Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Escape from Punta Cana!

Your highly anticipated vacation to an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic has finally arrived. With a bottomless umbrella drink in hand, you hit up the decadent buffets, try a trapeze course, and tell yourself that you don’t need sunscreen for that Caribbean sun because it’s all about getting that base tan. Then hour 48 hits, and that Top 40 mix for the water aerobics class is starting to fry your brain, and you forget whether you are in the Dominican Republic or some other tropical island. Not to worry, there is a way out so that you truly remember your vacation to the DR. Here’s how to escape from Punta Cana:

Get Away for the Day

La Basilica
When investors first started to develop Punta Cana in the late 60s, they found infertile land adorned by limestone outcroppings and sand patches, but not much else. Besides a few small farms and fishing villages, the area was undeveloped jungle.

Much has changed since then, as the mass-appeal resorts of Bavaro continue to extend farther north up the coast and the luxury resorts of Cap Cana extend further south. Despite all of this development, there are few places visitors can go within Punta Cana since the region is saturated with all-inclusives that require strict reservations for entry. However there are a few towns that are suitable for a day trip:


Known for La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, Higüey is a bustling town that recently underwent a beautification campaign, resulting in many more green spaces and trees across the city center. Dedicated in 1972, the Basílica is one of the most important houses of worship for Catholics in the country, and the most visited site for religious pilgrims on the island. Built in the contemporary-utilitarian Dominican style of architecture (that is, entirely of cement), its parabolic arches represent a modern twist on the typically gaudy Catholic cathedrals. A visit to the Basílica paired with some local eats at one of the restaurants along Av. Hermanas Trejo, such as Cotubanamá or D’Yira Restaurant, make for the perfect afternoon outing.

Casa Museo Ponce de Leon
San Rafael de Yuma/Boca de Yuma

Simply called Yuma by the locals, this area caught the interest of Spanish explorer Ponce de León in 1503 because of its proximity to the navigable Río Yuma. León played a key role in subjugation of the local Taínos, for which he was rewarded with the title of Governor in this region of the colony. Today’s Yuma is a minor town, where the main attraction is the Casa Museo de Ponce de León (Entrance RD$50; to arrive, when entering the town of Yuma, veer left at the fork and turn left on Carretera Los Jobitos just before the cemetery, where there is a sign for Casa Museo de Ponce de León. Follow the road about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) down and the museum will be on the right; Mon–Sat 7am–5pm).

After taking in the 16th century architecture and belongings of Leon’s home, head 20 minutes west to Boca to Yuma, a sleepy fishing village set on tremendous cliffs overlooking the sea. What this town lacks in terms of entertainment, it makes up for in charm and home-style cuisine.  Try one of the many fish-fry huts along the coastline. Or, before entering the town, turn left at the sign for Restaurant Bahia Azul, which serves fresh-caught fish with hearty portions of rice, beans, and fried plantains. If you decide you want to stay, try Hotel El Viejo Pirata (RD$1200; When the main road through town ends at the coast, turn right at the hotel's sign, after which the hotel will be on the right; 780-3236/804-3151/780-3464;;

 Take off for a night
Kids Playing at Costa Esmeralda
Costa Esmeralda

The placid aquamarine waters that gently lap virgin white sand catapults this beach to among the top in the country. Accessible by boat, horseback, or scenic drive, the beach is set in a protected bay, leaving the water smooth and clear with few waves. Development has yet to touch the pristine sands of this beach, meaning Esmeralda has no accommodations. There are no stores or restaurants nearby, so bring your own snacks (and rum).

To reach the beach by foot from the nearby town of Miches, walk east along the beach and ask a local to show you the footpath that cuts through the forest to the other side of the point (seen to the east of Playa Arriba). The walk takes about an hour and a half. Be safe and go in a group and don’t carry valuables as the trail is isolated. By car, drive east toward the town of La Mina for about 8.8 kilometers (5.5mi). Just beyond La Mina, find the turnoff to Playa Esmeralda, marked by a Brugal sign. Follow the dirt road and go left at the fork until the road runs parallel to the beach (veer right). Continue until reaching the far eastern end of the beach, which is the best section for swimming. This area is just past the Marina de Guerra office. Boat and horseback riding trips to Costa Esmeralda are also available through Coco Loco Hotel (US$15-25, which includes breakfast; located on Playa Arriba; follow C/ Pedro A. Morel de Santa Cruz toward the coast and then make a right at the beach; 886-8278, 974-8182), which is also one of the better options for lodging. 
Antique Sailboats at Bayahibe

One of the other great natural attractions in the area is Montana Rodonda (located about 17 kilometers (11 miles) east of Miches). It features a 360-degree view of the coast, two lagoons, verdant surrounding hills, and electric green rice fields.


