Tag Archives: Dominican Republic
We were on a bus on our way to do some volunteer work with other travelers from the Fathom cruise. Our project leader, a local employed by the organization heading the activity, was pointing out highlights of Sosua, the beach town we were entering and where we would do our work.
“And here is one of the first synagogues established in the Dominican Republic,” she exclaimed proudly. The group immediately looked out the window, surprised to learn that there was a Jewish community on the island, let alone a historic synagogue. “I didn’t realize there was a Jewish community here. When did they arrive?” asked a group member.
“Well, in the 1930s Rafael Trujillo who was a dictator here at the time, took in the Jewish refugees looking to escape the Nazis. He did this when no one else would and they came and settled here,” she replied.
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It’s taking me a bit to share my experiences while cruising to and volunteering in the Dominican Republic with Fathom Travel because it was such an overwhelming experience on so many levels. First, it was the very first time my youngest boys had visited the country. Yes, I lived there for many years (from 9 to 18) and yes, my father and other family still live there, and though I have been back a few times, taking my kids is just something we have never done. Second, it was a trip that involved getting into the communities, at times even into someone’s home and offer a service, through volunteerism.
Volunteerism through travel, or voluntourism, has been covered by many often highlighting the good and mostly bad in the efforts (and profiting) of companies who organize these types of experiences for travelers looking to do something more meaningful and a bit more impactful with their vacation time. I grew up spending a lot of time in hotels and resorts on the island because of my dad’s work in hospitality and so I learned a lot about tourists and their expectations and behaviors from a very early age. Though I have been critical of the Dominican Republic’s politics, I am also very proud and protective of my heritage and people. So, it was with a strong sense of curiosity and emotions that I embarked on the journey.
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The Wine Tasting, The Dominican Fish Market, The Coconut, & The Chef – Porto of Balcones del Atlantico
I can’t talk about a visit to the Dominican Republic without talking about the food. Chances are that this article won’t be the last time I mention the food I had there when visiting Las Terrenas.
But first, let me describe what is standard in most resort restaurants anywhere. Normally when you visit a resort, they have the basic fare. The buffet morning, afternoon, and night. If you are staying in an all-inclusive, chances are you will eat at the buffet more than once during your stay, and maybe – just maybe – treat yourself to the more luxurious restaurant (not included in your package) one night during your visit. If you are lucky, on that evening – and that evening alone – you will get to taste something that is indicative of the cuisine traditional to the country you are visiting. Otherwise, not so much.
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I have been wanting to go back to the Dominican Republic for some time. I have been wanting to travel to the island and connect with the people there, have them share their stories, highlight areas of the island that everyone must see when they visit, and then come back and tell you all about it.
As a first generation American from a Dominican family, who has had the opportunity to know life here and life there, whose Dominican father works in the hospitality industry – exposing me to all the inner works of the same from a very young age – and who is very familiar with the culture and customs of the Dominican people, I am also one of the harshest critics when it comes to all things Dominican.
I consider my perspective a bit unique because of my bi-cultural upbringing. I didn’t move to the DR till I was 9 years old and was very observant of everything from the moment I landed because I was so eager to fit in. I am not sure if I ever fit in completely and I often felt like an outsider looking in, but I did learn a lot and never took anything for granted. One of the things that I learned the most is how incredibly proud the Dominican people are of their country. It matters little what political, socio-economic, or even racial background a Dominican has, pride for their country and heritage is there.
The most pride I have in my Dominican heritage is the beauty of the sights and the food. Sadly however, when people go to visit the island they run the risk of getting very little exposure to either, especially when their visit consists of a stay in a secluded resort with tall walls and the ever present message of “don’t go off grounds”, “don’t wander away from the resort”.
When I was a little girl I frequented Punta Cana. At the time, there was nothing much there. My father would drive us to a local beach where he would pay a fisherman a few pesos and we would eat fresh fish under a hut alongside the beach. It was never anything fancy, but those moments remain the happiest of my visits there and the most authentic.
Now, Punta Cana is busting with resorts. Resorts as far as the eye can see, hidden behind tall walls and barbwire fences. I haven’t gone to many, so I can’t really say much. Many people tell me they have visited Dominican Republic by saying they went to Punta Cana, and most often times they loved it. And though I won’t deny that their experiences might have been lovely, I do reserve the right to say they have not, in fact, visited the Dominican Republic.
Because you can’t visit the country enclosed behind walls and fences. To experience the island one must, despite what some say, get out and see it.
In the next few posts over the course of few days, I will be sharing with you all my experiences during my recent visit to the Dominican Republic. I went as a guest of Balcones del Atlantico, a RockResort in Las Terrenas in Samana, an area I had not been to for 26 years. My journey was work-related, but also incredibly personal. I hope to share not just the reasons why visiting the Dominican Republic beyond better known areas is a good idea, but also a bit of my life there growing up.
In this post I will talk simply about our arrival.
We landed into Aeropuerto Las Americas in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. The airport seemed bigger to me. Less crowded because it is still not high season (Travel Tip 1: High Season is considered typically from December to March and Dominicans from all over – mainly NYC – travel in large numbers with endless luggage as they bring gifts home for family. Take all of this into consideration if you plan on traveling then. Long lines, crowds, and a tad of the joyful, yet loud spirits are to be expected).
