by Ernest Barteldes
On our seventh Thanksgiving weekend visit to The Dominican Republic, Renata and I opted to visit Puerto Plata, a city located on the northern coast of the island country – we had been pretty much everywhere on the other side except Punta Cana (hotel prices there are comparably higher, so we have pretty much stayed away from there in spite of all the recommendations that that the area is the place to go).
We booked our trip on Delta Airlines early in July to get the best prices possible, and we also saved a lot by booking the flight to Santiago Airport instead of Puerto Plata because of the incredible price difference – airport tariffs at Puerto Plata make flying to that airport quite prohibitive, making it much cheaper to fly to Santiago and then get car service for the additional 90-minute ride to our resort, which was located just outside of town.
We left on Wednesday night after work – something we began doing on our 2014 visit so that we could optimize our time there – previously we would leave early in the morning on Thanksgiving, but that gave us a mere two and a half days there, while in this case we get three full days to enjoy that beautiful country.
The flight was a bit bumpy during the last hour – the plane hit an air pocket and you could feel it briefly but quickly losing altitude. The movement caused some people to gasp, but that was the only event during those three hours. When we arrived at Santiago, we stood in line at immigration for a few minutes, picked up our checked baggage and headed outside to meet our transportation. We were extremely tired after a day’s work so we mostly dozed off as our van made its way to Puerto Plata – or tried, as the driver told us about the history and topography of the region. Once we reached the resort it was time to crash for a few hours before we could start the new day.
The Puerto Plata region is quite mountainous compared to the flatter southern area – there are several mountain ranges in the area (the country’s tallest mountain, Pico Duarte, is to the south of Santiago). The topography is quite scenic – our resort, the Lifestyle Cofresi, was located on a slope that went from the beach to the top of a small hill with a road that connected to the other parts of the resort complex.
We woke up at around 8:30 AM and surveyed the room. It was quite comfortable and spacious, with a nice balcony with lounge chairs, a flat screen TV and a reasonably soft bed. The resort was part of a large complex with several buffet and a la carte restaurants, so even though we were a bit far from town, I didn’t feel trapped at the resort as I did when we were in La Romana a few years ago. They had shuttle buses that came around the different resorts so everyone could enjoy the whole property with few limitations reserved for members who had bought into the timeshare-like element.
Speaking of that part, right after we finished breakfast we were called into a “tour” of sorts to introduce us to the entire property. Once we reached the main building we were handed a gift bag that consisted of a small bottle of rum and some mamajuana, a local drink that is basically an herbal mix that should be infused with parts of rum, honey and wine to create an elixir of sorts that is believed to have some kind of aphrodisiac.
When we realized that this was another sales pitch (we have been through more than one of these over the years), I politely told the salesman that we really wanted to get to the beach and that we would meet with him at a later time – we were aware of storms coming in, and we wanted to take advantage of the availability of the sun we had for then. We promised to meet him again at a later time – a blatant lie, since we had no interest in it – and bade our farewells.
On the planning stages of our trip we booked a day trip to the city of Puerto Plata, so around 8:30 on Friday morning we were at the door waiting for our transportation. The tour began with a stop at the 800 meter high St. Isabel Mountain, where a smaller replica of Rio’s Christ stands. An Italian-made cable car system built in the late 70s takes visitors to the top of the mountain in about ten minutes, but there is also the option of driving or taking a 3 hour hike.
The ride was quite scenic, but it was a bit marred by a power failure that brought the car to a sudden halt, and with the sudden stop we were left swinging for a minute – a scary part of the journey that will probably be burned into everyone’s memory for as long as we live. Once we were up there, we walked around and snapped photos of the surrounding scenery. A few minutes later, we were back down and driving towards a factory that processed Larimar, a semiprecious stone that (at least according to my research) is only found in the country. We observed how they worked the stone and I bought Renata a small dolphin-shaped pendant made with the stone and high-quality silver also mined from the island.
We made a quick stop at Puerto Plata’s Independence Park (known as Parque Central to locals), a recently restored plaza surrounded by the local cathedral, City Hall and a handful of businesses. At the center of the plaza are statues of the country’s founding fathers and a beautiful gazebo that offers nice views of the surrounding areas – unfortunately it was closed as they were conducting repairs . A cigar factory came next, where we learned about the process of handcrafting quality smokes. I asked the manager if they had a reader at their main facility – something I learned from a book I reviewed years ago – and he confirmed they did.
The next stop was a supermarket – yes, a regular supermarket – where we all loaded up on coffee, rum and locally produced vanilla that was could be had at a fraction of the prices charged at tourist joints. Being one of the few in the group that spoke Spanish, I made myself useful by helping everyone out with their selections of whatever they wanted to buy. The last stop was at the historic San Felipe Fort, a Spanish-built fortification that was a crucial part of the early years of Puerto Plata’s history. On entrance we were handed devices in various languages (I chose Spanish) that described the different rooms we visited and what the exhibits were about, and also the history of the area, going from the mining of gold and precious stones in the early years up to the fort’s dedication as a major tourist attraction.
I must say we were impressed by the resort facility. All the hotels are interconnected and guests have full access to the entire facility. In addition to the usual buffets, there were a number of a la carte restaurants (part of the all-inclusive deal) dedicated to various forms of cuisine. On our second night we visited their Mexican outpost, where we had a sumptuous meal bookended an unhealthy amount of tequila (at least on my part – but aren’t there studies that say tequila makes you lose weight?). On the third, we checked out a place dedicated to seafood where all the wait staff were dressed in sailor outfits. The food there was also great – I thought of a meat-loving friend of ours who would have gone on a beef coma if he had stopped by the Brazilian-style rodizio steakhouse, which obviously we didn’t even bother checking out.
The evening entertainment was superior than most places we’d stayed before. Among the most memorable were the last night, when we attended a major dance show called “Pais Tropical” (Tropical Country) that paid homage to the music of Latin America, including Cuba, Brazil and Colombia and also a DJ from Ibiza that featured a live singer and lots of props, including seven foot tall “robots” and a group of dancers.
We look forward to returning to Puerto Plata again – Renata says she wants to try the hike up the Santa Isabel Mountain the next time we head out there. It would be quite the adventure, and I am certainly up for it. It was a nice trip, and once again we couldn’t get enough of it.