Photos, video and story by Cassie Hepler
This time of the year is perfect… perfect for an escape out of dismal, sludge covered chilly Philly!
Seriously though, that point of will winter ever end, where is Spring and missing glowing orb called a sun can be daunted on even the most die-hard Philadelphian. This writer has tried to make it a habit to escape most winters for a couple weeks to somewhere warmer and sunnier where the living is easy with sand between your toes.
So we reached out to one of our Penn State alums who works as a travel consultant at CheapCarribean.com to help nail down some tropical locations. We wanted something unsaturated, not too touristy, all-inclusive with cool out of resort adventure options. After poking around on the website and getting a gage on what felt right, we went for Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic at the Rui Bachata. Mostly inhabited by traveling Europeans, a beautiful beach with palm trees and shade, good ratings, flight included, awesome excursions and unlimited everything, we were sold.
We found out during the trip from Polish friend Anis and German friend Eva that they had paid $1,500 for a 15 day stay which is a total steal. Their secret? They booked about a year in advance. That, friends, is the key to scoring a deal through almost any online site as well as their newly acquired travel sister site, AppleVacations.com.
Because sometimes you want to step out your door and not know where the hell you are and be able to walk to the beach with your snorkel and goggles in your hand…
We’re kicking off this story with a bus trip to Cayo Arena, Dominican Republic or better yet known as Paradise Island. We booked through www.top3tours.com and saved a substantial amount of money compared to other well-known websites. It was also nice to support a mom and pop travel company based out of the DR, who only let us down once with a mix-up about boarding time for an excursion (more on that later). We would set out, swing by tons of other resorts, then ship out for that day’s excursion at the crack of dawn.
The bus ride was rough. Americans are used to posh seats, chilling AC and some sort of space. Throw that out the window on this ride. You will be sliding around, bouncing off your neighbor and riding for over an hour from the city’s center (no matter what they tell you, it’s like when you order Chinese food and they say “5 more minutes!”).
The pit stop to use the bathroom and the first tourist trap. Most of all the excursions include a stop at somewhere to buy things. It makes logical sense for the tourism industry but an annoyance at points for visitors. The U.S. dollar is worth almost double there however Dominicans know this and the fine art of haggling is expected – and enjoyed.
Finally we get to the boats that will take us to Paradise Island, a sandbank surrounded by a coral reef in the middle of the crystal clear ocean with white sand, thatch huts, drinks, snacks and snorkeling.
Right behind us is a normal landscape of the non-touristy parts of Dominican Republic. A donkey (or other random farm animal), trash and someone walking around. It’s such a juxtaposition from the opposite view of the water.
We arrive to Paradise Island and it is full of “families” as the Dominicans call them. Each group to a hut and as you will see in the video below, the water was high so you had to hang your backpack on hooks in the hut. Fresh fruit and potent rum drinks (cuba libre was our favorite) were plentiful. There were no restrooms obviously so if you had to do your business, the water was your only option. Every morning we chewed down one disgusting Rolaid to coat the stomach from unfamiliar water, bacteria and keep things happily flowing.
We were there for a couple hours and most of the time was spent snorkeling and exploring the reefs and local fish. Smart visitors brought bread from the resorts to feed the fish, who would go crazy over the soggy carbs.
Toward the end of the day, we enjoyed some rum and the wind through our hair as we loaded back into the speed boat.
The mangroves were the next stop on the way back to the bus. There were mussels stuck to the roots and made for good fresh eating in the area.
Carlos and Eleanor adopted us as one of their own. She is a teacher from Canada who met Carlos on a vacation and visits every summer during her school break.
The next stop on the way back was a cigar factory. When Americans picture a factory, it is a huge industrial building. Not so much in the DR, it’s all about hands-on techniques.
Rolling a cigar perfectly is a skill that takes years.
Here he lined them up in their little homes where they will be perfected into sales ready size.
Pure, organic tobacco drying and waiting to be rolled and smoked hangs freely in the wind.
Finally they will sit and dry into the perfect stogie size.
Chickens and roosters are literally all over the place in the Dominican Republic. It’s just part of life there.
A box of cigars waiting to be sold.
Cigar perfection. We bought some to take home and enjoy with friends and were told they were some of the best ever tasted.
There was also a ton of artwork available at most locations with cultural or tropical themes galore.