Our journey from the start was an adventure. My husband and I rented a car from Hertz. When we went to pick up the car a representative assisting us told us Samana would be a 5 hour drive from Las Americas airport. This of course confused us since we had heard of a new highway which not only made the drive safer, but also shorter and faster. But, he swore up and down that was the time we should expect to be driving, so we rented a GPS for extra measure and shortly after we hit the road it died on us and the charger in our little putt-putt of a car didn’t work. (Travel Tip 2: Get a map, don’t rely on GPS systems or on car rental representatives in 3rd world countries. Travel Tip 3: “Economy” in car rental lingo actually means “barely going to make it”.)
We never made it to the new road (recently opened and called the Tourist Boulevard of the Atlantic). Instead, we found our way on the older road which lead us through country trails, up and down narrow mountain ways, curving and looping the entire time. We had no idea where we were going, we had no map and no navigation system. Lucky for us there were plenty of signs indicating the route to Samana and Las Terrenas. . We laughed at the insanity of it all. We managed to catch a glimpse of some incredible views though had to keep moving due to the line of massive trucks behind us.
I will be honest, I was nervous in visiting Balcones. I was scared that it would be a resort which locked visitors away from the community – a community which I remember fondly growing up.
We arrived to Las Terrenas, and shortly after that to Balcones del Atlantico. No massive walls. No barbwire fences. Visitors and guests must pass through a security check point to enter the premises, but we didn’t feel trapped at all once inside.
Dizzy, tired, and a little bit hungry from our journey (which was about 3 hours, an hour and a half on the new highway), we entered the reception area and were greeted with cool towels for our faces and hands. Check-in was friendly, flawless, and quick.
Ricardo, Balcones’ Front Desk Manager, guided us to our apartment. That is what Balcones del Atlantico offers guests – not simple hotel rooms, but actual apartments and villas for rent.
Ours was a 3-bedroom, 2 story penthouse apartment with a hot tub, two full bathrooms, a maid’s quarters, a full kitchen, two killer balconies and all the awe-inspiring appeal one could ever want when visiting a tropical paradise. Rent for such luxury during off season? An average of about $400 a day during low season (almost twice as much during high season).
The resort also hosts two pools, one with a bar in it, a kids playground, and soon a spa as well. The beach is a short walk away, across the street and right in front of Porto, the resort’s restaurant and also a local favorite (you can read my review on Porto here).
I sat in the balcony of our apartment. The place we would be in – somewhat – for 5 days. I looked out to the tall palm trees, felt the warm breeze in the air. The slate floors cooled my feet. I closed my eyes. This was beautiful. We could hear the birds, and even the waves from a distance. I immediately felt relaxed and happy.
We walked to the beach. The land, which was harsh to navigate through when trying to make it to the sandy beaches years and years ago, was now clear and paved. The waters, blue and warm, remain the same.
We saw divers exiting the waves with tanks and masks. Found out later on that they working on a project in part commissioned by Balcones del Atlantico to help restore the coral reef which has been so negatively affected by the over-fishing in the area. I was impressed.
I looked around the beach. No fences. No guards waiting to ask non-guests to leave. But no crowds or vendors either. It was serene. Peaceful.
On this, our first night, I would meet Pedro Sanchez, General Manager of Balcones del Atlantico, a self-proclaimed Dominican by way of Spain. I would also meet Franklin Vizcaino, Restaurant and Bar Manager of Porto. In a short time they would make us feel even more welcomed and catered to then before. Our dinner, from Chef Bruno Toso, blew our minds. His Peruvian Ceviche would be the culinary highlight of the evening and a highly recommended dish for anyone who visits.
What I immediately loved about Balcones del Atlantico was how it manages to bring luxury and comfort to Las Terrenas without taking away the sense that you are still in an old community, special to the people who live here and have visited here for decades. It is this way because Balcones allows the environment to shape it, not the other way around. Las Terrenas is, and has always been, about the beautiful beaches and the relaxed ambiance. What Balcones has done is take that experience and bring it to another level, taking into consideration the environment and the community it has entered.
So authentic is their approach that it appeals to Dominicans. So much so that most of the private owners of the apartments are in fact Dominican themselves. This speaks volumes because it symbolizes a part of the pride Balcones del Atlantico represents for the people that not only work there, but also those who live nearby and spend their weekends and holidays here.
I especially appreciate the fact that the resort doesn’t separate the community from its guests, but rather encourages guests to explore it and get to know it, organizing excursions, tours, whatever guests may need to experience not only Las Terrenas, but Dominican culture as a whole.
When visiting Balcones your level of exposure to the culture and area can be as much as you want it to be. If your wish is to be alone and sitting on the beach with a drink in hand (and are you in for a treat with the selections they offer), you easily can. If, however, you wish to go out on adventures and explore the various biospheres, caves, restaurants, and shops, then this too can be done. The point is that you have the choice (Travel Tip 4: Go out on the excursions. Walk around Las Terrenas. Take advantage of the services at the front desk. They will coordinate your excursions and provide information and suggestions to best fist your travel needs).
Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Vizcaino are very approachable, friendly and present, but also helpful and willing to assist are the staff throughout the resort.
Once the weekend came, so did the city-dwellers with their families making the ambiance a bit more festive. Though there were more people at that point then when we had first arrived, it never felt crowded or overwhelming. The level of service we received never faltered, the wonderful Dominican experience never diminished, and I never once forgot that I was back home.
Stay tuned for more on our many Dominican adventures!
Disclosure: Complimentary airfare, as well as hotel stay, some meals, and services were courtesy of Balcones del Atlantico RockResort. No other compensation was received for this review. All views and opinions expressed here are strictly my own.