There's no better way to start off the year than in a place offering a little bit of everything - enough relaxation to rejuvenate the spirit and the right amount of adventure to satisfy the soul's wanderlust!
As some spectacularly cold weather swept across the Midwest and Northeast during the first week of January, Gemma Song and I boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic for 6 days in Punta Cana. Our trip was in celebration of both my birthday (December 28) and the start of a new year, courtesy of two amazing gentlemen!
We chose the Dominican Republic because it was a place neither of us had ever been and it offered all of the activities that both of us like: culture, history, outdoor activity, and beaches! It can sometimes be hard to travel with friends, but not the two of us... we settled everything together in a quick chat and everything from our lodging, to plane tickets, to excursions were booked and ready to go the week before we were leaving. We opted for a luxury all inclusive resort to make the trip less fussy, though both of us are well traveled and easy to please.
I must say - I am so lucky to have a friend like Gemma... not many people would want to be on a plane to bring in the new year. But she did exactly that, and when we met at Dulles Airport she was bright eyed and pleasant; she did not utter a word of complaint after a 5 hour red eye with a little more to go! On the leg from Dulles to Punta Cana, we scored two entire rows to ourselves across from one another in the United Economy Plus section of the cabin. It felt like favor shining upon us - and it definitely was!
Punta Cana is a short flight from D.C. at just under four hours. But it felt like a world away with its palm trees, pure sunshine, sandy beaches, and islanders! As soon as we landed, I felt so free. Vacation Priya is the best Priya (the same can be said for Gemma)!
We were welcomed quite warmly (literally and figuratively) once we deplaned. Everyone in the airport was super friendly, our driver was quite energetic, and the resort staff greeted us like royalty.
Obviously, the first thing we wanted to do was relax- so we changed into our bikinis, walked around the resort to orient ourselves, and napped at the pool before getting drinks at the cabana bar with live entertainment.
We were introduced to Mama Juana right away... and bless her soul. Mama Juana is the traditional alcoholic drink served throughout the Dominican Republic. It is a variation of an original alcoholic medicinal drink made by the Taino Indians for vitality drink and general well-being. The story behind this modern version is that an expert botanist and musician by the name of Jesus Rodriguez, who lived in the Dominican countryside, would traverse the country's provinces collecting stems and herbs. He would bottle them with rum, honey, red wine and tortuga (an aphrodisiac) to create this medicinal drink. His nickname was "Mamajuana", after a song he co-wrote, and the drink was also named after him. The medicinal herbs and spices provide numerous health benefits - it is said to be everything from a cure-all for common ailments to liquid viagra.
Both Gemma and I wanted to take in some of the culture, history, and art of the Dominican Republic. Therefore, we decided that day one should be dedicated to a full day tour of Santo Domingo.
My favorite part of traveling is getting out and immersed in the country outside of the tourist destinations. It is so enlightening to be able to talk to people and watching them live their everyday lives. There are dramatic juxtapositions just about everywhere you go in the Dominican Republic. You see it in so many ways the moment you set foot off the resort and onto the streets of Punta Cana, and it is all impossible to ignore.
Prior to European colonialism in the Caribbean, with all the disease and conflict they brought (yup, not my favorite era in history), the Taíno people lived off the land of the Dominican Republic. They were skilled hunters and horticulturists, with developed social systems. They were also described as an exceptionally generous, sweet, and welcoming people with warm spirits.
But the era of horrific, terrifyingly grim Spanish conquests began: Bartholomew Columbus arrived again on the island in 1946 and founded Santo Domingo. The city is the oldest European settlement in the Americas, where the Spanish established the first university, cathedral, castle, monastery, and fortress in what they called the "New World".
That's the best write up I can bring myself to afford the Spanish conquistadors... Anyway...
There's no shortage of things to do or places to see in Santo Domingo. It's a colorful city that is bursting with energy.. We only had time to scratch the surface and see some of the bigger landmarks. If we could have, we definitely would have explored over a span of 3 days to really take in just the few things we saw. The city could easily justify a 5-7 day visit if there's more you want to see!
Our tour kicked off with a visit to Los Tres Ojos, The Three Eyes, a cave that filled with fresh water from an underground river. Two ponds and a lake create this beautiful, naturally formed subterranean structure.
Nearby we found Columbus Lighthouse, Faro a Colón. It's a huge building, which we did not have time to go into or get close to, but I'm perfectly fine with that.
***I recognize that other people may be as troubled as G and I were to see how many structures had been erected or otherwise named in honor of Christopher Columbus, particularly after learning the truth about the things he did when he arrived in the Americas. But it is worth keeping in mind that, in spite of all the pain, suffering, and death caused by Columbus and Co., he is still an important part of the culture of the Dominican Republic - especially when you consider the ancestry of present day Dominicans. Most Dominican people are mixed race (of European and African descent), so Spanish colonialism played an important part in their family heritage. Further, because the Age of Discovery is such an important time in history - like it or not - it is part of what makes the Dominican Republic historically significant. Spain made a resounding impact here with their presence and literally set the stage for European colonialism in the Caribbean. The Spanish Empire was huge and it's an undeniable fact that they became a political, military, and economic juggernaut during the 15th century. The power of the Spanish crown was partially due to the amount of territory the took over in the Atlantic and the income that was generated from the rich resources of the land. Because it is the first colonial settlement in the Americas, historical Spanish establishments in Santo Domingo bring a lot of tourism to the country.***
Before heading deeper into the city, we also stopped at the National Palace (Palacio Nacional). It's a huge and beautiful building where the offices of the President and Vice President of the Dominican Republic are located. Photos do not do it any justice.