Mamajuana (not to be confused with marijuana) is a native drink that allegedly turns you into Casanova. It is concocted by allowing rum, red wine, and honey to soak in a bottle with tree bark and herbs. The taste is similar to port wine and the color is a deep red. The specific herbs that make up Mamajuana were originally prepared as a herbal tea by the native Taino Indians; post-Columbus, alcohol was added to the recipe. Besides being rumored to be an aphrodisiac, with many natives of the Dominican Republic claiming that the drink has similar effects, Mamajuana is also consumed for its medicinal value. The alcohol is said to act as an extract base that pulls the herbs’ curative properties, creating an herbal tincture often served as a shot. The reported positive effects on health vary, ranging from a flu remedy, to a digestion and circulation aid, blood cleanser, sexual potency, kidney and liver tonic.
Larimar stone jewelry is as beautiful and colorful as the Caribbean itself. The prices are high but if you find the right vendor, you can haggle a decent price. It is only found in the Dominican Republic and has wonderful energy.
More roosters! You will see a theme here.
The cigar factory with its telltale DR color surrounded by sand.
Mangos galore! While we were poking around the store, Carlos and Eleanor were picking mangos from a nearby tree. It’s very common for the natives to share food as a kind gesture and even though we were staying at an all-inclusive resort, Carlos insisted we take this bag with us. So we did and payed it forward to the housekeeping staff later that day.
The next day we went on an outback safari tour which was better in an open air vehicle with shade. Here you can see the mountains sprinkled with palm trees. We were heading deep into the mountains to see how the country folk live.
Driving in the Dominican Republic is insane. There are no real rules, no age limits, no licenses needed and many times you would see someone brown-bagging it while driving. The political system is super corrupt as well. And you thought Philadelphia was bad!
What lanes? Even through the chaos of driving, this guy gives us the peace sign. Peace be with you too, bro.
The fire station by the sea deals with a lot of brush fires from the dry weather.
Neptune, God of the sea, reigns over the beach and provides protection for everyone. Dominicans are mostly Catholic so it’s nice to see sprinkles of mythology nearby,
A cow attempting to eat what weeds it can find in the drought as we wind our way up the mountain.
Someone’s shaded skeletal shack with a couple of lawn chairs serves as living quarters.
What we might consider a shed, many consider a home in the Dominican Republic
And then you see houses like this that stick out like sore thumbs in it’s overly opulent structure and size.
Our Outback Safari shows us where we’re going on this map and was born and raised in the Dominican Republic in a home like one of the tiny houses that we visited.
Another shack for a house.
The mountains are beautiful and even with the dry weather, offer a medley of farm food for natives.
A more moderate house surrounded by barbed wire and sticks as a fence.
A school girl heads down the hill from home to start her day.
A shack house to her left is also an amazingly tiny home for natives.
The view from the top of the mountain is breathtaking with the coastline.
We spotted an avocado tree with one in the middle. Most of the U.S. avocados come from tropics like these.
We pass an outside store on the way up the mountain and wave to the smiling faces.
We arrive at the family’s house where we are allowed to look inside to see how Dominicans may live. A British grandmother brought her granddaughter along to expand her horizons. Her eyes were as big as saucers.
This is the kitchen, in a separate building with real fire as the stove.
A lot of stray dogs and cats roam the land. This sleeping dog sort of adopted the family who allowed us in their home.
We try a strange fruit, the cacao fruit from the Dominican Republic which is tangy and tart.
Pineapples are everywhere and our idea of a tasty treat.
Bananas still green on the vine grow in huge bushels.
Don’t worry, it’s dead. But we were surprised at it’s huge size and found a lot of them in and around shacks.
A delicious fruit snack on a hot, humid day is always a welcome sight for thirsty eyes.
This is one the reasons the Dominican people are not overweight. A majority of their diet is fresh, organic fruit.
Coconuts hung above our heads. We couldn’t help but picture them falling on our heads like a cartoon.
Cocoa beans getting ready to be harvested as the family also sells coffee – a huge, delicious moneymaker for many families.
Coffee and cocoa beans sorted and ready to be packaged or ground up for whatever flavor you like.
We called these chocolate turds. Really they are solidified cocoa logs to mix with water or milk, depending on preference.
There’s a lovely shaved cocoa powder ready to be tasted.
Our fun and wacky Outdoor Safari guide ready to grind some coffee.
The Dominicans can make some delicious cocoa with natural herbs and spices. We took some home but have yet to master this amazing flavor. Hot samples on a hot day didn’t bother us one bit (and perhaps gave us some more energy!)
A bunch of beautiful children of every skin color gathered around the safari truck, offering us flowers and greeting us with enthusiasm.
This British grandmother knew to bring along candy for the children, which they loved. Visitors used to throw them off the safari truck however it is not encouraged anymore because of the obvious danger risks.
