December 26, 2018: Puerto Plata
My friend Melvin picked me up at my Jarabacoa hostel. It was difficult saying goodbye to the hosts- my new Dominican family. But my trip was short and I had more sights to see.
We drove for nearly 2 1/2 hours towards the north coast of the country. A few miles outside of the city, we stopped for some delicious grilled fish.
In town, we hit some heavy traffic but eventually made it to my guesthouse, situated in a residential neighborhood a mile west of downtown. After checking in, Melvin dropped me off at Puerto Plata’s main attraction, the Teleferico or cable car. After paying the $10 admission fee, I discovered that a lot of other tourists wanted to come here too. In fact, I saw more tourists in this line than the entire rest of the trip combined. I stood next to a family from Sweden. As I got into the line, it started to rain. Knowing that this is the Caribbean, I did not worry because these storms only last a few minutes. Sure enough, when I reach the end of the line an hour later, it was perfectly clear!!
The ride to the top of Monte Isabella took just 7 minutes. We soared over the jungle canopy.
At the top 793 meters (2,600 ft) up, I was treated with an incredible view of the town of Puerto Plata and the north coast of Hispaniola.
In addition to the view, there was a nice botanical garden and a small replica of Christ the Redeemer.
Back at the bottom, I took an Uber into the town of Puerto Plata itself. The driver dropped me off at the Fortazela de San Felipe, an Spanish fortress from the 1500’s. The fort’s English audio guide gave me a background info the city’s incredible history.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus himself named the spot Puerto Plata on his second voyage to the New World. There are numerous myths why but the most prevalent is that the reflection of the sun off the water reminded him of silver. Nine years later, the Spanish would establish a permanent settlement. The town is so old that the city’s crest bears the initials of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
The Spanish weren’t the only ones searching for riches in the new world. Pirates were also around. Due to the high taxes levied by the Spanish, the people and government of Puerto Plata did the vast majority of their trading with pirates. This angered the Spanish crown so much that the town was destroyed and abandoned in 1605 The fort was the only thing that remained.
134 years later, the Spanish would return- reestablishing the town of Puerto Plata in 1739 due to its status as the best deepwater harbor on the north coast of the island. The town once again prospered until a devastating fire in 1863. The town would rebuild.
In the 1950s-70s, Puerto Plata became the hot resort destination in the Dominican Republic. The rich and famous would vacation here. But in the 1980’s the government reallocated its resources into creating Punta Cana. Rather than put the resorts near a series of busy towns, the government and developers created a resort district in what was previously completely undeveloped. That way, tourists would be kept away from the locals, which would increase the perceived safety of the area give resort developers more room to work with. The plan worked and tourism to the DR drastically increased. Today, the DR is the 4th most visited country for Americans buoyed by Punta Cana. The downside is that Puerto Plata, once the shining star, got left in the dust. There are still many resorts here but they are neither as nice nor as popular as the Punta Cana ones.
In 2015, Puerto Plata opened a cruise terminal that the cruise companies call Amber Cove. This brings thousands of tourists and their dollars to the town but not actually into town because the cruise port is 3 miles out of town and is sealed from the rest of the country by an imposing steer barrier. While much of the development has been poured into the fake cruise village, the historic downtown is starting to see a revitalization. Even though this town has had its many downs, it has somehow managed to reinvent itself.
Despite ALL that history, the fort wasn’t all that interesting.
I spent approximately 15 minutes there before strolling through the downtown which is amidst a revitalization. The town has a lot of potential because there are so many old wooden buildings, but at the moment there isn’t much to see.
From the downtown, I strolled along the Malecon- Spanish for seawall. Many Latin American towns have a Malecon including the capital of Santo Domingo. Like Santo Domingo’s the walkway wasn’t in great shape. The cement itself was fine and there were trees but it could be so so much more.
Just past a disgusting trash-filled beach, I ran into my college friend David! David was traveling around the DR with his girlfriend. We coordinated our itineraries so that we would meet up in Puerto Plata. However, we did not know that we would find each other on the Malecon. We walked around and sipped some Brugal rum that he purchased on his factory tour earlier in the day. He lamented that this town was not as nice as advertised. I felt bad for steering him to this rougher destination on what was supposed to be a romantic trip for the two of them.
