As the crow — or the seagull — flies, it’s not very far from Punta Cana to Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic. Yet the worlds one travels through on the roundabout, 4.5 hour drive could hardly be in more stark contrast.
First, let’s mention the rental car: The beat up little Kia that we picked up from the airport in Punta Cana overheated within a mile. Steam poured out of the engine compartment, and anti-freeze splattered the windshield in a sickly green. (Bob, being the car guy he is, checked the radiator cap first thing, and it was tight.) Thank heavens we were close enough to get back to the rental agency and exchange it for a slightly larger and much less beat up Ford (juxtaposition 1). Also buyer beware: the car insurance we purchased through CarRental.com was not recognized by the agency, so we had to put down a $600 deposit that we are supposed to get back when we return the car.
Now, onto the DR. Leaving Punta Cana, Highway 3 is an amazing road. It is a toll road (Google maps does not tell you that), but it is well worth the few pesos — a wide, smooth, four-lane highway. The coastal plain of southern DR is mostly sugar cane fields. Out in the fields, men with machetes and oxen — the largest beasts of burden I have ever seen — cut and haul the cane. It’s hot and humid and must be back-breaking work. The oxen were gorgeous, though, and spent their time munching on sugar can nubs when not hauling their carts. (Note, I did not take the photograph that accompanies this post. It’s hard to get a good photo when driving along at 100 KPH, but the photo does look just like several of the scenes we saw.)
In juxtaposition to the work going on in the sugar cane fields are the large resorts that dot the coast (juxtaposition 2). They are massive, and they gleam in the sunshine. They are where Americans like us and Europeans sit on the beach and eat and drink and do nothing. I’m not making any judgements here because sometimes it’s OK to do nothing, it’s just a stark contrast to the hard work going on nearby.
We left Highway 3 for Highway 4 (juxtaposition 3). Highway 4 is two lane with no shoulder and no striping, and the first several kilometers contained potholes that would have swallowed that little Kia. Dodging the potholes comes at your own risk because 18-wheelers hauling sugar cane, ancient Datsun pickups carrying a dozen people in the back, and rental cars such as ours were also dodging potholes on the other side of the road. We drove through tiny towns that can only be described as full of abject poverty — decaying and abandoned buildings, shacks made of corrugated tin, stray dogs with ribs showing walking the sides of the road, trash everywhere. (The Human Development Index ranks DR 88 out of 177 countries in the divide between rich and poor.) Yet people offered friendly waves along the way. When we stopped at a brand new gasoline station, a kind older gentleman helped us to navigate how to pay (the young lady in the naranjo shirt right at the pump) and how to find los banos. And the road improved.
When we turned north onto Highway 7, we left behind the coastal plain and climbed into the mountains (juxtaposition 4). The road, again a toll road, is only two-lane, but it is wide and smooth. It seems to climb forever. (We are going to add an altimeter app to my phone to keep track of these things.) The diversity of the jungle was amazing — dozens of tree species, Tarzan-worthy vines, ferns. As we drove along, a tree with purple flowers suddenly appeared, and then in the distance a tree with red flowers — over and over again. One tree, which I thought at first was full of white flowers, turned out to be covered with more than 50 cattle egrets (again, no photo because we were clipping along at 80 KPH). The temperature dropped as we climbed into the highlands, and we got a rain sprinkle here and there. The road topped out in the Los Haitises National Park, a gorgeous, mountainous setting that drops suddenly onto another plain. (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g147288-Activities-c57-t67-Dominican_Republic.html)
This new plain (juxtaposition 5) was full of rice paddies and egrets. Mile after mile of rich green “fields,” acacias and birds everywhere, but unlike the acacias in New Mexico, these ditches drain water as part of the system. And there’s probably more water in them than in all of New Mexico! The DR reportedly produces between 60 and 70 percent of all of its food needs, and more than 1 million of the 10 million residents are food insecure. (http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/international-agri-food-market-intelligence/reports/agri-food-sector-profile-dominican-republic/?id=1485956370308)
Then, there was the obligatory stop by the police officer. He was standing on the side of the road, mostly pulling over trucks to determine what they were hauling. But we got stopped, too. The officer was so nice. He apologized for his malo English. I apologized for my malo Spanish. He determined Bob was legal to drive, and our rental car really was OUR rental car, and we were free to go on our way.
The final highway, up over the mountains into Las Terrenas, was the equivalent of $12 USD — expensive, but it was a nice road, and it’s the only way to get to LT on land. It was another beautiful drive that climbed high and then suddenly opened up to Caribbean blue waters (although it’s really Atlantic on this side) and miles of palms along gorgeous strips of beach.
We dodged scooters and ATVs all through town and arrived at our hostel, Afreeka Beach Hostel and Music Bar https://www.afreekabeachhostel.com/ (which isn’t nearly as noisy as it sounds…Juxtaposition 6).
Today, we are off to explore this beautiful town and see, out of curiosity, what the real estate market is like. There’s also a dive shop right next door, but it doesn’t appear to be PADI shop, so we’ll have to figure out if we are going diving or not. I’m also trying to figure out how to add more photos to the blog, so stand by as we continue to learn. If you have questions, leave them in the comments.