Article and photos by Ernest Barteldes
When Renata and I decided to book our latest visit to the Dominican Republic we thought about doing things differently – take a break from those all-inclusive resorts but an alternative where we could explore the surrounding and really get into the spirit of the country.
As I searched for places to stay around Puerto Plata, I stumbled into the website for Hotel Costambar, a relatively new place within walking distance to the beach that included a kitchen where we could actually cook our own meals and avoid depending on eating out all the time. I conferred with Renata and she thought it was a good idea, so after researching the neighboring area we went for it.
Shortly after we were about to go, we heard about the crippling rains that had been affecting the north of the country, and we sort of panicked. What is the point of going to The Caribbean if you are going to be stuck inside all the time. I called Delta Airlines and they told me that since there were no advisories I would have to pay $300 each to change dates – nominally more than I had paid in the first place. We decided to bite the bullet and take our chances.
As we have been doing for the last couple of years, we left JFK on Wednesday night towards Santiago Cibao airport – for some reason, airport taxes are way lower there than in the much closer Gregorio Luperon Airport (even if we fly right over it), and after swiftly going through immigration we met our driver.
As we made our way to our destination, I chatted with the driver and learned that he was a Russian immigrant who went there as a tourist and enjoyed himself so much that he and decided to settle there and start his own business. Over the drive, he also told me about some of the cultural differences he had to learn to overcome and how he learned his now-fluent Spanish. It was still raining heavily, and the consequences were quite visible: a whole section of the road had collapsed at one point. There was a lot of flooding everywhere, and I wondered how our stay would be like, since few of the usual activities done there are possible with bad weather.
We arrived at our hotel room at around 2:00 AM and basically collapsed into bed after retrieving the water bottles we’d packed in our luggage and storing them in the fridge. The next morning, we surveyed the apartment, which was small but comfortable – a living room with a 20-inch flat screen TV, a sofa and a coffee table, a small kitchen with a gas stove and electric oven and a full-size fridge and a simple bedroom with a ceiling fan and air conditioning, the latter of which we didn’t even bother to turn on at first since the temperature was a bit low (about 22 C / 71 F) There was a veranda with lounge chairs and a pool in the back, and amenities such as free WI-FI (a rarity in the Dominican Republic) and self-service laundry room- basic comforts for a very affordable price.
Costambar is one of the many beach neighborhoods in Puerto Plata – it is a gated community with very good security but it is not completely isolated – actually downtown Puerto Plata is just about two miles away and within walking distance. The population is a mix of locals and expats who landed here for a reason or another – we chatted with an English retiree who worked for an international company there and then stayed since the cost of living (for someone who gets retirement in British Pounds) is very low. Others, like the owners of our hotel, came to establish businesses.
We woke up late and after drinking a cup of coffee we ventured outside. A tour guide was waiting for us, but we couldn’t make any plans due to the weather. We then walked to the beach where we found a restaurant where we could have some breakfast. Many of the beachfront restaurants were closed, but we were able to find a beach bar called Ton’s, which offered a simple menu of entrees and sandwiches. I settled for eggs, bacon and toast, while Renata went with a ham and cheese sandwich with a side of fries. The food was simple but very tasty, and as we ate we befriended one of the owner’s cats, which stayed with us most of the time and even napped on Renata’s lap!
Cat at Ton’s sleeping on Renata’s lap
After eating we basically hung out there for a while and enjoyed a couple of bottles of Presidente beer, the locally made pilsner. As in Brazil, the bottles are also made in a larger size and served inside an individual cooler. The rain relented enough so we could walk over to the local supermarket for a few supplies and also to exchange our cash to Dominican Pesos.
Ice Cold Presidente
Yenny’s Market is a no-frills but well-stocked food market where you can find all the basics for cooking at home, going from bread, cold cuts and meats. They deliver via phone or the Colmapp (an app available for Apple or Android), but we wanted to check the place for ourselves. We bought some chicken, rice, pasta, salted codfish and spices. Before heading back to our hotel, we made a stop at Pedro’s bar, a small place co-owned by a French-Canadian immigrant and her Dominican husband (a chef whose bar is named after). There we befriended yet another animal – a black stray puppy that was clearly abandoned there – the bar owner told me that many people dump their unwanted pets in the area because they know the residents of Costambar often take care of them – she regularly feeds and cares for the various cats and dogs that come her way – as she did to this one. As the night fell we headed back to our hotel and I cooked some pasta and chicken in tomato sauce. We went to sleep reasonably early after that – we hadn’t yet recovered from the flight and drive.
