Less than 48 hours into my luxurious stay at Barcelo Punta Cana, it was time to swap our swim suits for comfortable clothes and durable sneakers. From about 9am until 6pm, our group spent hours delving into the local culture surrounding Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
Hopping on board what resembled a mix of a safari vehicle and a beat-down van, we were introduced to our guide and his two adorable children who would accompany us on our Caribbean journey. As if there was a cupcake dangling in front of me, my face filled with an excitable expression that increased with every gust of Dominican wind sweeping through my hair.
Our first major stop was Rancho Nuevo (New Ranch) in Palo Amargo (Bitter Wood) near the town of El Batei where we chopped down sugar cane and allowed the sugar rush to kick into our systems. After a few minutes of sucking the life out of the sugar cane, we embarked on a leisurely horseback ride through a nearby trail. Unlike my experience in Mexico where my horse went into a full-gallop before even hitting the beach, this ride was slow scenic, thus allowing me to really connect with all the natural elements surrounding me.
Anytime I horseback ride, my mind wanders back to when I was ten years old and actually taking lessons. I welcome these memories because I remember feeling such comfort being around the horses, learning to trot, canter and eventually gallop. While the speed does frighten me, it also makes me feel like I’m flying and that weightless power is soothing to my entire being.
As soon as my horse ride completed, I walked over to a man in the corner who was showing other members of our group how to roll a cigar, Dominican style. I don’t smoke but I was rather impressed by how much skill and attention to detail this processed required. It’s pretty clear that I don’t smoke – before taking this picture, I was holding the cigar the wrong way. Everyone started laughing and it took me a few seconds to catch on.
After hopefully mastering the art of cigar-making, we headed into the town of Otra Banda, where local artists were hard at work painting their next masterpiece. I admired their obvious concentration but what inspired me most was the elaborate use of color incorporated into each of their pieces. Again, it brought me back to my childhood days where I would spent hours drawing cartoons or painting clay figures. As I watched their hands gently brush warm paint into the rough canvas it made me realize that my life right now is lacking some artistic elements that have so long been apart of my every day routine.
As we left our new artist friends and their color palettes behind, we entered into a far more elaborate color scheme – the Higüey Market. Higüey is the nearest town to Punta Cana and all of our stops this day were concentrated here and in the nearby towns and villages. Walking through the seemingly chaotic rows of fruits, vegetables, meats and fish immediately awoke all of my senses. Even though I was well aware that I stood out as being a visitor, I felt strangely comfortable as I wandered through the loud, disorganized path in a dreamlike haze.
After completing our walk through the market, our guide led us to the 500 year old San Dionisio Church, an old sanctuary of the Altagracia Virgin. The church was simple in its exterior but beautifully decorated inside. This compared to our next stop at the Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia seemed like a night and day contrast. One small and humble, the other large and architecturally innovative and intimidating.
By this point in our adventure I was officially hungry and lucky for me, Dominicans really know how to cook. After feasting on a traditional meal consisting of fried chicken and bananas, rice and black beans, salad, bread and avacado at Rancho La Dueña in the town of Otra Banda, the rain clouds started to roll in.
In our attempt to escape the rain, which we managed to do, we drove to a a typical Dominican house in a coffee and cocoa plantation near the town of El Bonao. This was by far the highlight of the day for me. After trekking through the beautifully scattered trees bearing a variety of local fresh fruits including bananas, grapefruit, oranges and coconut, we then watched as our guide and member of the family running the plantation ground up the coffee and chocolate also produced on site.
As if that wasn’t enthralling enough, a feast of fruit and hot cocoa and coffee awaited our already full bellies. The best thing about this plantation in particular is how untouched it still is by mass tourism. The area is only big enough to accommodate small groups, which added to its charm in my opinion.
In a few years things will likely change, as more local companies make changes to accommodate the rise in United States tourists but for now, you really get the sense that you are seeing and doing something truly special.
All in all, I feel that taking the time to venture away from the confines of the relaxing resort to experience a small taste of what Dominican culture is like thoroughly enhanced my outlook on Punta Cana as a bohemian travel destination.
I’ve always wanted to go there! Haven’t had the opportunity yet. I agree, I think the best way to experience a new culture is to get right into the thick of things with the locals. I loved the part about your visit to the coffee/chocolate farm. I stayed at one once in Costa Rica, and it was an unforgettable experience. What is it about growing chocolate that makes he caregivers so in touch with tenderness and true warmth?