Back in February, my adventure partner Tom and I booked a last-minute vacation to the Dominican Republic. We wanted to travel before I started my full-time job with explore magazine, where, for the first time in my life, I’d only have two weeks of holidays a year. (Which is a very scary thought for a serial traveller.)
It was a new country for both of us. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we knew we wanted to escape the six-feet of snow in Northern Alberta and relax on a balmy beach, so we booked a seven-night stay at the Grand Bahia Principe in Punta Cana through Air Transat Vacations.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t usually have to pay for trips like this, because I’m typically hosted as media on a press trip/FAM. It was hard to cough up $2,000 for an average all-inclusive. And while the beach was beautiful, the drinks were delicious and our garden-facing room nice and secluded, it couldn’t quite match the luxury I’ve experienced as a travel writer.
I also know myself, and I know that after two or three days of lying on a beach reading a juicy book, I begin to wither from boredom. I’m still a backpacker at heart, so I began browsing for hostels. I found one with a pool in the heart of Santo Domingo, one of the oldest colonial cities in Latin America.
So, halfway through our week-long vacay, we decided to escape.
It wasn’t easy. The resort would much prefer guests take a pricey excursion, like the booze cruise to Saona Island we paid $80 USD (each) for. Thanks to Google and the lobby’s free wifi, we knew there was a bus to Santo Domingo for around $400 Pesos ($10 USD) each—a bargain compared to the $80+ tour the resort offered.
We took out local currency at an ATM in the lobby. Eventually, we convinced the staff at the check-in desk that we knew there was a bus, and we wouldn’t be paying for a cab or a tour. We were pointed in the direction of the resort gate, which we walked to in the rising heat. I slipped my bracelet over my resort wristband to hide it as we exited the “safe” tourist haven and were spat out onto the busy street.
We crossed the street and stood on a corner. Trucks and motorcycles zoomed past; people stared at us but didn’t say anything. A flood of workers in the hotel staff uniform breezed by. Finally, a bus stopped and a man hopped off. At first, he didn’t want to let us on. We told him “Friusa” and asked for “Espreso Bavaro”—the name of the area where we could get the express bus to Santo Domingo. He looked uncertain, but he took our pesos and lets us on.
At the end of the road, the man who had taken our money ushered us off the bus and brought us to a yellow school bus. It was empty—except for us. Tom and I exchanged worried glances. Were we being kidnapped? The bus pulled up in front of a gas station, where we quickly jumped out after passing the man two more bills. He pocketed it, rather than giving it to the driver, and walked off.
We turned towards the gas station, where a group of locals sitting on motorcycles stared us down. I walked up to a security guard and asked him for directions. As he shook his head, I noticed the enormous gun he held casually at his side.
A man fueling up overheard my query and pointed down the street, away from the unruly characters that wouldn’t stop staring at me. Despite the heat, I was glad to be covered up in long, flowy pants, instead of the short dresses I’d been wearing around the resort.
Seeing “Espreso Bavaro” appear before us was like reaching the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Inside, we easily bought our tickets for the next bus, departing in half an hour. Tom went next door to buy some roadtrip snacks. When the bus rolled up, we dashed to the upper level and snagged seats right at the front, behind massive windows. The interior was carpeted, the seats navy blue. It was like a modern double-decker Greyhound, complete with air conditioning and a screen playing a movie (in Spanish). We hit the road and, like usual, I promptly fell asleep.
When I woke up, we were on the outskirts of a city. We weren’t sure exactly where to get off, so we guessed, disembarking too early. We met another traveller, also named Tom, bound for the same hostel: Island Life Backpackers.
When we arrived in the reception/bar, I immediately felt at home. A large dog lazed on the floor near the pool table; out back was a terraced garden with hammock chairs, a small swimming pool and picnic tables for communal eating. Two grungy looking travellers sat playing cards and sipping beer. Goodbye rowdy resort tourists, hellloooo backpackers, I thought.
The Toms and I dumped our bags and went out exploring. We found ruins without any historical explanations available, a waterfront full of garbage and a new friend that wanted to shine our shoes and wouldn’t stop following us until Dutch Tom bought him a beer and told him to take off.
We stopped for a traditional lunch of chicken, beans, rice and beer, wandered a cobblestone street full of vendors selling crafts and were hustled for $5 from a military man for taking our photo in a previous politician’s tomb.
As we looped back through the cultural district, we bought locally rolled cigars to puff back at the hostel after a quick dip in the kinda icky pool.
That evening, we ordered pizza from a place down the street and were charmed by pitiful stray dogs. Over a card game at the picnic tables, we met a Belgian backpacker who had rented a car and driven around the DR for the past two weeks. She’d had her fair share of mishaps and was returning to Punta Cana airport the next afternoon.
Tom and I exchanged glances. “Hey,” I asked her, “if we chipped for gas, do you think we could join? We were going to take the bus, but I think a roadtrip would be more fun.”
It turned out to be a lot more “fun” than either of us could have imagined.
Driving in the Dominican is more like fighting. There’s no real “right of way” rules, other than you have to get out of the way for whoever has decided they’re going. After two weeks, Marie had mastered the art of “just going.” She punched the pedal, swerving and swearing at cars and motorcycles. I sat in the passenger seat, holding my breath as cars slammed on their breaks and pounded on their horns, their metal sides inches away from ours in an insane race through narrow streets. From the backseat, Tom placed his hand on my shoulder, as if to say, “hey, think we’re going to die now?”
Somehow, we made it out of the city and onto the winding country roads. We listened to music and talked about travelling, the Dominican and life. Marie admitted she didn’t like the Dominican that much. She found the people too greedy and unfriendly. I couldn’t say I disagreed, but I also couldn’t say I’d experienced much of the country other than our one night in Santo Domingo.
After grabbing two cheese empanadas for lunch, we decided to stop at a beach to soak in some rays. As we parked, Tom and I realized we’d been there before. It was the departure point for our trip to Saona Island. People came over to us, offering trips on fishing boats for $60, $50, $40. I felt annoyed at the $80 US we’d spent for a speedboat and catamaran with an open bar just two days before.
While lazing in the shade to nurse our sunburns, it began to rain. Tom and I found shelter beneath tarps turned into tourist shops, where we bought souvenir magnets we’d forget to give to our friends back home.
A massive storm was approaching. We returned to the car and continued driving. Marie dropped us outside the gate of our resort. It felt like we’d been gone for ages. The guards asked to see our wristbands and waved us inside. I walked past girls in full makeup and neon crop tops. I was wearing the same flowy pants from yesterday, now coated in a layer of dust and sweat. I was in bad need of a shower (and a slushie beverage by the crystal clear pool), but I couldn’t shake the feeling like I didn’t belong here anymore. I’d escaped the manicured gardens and pruned beaches to feel the reality of the country, and now it felt fake to return to this built-up resort.
Still, the sun was shining again, the rum was pouring and I wasn’t quite finished my book, so we settled into two beach chairs to relax for the rest of our trip. I’m glad we got to experience these two distinct sides of the Dominican, and although I won’t be rushing back, I know where I’ll be staying next time I return to Latin America.