The next morning the clouds were gone and the sun was out. I made us some breakfast and fed the cat (who we named Domenica). We went to the beach and pretty much enjoyed the sun as much as possible. We took a long walk on the shore and saw the results of the rain – a lot of garbage washed ashore after being carried by a nearby river – clearly things that folks had lost as their homes were flooded. There were pieces of wood, sneakers, old electronics and a whole lot of stuff.
Domenica makes herself comfortable
We made plans to hike the Mount Isabel de Torres trail. We had briefly visited the mount – with a statue of Christ the Redeemer the previous year during a city tour (we had taken the 10-minute cable car ride before). Later, we headed to Pedro’s again for a quick drink. As we walked up the hill, we head a meow behind us. A small female tabby began following us, so we stopped and petted her a little. She kept running behind us until some dogs began barking and she got scared, so she turned back.
As the night fell we headed back to our hotel and I made some bacalao and rice (cooked together in a cast iron pot) and enjoyed some TV as we ate. Shortly after that, we heard a sound of meowing outside our door – I opened and it turned out to be the same kitty that had followed us that afternoon. She immediately walked in and made herself comfortable on the sofa. We had some leftover chicken so I gave her some – she was clearly another unwanted pet someone had dumped there. We let her stay with us for the night, since she was very friendly and calm
The hiking trail
The next morning we ate breakfast, fed Domenica and then took her in my arms to Ton and handed her to the owner – she always needs cats around. She stayed there for a minute but then ran away. I imagined that would be the last time we’d seen her, but as you will see later it turned out not to be true. We then walked to the taxi stand and paid for a round trip to the mount. Once there, we negotiated with a guide to take us up there (he wanted $60, but we haggled it down to $ 40) and we were on our way. Initially it was an easy enough hike as the trail was not too steep but as we made our way it got harder and harder. Much of the trail was very muddy due to the rains and it was difficult at times. The vegetation was beautiful and the views were incredible as we went up At the end of the trail there was a long steep road that seemed to have no end. I went through two bottles of water (Renata barely drank any!). When we reached the last stretch I had almost zero energy – I barely made it to the top.
Puerto Plata down below
When we got to the top, we relaxed at the restaurant and shared a Presidente. Before that, however, I needed to properly rehydrate and I drained a 600 ml bottle of water. After resting a while, we explored the surroundings – a beautiful botanical garden that includes a man-made pool where dozens of fresh water turtles live. There is of course the statue of Christ The Redeemer (a copy of the statue on the top of Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro). It was foggy and cool up there, so there was none of the view we had in 2015.
Statue of Christ The Redeemer shrouded in fog
We became celebrities of sorts while we were there, since the tour guides were telling all the other visitors there that we had walked up the mountain – apparently it is something that few people ever do (even if we did meet two other hikers coming down as we made our final ascent.
After walking around for a while, we took the Teleferico (cable car) down the mountain. At first we were shrouded in fog, but as soon as we cleared it we could see the entire city of Puerto Plata and the sea shore around it.
When we reached the bottom our taxi met us to take us back to Costambar (it is about a 15-minute drive altogether). After resting a bit, we made a last return visit to Yenny’s Market to get a few extra ingredients for dinner – some chorizo, tomatoes and onions so I could make arroz con pollo in the Spanish style.
We also visited Pedro’s and had a few glasses of wine – the dog we’d met a few times was there, so we played with her a bit before heading back to the hotel I made dinner while Renata packed our bags. The quantity I made proved to be a bit too much so we shared our meal with the two security guards on duty that night.
And then the Domenica showed up again. We let her in and fed her some ham we’d bought to make sandwiches for the trip back home. She cozied up on the sofa and stayed with us for the remaining of the night. When our transportation arrived, I eased her down the window (we were on the ground floor) and said a sad goodbye.
During the drive back, the car had a flat tire, and we helped our driver to change the tire quickly so we could make it to the airport on time. The problem was quickly solved and we made it to Cibao Airport with enough time to check in and have a quick cup of coffee before boarding our plane, which was leaving at 7:00 AM.
It was quite a different experience staying at a regular hotel instead of the usual all-inclusive resorts. I am not sure if we did save a lot of money (we are still working on the accounting for the trip) but we had a much freer feel of not being constrained to doing the resort stuff, and we got to chat with the locals more than we’d do otherwise – we are looking forward to doing it again.