Another house on the way out of the mountains shows that even the residents know not to drink the water.
Our next visit was to a typical school house in the Dominican Republic. Most of the buildings are made of cement due to hurricanes.
More chickens just roaming around the schoolyard.
Areas of study include Spanish, Math, Social Studies and Natural Sciences.
A teacher with his eager student will teach the children all of the above areas of study.
Yet another dead humongous spider found in the building. Our fearless tour guide picks it up and lets us know they are not poisonous spiders so there’s nothing to worry about.
The building next door is a half finished cement building. You will see a lot of these around as people run out of money to build them and they are left as shells.
A sneak peak through the blinds into the classroom.
Arts and crafts are encouraged in the Dominican Republic, much more so than the U.S.
Back outside, a man rides a horse down the dirt road.
The front of the school with a wire fence, palm trees, rocks and dirt. The telltale sign is the yellow and of course, children in uniform swarming to the school.
Just in case readers want to send school supplies to the children, you can reach Outback Adventures and learn more.
A herd of cows chow down on some plants along the side of the road.
These are some half built tombs for a cemetery. Because the ground can easily erode away, above ground tombs are more logical.
Another pretty nice house on the mountain top sticks out like a sore thumb. It is common for foreigners to built properties in paradise for vacation homes.
A majestic mountain has tales to tell as we were told about some native folklore.
Children seemingly popped out of nowhere to say hello as we passed by.
Then is was time to cool off and have some cocktails at this river. We jumped off the large rocks and were refreshed by all the dusty, dry roads.
One of the most tin shacks that we saw during the trip was a little blurry but needed to be documented.
Dinner was next on the menu in the shade. The heat and humid weather makes it easy to forget to eat. Fortunately, all the trips included food – and drinks. Lots of drinks! We always secured a large water bottle every morning from the hotel lobby and would guzzle at least two by the end of the day.
Our sit-down picnic style family lunch included the usual go-to chicken (see, more chicken just like I said) which was delicious and not hormone injected monster sized like in the U.S.
Rice with red beans is also a common side dish and pretty tasty.
Red ants will bite your feet if you’re not careful. These guys were having a field day trying to get to the food.
We got to meet this sweet and curious owl who was a rescue as someone clipped her feathers. Her handler and owner now adores and spoils her.
It’s not a safari without some reptiles! After while, crocodile. Large lizards seem larger in the camera then they are.
We felt a little weird interrupting these two in their romantic moment however not enough to miss this photo opp.
Back to the beach where some vendors set up shop, ready to see their wares to willing tourists. On the way there we drove through a lot of burning fields and some gentleman collecting sugar cane. It was the hottest month for the area and apparently the sun was scorching more than just our skin.
The beach was beautiful as expected and everyone encouraged some boogie boarding. We gave it a go until almost face planting in the sand and opted for a more relaxing option.
One of our tour guides offered all sorts of rum drinks, the most popular cocktail on every menu.
These ladies were offering free massages with only a tip needed. We can’t resist a good run rub down. But our advice is do this first, then get sandy. Otherwise, you’ll end up with some unexpected exfoliation.
This wooden bridge was an awesome way to get to the beach from where the safari truck parked.
We tend to agree with this sign, the ocean really does fix everything.
This gentleman sold us a larimar necklace, which we gave as a gift to a friend. We bartered with him and felt good giving our tour guide’s neighbor our money, even if we did find the same necklace later for half the price.
One our way back, we heard good stories about the city of Santiago.
Back at the Rui Bachata resort, your room was always a welcome sight by the end of an all day excursion with the air conditioning cranked up high and a cool shower awaiting.
The next morning was spent at the Rui Bachata resort with excellent views, lovely snorkeling options right off the beach with bread from breakfast to feed the fish in a sort of fishy frenzy and teach Europeans to do the same. Don’t forget to pack your snorkel! Of course, you can rent some at the resort however it’s nice to have your own. Ours ended up cracking at the end but what a way to go out!
We lucked out as other visitors from different resorts in the area had beaches thick with seaweed. Ours was gorgeous every single day. Check the suggested travel times and weather report to plan your trip to avoid that situation.
Our saving grace were the palm trees with this writer’s pale European skin (that and SPF 70). Remember, the sun is hotter and more potent below the equator.
Coral collected by children just off the beach made for a nice photo.
A booze hut to keep you… dehydrated? El Presidente beer was always on tap and was light and refreshing, almost like water. Lots of fruity drink options were available as well as straight up wine, liquor and booze. In fact, there was a rum dispensing wall mount in each guest room. We may have done some shots because, it was right there hanging above the mini fridge and when in Dominican Republic…
We ventured over to these shacks off the side of the property because we knew there were good deals waiting. And because we are super curious and slightly nosy.