When people talk about Santo Domingo being the oldest permanent European settlement, they are mainly referring to the Colonial Zone (Ciudad Colonial or Zona Colonial). The Ozama River runs right through the middle of it.
The Colonial Zone has been designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. It looks and feels like you are walking into a history book - everything from the architecture to the city plan speaks to the style of the 15th century. There are remains of fortified walls with iron gates, cobblestone pavements, and buildings characteristic of Spanish gothic style with their pointed spires, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. It's quite lively at all hours of the day, with kids playing in the city centers, live music, and innumerable restaurants lining the streets (we even saw a Denny's LOL).
Alcázar de Colón is located on prime real estate right alongside the Ozama River. It was the home of Diego Colon, Christopher Columbus' son. Diego was allowed the privilege of becoming an honorary Viceroy by virtue of his father's "discoveries". He arrived in Santo Domingo during the 16th century with his family and a large retinue, then had this opulent estate built for his own purposes. It was in his home that plans for further expansion of the Spanish empire were often drawn up.
But over time, Diego proved to be a weak leader and lost the favor of the Spanish crown and the loyalty of many who served under him. He was called back to Spain on several occasions and eventually died there. His estate in Santo Domingo fell into ruins after his death and now remains only in part - it was sacked by Francis Drake and deteriorated due to lack of care over hundreds of years. What remains of it is still majestic, so much so that one can only imagine how it looked prior to being partially destroyed.
We walked the Calle de Conde, or Street of the Count, which is the oldest commercial street in Santo Domingo. Lunch was a buffet at Atarazana with traditional Dominican foods, a bit of merengue dancing, and wonderful music.
Before our visit, I had no idea what to expect of Dominican cuisine. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised! Sancocho, a soup, is really, really good and I love the Dominican variation of beans and rice. (Also, at our resort, they made the best Pina Coladas. There was another drink called a "Dirty Monkey", and I could not get enough of it.)
After lunch, we went on a tour of The National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic. The building was originally a Jesuit church which is evident by the ceiling artwork. It has served several purposes over its lifetime as a school, deposit for tobacco, theater, and government office. In 1958, General Trujillo (dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961) converted it into a mausoleum for his own burial. Interestingly, he ended up being interred in Spain while several of his assassins were instead laid to rest in the Pantheon. A permanent honor guard walks the center corridor towards an eternal flame that burns in honor of the nation's heroes.
We ended our day in Santo Domingo by touring The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor. This cathedral is the oldest in the Americas. It is dedicated to St. Mary of the Incarnation. It's an impressive cathedral, with priceless artifacts featured prominently throughout. The twelve side chapels are all uniquely decorated in a manner fit for purpose and boast majestic artistry in tribute to numerous important religious figures.
I don't know if exhaustion comes close to the feeling that Gemma and I both felt after a very long (but interesting) day of walking around Santo Domingo, but we went to bed extremely early upon return to Punta Cana that evening!
Somehow, I was able to wake up in time to catch the sunrise :-) It was absolutely breath taking seeing the colors of the sky transform and the sun emerge over the horizon.
We hopped on a bus the next morning and went up through the countryside (campo) of the Western part of the island.
Many years ago, a decline in the agricultural economy of the country pushed a lot of people out of the countryside and into urban centers. But times have changed, and many people have moved back into rural areas. We passed through so many homes and small towns on our way to the next adventure.
I love how colorful and lively the island is all the time. Everything is so vibrant! Many of the homes are simply constructed with wood and palm, or concrete is the family can afford it, and the inner walls and exterior are often painted to encourage energy flow and protection. Clothes dry in the sun on lines outside the homes, and smoke billows from the grill where people are often smoking meats for dinner in their detached kitchens. Trucks with beds full of fresh fruits would pull into the mini-grocery stores (colmados) lining the roads in the mornings to restock their produce; all of it was ripe and succulent. The fruit was so refreshing to eat!
The most beautiful scenes I witnessed, by far, were those demonstrating the geniality of people in the community among one another over and over again. In barber shops, hair salons, and on the porches of the homes, people welcomed others in. Kids were often out playing baseball and soccer. They often waved to us as we passed and smiled.
After driving through the countryside and up the Anamuya mountains, we arrived at Monkeyland. It's situated very high - the view from the top is incredible! I cannot say it enough - it is startling how the country as a whole is unabashedly lush and beautiful.
