December 24, 2018: The Mountainous Heart of Hispaniola
At 8am on December 24, 2018, I headed over to the Caribe Tours bus station in Santo Domingo, capital and largest city of the Dominican Republic. There I purchased a bus ticket to the city of La Vega in the interior of the island (there are direct buses to Jarabacoa but they run less often). My timing was impeccable because the bus left just two minutes minutes after I got on.
While the seats were comfortable, the bus was unbelievably cold. For a country where the average temperature is something like 80 degrees, I don’t understand why the bus is 55 degrees. There actually is local saying that the coldest place in the DR is a Caribe Tours bus. Luckily I was prepared and brought a jacket for the occasion. The bus had TVs and they played a dubbed version of the show Narcos. I slept through almost the entirety of the 90 minute ride.
In La Vega was met by Melvin, the cousin of my family friend Carmen. We got in his pickup truck and took off for Jarabacoa. The 45 minute ride involved a lot of climbing. We kept going up and up. Eventually we reached the town and my hostel. I checked in and said goodbye to Melvin for the next 2 days.
The hostel owner Guillermo and his brother were extremely nice. They arranged for me to take a motorcycle tour of the nearby waterfalls with a guide. The guide didn’t speak English but his Spanish was slow enough that I could understand nearly every word. We rode through the countryside and he pointed out the various crops that were growing and their use. Many of the fruits are exported abroad.
We then reached a bar with people drinking and music playing. There we purchased a 100 peso admission ticket to the nearby waterfall. The price included a bottle of water which I should have seen as a warning sign. The trail went straight downhill for about 25 minutes. At the bottom of this steep canyon we reached the beautiful 180 ft tall Salto Jimenoa 1. This is the largest waterfall in the area and was reportedly featured in Jurassic Park after the filming in Hawaii was interrupted by a hurricane.
We then went to another waterfall called Salto Baiguate. Again I was the only person here.
Finally we went to the confidence of two major rivers: the Rio Yaque Del Norte and the Jimenoa. Here we ran into a group of kids on horseback. They tried to sell me a tour but I declined because I was with my guide. We hung out by the river.
Back in town I saw a mural of Albert Pujols wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey and had to take a picture with it. On the way back, I ran into 3 German guys who invited me to get some beers. They rented a car and were driving around which was important for them because the buses all go through Santo Domingo and they didn’t want to have to go back between each destination.
Back at the hostel, I got invited to a Christmas dinner with the hostel owner, his wife and his brother. That dinner started around 9:30. We were joined by the other guests, a family from Russia and a local Catholic missionary on vacation. Guillermo and wife Elvira said that their children live in other cities and so they were so honored that we could be here with them.
We tried special Christmas foods: roasted pig, a mash of unripe banana and meat, grapes, apples and salad. Then we stared to chat, although we were occasionally interrupted by his wife playing Feliz Navidad on her phone speakers. We talked about how somehow, a group from all over the world was able to come together here in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic and sit together. Guillermo noted that we should all look instead at what unites us rather than what divides us because we are all humans.
Guillermo said that governments and organizations exploit our differences to gain power. Celebrating our similarities rather than our differences, like what we were doing at this international Christmas dinner, would counteract these power grabs and would ultimately end war and violence. We chatted for nearly 2 1/2 hours before heading to bed.
December 25, 2018: Rafting on Christmas Day
The next day I went river rafting. The trip left from a resort 45 minutes by foot from my hostel. After checking in, I was treated to a breakfast buffet while the 20-ish other guests arrived.Then got out helmets and life jackets and loaded into the back of a truck around 10:30am.
We drove for about 25 minutes to the Rio Yaque Del Norte. Along the way I met a Dominican family living in the US. They are back for a vacation and chose to visit Jarabacoa for the weather and the rural atmosphere and the beauty.
Each boat had 4-6 passengers. I got paired with a different family living in Fort Lauderdale. The mom was from Jarabacoa, the dad was from Ecuador but likes the DR more. They also had a son in college. The four of us braved the Class III rapids of the only whitewater rafting in all of the Caribbean.
The directions were given by our guide in Spanish. Even though I understood what they were saying, the most would scream the directions each time in English for my benefit.
The rapids all had fantastic names including Monica Lewinsky, The Graveyard and The Toilet. The craziest rapid was called Mike Tyson and featured a 6 foot waterfall that we went over. The trip was really a great thrill and was one of my favorite activities I did in the country.
The family gave me a ride back into town in their car before asking me if I could join them at dinner. They told me they had a reservation at the best restaurant in town. Obviously I said yes. We agreed to meet up at 6.
Before dinner, I called up the motorcycle guide from yesterday. He took me on his motorcycle to the outskirts of town and we went on a hike in the mountains. The hike was brutal but it felt good to be in the jungle. At the end we were rewarded with a nice view of the city.
At a Dominican 6pm (6:20), the family picked me up and we went to Aroma de la Montañas. This beautiful restaurant overlooks the town from 1000 feet up. It also is a revolving restaurant. The main dining room rotated around every hour. You can’t feel the rotation when dining but you can see it happen by looking down.
Besides the novelty of the rotation, the food was pretty spectacular. I ordered squash soup and steak topped with melted cheese and bacon.
I headed back to the hostel to prepare for my trip to Puerto Plata.
Back at the hostel, I reminisced on my 2 days here. It felt like I was here a lot longer- more like 4 or 5 days. I also really felt a connection to the town and the people. Everyone was so friendly. I loved the rural mountainous environment and the fact that I still haven’t seen a American tourist of non-Dominican descent in this country. The lack of foreign tourism also added to my enjoyment of this place. Tourism was obviously here but it was geared towards Dominicans and was very low-key. With everything said and done, Jarabacoa was my favorite destination in the Dominican Republic.
If I had an extra day, I would have day tripped to nearby Constanza or with 2-3 more days I would have tried to hike to Pico Duarte, the highest point in the DR.