The small but quite lively fishing town of Bayahibe is located on the edge of the Parque Nacional del Este, making it an excellent place to overnight while enjoying the islands, caves, and trails of the beautiful park. The attractive town meanders around the placid bay, offering a number of attractions: an archaeological dig with artifacts dating back over 4,000 years, shallow fresh springs with unique histories, locally-run jewelry and art workshops, and historical sailboats still in use today. 

A Local Musician Enjoying Bayahibe's Sunsets
After spending the day exploring the natural wonders of the national park or savoring some perfectly grilled lobster, rest at Hotel Bayahibe (RD$1300-2000; C/ Principal, 833-0159/0045;; or rent a cabana from Cabanas La Bahía (RD$800-RD$1200; 710-0881).

Dancing in Santo Domingo 

Going Rogue

You got a taste of what the DR has to offer, and you can’t imagine spending one more day stuck in resort confines. Whether you are looking for hang-gliding in the pine-covered mountains, incredible live music and night-life in Santo Domingo or a quiet boutique hotel near virgin beaches, the DR has got it all.  Find out more from Dominican Republic (Other Places Travel Guide).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

St. Patrick's Day in the Dominican Republic

"Sand" Patrick's Day Parade in Cabarete
While we don't often associate Irish immigrants with the DR, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day did manage to make its way to the island. The beloved Cabarete bar José O'Shay's, founded by Philly natives and lovers of all things Irish, has hosted an annual party for almost a decade right on the beach.  Read more about the family-owned bar and its fascinating history here.
The festivities, which last all afternoon and very late into the evening, feature a "Sand Patrick's Day Parade along the water, traditional Irish dancing and music, and of course, plenty of Guinness. Visitors from across the island - and the world - have enjoyed taking part in a pan-Atlantic party dubbed with a unique tropical spin that draws up to 20,000 people to dance, eat, drink, and say Erin go bragh in both Gaelic and Spanish.  

Read more about the party from a local hotelier:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Artisanal Jewelry in the Dominican Republic

From the shells that wash up on white sand beaches to the seeds of the fire-red Flamboyan tree, the Dominican Republic is full of natural inspiration and materials that Dominican artisans have crafted into striking jewelry.  The materials that occur naturally in each region of the country influence the unique designs of the area. Artisans from coastal towns like Bayahibe utilize shells of different colors, shapes, and sizes for their elaborate necklaces, earrings and belts; Barahuco’s creative class mines potential in the sky-blue stone, larimar, that is found only in the local hills; and the artisans of Benerito, a town nestled by the East’s grazing pastures, heat and shape cow horn to make rustic yet sheik accoutrements. Admirers of these gorgeous handicrafts take home thoughtful and unique gifts, while also supporting a budding economy of creative minds who come from humble circumstances. Below are several examples of community-based artisan groups and their beautiful products.

Playa Guayacanes, East of Santo Domingo

Playa Guayacanes, a Source of Inspiration and Materials
Les Ateliers de Chantal
At this beachside workshop, French owner Chantal and volunteers train local youth in ceramics, painting, and artisan crafts. Along with their locale in Los Guayacanes, Chantal also established her ateliers in poor barrios of Santo Domingo in order to target at-risk youth and provide them with both a creative outlet and a vocation. The beautiful creations - like intricate clay-bead necklaces and funky coconut shell belts - are for sale in the workshop’s storefront, the proceeds of which support their educational efforts.

