only our second morning in the Dominican and we had not adjusted to the 4 hour time difference yet and we woke up at noon. Mimi headed out to get some coffees on Calle El Conde (the pedestrian plaza) at La Cafetera where she had got a coffee the night before. By the time we were ready to leave Santo Domingo, she had gone there so many times that they pretty well knew her by name. Must of been her generous tips and nice smile.


Anyone who has ever travelled with a Filipino wil
l know that as soon as they get into any new town, they head straight for Chinatown.
Soon after coming back to the hotel with
the coffee Mimi already had her game plan in action and she had actually spotted the local Chinatown on the bus ride into town and had a good idea of how we were going to find it again.

After getting in stuck in our hotel almost 2 hours waiting for a rainstorm to clear up, we headed o
ut the door and we were off for lunch. We zig-zagged our way to where we felt the right location was and it was quite an interesting walk through some very lively neighborhoods.

Santo Domingo's Chinatown was quite large and we checked out about 15 different restaurants before choosing Centro Restaurante Popular where we had sauteed squid and vegetables and deep-fried fish with a tomato sauce. Neither dish was like any Chinese food we had tried before, but they were both really good. Delicious....and with 2 large Presidente beer our lunch bill was $500 pesos.

We have been here already 48 hours, though, and have still not eaten any Dominican food yet.

When you are in a new city, I highly recommend strolling through the supermarkets. Mimi and I can't pass by one without going in. You really get a good feeling for a pla
ce by their supermarket. Of course only the middle class shop here, but it does give you one interesting way to examine their habits and their lifestyle up close. Generally it is just a fun place to wander around and see something similar but very different then back home. If you don't crusie the supermarkets when you travel, you may want to try it out.

Saturday night we went to a concert held in a medium size open air venue.

We started our evening with some beers in the park and were told about a concert that was going on a few blocks away so we went to check it out. Cover charge for us both was $1300 pesos (more then the cost of our hotel) but it looked interesting and we checked it out. A popular lively Haitian band was playing and we had a great time with a very friendly and good looking crowd of ex-pat Haitians. The music was good, a couple of the musicians outstanding, but my ears were buzzing for 2 days afterwards. Very loud.

We also ended up having quite a few (expensive) drinks and the evening out cost us much more then 1/2 our daily budget. But live music is always worth it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dominican 2009 - Fri Jan 23

My first hangover and today we have to get to Santo Domingo. Woke up at 10:10AM, just in time to miss the breakfast buffet included with our room. And the water and coffee I desperately needed. So I made a quick trip outside to grab some water from the grocery store down the street and headed back to find those aspirins

Santo Domingo express

We had to catch the 2PM Santo Domingo express and so we packed up and then went down to see the Caribbean for the first time in our lives. We marched across the street and down to the beach, looked left, looked right, was totally blinded by the brilliant blue water and white sand....my headache was saying gotta go....and we marched right back to our hotel. Took a couple of photos which didn't turn out. Sorry....

So it was beautiful, there is no doubt, but we weren't here to see this place, and we strapped on our packs and decided to walk the 2km to the bus station.

First lesson in the Dominican....nobody walks anywher
e. We had the whole road to ourselves as we trudged under the blazing sun, motorcyles and taxis buzzing around constantly trying to get us to take a ride with them. But you know, if you ride all the time, you miss a lot, so we kept on walking.

Changed $300 dollars to pesos at a bank (10,500 pesos), bought more water, and made it to the bus station. Tickets were like $30
0 pesos each (don't quote me on that) and the ride was 4 hours.

Chicken and Fritos
One thing you will find a lot of in the Dominican are Chinese restaurants. Most of them sell plain fried chicken and french fries or fritos (fried plantains). We bought some lunch next to the bus station, had our first taste of delicious fritos,
and then we were off to Santo Domingo.

The trip was fine and the road in pretty decent shape, with a stop along the way at a rest stop (our bus had no facilities) and right on time 4 hours later we were dropped off in the Gazcue neighborhood, which is a nice urban/residential neighborhood pretty close to where our hotel was located in the Zona Colonial area.

I think it was like a 2km walk to our hotel (why do we keep walking?) and if we had of known our way around better, we could of jumped off the bus from Bavaro at
a spot pretty close to where we were staying. We'll save those tricks for the next visit.

