Panorama of Punta Cana's Bavaro Beach; click to enlarge
Punta Cana is usually synonymous with the word “paradise.” And you really will find paradise once you see its beaches…but Punta Cana can also become synonymous with the word “commercialized.” That’s because the *entire* beachfront is owned by mega-resorts; nowhere will you ever find the kind of privacy and total “end of the world” solitude that we had at Playa Blanca in Cartagena, Colombia. So no matter where you go in Punta Cana, you’ll never really be alone.
Since we didn’t want to go for the all-inclusive resort on this trip, we hunkered down at Bavaro Beach, checking into Bavaro Hostel for $20 USD a night. It’s an extremely well run hostel (probably the only one in Punta Cana) and you’ll meet like-minded young travelers who eschewed the resort-life but still wanted a tan at one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
We all went out to Alibabar last night to dance away at a great open-air nightclub and hookah lounge:
So if you want to come to Punta Cana and don’t want to spend exorbitant prices for an all-inclusive, you can still go on the cheap and get a great tan: by law the entire beachfront is public and is open to everyone, whether you’re an all-inclusive resort patron or independent couch-surfer. Being part of an all-inclusive simply gets you a free chair and towel to sit on whereas everyone else can get their beachside chair by eating at any of the beachside restaurants and then vegging out afterwards.
My fresh red snapper at a restaurant in El Cortecito
Nothing much else to say about Punta Cana. Just enjoy it.
- At time of posting in Punta Cana, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds
We set off on a late morning on a search for Santo Domingo’s Chinatown.
By Calle El Conde
Calle El Conde in the morning
Grabbed a breakfast at the 200 year old diner joint, Cafeteria la Colonial, and then walked north up Duarte Avenue (with Parque Duarte behind us) for about 1/5 of a mile until we hit Chinatown:
Nobody famous, just a statue of a "sample Chinese immigrant"
They placed this statue to inform Dominicans what a Chinese woman looks like
Santo Domingo’s Chinatown consists of approximately 4 city blocks total, and is easily walkable in 10-15 minutes even if you take your time. All it has are restaurants, eateries, take out joints, and maybe a small goods store or two. There’s also a random South Asian-run jewelry shop here.
As for the Chinese community itself, the only local Chinese people you’ll find are behind the counters and the managers overlooking their staff in the restaurants. We couldn’t find any Chinese people merely strolling about the streets enjoying their day; they were all working indoors. Not much of a visible community here (like a Chinese school, community center, etc.) other than ex-pats coming to make a living here.
Afterwards we headed back down Duarte Ave, admiring last night’s ruins of the Hospital from a park behind it:
Afterwards we hailed a 150 peso taxi ride to the Expreso Bavaro buses heading to Punta Cana from the corner of Ave. Maximo Gomez and Juan Sanchez Ramirez (NOT Juan Sanchez Ruiz — this is an error that Lonely Planet lists, and it led to some confusion with our cab driver in getting there).
The times of the Expreso Bavaro buses to Punta Cana also changed; instead of 7am, 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm as listed on websites and in Lonely Planet, buses now leave at 7am, 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Ticket fares also have increased to 400 pesos a person.
Punta Cana beaches, here we come!
- At time of posting in DR BALAGUER INTL, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds
The oldest military installation of the New World just got served
The oldest working church of the New World just got served
After arriving in from Haiti, we dropped off our stuff at a hostel in the Zona Colonial district of Santo Domingo. Zona Colonial is the oldest city of the New World as the oldest working church and the oldest military installation of the New World can be found here. This is also the very city where Christopher Columbus wanted to be buried.
Zona Colonial is best explored by a leisurely stroll, where you’ll notice the seamless marriage between beautifully maintained historical buildings and boutqiue modern-day restaurants.
We started our walk appropriately at the church.
Catedral Primada de America: The oldest working church of the New World
The Zona Colonial hospital that withstood invasions and earthquakes, until a 1911 hurricane sealed its fate
The most western point of Zona Colonial ends at Parque Independencia, where the 3 founding heroes of the Dominican Republic are buried in a mausoleum:
Then do an about-face and head down Calle de Conde, the main pedestrian street of Zona Colonial where all the action takes place. It’ll remind you of the “Las Ramblas” of Barcelona, but on a much smaller scale:
Then turn north once you hit Parque Colon, where you’ll see a few amazing building facades to your left and your right before you hit Plaza Espana:
We decided to head inside Panteon Nacional, where many of DR’s most important dignitaries are memorialized:
Then it was back out again towards Plaza Espana:
Towards Plaza Espana
In Plaza Espana you’ll find some of Santo Domingo’s best restaurants. Pick one (we chose Pat’e Palo) and feast away at some of the best fine dining in the Caribbean:
The "Irish Coffee" for dessert
Not a bad way to spend our first evening in the Dominican Republic.