Playa Guayacanes is located between Playa Caribe and Juan Dolio east of Santo Domingo along Av. Las Americas; 526-3077;

Larimar, Found Only in the Sierra de Barahuoco
Barahuoco, West of Barahona

The famous blue stone called larimar is found nowhere else in the world but the few hills in which it is mined in the Sierra de Bahoruco. Father Miguel Domingo Fuertes Loren, a Spanish priest, was the first to discover this semi-precious stone in the early 1900s, but it took until 1974 that Miguel Méndez and Peace Corps Volunteer Norman Rilling rediscovered the stone and brought it to wide commercial success. Méndez named the stone after a combination of his daughter’s name, Larissa, and the Spanish word for the sea, “mar.” 
Larimar is a type of pectolite, a volcanic rock. The stone’s captivating hues of blue, ranging from a light sky blue with hints of green to a deep cerulean, are a result of the existence of cobalt in the stone, unique to larimar in the pectolite family.    

To purchase larimar straight from the artisans, head west from Barahona in the Southwest to their workshops near the entrance of Casa Bonita in Barahuoco, where artisans grind, shape and polish larimar, then place it in sterling silver settings. Darker tones of blue with fewer white veins are considered to be more precious, and therefore will more expensive than the lighter varieties. Though you might need to negotiate a bit, the prices are far more reasonable than those found in the tourist centers in Santo Domingo, and interacting with the artists themselves is much more pleasant and informative than street hawkers in the city. In addition, purchasing the jewelry here means that proceeds go to the artisans, instead of middlemen.

Km. 17 Carretera de la Costa, Bahoruco

Artisans from Benerito

East of La Romana

Artecuseco de Benerito 
Located in the small, poor community of Villa Padre Nuestro in Benerito, this artisan group sprung from a few simple courses offered through IDDI, a government educational and development organization. The local women’s association formed the artisan group in 2007, and has advanced tremendously in terms of skill and design through the efforts of a Peace Corp volunteer and outside artisan teachers. 

Necklaces Comprised of  Cow horn, Seashells and Seeds

The women use natural material such as seashells, seeds, cow horns, wood, gourds (higüeros), and coconut shells to make rustic yet lovely jewelry. The pieces make excellent gifts not only for their originality, but also because the sale of such items goes directly into the pockets of the women who make them. The women are planning to construct a permanent workshop, but until then, the best way to see their creations is to contact them directly to visit one of their homes.
RD$100-250 earrings and RD$250-800 for necklaces; Contact Esmeralda, 829-741-3507 or Ani, 829-741-3509;

Leni, an Artisan of Bayahibe Modeling her Work
Asociación de Artesanos La Rosa de Bayahibe
This artisan association in the town of Bayahibe is composed of individual artists who use local and recycled materials such as driftwood, seeds, and shells to make jewelry, dolls, and miniature sailboat replicas. In 2008, a Peace Corps volunteer helped the group form an association and begin marketing to the tourism industry. The group’s creations are on display in the center of Bayahibe, outside the Super Colmadón Bayahibe.

Necklaces and Earrings Made of Seashells and Seeds

Several members of the association maintain their own workshops, where visitors can see the artisans at work. Try catching the artists known as Gauba and Negro working on model boats of the traditional Bayahibe sailboats, or Leni creating her signature dolphin necklaces. If in town for Patronales, be sure to stop by the artisan booth, where artisans from Bayahibe as well as from Padre Nuestro’s Artecuseco in Benerito display their wares. Find the group on Facebook under the name “La Peresquia de Bayahibe”

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dominican Caranval and Independence Day

