Hear about travel to the Dominican Republic as the Amateur Traveler talks to guidebook author and travel writer Lebawit Lily Girma who is working on the Moon Guide to the Dominican Republic.
Lilly says, “I have traveled the Caribbean a lot over the past 10 years and I think that the Dominican Republic is the most well-rounded destination just because it has a very varied landscape. Whether you are an outdoors person, you are into hiking or into beaches, of course, diving, birding, rivers, waterfalls, the variety is really astounding.”
Lilly recommends you start in the newly renovated Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo. This city dates back to Columbus. “It’s lovely. It almost feels like your in Spain. It has huge plazas, sidewalk cafes, lots of museums. There’s a lot of history there.”
Then she recommends a visit to the uncrowded beaches of the Samana Peninsula. “I would even say that the top 5 beaches for this country are in Samana.” One of the beaches, Playa el Valle, Lilly also names as the most beautiful spot in the country. You will also find surprises like Las Terrenas which is filled with French expats.
And then Lilly recommends a trip to Puerto Plata “which has water sports, hiking, adventure. Puerto Plata is one of my favorite regions. It’s very special. The reason is that of all the Dominican Republic’s destinations it is the most varied. For instance here in Puerto Plata City, which is the 4th largest city in the Dominican Republic, there is a little bit of history here. There are a lot of city type conveniences like better restaurants, but at the same time, we have beaches. If I walk about two blocks down I am on the Malecon and they have lots of little restaurants along the Malecon. It’s a great place to walk, jog and you’re right by the sea, very clean beaches. You can swim there. ”
Only 45 minutes from Puerto Plata is the more touristy Cabarete with kite surfing and “excellent restaurants all along the beach. It’s more social. It has a really nice cosmopolitan vibe, lot’s of affordable hotels and guesthouses and a huge nightlife scene. There’s lots of diving nearby, it’s not the best diving in the world. There’s also cave diving here.”
Lily also recommends the Merengue experience at Guananico or the cacao experience at Hacienda Cufa.
Another itinerary could include the Cibao Valley in the central heart of the Dominican Republic. “In my opinion, it is the most stunning part of the country that a lot of people miss. It has mountain ranges. You could actually hike the tallest peak in the Caribbean which is Pico Duarte and then you have Constanza which is the agricultural side of this country. I almost want to say that if you haven’t been to the Cibao region you haven’t been to the Dominican Republic.”
Lily says there is always a bar, there is always a party in the Dominican Republic. Just follow the music, order yourself a Presidente beer and enjoy.
Moon Belize (Lily is the author)
Ciudad Colonial (Santo Domingo)
Nicolás de Ovando
Parque Nacional del Este
Cueva del Puente
Parque Nacional Los Haitises
Alcázar de Colón (House of the Son of Christopher Columbus)
Restaurant Meson De Bari
La Bandera Dominicana (The Dominican Flag) dish
El Cabito guesthouse in Las Galeras, Samaná
Valle Nuevo National Park
Sierra de Bahoruco National Park
The Dominican Republic’s Most Underrated Lanscapes
Adventure on the Coconut Coast
Sorry we forgot to talk about the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in the San Diego episode even though we referred to it twice.
I feel compelled to write you a quick thank you for the podcast. I am 27 and have never taking a vacation outside of North America. I was always planning a trip to Europe, or Asia, or Latin America- somewhere, anywhere! But there always seemed to be a reason not to go. Well to make a long story short I was inspired by you and the many guests on your podcast to finally just do it.
As I write this I am sitting in my rented apartment in Santiago, Chile. I have spent the last few weeks exploring Argentina and Chile and have loved every second of it. While I do look forward to coming back home in a few days, I know that when I get there I will let my mind wander to the next location, and I will undoubtedly continue to use your podcast as inspiration.
Thank you again!
Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 495. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about beaches and Christopher Columbus, merengue and bachata as we go to the Dominican Republic.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen, and now let’s talk about the DR.
I’d like to welcome to the show Lebawit Lily Girma, who is a travel writer, a moon guidebook writer as well, and blogs at sunandstilettos.com and is coming to talk to us about the Dominican Republic. Lily, welcome to the show.
Lily: Thank you, Chris, thanks for having me.
Chris: Is Lily the right thing to call you?
Lily: Yes. That’s the simple version.
Chris: Excellent. And you’re actually calling us from the Dominican Republic?
Lily: I am. I’m actually in Puerto Plata right now, it is where I’m based.
Chris: Excellent. Why should someone come to the Dominican Republic?
Lily: There are a lot of reasons. I think the main one would be that I’ve traveled the Caribbean a lot over the past 10 years, and I think the Dominican Republic is the most well-rounded destination, just because it has very varied landscape. There’s literally something here for everyone, whether you’re an outdoors person into hiking, or into beaches, of course, diving, birding, rivers, waterfalls, the variety is really astounding.