Back at the guesthouse, I chatted with the unusual owner Diana: a red headed lady from Switzerland. I really enjoy talking to expats because they have a unique perspective on the local culture that locals cannot understand. Diana wanted a change in her life as a primary school teacher in Switzerland. Her son’s friend was a windsurfer and regularly visited the nearby town of Cabarete, a world-class windsurfing destination. After vacationing there a few times, she discovered that the building that is now the guesthouse was for sale. She purchased it and spent two years fixing it up. During that time, she learned Spanish by obtaining a degree in land surveying from a college in Santiago.
Eventually, she moved in and became the only female taxi driver out of the 300 in Puerto Plata. On cruise days, she waits for up to six hours to pick up passengers and then shows them around town for vastly inflated prices. For example a city tour is nearly $70 USD. Ubering or taking a normal taxi to the same places would cost $10. Prices are fixed so that all cruise passengers get screwed over by the same amount. With the taxi money and the income from the guesthouse, she has really created a nice life for herself. I truly have the utmost respect for her and what she has done.
David, his girlfriend and I headed to Puerto Plata’s nicest restaurant: Mares. The restaurant is situated in the home/compound of the owner/chef: Rafael. Lonely Planet claims that he was on Top Chef although I haven’t found any proof. Proof or not, the food was delicious. He can really cook and was an extremely friendly guy. Our table was situated next to his beautiful pool and garden. We all agreed that this meal was special and the highlight of our stay in Puerto Plata.
December 27, 2018: The 27 Waterfalls
Melvin picked us up in a large pickup at 8:30 am to take us to the nearby 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua. Lonely Planet said this was “the coolest thing to do in the Dominican Republic”. With high expectations, we drove the 45 minutes inland to an unmarked dirt road. At the end of the road we reached the fancy visitor center. Tickets are $12/person but cruise companies charge $80-100/person to take you there.
The four of us (Melvin went too) got our helmets and life jackets. After a 15 minute wait, we were placed into a group of about 30 people and started hiking through the jungle.
The hike took nearly an hour and I was nervous that it would take a while to wait for everyone at the top of each waterfall. My fears quickly disappeared when we jumped off the first waterfall- 5 foot test. The guides nearly pushed us off the falls in rapid succession. They were so aggressive that people couldn’t hesitate at the top. With little explanation, we forded our way down the steep jungles canyon. When we reached waterfalls, we would jump over them into the pools below. Sometimes, we would reach natural water slides.
As we reached the lower reaches of the canyon, the jumps got higher and the walls narrowed. Our tallest jump was about 25 feet. Sometimes we would swim through slot canyons. The whole atmosphere was surreal and beyond the expectations.
At the end, everyone agreed that Damajagua was a unique adventure. I think it was my favorite activity of the entire trip.
While I enjoyed Puerto Plata and especially Damajagua, it is clearly not for everyone. While all the accommodations and activities worked out perfectly for me, the city center lacked the quality hotels that David and his girlfriend wanted. I feel partially to blame for steering him to fit my itinerary perhaps at the cost of theirs. Staying at a nearby beach resort would have made things better for them.
Therefore, I would caution others to thoroughly research this destination before booking a trip. There are plenty of destination-worthy spots elsewhere on the North Coast such as the world-famous Cabarete.
My big takeaway from Puerto Plata is that large cruises are not a good way to see the Caribbean. It was crazy to see how the town puts up this huge façade to suck money out of tourists’ pockets. The cruises land in a fake town with fake historic buildings. Taxis can take you out of the fake town for vastly inflated prices. For the tourists that manage to reach the real town, they will find that restaurants create special cruise passenger menus. Instead of local food, the menus serve American food at double the standard prices. While a large cruise ship is an efficient way to check off islands, you won’t see the real thing. The locals view these cruise passengers as dollar signs in a way they do not view other visitors. Visiting the town and staying there will completely change the experience.