After eighteen exhausting hours of motor-sailing into the trade winds and bouncy seas, we reached the Dominican Republic, our home for the following month. Just as we crossed the border, a huge pod of Spinner dolphins raced, leaping, toward Pura Vida as if to welcome us.
Shortly after the spectacular greeting, we arrived to the peaceful seclusion of Bahia de las Aguilas (Bay of the Eagles). This is a remote and unpopulated anchorage, so we could not clear customs, but it was the perfect place to rest for a couple of days and wait for weather.
After the non-stop social activity in Haiti, this lonely beach-lined cove was just what we needed. Kimberly took advantage of the calm and quiet to give herself a new hairdo.
Two days later, we raised anchor again and sailed around the white cliffs of the southwest Dominican Republic to Barahona, a city of almost 140,000 people. This was our first stop in a real city in months, and we were giddy with anticipation of shops, markets, restaurants, bars, and all the amenities of civilization. Within minutes of anchoring in a perfectly protected cove with our yellow quarantine flag raised, three officials arrived by commandeered fishing boat to inspect our paperwork and clear us into the country. One representative from immigration, another from customs/agriculture, and the third from naval intelligence (M2).
The process was quick and they were very professional. All they asked for, in addition to the standard clearing fees (US$43 for the boat, $15 for each of us, and $20 for the agricultural inspection), was a beer. Considering that we arrived after hours on a Saturday, a cold beer was the least we could offer. The immigration representative went far beyond his duty of clearing us in by giving us a detailed rundown of the area; where to go ashore, what security measures to take, and even offering to hook us up with local tours. We had read that the Dominican people will go to great lengths to help visitors, and our first interaction with locals proved this to be true. They seemed especially pleased when, after getting the clearance paperwork done, we took out our Dominican Republic courtesy flag to hoist aloft.
The next morning we dinghied ashore and tied up to the military pier as instructed by our helpful immigrations officer. Talk about security for Lagniappe! The pier was inside the naval compound surrounded by a high fence, and guarded 24/7 by armed military personnel.
We were greeted at the dock by Fernando, a self-appointed facilitator of everything for cruisers. We’d been told he would meet us upon arrival, and he was a welcome sight as he helped us secure our dinghy. He took us on a quick tour of downtown, the ATM to get some local currency, cell phone store to get a local sim card, grocery store, a restaurant, the open-air market (“mercado”) and several interesting sites. He told us that he could get us anything we needed; propane, diesel, gasoline, groceries, taxis, tours, horseback rides, you name it. He was our personal concierge to Barahona and was always waiting for us near the dock with a smile on his face. He did not ask for anything except some of my old shoes, but, of course, we paid him for his time and effort. (We gave him some shoes, as well.)
Fernando even arranged for the local gas station to take a fuel truck to the naval dock at no extra cost so we could pump diesel right into Pura Vida without having to haul fuel jugs several miles to the station. The port authority charged us the equivalent of US$20 to use the dock, and since we needed 100 gallons of diesel we were happy to pay for the convenience. Fernando, in his ever-helpful manner, accompanied the fuel truck and “supervised” the fueling to make sure we were happy.
The city of Barahona was a delight of sounds, sights, tastes, and smells. We explored everything from high-end restaurants to the local mercado teeming with fresh produce, clothes, spices, meats, livestock, eggs, and several things that we could not identify. Afterward, we visited the first real grocery store since we departed Georgetown, Bahamas. We were like kids in a candy store.
Kimberly also got her fix of petting and feeding stray dogs…they are everywhere. Most avoid human contact, and walked away when we approached them. They were not exactly fearful, but definitely suspicious of human interaction. There was an extremely sweet and shy female pitbull mix at the gates of the navy base that Kimberly was able to befriend after a couple of days of trying. She got close enough that Kimberly was able to give her hotdogs, and pet her. After that, she was at Kimberly’s side every time we saw her, eagerly awaiting our leftovers.
The local official told me that they do not have a strong culture of caring for dogs. He said sometimes people feed them on the streets, but the locals think those people are crazy. So it seems that within just days of being in the Dominican Republic, Kimberly has established a reputation as the crazy dog feeding lady; a title she accepts with pride!