Chris: What kind of itinerary would you recommend for someone coming to the Dominican Republic?
Lily: I would say it depends on your interest, but I think that there are several areas that I think are really key. If you’re going to come all the way to the Dominican Republic and really see the country as opposed to just lounging on the beach, I think it’s very important to see Santo Domingo’s colonial zone. The capital city has an entire area where, I hate to say it, but this is where Christopher Columbus first settled, in the “new world.” The colonial zone has been recently renovated and it’s lovely, it almost feels like you’re in Spain. It has huge plazas, sidewalk cafes, a lot of museums, there’s a lot of history there.
And then I would also recommend that people go to Samaná, the Samaná peninsula which is North East and has uncrowded beaches; I would even say that the top five beaches in this country are in Samaná. And then, Puerto Plata, which has water sports, hiking, adventure; you could probably squeeze all three of these in one week, it may be a little tough but you could. Another itinerary could also include what they call here the Cibao Valley, which is the central, the heart of the Dominican Republic. It is, in my opinion, the most stunning part of the country that a lot of people miss. It has mountain ranges, you can actually hike the tallest peak in the Caribbean, which is Pico Duarte. And then you have Constanza, which is the agricultural side of this country, which is huge. They grow their own food here, which is really unusual for the Caribbean. Everything, from potatoes to rice to cabbage. So you can see all of that first hand and eat fresh organic foods. There’s a lot that people don’t know about the Dominican Republic, I think, beyond the beach.
Chris: So you mentioned in passing, in talking about Santo Domingo, that there is a complicated relationship between the island and Christopher Columbus.
Chris: As I recall, there are monuments on the island that talk about this being one of the places that was central to the discoveries. But on the other hand, there used to be a whole lot of Carib Indians that aren’t there on the island anymore.
Lily: Yes. It’s unfortunate, it wasn’t actually Columbus’s doing, per se, it was sort of more the ones that came after him. It was a governor of Santo Domingo called Nicolas de Ovando and he was the worst of all and he actually set out to exterminate the Taínos and so, basically, the whole Taíno decedents are extinct. You still have signs of them being here, like in the caves you have a lot of drawings and things like that where they used to have ceremonies.
Chris: Where would one see that? If one wanted to get in touch with that, somewhat, darker shade of the history.
Lily: One could go to el Parque Nacional del Este, which is a national park of the East. It’s about a couple of hours from Santo Domingo going East in a tourist area, actually close to a tourist area called Bayahibe, there are some huge caves over there that you can observe first hand, all these drawings. You can also go to Samaná, there’s another park there called Los Haitises, I think that is one of the most unusual parks actually because you have to get there by boat. You can’t get there by land. Once you dock, you can go in and hike through these caves, huge caverns, with different petroglyphs.
Chris: Excellent. Then getting back to Santo Domingo, you mentioned the colonial zone, are there particular things that we should see, sites that we should do ,or things that we should eat in the colonial zone as we are there?
Lily: Yes, absolutely. Colonial zone is one of my favorite areas. In terms of things to see, I think at least one of the museums, a couple of the museums, but one of them used to be the home of Diego Colón, who was the son of Christopher Columbus. It’s this huge palace where he used to live with his wife. It’s been turned it into a museum, you can actually go in there and see all of the period furniture, art and everything, their beds, what they used to do. It’s guided and it also has an audio because the Dominican Republic is a Spanish speaking country. So that could be a challenge is you don’t speak Spanish. But a lot of the museums they have audio so you can follow at your own pace.
Chris: And so that would be dating back to the early 1500s then.
Lily: Yes, it’s really interesting going out of this palace, you can down the street, it’s called Calle de las Damas.
Chris: The street of the women?
Lily: Yes, it is because this is where the Diego Colon’s wife and her ladies used to walk up and down the street. This street is the first paved street in the Americas. So the home of Santo Domingo was modeled after Spain and it was the first place the Spanish sort of built as a model for the rest of the region that they wanted to take over. So you have the first cathedral also. The Colonial zone is a very interesting place, it is right across from a huge park, called Parque Colon, and it is sort of the hub of the Colonial Zone, this is where everybody gathers and hangs out. It’s a great people watching place. When there are serious public holidays, important holidays, the cathedral is where they have mass. And you have officials and you have all sorts of parades. The colonial zone is a must. To enjoy the colonial zone, you should go and eat at Meson D’Bari. Meson D’Bari is very well known, it’s a place that specializes in typical Dominican food with a little bit of a modern twist.
Chris: What is typical Dominican food?
