Ask most Americans if they’ve ever been to the Dominican Republic, and they’ll more than likely say they had one of the best week-long vacations of their life at a lavish, all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana. Hey, to each their own—but if that’s all you limit your trip to, I can honestly guarantee you’ll sorely miss out on experiencing the vibrant life and unparalleled beauty of the island. And when it comes to beauty, the true essence of it lies in the paradise of its stunningly unreal beaches elsewhere.
In case you haven’t already read my previous DR Diaries, Part I, I decided somewhat on a whim to venture down to the Dominican Republic last month to visit my dearest college freshman roommate, Marly. She had a surprise adventure planned for us that upcoming weekend but refused to tell me where, much to my unbearable curiosity, but her lovely roommate ended up inadvertently blowing the surprise for me. (Gracias, Heather!) So that was when I discovered we were bound for the eternally sun-kissed shores of Playa Dominicus!
To get there from Santo Domingo, Marly was set on taking the cheapest route possible, which meant roughing it on the local guaguas (public buses and minivans). The spoiled first-world American in me initially balked at the idea (What, no A/C?! Cramming five people into a three-person space? The possibility of chickens riding with us? And oh, the horror, I can’t bring my roller suitcase?! Hell no!) but I knew that if I truly aspire to be an open-minded learner and traveler, I must seek to better understand and experience the local way of life.
We boarded our first guagua heading east toward La Romana in Parque Enriquillo, Santo Domingo’s jam-packed and often disorganized bus connection area, for less than $2.50. My first taste of the guagua experience was a rather unpleasant one as a baby (who nonetheless was super adorable) diagonally across from me ended up both vomiting and sh!tting his diaper! That foul combination of smells relentlessly tortured all of our nostrils for the next 2 hours and threatened to violently upchuck breakfast. Thankfully, I had one of those Korean-style face masks to somewhat keep the revolting stomach at bay but boy, was I ready to kiss the very ground in relief once we finally got off and took a breath of fresh air!
Tourists typically don’t venture out to La Romana unless if they’re staying at one of its luxurious five-star resorts like Casa de Campo but the small city nostalgically brought me back to some of the lively Peruvian towns I had visited during my study abroad. Once we got on our second guagua bound for Playa Dominicus, I then understood why bringing a suitcase would have been impossible—we were packed 23 people into an old, beat-up 12-passenger van! (Don’t ask me how, I still don’t know…) Thankfully, this ride was only 30 minutes and sans any pooping babies so it was more than tolerable.
Honestly, I can see myself retiring out as a beach bum in a place like Playa Dominicus—it’s such a beautiful gem of a beach town! It’s certainly more touristy than the capital, thanks to the increasing number of resort developments along its pristine shores, yet nonetheless still has preserved at heart its sleepy, laid-back village vibe.
Our bargain Airbnb cost $50 for a modest, yet cozy room set in a charming Italian-style villa with a tropical garden. And our welcoming host, Marilena, was very much Italian! Interestingly, the beach town is home to a tight-knit, multi-generational Italian community that is slowly growing. If you end up staying with Marilena, she’d be more than happy to give you a walking tour of the area and introduce you to all her friends and family. The housekeeper, Chiquita, is one of the sweetest ladies you’ll ever meet and she made us feel right at home.
As much as I loved the villa, I was sadly eaten alive by mosquitoes (and still bear the scars from all their bloodsucking nearly a month later) and also had a few nasty run-ins with a family of cockroaches in the shower (yes, I screamed bloody hell like no other)! So truthfully, I’d be hesitant to stay here again solely for that reason. And just like the good, ol’ college days, Marly would sigh with exasperation at my girlish, whimpering mess as she fearlessly came to my rescue (I swear, she’s Wonder Woman in every way!).
After all, it takes one special and strong lady to be able to brave the endless unknown of the ocean and swim its open waters, which happens to be Marly’s newest favorite hobby. I’m not gonna lie—seeing her swim off like that stresses me out greatly! Meanwhile, I tried my best not to imagine any worst-case scenarios as I waited for her, lounging on the beach like the lazy, old fart I am. The stretch of beach here is perfect for walking, especially toward the pier where you can take photos galore.