After several days in Barahona, we sailed east to a couple of quick rest stops in Palmar de Ocoa and Las Salinas. In the Dominican Republic, you have to clear in and out of every single port with official paperwork. There is no additional cost, but it can be a pain. Unlike the efficient officials in Barahona, the Comandante of the port in Las Salinas arrived at a nearby pier, waved for us to pick him up by dinghy, and then immediately asked for whiskey. He drank and drank for three hours until we lied and told him we had no more. He was so drunk he almost did a face plant when jumping from Pura Vida to Lagniappe. On the way to the dock he kept saying “we had a good time visiting, right?” I was waiting for him to hug me and say “I love you, man!” We realized later that he had purposely waited until after his shift was over so he could stay and drink aboard. We avoided a repeat of this problem when clearing out by going to his office unannounced in the middle of the day instead of allowing him to come to us. His disappointment was palpable, but we got our despacho (the exit paperwork) and were on our way. I think that being fluent in Spanish was a double-edged sword. It’s very unlikely that the Comandante would have stayed for three hours if he could not talk to us (he did not speak any English). But our ability to communicate facilitated getting permission to depart at midnight instead of the required departure time of no later than 5 pm.
After an overnight motor sail we arrived in the busy commercial port of Boca Chica, a few miles east of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and the largest city in the Caribbean. Because there are no safe and convenient anchorages in the southern coast near the capital, we docked at Marina Zar Par where we plan to stay for a month to explore the country and have friends visit.
The staff at the marina is friendly, welcoming, and eager to facilitate anything you might need, including major boat repairs. The facilities are safe and modern. Arrival was a bit confusing since the marina is at the end of a narrow channel full of huge container ships, and all the large commercial traffic associated with this type of port. While it advertises that you can hail them on VHF channel 5 to get a pilot boat to guide you in, all our hails went unanswered.
We pulled up to a dock not knowing what our slip assignment was, so we had to relocate after clearing in with the office. Additionally, the marina is currently upgrading several of the facilities to make it even better, so the laundry is temporarily out of commission and the showers have no hot water. Despite all this, we were thrilled to be here.
Once we settled in, it was finally time to relax. On our first night, we got to host one of my classmates from the Inter-American Defense College (IADC) in Washington D.C., and his family, aboard for a quick visit and drinks. Although it was a Thursday night and he had been working all day, he insisted that he had to personally welcome us to his city. Got to love that Dominican hospitality! We made plans to spend more time together and do a mini class reunion with our other Dominican classmates later during our stay.
While the marina is a mostly quiet place, the area around it is a hotspot of beach and water activity that turns the whole area into a giant party on weekends (and even some weekdays). We arrived at the marina on a Thursday and the weekend was already getting started at the nearby beach and sand bar. At any given time, you can hear at least 3-4 overlapping massive sound systems on power boats competing for the title of loudest speakers. The next day, a party boat went within a few feet of the marina at full speed. The resulting wave rocked Pura Vida so violently that three boards ripped off the dock with cleats and our dock lines attached. Fortunately we were aboard and able to prevent our boat from crashing into the pier in front of it. Earlier in the day, our electrical alarm on board went off to alert us of a dangerous reverse polarity situation. I got out our electrical tester, and determined that we had in excess of 200 volts AC flowing through the marina wires, with 100 volts flowing through the ground wire. The marina electrician told us that the boat next to us had faulty wiring that caused the situation, but the owner was too cheap to pay for the repairs.
I explained that the voltage flowing through the ground wires was likely going right into the water through a boat’s grounding system, and could kill anyone swimming if they touched metal by electric shock drowning.
Just the day before, over twenty airline pilots and flight attendants had been swimming right next to the faulty boat performing water landing re-certifications. The marina promised to keep the faulty boat unplugged. Less than thirty minutes later, the alarm went off again! This time, I personally unplugged the boat with the faulty wiring and had a serious talk with the marina manager. The offending boat has remained unplugged since.