Lily: Actually, the national dish is called la bandera dominicana, that’s the Dominican flag it’s called. It’s a plate of rice and beans similar to other parts of the Caribbean.
Chris: I was going to guess that rice and beans where involved but…
Lily: Yes, with a stew of some kind, whether it’s chicken or beef. And then a side of potato salad or any other kind of salad. The difference is that the Dominican Republic has a lot of different ways of cooking rice. So sometimes it’s rice and beans. Sometimes it’s rice and pigeon peas. All sorts of yellow rice, they do a lot of variations. Other Dominican foods, they love fried foods here, which is good but now good if you live here. They eat a lot of plantains and they love pica pollo they call it, it’s fried chicken, and a lot of Yucca. So all of the food really reflects how diverse this country is. We’ve got like, African, European, Taino, because the Taino used to eat yucca and casada and all of those things. So yeah, it makes it interesting. And then they have sancocho, which is a very cultural thing, it’s a big pot of soup with all kinds of meats; pork, chicken, it’s just like you throw everything in there, vegetables, potatoes, yucca, and it’s supposed to be really good for hangovers. The colonial zone, I think, is a must, and I think a lot of people miss it. But now they have the new highway that links Santo Domingo and Punta Cana, which is where most people go.
Chris: So Punta Cana is where I can find all the all-inclusive resorts, and that sort of thing.
Lily: Yes, Punta Cana is responsible for giving the Dominican Republic its image of being the all-inclusive king. In reality, it is where most people go. They get, like, five million visitors here, a year. I would say about have of those go to Punta Cana, if not more. So it’s what draws people in, the beach. But now they can actually branch out easier because they’ve built all these highways. So doing a day trip to Santo Domingo would be super easy now from Punta Cana.
Chris: Talking about beaches, you were actually heading us to a different Peninsula. You were heading us to Samaná Peninsula, if my notes are correct here.
Lily: Yes, those are some of my favorite beaches, like Las Galeras, which is the eastern most corner of the Samaná Peninsula. It has some beaches that are just unbelievable. Most of them you can actually do on a boat tour. It’s also the Atlantic Ocean over there. It’s cliffs.
Chris: So you’re in the Northern part of the Peninsula?
Lily: Yes, you’re in the northern part and it’s just a whole different landscape, it’s a lot more rustic. It almost looks like the Mediterranean to me. It kind of looks like the coast of Portugal a little bit.
Chris: And is it also resorts? Or is it closer to the locals in the culture?
Lily: You’re saying a lot closer to the locals, yeah. There are a hand-full of all-inclusives but not many as in Punta Cana. In fact, I would say that most of the country does not have a majority of all-inclusives. This is what is so interesting. So you’ll have little guest houses. For instance, there a place called El Carito, and it’s perched on the cliffs. And it has spectacular views of the ocean and it’s in Las Galeras, again, on Samaná Peninsula. It’s close to town as well so it’s a great way to, sort of, be outdoors, and mingle. Go horseback riding, or go hiking, or just go to the village bar and hang out. That’s what is great about Samaná. There’s also another part of Samaná, which is called Las Terrenas. Las Terrenas is a little bit more modern than Las Galeras, it has a huge French expat population there, and they have been there for decades. They have their own cafes, and restaurants. The restaurants are incredible and it’s so affordable. These are all French chefs who basically left France, got tired of the rat race and decided to go to the Dominican Republic and open their down place.
Chris: Well I was wondering when you were in Santo Domingo, you named two different restaurants that were “Mason de” so I was starting to suspect there was some French influence that I was unaware of so…
Lily: Yes, there is. There’s also a huge Italian expat population. Italian, French and yea, so a lot of variety. If you ever get tired of rice and beans, you can go to Samaná and enjoy streak and frits and all these French things. And they also have a [caba?], where you get the French newspapers. All these little French things. It’s really interesting, and gorgeous beaches in Las Terrenas.
Chris: I’m guessing white-sand beaches.
Lily: White-sand, oh my goodness, like really long miles and miles of powdery and almost spongy sand and calm seas, even though it’s the Atlantic.
Lily: So that’s what draws a lot of people there, a lot of independently owned guest houses and hotels. So that part sort of attracts more the adventurous types and independent travelers.
Chris: Excellent, and you talked about going to the local bar and hanging out. Is there something we should know about the Dominican culture before we are hanging out at the bar, things that we should do, shouldn’t do, should try?