For dinner we enjoyed freshly grilled pescado a la plancha and roasted vegetables at La Cueva, a lovely Italian restaurant with an open-air kitchen that also happens to be owned by Marilena’s brother. This place was definitely the priciest I’ve been to on my entire trip, with our dishes costing between RD $700-900 ($15-18 USD), but it’s nice to indulge and splurge once in a while! Since we didn’t want the night to end just yet, we walked a little ways down the street to La Terracita, the most amazing bar ever that even had a live local band playing a variety of music styles!
The next morning was when our real adventure began—a day trip to paradise on the one-and-only Isla Saona! If you really want to experience the best of DR’s beaches, forget Punta Cana altogether and head to Saona—I promise you won’t regret it. (FYI: Other top beach destinations include Las Terrenas and Samaná to the north of the island.)
Since we loved La Terracita so much, we decided to head back there for some much-needed coffee and fruit smoothies before meeting up with Heather and her boyfriend, Alex in Bayahibe only 15 minutes away, where all the boats dock and leave for Isla Saona. Be sure to arrive at the bay no later than 9 a.m. to secure your spot with a tour operator (ours was around $25-30 per person; cash only), of which there are plenty and all being comparable in terms of price and service. Our excursion left at around 9:30 and took us to a catamaran a little ways out from the bay, which is basically a giant booze cruise party that moves at a snail pace toward the island while blasting music and handing out unlimited rum and coke to all the passengers (yes, you can very easily get drunk here if that’s your goal). They even pass around a bottle of mamajuana—a mysterious concoction of rum, red wine and herbs that’s touted as Dominican Viagra, if you know what I mean. In between sunbathing breaks, the tour crew got everyone hyped up and dancing salsa, bachata, merengue and reggaetón for the next 2.5 hours (I pretty much watched the entire time and dozed off in the sun). Honestly, I’ll never get tired of watching Dominicans dance—they all move so effortlessly and beautifully and really know how to get down! The excursion was a nice mix of locals and tourists, with lots from Europe and other Latin American countries, and everyone was incredibly chill. Oh, and don’t make the same mistake I did and forget to religiously slather on that sunscreen! The Dominican sun is very harsh, and I guarantee you will get burned if you’re even the slightest bit pale.
So a little bit of history—the already inhabited and thriving island was discovered by Christopher Columbus and an Italian companion from the Savona region in Italy on his second voyage. Columbus named the island “Savona” in honor of the Italian voyager but it was difficult for the native Taíno to pronounce, hence the new name “Saona.” Today, the island remains a government-protected nature reserve that doesn’t allow overnight stays (unless if you’re one of the 300 locals living in the island’s Mano Juan village).
As we docked at the island, I felt like we had truly arrived at heaven on earth amidst the pristine white-sand beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters. The beauty was simply unreal and indescribable, and not even the most professional of photos can do it justice. I’ll dare even say it—Isla Saona tops the waters of the coral reefs and sandbars along Cozumel, Mexico!
All of the excursions group together to offer a buffet-style Dominican lunch and open bar, which is included in the price. The hardworking Dominican crew somehow managed to feed the hundreds of tourists congregating on the island, and that alone deserves a generous tip at the end of the tour. We had a few hours to swim, sunbathe and tirar muchas fotos along the beach before we got back on a motorboat heading to our last stop, La Piscina Natural (“Natural Pool”)—a large, picturesque sandbank that’s home to a variety of fish and bird species. Here, the boats docked and kept the booze and blaring party music going as we swam in the tranquil, waist-high waters that seemed to reflect the very sky. At this point, I knew I was starting to sunburn to the point of no return but f*ck it, I wasn’t about to sit in the shade of the boat and let everyone have all the fun without me! Starfish are also plentiful and sadly, so are the many people picking them up out of the water and passing them around to pose for their next Instagram photo (yes, this can severely harm and even kill the starfish just for your selfie, and the same also goes for stingrays and dolphins).