 Carnaval Costume Typical to Puerto Plata, DR

Today is Independence Day in the Dominican Republic, celebrated as the day the country won freedom from Haiti in 1844. Today is also the last day of Carnaval, which is celebrated on Sundays during the entire month of February - and today. These celebrations feature parades lasting the entire day, involving thousands of participants wearing elaborate costumes, marching along major thoroughfares of every town and city. Each location has its own unique details, from costumes to music, dance, food, and drink.
The most recognizable aspect of the Carnaval tradition revolves around the colorful costumes, topped off by intricately designed masks. Many of the costumes represent diabolical spirits, known as diablos cojuelos – perhaps the most jovial devil costumes around. Others include animal or human representations. Bells, seashells, and other baubles sewn on to the costumes add to the sensory experience of these visually stimulating spectacles.  In cities across the country, groups compete against each other for best costume prizes.
Detail of  Carnaval Cape
Watching the parade is the best way to participate in Carnaval, but beware – standing too close to the route will make the onlooker become a participant. Many of the parade walkers wield vejigas, or inflated bladders (formerly pig; now synthetic). They flail these vejigas at the backsides of unsuspecting spectators and other marchers, resulting in monumental bruises by the end of the day. Besides this somewhat violent aspect of the parades, there’s also tasty street food, rum and cold beer, music, and games to round out the day.
There is no better place to revel in Carnaval than in La Vega, an otherwise industrial town south of Santiago.  The city center explodes in excitement from early in the morning until late at night every Sunday. The parade routes across dozens of city blocks, and the all-day party culminates in fireworks and a concert in a nearby square. As mentioned above, the largest celebration happens today, timed to coincide with Independence Day. Dominicans from across the country visit La Vega at least one weekend in February and if possible, travel on this day to revel in the fanfare that commemorates their nation’s most important holiday.

La Vega: Costumed parader and visitors.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Top Beaches near Río San Juan

Dotted along the Northeast coast of the Dominican Republic are several spectacular expanses of sand and sea where the only sounds to be heard are the crashing of the waves and the laughter of families. Conveniently located between Río San Juan and Cabrera, these beaches are easily accessible using public transportation or by private vehicle from any of the area's resorts and hotels. For those craving the freshest lobster or fish, grilled to perfection and served with golden tostones (twice-fried plantains), look no further than the palm-thatched shacks serving up that morning's catch. Here are the must-see beaches outside Río San Juan:

Playa Caletón 
Playa Caletón 

A quick 2km east of Río San Juan, Playa Caletón's ochre sands are nestled in a protective cove. The calm and tidy surf is perfect for both children and a lazy ocean swim. This beach is something of a hidden gem, as few foreign tourists manage to visit. On Sunday, the beach transforms from quiet to festive, as families from nearby communities bring food, drinks and work off some tropical energy. Just to the east, notice several sculptures made of white plaster peering out from their black-rock perch, as well as another figure scaling the rock in the middle of the cove. There is plenty of shade potential and perfect trees for climbing. Caletón is also known for the quality of its snorkeling because of the teeming life in the shallow seabed. The turnoff for the beach is a little hard to see; look out for a small sign across from an open-air restaurant. Boat tours from Río San Juan also stop here.
The ride from Río San Juan is RD$15; to return to town, just stand on the highway and flag down the bus.

Playa Grande 

Men Selling Coconuts and Sugar Cane at Playa Caletón 
If there was ever a destination beach, Playa Grande is it. Consistently rated in the top five beaches of the country, this beach stands apart from its formidable competitors. The expanse of sand is wide, deep, and visually stunning, and though just a short drive from Río San Juan, has a distinctive feeling of isolation. Rocky cliffs on either side of the beach set it square against the sea: palm trees behind, the water up front and buffeted by a constant tropical breeze, these four kilometers of sand make Playa Grande a must-visit. Though it is, in fact, a large beach, it may have received its name because of the deceiving nature of the waves that meet  its shores. While some days the teal sea is placid, more often than not, the waters erupt into hidden, body-tossing riptides and unseen currents. For this reason, while we do recommend a dip, exercise caution and swim with a buddy.

Playa Grande

On the drier side of things, tin-roofed food shacks do a fine send-up of classic Dominican beach food (and cold beer) on plastic tables. Vendors occasionally come by offering massages and cheap jewelry but for the most part, Playa Grande is very quiet. The surrounding area is being developed, as evidenced in the golf course with a view that sits on the hills to the west of the beach. Now, however, Playa Grande shines in isolated splendor. From Río San Juan, catch any of the guaguas heading east (RD$25), and make sure to let the driver know you’re heading to the beach, as it requires a small detour. To return from the beach, you may have to walk a bit to the main road to catch a passing bus.