Lily: You should know that there is always a bar somewhere and there is always a party somewhere. And all you have to do is follow the music because literally there’s music here almost 24/7. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where people had so much energy. It’s incredible. So yeah, going to the bar, you should know how to order your beer. For the most part they drink Presidente, the Dominican beer. So there’s different sizes of Presidente. So usually you’d say, “una fria,” which is a cold one. Or “grande,” which is the big size. Usually people buy the big one because it’s more economical, you can share with your friends, they give you cups and you share that. Or, of course, the rum, rum is huge here. There are different types of rum, one of the best ones is Brugal Anejo, or Brugal Extra Viejo, which is extra aged rum. It’s really interesting because you don’t go to a bar, I’m talking about local bars here, in the local area, you don’t go there and just order a drink. It doesn’t work like that. You buy your bottle and your mixer. And it’s not necessarily more expensive, it’s actually cheaper.
So let’s say a small bottle of Brugal Anejo would probably be like under $5, along with the mixer and the cups and the ice. So that’s usually how it works. Even if you go to a local club, that’s how it works, you order your bottle, and you guys order your mixers, and you sit in a group. There is no like, ‘Ah, give me a glass of rum and coke.’ That’s usually more in the hotels and restaurants and things like that. So I kind of like that concept and it’s really based on the sharing part of Dominican culture. They share, they’re very family and friends, they do everything together. As a solo traveler, actually, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so, sort of, singled out. Because it really sticks out when you’re by yourself here. Because the Dominicans are super glued together. Super. So if I go to the beach as part of my work, I have to check out these beaches, and I’m there at the beach on my lounge chair by myself.
Chris: It’s a dirty, thank-less job, but somebody has to do it.
Lily: Yes, somebody has to do it. I started counting the beaches I went to last year and it comes to like, 95. It’s kind of insane. Yeah, so I feel like people are staring at me, I’m like ‘what’s going on?’ in the beginning and I realized it’s because it’s so rare for anyone to go to the beach by themselves. It’s very rare.
Chris: I’ll have to say, I’ve seen pictures of you on your website, there might be other reasons they’re staring at you, but let’s…
Lily: You’re too kind.
Chris: One thing you said is in the bar that they’re serving that with ice. Generally, when you’re someplace where you can’t drink the water, you’re not having the ice. Is the Dominican Republic some place where you don’t worry about that?
Lily: Actually, you should worry about it. You should, because I don’t drink tap water. You shouldn’t drink tap water. It’s not like in Jamaica for instance, where you can just, you know… No, here, most people use filtered water or bottled water when they can. Most hotels and most restaurants offer filtered water. If you’re not sure that you should probably not have it, especially if it’s your first time here. It would be fine to have a cold, usually they ice all their drinks. So you wouldn’t need ice. I’ve become immune now because I’ve been here so long.
Chris: I’m just thinking there’s many tourists who’ve been caught by that.
Lily: You’re right, yes, you’re right. I haven’t really encountered any but I know that in my first visits to the Dominican Republic, at least the first one a few years ago, I had sort of a belly case and I think it was definitely the water.
Chris: And then you took us to Puerto Plata next, I think.
Lily: Ah yes, Puerto Plata is one of my favorite regions. It’s very special, the reason is of the Dominican Republic’s destinations, it is the most varied, offers the most options. Here in Puerto Plata City, which is the fourth largest city in the Dominican Republic, there’s a little bit of history here, museums, there are a lot of city type conveniences like bed and restaurant, but at the same time, we have beaches. If I walk about 10 minutes, 2 blocks down, I’m on the malecon. The malecon is the word used for sea-front boulevards. They have a lot of little restaurants all along the malecon, it’s a great place to walk, jog, they have a bike lane, and you’re right there by the sea and it’s not polluted. It’s very clean beaches, you can swim there, in the city, which is kind of nice. And then at the same time, you could hop in a bus, a public bus about 40 minutes from here and be in Cabarete. Cabarete is more touristy but it’s also super mixed and has kite surfing and there are a lot of excellent restaurants all along the beach and it’s more social, it has a really nice cosmopolitan vibe. So a lot of people go and stay there. A lot of affordable hotels and guest houses, beach front or apartment. And a huge night life scene if you like that kind of thing, with the bars and lounges are all along the beach. Beach front, all of them, and at night, all you have to do is just walk two steps to the next one and the next one until you stumble and go back to your room. That’s kind of nice. If you like that. Then there’s a lot of diving nearby in Sosúa, it’s not the best diving in the world, but it’s still there. There’s also caving diving here, it’s a huge thing if you’re certified to cave dive.
Chris: It’s not the best diving because of the clarity of the water or…
Lily: No, the water is beautiful here. Unfortunately, it’s Sosúa, the reef has suffered from so many tourists trampling on the reef, sad to say. So it’s not so great in that part but it is better when you go to the North West, in an area called Monte Christ. It’s spectacular diving, and it’s because not a lot of people get up there. So those, the Puerto Plata is a very special area. It’s also, another thing I want to mention about Puerto Plata, is that it’s much more cultural. If you come here you have more of an opportunity to meet people, to talk to locals, to learn more about the culture. They also have a very interesting community tourism group here and they’ve basically united about six or seven small towns that are a part of the province of Puerto Plata and each one of them offers a unique cultural experience.