We arrived back in Bayahibe at around 5:30 in the afternoon amidst hordes of drunk tourists docking at the same time, and from there it was another long, tiring journey back to Santo Domingo. My sunburnt tomato face was grateful for the setting sun and I don’t remember ever being so excited for a shower in my life! Too exhausted to do anything else that evening besides Netflix, Delivery RD (Santo Domingo’s version of Grubhub) and nursing our sunburns with some much needed aloe vera, we crashed insanely early for a Saturday night. I dreamt of our unforgettable weekend adventure experiencing the magical paraíso en las playas, and of the day I’d be able to return.
Travel Like a Nomad, Live Like a Local: La vida dominicana
While I was still very much a foreign tourist during my eight days on this enchanting Caribbean island, I also had the opportunity to gain a little bit of insight into the local reality and Dominican way of life through conversations with both Marly, an American expat of two years, and dominicanos from a variety of different backgrounds. Without Marly and all the incredible people I met along the way, I definitely wouldn’t have had the courage to explore as much of the island as I did nor would I have been able to learn from such enriching experiences. Dominicans are widely known for their generosity, hospitality and strong family loyalty, values deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of a country that has seen a rare mezcla of races, backgrounds and belief systems throughout its tumultuous history. I was often stunned and truly humbled by how Dominicans are so willing to help even a foreign (and often helplessly lost) stranger, whether it be giving directions or offering recommendations on where to go. Many locals are also eager to befriend tourists and will often invite you to join them for a meal or night out, which is hands down the best way to get a taste of the local culture! This is why knowing (or at least making an effort to learn) some Spanish will go a long way.
It’s also important to remember that while the DR is a tourist-friendly vacation spot overall, it’s still a poor, developing country with nearly 40% of the population living in poverty. The island’s history has struggled through brutal European conquest, violent dictatorships and foreign occupation (including under the United States in the early 20th century). As a result, Dominican society is highly class-conscious and hierarchical with limited social mobility, often based on race and skin color. This is why so many boys look to professional baseball (instead of school) as their ticket out of poverty, and why so many young Dominicans dream of moving to the U.S. for a better opportunity. The country also continues to face class, race and political tensions with neighboring Haiti, which tragically affect many Haitian immigrant families who’ve made their new abode just across the border (you may very likely hear the mix of Haitian Creole with Spanish as you travel throughout the island). While as a tourist you may not be able to do much about the situation, it’s always a good idea to remain respectful and willing to listen so you avoid making any ignorant, insensitive comments.
Another thing to keep in mind is travel-savvy safety, which goes for anywhere in the world. Armed robbery in Santo Domingo and the surrounding cities is not uncommon and while I personally didn’t encounter any mishaps during my trip, I still highly suggest that you take every measure possible not to draw unnecessary attention to yourself, especially at night. That means absolutely no flaunting your jewelry, designer bags, cameras and cell phones! The reason why I don’t have as many photos as I’d have normally liked is because there was no reason to be carelessly flashing an iPhone 7 around in Santo Domingo. Also, unless if you’re with a local, speak Spanish and/or have traveled throughout Latin America, I’d definitely advise against riding the guaguas, which you should 100% avoid at night under any circumstance. And unfortunately, machismo is still prevalent in Dominican society and even extends toward female travelers; however, I must say that I was only treated with kindness and respect from the men I’ve met here (although fair warning, some of them can be relentlessly flirtatious! *eye roll*).
And last but not least, Dominican Spanish almost seems to be its own language entirely! I truly thought I was fluent in Spanish at one point in my life, but then I came here and struggled so much to understand what people were even saying (hence so many blank, idiotic stares on my part). Dominicans speak so fast and are notorious for dropping entire sounds from the word (RIP to the letters s and d)! Take this example: “Cómo está tu hermano, ya está casado?” (How’s your brother, is he married now?) would be spoken by a Dominican like “Cómo ‘tá tu ‘mano, ya ‘tá casao?” at triple the speed. Crazy, right?! But Dominicans are more than willing to slow down and repeat themselves if you’re having difficulty understanding, and with time you’ll eventually get used to the accent to the point where you even adopt it as your own, like Marly has! It was always heartbreaking to hear so many Dominicans say they hate their accent when I truly believe it’s a unique testament to the culture’s resiliency and remarkable adaptability.