A woman immediately greeted us and motioned for us to go inside and see what she has. Some had wooden floors, some were dirt. It was all the same stuff we’ve seen before and everyone warned about who to buy goods from but we had our big girl pants on and could fend for ourselves (obviously).
A view of the Rui Bachata beach from the shacks. Also attached to the property was the Rui Merengue where you had a different wristband color but could poke around between properties with no problem.
We loved this man napping in between trees in the shade right off the beach because it kind of summed up life in the Dominican Republic – laid back, chill and free.
An alternative place to get some excursions on.
The wedding chapel from the Rui Bachata overlooking the ocean. Its beauty was one of the other selling points for this trip.
Every morning we would eat breakfast at this table either way early before the rush hour or right after. Lots of fresh fruit, some meat options (bacon at times) and carbs were available. Dominican coffee is amazing and it was easy to drink tons of it in the morning (and sweat it out, thus guzzling tons of water through the hot days).
Inside the main dining hall there were a medley of options every night but somehow the food tasted mostly the same. What we they consider fine dining, we consider generic buffet style. At the Rui Bachata, you could sign up for a more formal dining location very early in the morning. One was “Italian” one was Caribbean and one was a “Steakhouse”. Spoiled Americans are used to our Italian food gluttony and 3 inch thick steaks. The Caribbean ironically was the best of the bunch with fresh fish options and fruit medleys.
El Presidente beer always on tap for lunch and dinner.
And barrels of “wine” which was more like sugar water. Again, their 3 star is our 1 and a half.
Seating arrangements at the buffet were open and sit where you want. Waiters would come by and refill your drinks as needed but it was mostly DIY. Tips were included in the resort price and no one pressured you for more however I am sure tips were always more than appreciated.
Caribbean colors and paintings filled the Rui Bachata and reminded you that you are not in Kansas anymore. That and the heat. Most times the air conditioning was not on in the buffet area much to some visitors distaste.
A lovely table for two with an equally stunning view and breeze sits next to the buffet entrance.
All the “maids” were dressed in uniforms of typical maid outfits except in a bright Caribbean powder blue.
The lobby of the Rui Bachata shows off Dominican culture, style and design with its open floor plan. This was where to hunker down and get Wifi to connect to family and friends at home or you could pay to have it in your room. But isn’t the whole point of vacation to get off the grid and unplug?
The ceiling in the lobby of the Rui Bachata boasts tropical plants, flowers and birds native to the island and then some.
Gorgeous bouquets of flowers adorned the lobby tables and filled the warm air with sweet nectar.
The open outdoor bar that also had music and dancing at night. It was usually buzzing by sundown and smoking and ashtrays were everywhere – for cigarettes or delicious Dominican cigars. We wandered over to the Rui Merengue one night and found they had much better live music and bands. Our lone crooner with a beatbox and guitar was pretty cheesy but still amusing.
Dancers were practicing for the show that night which usually included started with a children’s hour followed by Latin dancing later in the night.
The casino that we didn’t step into. A handful of perks and discounts came with our booking at Rui Bachata but with no penny slots available (only hardcore gamblers need apply), we were already at a loss. Plus we heard the odds are completely in favor of the house, so there’s that.
The path around the pool sizzling in the hot sun.
The walkway that connected the Rui Bachata with the Rui Merengue next to the beach with swaying palm leaves and tranquil shade.
Anywhere with a statue of a dolphin is a place we want to be. We were smiling just like this bronze guy.
A bird on the move! This guy and his friends decided to attempt to drink our coffee, booze or anything else by the pool lounge chairs.
During the day, this space was a snack hut buffet. At night, it turned into the steakhouse.
A couple snuggles up in a lovers nook in the pool. The water was always clean, cool and refreshing. Booze flowed freely and water aerobics, games and more were scheduled throughout the day.
In case you wanted to submerge yourself but keep your head floating, this was a nice way to keep cool. We didn’t hang at the pool more than one half day as there was a much more beautiful beach less than a block away.
A little yellow shack that was a bookstore where you could borrow a book or leave a book in any language you can imagine. We left a tear jerker for some sappy English reader.
These lovely flowers smelled even better than honeysuckle. It was amazing and we wish they would make a perfume out of it.
We had to try the massage hut on the beach because when else do you have this option? We opted for a deep tissue massage and although it was a bit sandy from our own previous fun, it was nice and a different Dominican style. We left happy and floating.