Chris: Such as?
Lily: Such as there is a merengue experience, merengue, as you know, is a huge Dominican thing here. And so…
Chris: A dance, for those people who may not know that. I assume that everybody does but…
Lily: That’s true. A dance and music. National dance and music of the Dominican Republic. You can go to Guananico, which is one the municipalities here in Puerto Plata, and they give you a merengue experience, which is basically learning about the history of merengue, learning about the instruments, you get to play some of them, the three main instruments, the drums, the güira, which is a sort of a metal thing that comes from a Taino that makes a really unusual sound, and then the accordion, which is European. And you’re learning but you’re learning from generations of merengue musicians who were born there, lived there, grew up there, and are award winning musicians because they come from Guananico, which is supposed to be the heart of merengue in the Dominican Republic. So you can go and spend the day with them and then the day ends with you learning how to dance merengue, a few lessons of dancing, all in the village. And having lunch there and all of that, so it’s really great. Another one is cacao experience, as you know the Dominican Republic is a major cacao exporter.
Chris: Okay, now you got me.
Lily: Yeah, chocolate. You can go to Hacienda Cufa, which is also in the Puerto Plata province and basically learn everything about how they grow cacao, and it ends, of course, with lots of chocolate tasting, hot chocolate, all sorts of things.
Chris: Again, it’s a dirty, thank-less job that somebody has to do.
Lily: It’s a tough job, yes. And then, if you’re not into cacao for whatever crazy reason, you can go to a coffee plantation and try the coffee. The Dominican Republic also grows coffee. So you have all these experiences in one place, so if you were to focus your entire week in Puerto Plata, I mean, it’s amazing how much you can get done and how much you can learn in one place.
Chris: Interesting, you mentioned getting in touch with the culture too. I’m curious if there are particular days of the year or festivals or whatever that would be great in terms of really getting an idea of what it means to be Dominican.
Lily: Yes, I actually recently went to a Merengue tipico festival. It’s the second annual one they’ve ever done. I saw it, and it was just fantastic. It was also held in Guananico, the village I had mentioned, and it featured all of the major merengue artists that go way back. It’s really nice because you get to see an entire generation on stage. The dad, the nephew, the cousin. It’s an entire night, of course, a festival, is common to have lots of drinks. There’s usually cheaper drinks than usual because the events are sponsored. Then you have the local bars that surround the event and sell grilled chicken, yucca, and all sorts of Dominican foods. It’s a great time, people dancing. So that would be one of them. That would be one festival. The other one I would say, carnival is huge here, in February. I think that’s definitely the most Dominican thing you can do. Just because they have all sorts of different carnival characters, folkloric dances, costumes are amazing, they have these devilish masks, things like that. That’s a really good time to immerse. And of course, lots of food and crafts and everything Dominican around that time and everybody’s in a great mood. Carnival is every Sunday in February, all over the country. And then the last February, there’s a huge parade in Santo Domingo. Then it ends with independence festivities. I would definitely say that’s the top month of the year to come here and learn all things Dominican.
Chris: As you said this is enough to do for one week easily with what you’ve given us so far but you had two more places you wanted to talk about.
Lily: Yes, so the other parts of the country that I would love to talk about, and I think very few people know about, is the central part of the Dominican Republic. It’s known as the Cibao Valley and it includes Jarabacoa, it’s a little hard to say, but it’s Jarabacoa, which is a mountain resort town. And an hour away from Jarabacoa is Constanza, which is really the agricultural part of the Dominican Republic. Jarabacoa is just stunning, it’s mountains, pine forests, it’s rivers running through the town. Several rivers actually. Waterfalls, and you have a lot of mountain lodges. You can actually stay in a river front lodge. Oh my God, seriously, it’s stunning. I’ve seen a lot of landscapes in the Caribbean but I think this one beats them all, I haven’t been to Cuba yet but this is really amazing. And then you have a lot of adventure and outdoor sports because of it, so you can go hiking. I went hiking, I think it’s the first mountain I’ve ever hiked. It’s called El Mogote and I’ll never forget it. It was hell. It was great when I was up there. The view’s spectacular but it was painful. In Constanza you have a lot of agriculture everywhere you turn. They actually call it the Switzerland of the Caribbean.
Chris: That’s a mental image that I was not expecting, okay.