Playa Preciosa

Just off to the east of Playa Grande is Playa Preciosa. This bit of sand and rock is much smaller and less frequently visited. Preciosa’s waves have more consistent and higher breaks, making it a hit with surfers. It lacks the amenities of Playa Grande, but the short cliffs hewing to the sea and surf give the beach an untamed feel. Because of its more isolated nature, petty theft has become an unfortunate side effect, so visit with caution and never alone.

Río San Juan
Parque Nacional Cabo Frances Viejo

This tiny national park stands tall with its lighthouses that lord over a rocky promontory jutting into the Atlantic Ocean – offering expansive, panoramic views of green and blue. A stone path from the highway leads directly to the lighthouses, another curves right down to the beach of Playa El Bretón. The park, within a humid subtropical forest, was established in 1974 and is poorly maintained; there is a suggested, but not required, entrance fee. The lighthouses, one of which is more than a century old, no longer serve their original purpose, but their presence atop the heights of the cliff is monumental. Ruins of an older lighthouse speak to the vastness of the waters and treacherousness of the sea. The park is about four km west of Cabrera, before reaching the small town of Abreu. It is possible to camp in the park, but you must check with a park employee first and the station. The park guards, when around, are friendly and happy to give a tour or answer questions; ask especially about visiting the cave by the beach. Take a guagua here along the coastal highway from Cabrera or Río San Juan.

Playa El Bretón

Set at the base of Cabo Frances Viejo, El Bretón provides the quiet charm and isolated beauty of a golden-sand tropical beach, this time buffeted by white cliffs that meet the sea. There is a nearby shipwreck and fanciful fish colonies, making it a good spot for snorkeling. The cacophony of fish shacks and car speakers are absent here, the sound of the surf is the only noise around. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vegetarian Options in Santo Domingo

With a diet based heavily on rice and beans, starchy vegetables, salads and fruit, the Dominican Republic can be surprisingly vegetarian-friendly.  However, with the increased usage of processed seasonings, such bouillon cubes (sopita) and chicken-flavored powder seasoning (sazón), to many dishes, vegetarians often have difficulty finding items that do not contain meat products.  Though in many rural areas, it is still common to see women hand-milling homemade seasoning or sazófrom garlic, onions, mild peppers, cilantro, celery, oregano and bitter orange, many households have resorted to these aforementioned store-bought seasonings with animal byproducts to save time.  For the purists out there, here are a few dining options in Santo Domingo that are both delicious and guaranteed to serve only 100% vegetarian dishes.


Crudo is an organic vegetarian restaurant and natural products store. The restaurant prepares salads, juices, and vegetarian dishes, including a reasonably priced plato del día. The store carries natural remedies, vitamins, incense, and aromatherapy oils that waft outside into the street. Dr. Felix F. Casas, doctor of holistic medicine, owns and operates the establishment.
RD$150-250; 152 C/Arzobispo Portes near C/ 19 de Marzo, Colonial Zone; 689-0796; Mon.-Sun. 12pm-7pm

Delicias Integrales at El Instituto de Medicina Inovativa y Bioquímica Funcional

Though the selection is limited at this doctor-owned restaurant, the daily options are always quality. Try the plato del día, which generally comes with brown rice, beans, salad and a side such as vegetarian lasagna or veggie meatballs for RD$140. Beverages are not served save for hot anise tea, but there is a small health food store next door that sells juice and water. If a hint of cinnamon wafts through the air, ask for the delectable cinnamon bread (pan de canela), generally sold out within minutes of leaving the oven. 
RD$140-200; 31 C/ Caonabo between Calles Felix M. del Monte and Leopoldo Navarro, Gazcue, 947-8312; Mon-Fri, lunch only

Ananda Vegetarian Restaurant/Centro Cultural Yoga Devanand

This tucked-away yoga studio and vegetarian eatery offers a large variety for reasonable prices.  Meals are charged per item, so take a minute to check out the options in the buffet line before being shuffled along by the working professional crowd that frequents the spot. Vegan options are available, as well as yoga and vegetarian cooking classes.
RD$100-200; 7 C/ Casimiro de Moya, Gazcue; 628-7153; Open for all meals Mon-Sat until 10pm and Sun until 3pm 


An unlikely spot to find an excellent variety of vegetarian-only options, this Seventh-Day Adventist Church has a cafeteria open to all. There is no sign, so keep a look out for people entering through the glass doors in the middle of the complex. There’s also a health food store on the far right of the church that is open weekdays and on Sundays 9am to 1pm.
RD$80-150; C/Juan Sanchez Ramirez near the corner of Av. Máximo Gomez, in the Adventist
Church complex around the corner from the Supermercado Nacional and across from the Embassy of Haiti; Mon-Fri 8am- 3pm, Sun. 11am-3pm, Closed Sat.