After our massage, we wandered back right behind our room was a bay with a natural bird habitat to visit off the grounds but attached to the walkway.
The walkway up to the marriage chapel where we would visit at sunset and awe at the beauty of nature while the wind whipped around us.
We wondered how many wedding took place at this exact mosaic location.
Some best friends left their Hello Kitty charms as a keepsake on the iron bars.
Some familiar cactus was found on the side of the chapel hill. Signs warned of falling and not climbing too far off the rocks below.
The next morning we were greeted by Santiago, a friend of Carlos (from the safari trip above) who was our taxi for the Damajagua Waterfalls (better knows as 27 Waterfalls). And depending on the amount of rain, that number dropped down to 12 and sometimes 7 however you want to listen to the guides as no one should jump into a shallow pool of water!
After checking in and changing into our gear, we were hardcore hiking up the mountain with our trusty guides. We were with a group of French people and got to play translator at points. We saved a pretty penny by getting a ride with Santiago (taxis are available as well and you are expected to haggle, make sure you speak Spanish or that will be near impossible to arrange anything). The way lower than any tour group price also included lunch. Hell yeah!
The first jump was terrifying, we’re not gonna lie. There’s a reason cliff jumping is illegal in the U.S. Jump at your own risk!
Looking down at the tour guides and previous jumpers as they urge you on. To see some video jumping action, visit Explore Philly’s YouTube page for cliff jumping, snorkeling and more.
Some of the waterfalls were more like slides like this one and the view was beautiful as were the natural limestone rocks.
The last of the waterfalls ended at this gorgeous and Goonie’s looking spot complete with wooden ladders.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a well deserved hearty lunch and realized on the walk back that we probably bruised our tailbone. After the adrenaline wore off from cliff jumping the first 30 foot cliff, we emerged from the water moaning about our butt. The French group did not understand so this writer cried out, “Mon derrière!” and they all laughed. At this point, we felt it was more than a bruised butt (but that existed too). Fortunately it only hurt when sitting down and was toward the end of the trip. Women tend to get bruised butts and tailbones more than men and we can tell you it felt like the water was trying to rip the butt off with a giant wedgie. Just like we said, jump at your own risk!
This lizard reassured us that we might be bruised but we did the right thing and certainly conquered some illogical fears. Lizard’s symbolism is a spirit animal that teaches the sacred lessons of regeneration.
After a night of resting our tailbone (literally), we climbed aboard another safari truck through all the resorts picking passengers up to head to Beach Barcelo. We had tried to take the catamaran tour earlier in the week however Top 3 Tours literally left us hanging, waiting for a ride that never came one morning. Since contact with them was via email only, it made it difficult to reach them however they set things right again and got us back on the next available boat with a little help from the other tour guides who flanked the hotel lobby entrance.
A ghost crab got lots of attention that morning as he scuttled away in the sand.
Our 54 foot Freestyle Catamaran for the day couldn’t get too close to the beach so we hiked our gear above our heads and waded out.
Up the ladder we all went with “Eddie Murphy” as he called himself who was doing macho pull-ups as we approached the boat.
The beach and mountain as we set sail for some snorkeling adventures along the North Coast line into the beautiful bay of Sousa.
The stunning shades of Caribbean aquamarine see-through blue. We couldn’t wait to spend tons of time swimming around in there!
A sprinkle of food and the tropical fish come running in a beautiful frenzy.
Part of the ship was just rope to lay on over the water and relax in the sunshine.
An open bar all day long, chill music, with buffet lunch made this a truly, laid back Caribbean luxury experience. Anywhere on the catamaran was perfect to sunbathe or hang out below deck to get some shade.
Down the steps we went with our flippers and snorkel. To experience tons of GoPro video footage of snorkeling and the catamaran, visit Explore Philly’s YouTube page.
Some truly beautiful villas lined the coast and made us want to purchase one for these amazing views. Each stop offered different fish, coral reefs and some fellow snorkelers who weren’t as kind to nature as we were. A rouge group were pulling coral by the roots and left them floating through the water. When in nature, always respect it and don’t take anything with you. If you really must have some coral, you can purchase some at many shops.
One last view of the Freestyle Catamaran in the hot sun on our way back to shore as we lay down, bobbed and weaved on the ropes over the water. Lots of rum, fruit and lunch left us pretty relaxed on our way back. It was bittersweet as we didn’t want to leave however missed our comfy bed back home. We were even offered another overnight stay through American Airlines with a $700 credit however with aching tailbone, we couldn’t wait to get back to Philly (but make sure to take photos out of the airline windows, what a Caribbean blue view). After all, there is no place like home.