Lily: Yes, absolutely. I actually just published a piece on afar.com, it shows you some of these images. It’s farmlands, gorgeous, colorful, different colors because of different vegetables. They also grow flowers and they have flower plantations. Yes, because they had Japanese immigrants back in the ‘60s who came and helped to develop this agricultural industry. It’s stunning, it’s really the real, real Dominican Republic. It’s campo life, they call it campo, meaning the real farm type life. You have shacks and just valleys, forests. There’s a park there called Valle Nuevo National Park, an hour deeper inside Constanza and there is a lodge too there within the park. Temperatures, by the way, drop when you’re up there…
Chris: I wouldn’t think you’d be going to the Dominican Republic packing a jacket, people are going to think you’re strange.
Lily: But it’s lovely, it’s not, sort of, you know, our kind of freezing cold. It’s really nice fresh air. At night, it does drop at night. The lodge has little cabins with fireplaces. You’ll almost think, “Am I really in the Caribbean right now?” And pines, and oh my Gosh, it’s just amazing. Really amazing, I think everyone should go. I almost want to say that if you haven’t been to the Cibao region, you haven’t been to the Dominican Republic. I don’t care how many beaches they have here. Yeah, really, it’s really spectacular.
Chris: And I’m gathering this from someone who actually likes beaches.
Lily: Yea, I mean I like beaches, absolutely, I love it all. This is what I love about it here. There’s so many variations. If I get tired of the beach, I can go to the mountains. If I get tired of the mountains I can go southwest, which is another little known area of the Dominican Republic. Most people know it as Barahona. It’s the southwest province, it’s like, the desert.
Chris: So you’re on the boarder with Haiti at this point.
Lily: You are closer to the boarder, yes, you’re minutes from the boarder. But this landscape is completely different. The beaches are actually pebble stone beaches. No sand, but the water is this really super bright turquoise. Similar to what you’d find in Haiti. I was in Haiti earlier last year. You also have mountains up there, and some of the best coffee they grow. If you’re into birding or if you are into nature reserves and hiking, that’s the best part of the country because almost nobody goes there so it’s the best preserved areas, la Sierra de Bahoruco is one of the parks, the national parks where you can go hiking. Polo is where they grow the coffee, so you can literally go on a coffee trail hike.
Chris: Excellent. I’m gathering, for getting around, you’re recommending renting a car, since you were talking about the highways?
Lily: Yes, you could. I would say if you’re an experienced driver in the Caribbean, if you’ve driven the Caribbean before, you could, very well. There are plenty of rental companies, all of the major rental companies are here. The highways are excellent. It’s one of the things about this country. It’s one of the most developed in the Caribbean in Central America. So roads and highways, generally, not a problem. The only thing is you really have to be a really good defensive driver. Because they kind of drive nutty here. They drive defensively and speeding is a problem. As long as you’re aware of the…and also you have a lot of motorbikes. Motorbikes taxis are huge, and also to get around because it’s cheaper and gasoline is so expensive. And a lot of locals own scooters or bikes so you always have to be on the lookout. I can’t stress that enough; they can pop out of anywhere. As well as cows.
Chris: They pop out slower at least.
Lily: They pop up…one time we were coming back from, I think it was Bahia de las Aguilas, which is one of the deserted beaches on the southwest. And we are coming back, and driving normal speed. And all of the sudden, the driver, thankfully who was more experienced than I am, probably, was like “Oh my God” and slows down and I was like “what’s going on?” and I look up and there’s a cow just sitting on the road. Not even walking, just relaxing. Sitting there, I’m like “Oh my goodness!” If you didn’t know and if you didn’t expect these things, that could be really bad.
Chris: You know what you call that when a cow is sitting on the ground?
Chris: It’s called ground beef.
Lily: Oh my god.
Chris: I normally ask the guest what do the guidebooks recommend that they didn’t find this enjoyable but since you wrote the guidebook to Dominican Republic, what is the tourism board directed you to that didn’t make it in the guidebook because you didn’t think it was worth the time?
Lily: Oh my God, am I going to get in trouble for saying that?
Chris: Probably, yes. It’s clear that you love the Dominican Republic so there’s no way you can get in trouble at this point, so…
Lily: I’ll be honest with you, I actually love Dominican Republic, I also think that it has so much more than what is being marketed.
Chris: Yeah, I got that impression.
Lily: Yes, unfortunately. And I’ll even say that the tourism board is missing some of it. But, it’s not necessarily that they don’t make it in the book, it’s not that I don’t really give it a glowing review.
Chris: It’s not where you tell your friends to go.
Lily: I tell people not to waste their time, yes, or money. For instance, there are some real gimmicky attractions, some attractions that…
Chris: You say that as if it were a bad thing.