Now for all you Spanish speakers out there, you very well know that each country proudly touts its own slang and idiosyncrasies, and the DR is certainly no exception! Due to its brief period under U.S. occupation, Dominican Spanish also even incorporates a few English influences, often in the most hilarious way. So, want to learn how to speak like a true dominicano? Learn these basic slang essentials and you’ll be golden:
- Bomba – Gas station
- Chillaxing – Lazily relaxing
- Chin – A little bit more (“Un chin de ron, por favor!”)
- Chulo – Used to describe something awesome or cool
- Colmado – Small neighborhood convenience store
- Dímelo / Qué lo qué? – A casual form of greeting like “hey, what’s up?”
- Mano/a – Brother / sister (short for hermano/a)
- Pa’ – The preposition “for” (short for para i.e. “pa’ que”; “pa’lante”)
- Tapón – Heavy traffic (Santo Domingo’s horrendous standstill traffic makes even NYC and Chicago rush hour look like a walk in the park!)
- Tíguere – Male street hustler
- Tranqui – Calm (short for tranquila)
- Vaina – Slang for “stuff” or “that thingy,” used to refer to something negative that’s often crap or complete sh!t
…And my own personal favorite—safacón (not basura) is used to say trash can in the DR! The botched pronunciation comes from the English term safety can, which is beyond random but hey, it’s such an entertaining word!
So I’ll begrudgingly admit that for the last two days of my trip, I headed solo to Punta Cana where I reveled in all my basic American tourist glory (but also kinda out of necessity since I was flying out of PUJ). I stayed at The Level at Meliá Caribe Tropical, a newly renovated all-inclusive beachfront resort that also includes an Adults Only section, since they had an online promotion for 30% off. Yes, this was my first time ever staying at an all-inclusive resort in my entire life and yes, I was completely alone! (I’m lame beyond repair, I know…) While I probably wouldn’t stay at a resort like that by myself again (I’d instead opt for an Airbnb or a boutique hotel), it was still a relaxing and enjoyable experience with some long-neglected, genuine “me” time (#treatyoself, girl!).
The most economical way to get to Punta Cana from Santo Domingo is via Expreso Bávaro, a large, comfortable megabus that departs every two hours throughout the day. Definitely plan on arriving at the station at least an hour early since the morning times sell out quickly and you can’t buy tickets in advance. The bus makes several scheduled stops along the way and if you ask nicely, the driver may even drop you off right in front of your resort. I made sure to take full advantage of the entire 3.5-hour bus ride and sleep off all that rum and salsa dancing from last night!
I was shocked at how unbelievably huge Meliá is—the property boasts 13 on-site restaurants, 10 outdoor pools (including two swim-up bars), a casino, show theater, full-service spa and gym, and countless other amenities. It’s so big that the resort even has dedicated golf carts and SUVs to shuttle The Level guests around, plus a tram circulating the entire grounds. But it’s the personalized above-and-beyond service from the hardworking staff that truly makes The Level a five-star resort—from the moment I arrived at the express check-in, I felt treated like a VIP! Oh, are you also a hopelessly terrible packer like me and got a big-ass suitcase to lug around? No problem, they take your luggage at the gate and have their porter service deliver it all the way up to your room. The front desk even assigned me to my own personal concierge, Pedro, who gave me a brief tour of The Level area before escorting me to my suite! All The Level rooms are clustered and housed in a two-story Spanish colonial-style villa, and I got lost so many times trying to get back to my room since there were so many similar-looking pathways and I could never remember my room number for the life of me.
For the most part, I honestly didn’t do much other than eat my full three square meals (which was way more than enough for me but I can’t let that all-inclusive price go to waste!) and lounge on the beach with an engrossing novel and tropical drink in hand. The resort offers free daily activities and excursions for guests like snorkeling, zumba, morning paddleboard yoga and a mamajuana making class, but I felt too self-conscious and shy to go alone. Essentially, there’s always plenty to do to keep you entertained and busy for at least a week without ever even having to leave the property. The only downside is that there’s not much in terms of nightlife, and you’ll have to venture outside of the resort if you’re looking to party all night. I also highly recommend you sign up for Meliá’s free rewards program when you book, which can get you up to $500 in resort credit! I’d have loved to use my credit to rent one of their beach cabanas for the day (a freaking $100 value!) but alas, they were sold out on both days. Anyways, their free beach lounge chairs and towel service were more than enough for a perfectly relaxing day. Since May is low season in the DR, the resort was probably at less than half-capacity—otherwise, it gets crazy jam-packed during Christmas and Spring Break when the weather is sunnier and much less humid. It was cloudy and rained the two days I was there but I honestly could’ve cared less since I got more than enough sun over the past weekend (and my face and shoulders had the wounds to prove it)!