Jardín Verde

This organic Chinese-vegetarian restaurant offers a pleasant patio to sip on inventive Eastern teas infused with tropical fruits and flowers while waiting for one of Chef Suzuki’s meat-free creation such as chontz, a savory rice-based pastry stuffed with Chinese mushrooms and garnished with peanuts. Handmade noodles served with tofu, bok choy, and carrots in a flavorful brown sauce serve as an excellent way follow any of the scrumptious starters, which include fried mushrooms or vegetable eggrolls.
RD$150-300; 18A Salvador Sturla, Naco; 565-2084; Mon.-Sun. 11am-10 pm

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


New Travel Guide Unveils Hidden Hotspots and Provides Cultural Insights of the Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic (Other Places Travel Guide), co-written by Washingtonians Katherine Tuider and Evan Caplan, is available for sale on January 10, 2012.

Taking the visitor beyond well-trodden sunny beaches, this unorthodox guidebook gives visitors the ability to discover the real Dominican Republic. Having spent a combined five years in the country as Peace Corps Volunteers, the authors bring a wealth of knowledge to the book, imbuing the pages with vibrant language that truly brings the country to life. Their relaxed authenticity and unique perspective will inspire wanderlust in any reader.

The first European outpost in the Western Hemisphere, the contemporary Dominican Republic is a proud country with diverse African, European and native roots. Feel pan-Hemispheric fusion like nowhere else while dancing to the beats of merengue and bachata; tasting the pleasing cuisine like hearty stews or fried sweet plantains; and spending time in the vibrant marketplaces full of bright tropical produce and tinctures to ward off the evil eye. The DR also challenges visitors with extraordinary geographic diversity: the picturesque deserts of the South, the pine-covered central mountains, and the idyllic sandy beaches on every coast.

Whether detailing centuries-old colonial ruins, the highest peak in the Caribbean, or hidden surfer’s coves, this guidebook ventures to every corner with insight and wit. Become part of the adventure and discover the rich culture and stunning natural beauty of the Dominican Republic.

Other Places Publishing is an independent book publisher based out of North Carolina.  The company’s signature line is a series of travel guides written by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers with an intimate knowledge of local customs and hidden hot spots. With an Other Places Publishing travel guide in hand, visitors can experience a country like few outsiders have before.

Title: Dominican Republic (Other Places Travel Guide)
Authors: Katherine Tuider and Evan Caplan
Official Publication Date: January 10, 2012
Twitter: @OtherPlacesDR

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dominican Republic (Other Places Travel Guide) Available Jan 10, 2012

Commonly seen, but hardly known: this is the dichotomy of visiting the Dominican Republic. Travelers flock by the millions to enjoy its sunny beaches graced with palm trees and endless glasses of cuba libre. Yet few venture beyond the pristine confines of internationally-run resorts.  Discover the unknown Dominican Republic as our writers introduce you to the Old World's first outpost in the New World.

Today, Dominicans are a modern mélange of African, European and Taino roots, mixing and matching the traditional and the contemporary to create a heady blend.  Experience pan-Hemispheric fusion as you listen to the up-tempo beats of merengue and bachata, and sample pleasing Dominican fare like rice and beans and fried sweet plantains.

The Dominican Republic challenges the visitor with extraordinary geographic diversity: the picturesque deserts of the Southwest, pine-covered central mountains, lush tropical forests and idyllic beaches on every coast.  Whether you come to explore centuries-old colonial ruins, climb the highest peak in the Caribbean, or find a surfer’s paradise, there is surely something to suit every interest.  Be part of the adventure as we show you the rich culture and stunning natural beauty of the real Dominican Republic.