Lily: Yeah, I know. Some attractions that I don’t support in terms of responsible travel. For instance, Ocean World. There’s an Ocean World here. I was invited to by tourism boards, but I went and couldn’t stomach it for more than 30 minutes. I mean, one, it’s just the treatment of animals. I can see how it could be interesting for kids, the dolphins and all of that stuff, but I don’t recommend places like that at all. What else? In Punta Cana, which is probably where the most gimmicky tours are, there a snorkeling trip aboard a pirate ship. And I swear to you, that was probably the most painful four hours of my life here in the Dominican Republic, I hate to say it. It was awful, oh my God. That did not make it in there at all, it didn’t make it in the book.
Chris: I think I’ve done one dinner cruise on a pirate ship before.
Lily: That might be better, actually, I don’t know, just because it’s at night.
Chris: It was a whole lot of pirate talk, so you just have to be in the right mood for that sort of thing.
Lily: Yeah, and also the snorkeling was just really not much at all, and all they did was just throw food in the water, and there were these little fish coming up. I mean, that’s not snorkeling. So yeah, I definitely alert people to certain places like that. Punta Cana gets a lot of press, and it also gets a bad rep for having so many all-inclusives. But there is a trend now, pushing towards luxury in Dominic Republic, and also pushing towards having people go out and experience things.
Chris: Oh, interesting.
Lily: So it’s interesting, it’s sort of a shift, because now resorts are realizing people do want to get out, people do want to immerse more, so there are more day trips being offered, and more safaris being offered from Punta Cana.
Lily: But also there’s a section of Punta Cana that’s known as Bavaro, and I don’t think that a lot of people now this, but you could go there as an independent traveler, you don’t have to stay stuck in an all-inclusive.
Chris: Tell us how you really feel.
Lily: There is a hostel in Bavaro. Believe it or not, there is a hostel in Punta Cana, and it’s quite decent. It’s close to the beach, it’s to minutes to the beach walking distance, and all the restaurants, and whatnot. So there is a little part of Punta Cana that isn’t super touristy like people think.
Chris: And wehen you say about getting stuck in the all-inclusives, I’m guessing your feelings are like mine, you don’t want to go to an all-inclusive just because you’re afraid to get out and experience the culture. That’s definitely the wrong reason to do that.
Lily: That’s right.
Chris: For some people, they’re really looking for the, “Things have been so hectic, I just need a place to relax and not have to think about things.” That’s not a bad reason to go.
Lily: And I think that’s totally valid, yes. And if you’re going to do that, do it at a really nice, luxury all-inclusive, because it’s worth splurging just to have that exclusivity and be away from the crowds. A lot of these resorts now offer like what they call preferred clubs, or preferred family and whatnot. You get separate pools and separate snack lounges and things. I think that makes such a huge difference. It’s also about selecting the right resort if you’re going to do that.
Chris: Well then I think we’re encouraging you here that even if you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort, it doesn’t mean you can’t get out and experience some of the country too.
Lily: Absolutely, don’t believe if they tell you it’s dangerous out there and whatnot, nothing could be more untrue. I’m a female too, and I’ve traveled the whole country solo. You might need to know a few phrases of Spanish, but people here are so warm. That’s one of the things I love here. They’re very hospitable people, Dominicans. I think they’re very misunderstood too. People want to say things like, I can’t not speak about this but in the press in the last few months stuff about Haiti and Dominican Republic, and a lot of people are saying oh, Dominicans are racists. I can’t even imagine an instance where I’ve witnessed that at all. I think it’s all very political, so I hope that people are keeping an open mind and will come here and see for themselves, because I think Dominicans are some of the most special people in the Caribbean.
Chris: Excellent. Before we go to my last four questions or so, anything else you want to tell us that we need to know before we go to the Dominican Republic?
Lily: I would say learn the courtesy words in Spanish, courtesy is huge here. I think that’s something everybody should know. It’s pretty amazing, if you enter a public bus, or a public transportation, whoever is entering has to say hello. You don’t just go in and sit down, that’s rude.
Chris: Can I get by with hola?
Lily: Yes, you can say hola, or they usually say saludos and you sit down, or buenas. Some people respond, some don’t, but it doesn’t matter, everybody does it. Or you can enter a small local restaurant, or a local corner shop called a colmado, colmados are huge here, we didn’t talk about that. It’s a little corner shop/bar. So when you enter you say buen dia, just learn a few, por favor, gracias, the basic courtesy words for sure.
Chris: I’ve found that a good smile can get you pretty far too.
Lily: Yes, always. That’s universal.
Chris: Excellent. You’re standing in the most beautiful spot you have seen in the Dominican Republic. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Lily: I will tell you one that had me just gasping. It’s called Playa del Valle.
Chris: So it’s a beach.