As for the food, it was still your standard, mediocre resort fare but actually better than what I had underwhelmingly expected. The Level Adults Only section has its own exclusive mega-restaurant, Cuatro, consisting of four options to choose from with complete gluttony—an American-style buffet, Italian, Peruvian fusion and a steakhouse (mind you, there’s also the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet plus 12 other restaurants on the property). My favorite meal there by far was dinner at the open-air steakhouse—not only did they have a surprisingly robust selection of fish and steak cuts with unlimited sides, it’s also the only restaurant in the resort that’s right next to the beach. Their house champagne was fairly decent and my go-to drink of choice, and Pedro even had a bottle delivered up to my room!
Now, for the unnecessarily hot topic of tipping at an all-inclusive. Many tourists think that if the all-inclusive price tag truly means everything included, then it should also cover any tips and gratuities for services rendered during your stay. After all, they still have to do their job anyways, right? In my humble opinion, however, I have to highly disagree. Despite their skills and English capabilities, the average pay for resort workers in the DR is low—around only RD $5,000 a month, which is roughly equivalent to just $9 USD a day to support themselves and their families. Most foreigners will never see the Punta Cana outside of their luxurious resort accommodations but I bet if they did, they’d probably think twice before getting up and leaving their dirty table without a bill to spare; even a single U.S. dollar is significant. At Meliá, every single staff I encountered worked very hard to ensure I had an amazing stay, so a small tip is the best way to show my appreciation and gratitude. I’m not here to get on some imaginary high horse and lecture on how much you should tip since that’ll vary for each person and their personal budget, but here’s roughly what I tried to give: $2 for the porter; $3 per day for housekeeping; $3 for breakfast and lunch; $5 for dinner; $1 for each golf cart ride; and $5-8 up front for pool and beachside service throughout the whole day. But the best way to truly connect with and befriend the staff is by speaking Spanish—they’ll likely invite you to go out drinking with them once they get off work!
I’m not gonna lie, vacationing solo at a resort (unless if you stay at one that offers packages geared specifically toward single travelers) definitely takes major guts. Nearly everyone else there were honeymooners and couples head-over-heels obsessed with each other, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only guest by myself. Of course, all of the waiters would express shock at the fact that I was alone, and then teasingly cajole me into letting them be my novio for the day (but seriously, all of them were funny, attentive and more than wonderful!). There were also brief moments of discomfort when I could feel the curious and likely pitiful glances from other vacationers as I sat and ate alone—what’s a young girl doing here all by herself? Does she not have any friends? Did she get stood up at the altar or something? Oh poor thing, how awful… But soon enough, I eventually decided not to care what other people may think, since I had just as much of a right to embrace myself with self-love in paradise without needing anyone else to validate my happiness. And sometimes it’s nice to be alone in silence for once and escape from the demands of everyday life, surrounded only by my deepest of thoughts, reflections and dreams. Yes, I was made painfully aware of just how alone I am in this world but at the same time, it was a refreshing and liberating experience that gave me much joy and hope for the future. Would I go solo at an all-inclusive, tourist-trap resort again? Probably not, unless if I had a midlife crisis and found myself hopelessly single AF at 35 (which will likely end up happening, tbh). But would I be perfectly disposed to travel the world and learn from such enriching life experiences without anyone by my side? Abso-fucking-lutely.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for taking the time to read my DR Diaries! I sincerely hope you found them at least somewhat interesting and helpful, and that perhaps you’re even more inspired to travel to la República Dominicana yourself now! And as always, please let me know of any questions, comments and feedback below ↓
Con mucho amor,
(¸.•´ (¸.•´ .•´ ¸¸.•¨¯`•.♥ Chris
Next stop? → Miami!