Hostal Dominico Mundial
Our hotel was the Mundial and I can describe it's virtues in two words: location and price. It was definitely cheap, but what a location. Right across the street from Duarte Park and in the heart of the Zona Colonial. You can stay here too, for just $30 US dollars a night, but be prepared for a small room, with a small bed, with smaller sheets, and a bathroom that was a classic: toilet too close to the wall to sit on and an electric heated shower head that gave you a shock every time you tried to adjust it.

The owners were super friendly and spoke absolutely no English. I think we were the only people who were staying there on a nightly basis too. Everyone else seemed to be living there?

It would not of be
en the same trip if we hadn't stayed at the Mundial. We had the park across the street, and it was worth the price we payed (or didn't pay) as it filled up every night with tons of young people who were drinking beer and Cuba Libres and playing their car stereos, talking in groups and some even dancing, and having a great time. A lady barbecued chicken wings every night, and the hamburger truck was there, along with three places selling ice cold beer and everything else, and there was even a small place with a dancefloor.

The Zona Colonial is also a great neighborhood to explore from. Totally safe at night and right next door to some other really interesting areas.

El Beaterio
For $80 bucks you can also stay a
t the El Beaterio Guest House, which was a couple steps away from our place. We saw the lobby and it was impressive. The hotel clerk was impressive too and the one we chatted with spoke great English. We never saw a room, but I can confidently say this was a nice small mid-range priced hotel.

Our place, though, was closer to the "beer store" and we were quite fond of our shower. And we were paid up for four nights already.

The culinary tour continues.....
After the sandwhiches and fried chicken we had eaten arlready on our trip, we were ready for a real local culinary experience. It was around 8PM when we headed out for dinner and we were more tired then we thought and thus ended up just going out for a nice safe pizza. It sounds bizarre considering we still hadn't had a true Dominican meal yet, but that's the way it ended up.

We ate on the Calle de Conde, a long pedestrian mall which stretches from the river to the Parque Ind
ependencia. I won't describe it as quaint, but it was a good place to watch people and had at least 7 or 8 places where you could get a pizza. Our chain-style choice was Pala Pizza where we had a very delicious pepperoni and onion pizza and two large Presidente for about $550 pesos.

Saved by Duarte Park....
We ended our evening having a few more beers in Duarte Park that evening, just across from our hotel, and enjoyed the collection of trendy young people and very unselfconcious gay men who crowded this small square after dark. If only we had one place like this back in Vancouver.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dominican 2009 - Thu Jan 22

Time to head to the Airport
Our flight left at 6AM from Vancouver, so we were at the airport at 4:40AM or so, set to arrive at our destination 7PM local time.

The flight was fine. It is a charter so the seats are small, the food just ok, but the service was fine, and the plane looked new and sturdy. It was going to get us there and that is about all we cared about.

Puerto Plata airport was our first stop, but it was closed due to a big rain storm (I read the next week that 2 of the local people died due to flooding and roaring rivers) and so we got to go straight to our destination of Punta C
ana and arrived at around 5PM local time. Well, this was good news for us, because to try to keep on our budget of $100 US per day, we had to take a local bus, or gua-gua (pronounced wah-wah), from the airport to our hotel as a taxi would of been $40 (due to the airport taxi monopoly) and getting in early meant it was still daylight when we arrived - the sun sets here at around 6PM.

The aiport was a breeze. The customs guy didn't even look at the customs cards we had to fill out, he stamped our passport, and just waved us through. We had arrived in the Domincan Republic

Disclaimer: don't take the local bus when you get to the Punta Cana Airport
Not unless you speak Spanish, or you have done it befor
e, or you are incredibly cheap, or adventurous (I'm not sure which is us, but Mimi only speaks a little tourist Spanish and me hardly any). It took us way over an hour, we had to change gua-guas 3 times, and it was pitch black for most of the trip to our hotel. It is quite a ways from the airport to town.

But if you want to go that route, you can find the bus stop on the main road just outside the airport. Just walk past the baggage area, keep on walking, ignore all the taxi drivers that yell at you, and walk out of the airport, keeping to your right, and you will see the bus stop (I wish I took a photo of it). You will have to speak some Spanish, or find someone who speaks English (good luck), and ensure you get to your hotel somehow. We paid about $20 pesos each for the first two
gua-gua connections, and $30 pesos for the next one, and our grand total was about $3 US dollars - not bad for our first adventure.

I'll talk more about gua-guas later.....

El Cortecito Inn
Our first nights accommodation (the most expensive of our trip) was the El Cortecito Inn, a pretty ok place across the street from the beach. It is loca
ted in El Cortecito which, in the sprawling suburban style mess that is Bavaro, is the closest one can get to a downtown area.