Lily: It’s a beach, and it’s a beach that’s a little bit more difficult to get to, not a lot of people get to. It’s about 30 minutes north of Samana town on the Samana Peninsula. It is just breath-taking. It is about I would say two miles, but it’s sort of crescent shaped, and it has huge cliffs towering over the beach. It’s a golden sand. There are lots of little fishermen canoes usually parked there, and sometimes, if you’re lucky you’ll see fishermen with their nets. To me, that was just an amazing sight. That’s just one, so many. Can I give another one?
Lily: I went paragliding over the mountains in Jarabacoa in the central mountain area. That view is one I’ll never forget. It’s amazing. Basically, I was at the top of the whole Caribbean, the highest point, paragliding. So yes.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say “Only in the Dominican Republic?”
Lily: When you call the corner store to have beer delivered, that’s definitely only in the Dominican Republic. They deliver. Everybody here delivers, by the way. Pharmacies deliver. The bar delivers, it’s awesome, I love it.
Chris: That’s probably a better safety tip there.
Lily: Yes, that’s true.
Chris: Finish this sentence: you really know you’re in the Dominican Republic when what?
Lily: You really know you’re in the Dominican Republic when you hear a merengue or a bachata in the streets every day.
Chris: And bachata is?
Lily: Bachata is another one of Dominican Republic’s musical styles and dance. It’s very popular, it’s actually gaining in popularity over merengue. Also very popular in the United States. That’s where I first heard it.
Chris: Okay, yeah, I’m clearly hanging out in the wrong places.
Lily: Yes, and it’s a lot more of a romantic, sensual type of music. It’s all about love and romance, they love that here. So yes, you definitely know you’re in the Dominican Republic when you hear bachata every single day in the street.
Chris: Excellent. And last question, if you had to summarize the Dominican Republic, the DR, I’m surprised I didn’t resort to that somewhere in the middle here, in three words, what three words would you use?
Lily: Fun, warm, stunning.
Chris: And I’m guessing you’re using that warm in a couple of different ways there.
Lily: In many ways, yes.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest again has been Lebawit Lily Girma, author of the Moon guide to the Dominican Republic, but you’re also writing another guide right now.
Lily: No, actually that’s the one I’m writing at the moment.
Chris: Oh yes, you’ve already written the Moon guide to Belize, all right.
Lily: I’ve already written Moon Belize and Moon Belize Cayes. Moon Dominican Republic will be out in the fall of 2016.
Chris: Excellent. And you blog at sunandstilettos.com. Do you wear your stilettos to the beach?
Lily: Not anymore, no. I started this blog a long time ago, before I did this for work, and I thought okay, what are two things that I really love? Sun and stilettos. Then I started traveling more and I realized that there is no space for stilettos in a suitcase. So no.
Chris: Do you have a recent article on the Dominican Republic on your blog or somewhere else? You mentioned the AFAR article that you want to refer us to?
Lily: Yes, the AFAR one is pretty good, it’s called The Most Underrated Landscapes in the Dominican Republic, and it’s on a afar.com.
Chris: If you send me the URL, I’ll put that in the show notes and people will be able to see that just even in the lyrics of this episode, we put all the links that we talk about.
Lily: Okay, wonderful, thank you so much.
Chris: Lily, thank you so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your obvious love for the Dominican Republic.
Lily: Thank you so much for having me.
Chris: I’d like to start the news to the community with a bit of an apology. For those of you who are on the mailing list, you already heard this, but when we did the episode last week about San Diego, twice we made reference, obscure reference to the wild animal park. And we were planning on talking about it, at least I was planning on talking about it at the end, and then we forget. I was going to put it at this point in the episode, and I forgot again. So anyway, my apologies for that, definitely something I would recommend if you’re in San Diego. Also I would recommend, if you want personalized apologies like that, join the mailing list. Mitch made my week this week with this letter: “I feel compelled to write you a quick thank you for the podcast. I’m 27 and have never taken a vacation outside of North America. I was always planning a trip to Europe or Asia or Latin America somewhere, anywhere, but they always seem to be a reason not to go. To make a long story short, I was inspired by you and the many guests on your podcast to finally just do it. As I write this, I’m sitting in my rented apartment in Santiago, Chile. I’ve spent the last few weeks exploring Argentina and Chile and have loved every second of it. While I do look forward to coming back home in a few days, I know that when I get there, I will let my mind wander to the next location, and I will undoubtedly continue to use your podcast as inspiration. Thank you again, Mitch.”
And thank you Mitch. One, it’s encouraging when I get this sort of news, and then it’s also useful for me, I’ll probably Mitch’s quote and some quotes that I’ve gotten from some of the rest of you in the media kit that I do because it’s useful for me to be able to tell people: “See, people listen.” And that they actually act on some of the things we talk about, it’s helpful. So thanks again. With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send me and email like Mitch did, to host at amateurtraveler.com, or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter as @chris2x, and as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.