We started with a tour of a typical Dominican home and walked through a garden full of herbs and medicinal plants. Sugarcane, cocoa, tobacco, and coffee are still staples of the Dominican export economy. The tour guides treated us to a full demonstration of how cocoa and coffee beans are made, and also how coconut is transformed into various products (oil, shavings, juice, etc). We sampled some of the raw cocoa product, then had it with the sugars added. We also were given a sample of hot cocoa to drink, and coffee as well. Everything had a much more natural, intense flavor.
The highlight of our day - the squirrel monkeys! They are not native to the Dominican Republic; rather, they are from Guyana and Suriname (South America). In the care of the sanctuary, they have been socialized with humans and are quite fun and safe to be around. As soon as the group came in close, they descended from the trees and perched themselves on our shoulders in curiosity. They were looking into pockets, watching themselves in our cameras, and pooped on several people LOL!
When we got back, we had dinner at the resort on the beach and enjoyed some more dancing with other people who were staying there. I captured the morning sunrise again, then we headed out on our next excursion- a tour of a handmade cigar shop, horseback riding, and a cattle drive!
I am a non-smoker but I enjoy cigars when I can. I fell in love with Cuban cigars on my first visit to Havana for work almost 3 years ago (which live up to their name and high esteem), but I was not very familiar with the flavor profile of Dominican cigars. After trying them on our trip, I dare say Dominican cigars are right on up there in quality. They are made skillfully and packed with flavor. I purchased a set of them to bring home but they never made it out of the country!
We rode horses through the countryside, across the Anamuya River, and up the Anamuya mountains. My horse's name was Iglesias and he was a perfect fit for me! He was strong, fearless, and confident. He naturally moved to the front of our group and was ready for everything in our path. He indulged himself with no hesitation - as we were crossing the river, he stopped right in the middle to help himself to a generous drink of water. He all but ignored the tour guide who attempted to usher him along as I waited patiently for him to finish treating himself. Then, after having his fill, he galloped to the front of the group again. It was an exhilarating experience that served as a humble reminder of the sheer power of animals and nature.
We rode the horses for about an hour up through the mountains to a plateau with a farm where more stables were kept. After dismounting, we ate lunch at a communal table: a yellow chickpea soup with bread, rice and beans, chicken, and a small salad. Afterwards, Gemma and I suited up for our first zip line experience! I was excited, but a bit nervous deep down. I was looking at my guide for reassurance, and he laughed at me before nodding his head for me to lean back. Before I could voice an objection at the last minute, he thrust me out onto the line. We zipped over the river, tree tops, and the farm. I didn't expect it to be so fun!
While our hearts were still pumping adrenaline, Gemma and I reconvened with our horses and followed two of the farm hands higher into the mountains to corral some of the cattle they had scattered over the wide expanse of land. As we were trotting along, looking out for cows, one of the guys suddenly set out in front of us, and as we reached the hill of the grazing enclosure we saw four cows and a bull bounding toward us. Gemma took a swinging position relative to the small group of cattle, and I was in the flank.
We could totally be cowgirls :-)
We had only been able to really relax and unwind on the day we arrived, and had partaken in 3 straight days of adventure. Though both of us could have done more, we wanted to spend some time enjoying the beaches of Bavaro & Punta Cana.
We dedicated a whole day to beach bumming, then spontaneously decided we would climb aboard a catamaran lazily drifting down the shore. The boat stopped so that we could snorkel a bit before taking us to a sand bar on the coast where we could relax in the warm, shallow water. Tossing back dirty monkeys in our bikinis, listening to Drake, and watching the sunset..... ahhhh! Paradise!
I would totally recommend visiting the Dominican Republic if you've never been. While 6 days was a fair amount of time, we could have stayed longer and done more in Santo Domingo and Punta Cana both. There are many other places in the Dominican Republic that you could also visit, like Higuey, San Cristobal, Puerto Plata, and Santiago. Additionally, if you're up for it, Haiti is a wonderful place to visit and could easily be folded into a trip. Port-au-Prince is a short flight and a scenic 7-8 hour drive (accounting for any delays in time crossing the border); I love the beaches at Jacmel and Les Cayes.
I've had the hardest time re-adjusting to work life now that I'm back from vacation... I'm totally missing the smell of the ocean, the sound of waves, and the friendliness of the Dominican people. I'm also craving more dirty monkeys LOL! But most of all, I'm missing the freedom of being away from the obligations of home.
Here's to hoping for many more vacations in 2018. Currently, my vacation destination wish list includes the Phillippines, St. Kitts, Anguilla, and Montenegro (among other places). Let's plan a getaway, or you could always gift an airline or hotel gift card!
If you are in the San Francisco, CA area or visiting, you would be remiss not to see Gemma Song! Gemma is a native Californian of Chinese heritage. She has dark hair that sensually sweeps the curve of her neck and shoulders, warm brown eyes, and a flash of dimples that frequently dissolve into infectious laughter. She is one of the most beautiful, pleasant, and fun people to be around. Visit her website or follow her on twitter and instagram. She is available for dates in the SFO area, makes an excellent travel companion, and is available to fly to you anywhere in the world. You can thank me later....