The hotel cost $70 US, it was the cheapest I could find in town that I was able to book (through www.skoosh.com, and the hotel didn't have my reservation when we got there, but gave us a room at no charge just the same), and you could of easily had a room just walking in off the street. January is a semi-slow-season for the Dominican. I suggest you just email the hotel directly and reserve a room:

The hotel was a bunch of 2 storey buildings spread around a swimming pool and inner courtyard with some grass and palm trees. Breakfast was included (didn't get to try the breakfast) and the place seemed fine. The room was decent with two beds, a good bathroom, and had a nice patio.

Don't Drink the Water

Our first task after we settled in was to get out and get some bottled water for our room.

The street outside our hotel (the main strip) was totally dead and the grocery store was already closing, and after checking out the tourist bars a
round our area we ended up in the town "pool hall" that Mimi spotted on the walk in and totally surprised the locals by ordering a large Presidente beer (which you will be hearing more about later) and taking a seat.

Our waitress was totally wasted, and she kept leaning into me and slurring something Spanish into my ear, but was definitely friendly as was everyone in the place. And by our second beer Mimi had already bumped into a friend she had made.

Bar Hopping
His name was Joseph and he lived right in El Cortecito (he helped us off our bus at the right stop earlier and took us to our hotel). He spoke English also (a rare thing) and we drank some beers together (and started into a pack of vacation Marlboro's) and somehow we ended up heading off with him to do so
me bar hopping. After a detour into a cigar store, we ended up in this bar at the end of the strip with blasting Merengue music, a small dance floor, and some very pretty working girls.

One guy, who was a very good dancer, had a large pistol poking out of his back pocekt and was with an extremely good looking Haitian girl (he was the local cop), lot's of expats were hanging about (they looked Canadian), and I ended up having a few (too many) beers along with a couple of sandwiches and by 11PM it was time to get back to our hotel.....

Total bar tab including a pack of smokes: $850 pesos. We got two sandwiches at close to the local price (as we were with Joseph) for $100 pesos. Remember - 35 pesos to the US $.

Don't forget the water....
Ah, we forgot to buy water! Our first night in the Domincan and I was slightly drunk and we were back in our hotel with no water to get us through the night. How was I going to swallow those aspirins ?

Dominican 2009 - trip planning

Pre-Flight Planning
For the start of 2009 Mimi and I decided a vacation to the Dominican Republic might be an interesting adventure. Plus I was able to find an airfare for $400....which was really the
deciding factor. Originally we had planned to go to Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, but a last minute change of plans sent us to the Dominican to see what was up....not ever being to the Caribbean before....we were pretty excited.

Our goal was to travel around the country for two weeks and see a few different spots, and perhaps if we felt adventurous, a trip to Port-Au-Prince in Haiti (the two countries share the same island of Hispaniola) and to do it all on a moderate budget of about $2200 US dollars.

My game plan preparing for any trip is always about the same:
(1) Buy a good guide book and read it from cover to cover; I went for the "Lonely Planet: Dominican Republic and Haiti" and didn't regret my choice.
(2) Skim through an
other 3-4 guide books that Mimi will bring back from the library.
(3) Maybe watch some videos from the library (if Mimi gets some).

(4) and of course.....research the flight costs, hotels, and other details extensively via the Net.

Cheap Flight :)
We found a good cheap flight via Air Transat for $400 US each (I'm using US $ instead of Canadian so more people can relate). The least expensive destination in
the country from Vancouver was Punta Cana, or the town of Bavaro, and so that is where we were going whether we liked it or not.

Punta Cana is where the majority of th
e all inclusive hotels where, and some of the most beautiful beaches, but that was not on our agenda, and for us it was only a cheap flight into town.

Book the first or second night's hotel or hostel
The Dominican doesn't see too many tourists outside of the resort areas, and there really were no hostel choices in this country, so it was hotels all the way. And they aren't cheap necessarily either, so our choices were very limited for our tight budget.

I booked the first night's accommodation in Bavaro, and then our next night in Santo Domingo, and we were ready to go. After that we would just plan and book things as we went along.

Pack light....and go....
Mimi and I packed 5-6 days of summer clothes and everything else we needed into some small back packs. We brought $150 dollars in Dominican pesos (just over 5,000 pesos at 35 peso to the US $), passports, money belt, I like travellers cheques (better exchange, no service fees), and we also brought $500 US in cash, sun screen for me, a few novels, and off we went....