On Saturday morning, our friends Melissa and John arrived from the U.S. to stay with us for nine days. They were quickly introduced to the marina madness on their first day. Right after sundown, two people were driving a jet ski up and down the marina fairways at full throttle, in the dark, with no lights on. On their third pass, we heard a loud thud and raced out to see what happened. The two very drunk jet skiers had crashed, full speed, into a marina piling and overturned. About the only smart thing they did was wear life jackets, which saved them from drowning. Someone from the marina staff dove in and swam to the pier with the drunks in tow. There was a crowd of onlookers who helped lift the drunks to the pier as they mumbled, slurring that they were fine. Several people helped right the watercraft and tied it to a pier while one drunk stumbled away. The other, remarkably, was able to drive the jet ski out of the marina.
As we were settling in for the night a few hours later, we heard someone shouting for help. We saw a young man on a partially deflated and flooded dinghy floating by about twenty feet from our pier. We asked if there was someone in the water and he said that someone was drowning and pointed to the darkness near his boat. I stripped to my skivvies, dove in and swam toward the boat looking for the drowning victim. When I got closer to the boat, he told me that someone HAD been drowning, but a jet ski had taken them to shore. He was shouting for help because his dinghy did not have oars or a motor, and he could not jump in the water because his phone would get wet. I was both relieved and furious, but still helped pull his dinghy to the pier. Marina madness was in full swing!
Although it can get very crowded, the beach at Boca Chica offers outstanding people watching, food, and entertainment. We walked the length of the beach and sat down for lunch at the water’s edge. While waiting for lunch, locals kept stopping at our table to offers us goods and services. We compiled a list of everything that we were offered:
- Chicharrones (cracklings)
- Pirated CDs
- Cigars and cigarettes
- Cups of boiled shrimp
- Fresh caught octopus, mussels, conch, and clams
- Johnny Cakes (fry bread)
- Oil paintings
- Fake tattoos
- Peanut pralines
- Pipas (young coconuts)
- Roasted peanuts and cashews
- Beach towels
- Inflatable beach toys
- Ice cream
- Bottles of soapy water to make bubbles
- Serenades by a quartet
- Corn on the cob (served hot from a bicycle keg)
- Phone power chargers
- Shoe shines
- Dress shoes and belts
- Manicures and pedicures
- Lottery tickets
Sunday, since the waters near the marina were packed with speeding watercraft by operators in varying states of drunkenness, we decided to take a local bus (“gua gua”) and go on a land tour of the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo. This city, established in 1502, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts many firsts in the Americas: the first permanent European settlement, the oldest fort, the first university. The ruins are numerous and stunning. The architecture is remarkable. The history seemed alive as we walked the old streets. We walked until our feet ached, drank until we were tipsy, and ate until we could barely move. It was a great day!
After a day of city exploration, our friends Melissa and John were ready for some fun on the water. Since we were not familiar with the local dive sites, we hired a local guide to take us to a nearby sunken tugboat. It was a small, but pretty dive site, full of small tropical fish. Once familiar with the location of the site, we were able to repeat the dive from Pura Vida a few days later. While it’s a lot more work to dive from your own boat, it’s most rewarding.
During their visit, we rented a car to venture into the countryside for more touristy stuff. We explored the Pomier Caves which contain the largest collection of 2,000-year-old petroglyphs and petrographs in the Caribbean; primarily carved and painted by the Taino, the original inhabitants of the country, but also by the Carib and the Igneri tribes that inhabited this area. The caves are now home to large colonies of bats.
We also visited a partially reconstructed sugar mill dating back to the 1600s. There are no signs leading to it and its situated at the end of a rough dirt road, but it was definitely worth getting off the beaten path.
Perhaps the most beautiful natural location we visited was the waterfall at Salto de Socoa. The water cascades down to a swimming hole in the middle of a lush forest before continuing down a river with smaller falls and pools. When we arrived, a local couple was having their wedding photos taken in this pristine and idyllic location. We gave them some time to get the pictures done without having to Photoshop us out before we jumped into the chilly water.
We have only been in the Dominican Republic a week and a half, but we have fallen in love with its beauty. This is definitely a place where you want to slow down your travels and spend some time getting to know the country. There is just so much to see and do, it seems that we will just scratch the surface in the month we are here.