- At time of posting in DR BALAGUER INTL, it was 31 °C -
Humidity: 66% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds
Today we crossed over from Haiti into the Dominican Republic; we took an 8am Caribe Bus from Cap-Haitien to the Jabon border, and then continue onwards towards Santiago and into the capital of Santo Domingo.
The simplest and most time-saving method is taking the direct 8am Caribe Bus from Cap-Haitien, located on Street 29 and Avenue A. The ride is about $30 USD per person, one way, which also includes a meal and a bottle of water.
2 hours in you’ll hit the less popular northern border crossing at Ouanaminthe (second in popularity to the southern border crossing between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo) as you head towards the Dominican Republic border town of Dajabón.
The northern border
Heading towards Haiti Immigration Control
Getting stamped out of Haiti
We then drove across the river from Ouanaminthe to Dajabon by the border, the very site where 20,000 Haitian migrant workers were massacred by the DR government in 1937 as a result of intense competition for jobs:
Then we realized we were crossing on a Friday, which is “Market Day.”
“Market Day” is when the Jabon border opens up a little bit between the two countries to exchange goods and trade; essentially it really means when thousands of Haitians cross over into Jabon carrying only cash and they return back into Haiti with bags, baskets, crates, carts, and jeep-loads of food, fruits, supplies, and the kitchen sink.
Take a look at the pictures…Haitians heading to the right into the DR aren’t carrying anything, while Haitians heading to the left into Haiti are carrying almost everything under the sun.
Haitians doing market day trading are not allowed past a certain point into the DR
It was interesting to see what I’ve read about in the news come to life before my eyes.
The overland border crossing is simple: pay $10 for the tourist card into the DR (DR citizens don’t have to pay this) and $10 for leaving Haiti. For us, Caribe Bus made us pay $20 ahead of time when we bought our tickets in Cap-Haitien. Then Haiti stamps you out, and we got back on the bus, gave our passports to the Dominicans, drove a bit to a warehouse and got our bags searched:
We noticed in the warehouse that if you’re not Haitian, the Dominicans don’t even bother looking through your stuff other than a quick look and patdown. If you are Haitian, however, they go all out on your luggage looking for smuggled items/contraband/drugs.
We then got back on the bus and picked up our stamped passports from the Dominicans. Then you’ll see things you never saw once ever in Haiti: paved highways, road dividers, traffic decals. Now you know you’re in the Dominican Republic.
Thanks for the warmth, the hospitality, the views and the memories, Haiti.
We arrived into Santo Domingo around 9 hours later since boarding in Cap Haitien, at around 5pm.
Arriving into the DR
- At time of posting in Santiago, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds
Citadelle La Ferriere just got served
Sans Souci Palace just got served
We woke up early at 7am to grab breakfast at Croissant d’Or, Cap-Haitien’s best bakery (that much Lonely Planet gets right!). There we loaded up on some carbs before heading down to catch a taptap to Milot.
Lonely Planet says there’s a bridge going east across the river by Street #2, but it’s MUCH more south than that. We got a little confused because of this, but after asking around we were led to the bridge.
Remember in the last post when I said that the more north you go, the less chaotic it gets? So it’s pretty much total chaos once you hit the southern bridge of Cap-Haitien.
Almost at the bridge
"Whoa, we got a badass over here!"
Crossing the river
Once crossing the bridge, we came upon a gas station by the bridge’s entrance on the eastern side, where all the taptaps were waiting. Just like how I was able to find the taptaps to Dhaka in Bangladesh, your voice is essentially an information desk: Just yell “Milot” loudly and they’ll whisk you away to the right taptap.
The fare is 25 HTG (Haitian gourds) per person.
You don't find the taptap; the taptaps find you
Efficient use of space to maximize profits
Because we arrived on Haiti’s Independence Day weekend and around New Year’s it could be that traffic is generally much lighter this time of year, but the ride from Cap-Haitien to Milot is not an hour as Lonely Planet says it is; the ride was actually half an hour for us.
The taptap ride terminates in Milot, from where you walk about 10min more on the main road towards the ticket office located in front of Sans Souci Palace.
Getting dropped off in Milot
The town of Milot
Lonely Planet says the entrance fee is $25 USD per person to see both the Palace and the Citadelle. It’s actually $5 USD. You pay more to get a horse and a guide, which we turned down.
After getting your tickets, you enter the ruins of Sans Souci Palace. It’s pretty cool, especially when it’s placed against a backdrop of Haiti’s jungle-like atmosphere.
Sans Souci was built as Henri Christophe’s rival to the Palace of Versailles. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been relatively untouched by tourism.
As you go around to the back of the palace, you’ll be on a path up to the first entrance to the magnificent Citadelle La Ferriere.
A primer on The Citadelle: Overseen by Haiti’s former leader and liberator Henri Christophe, it was built to repel the French colonialists (it never seen battle, however).
Heading around the back of Sans Souci
Looking back at Sans Souci
You’ll notice it easily as there will be tons of horses and their wranglers waiting to accost you incessantly about how you’re “not going to make it” on foot. They’re talking about a 7.5km walk up to the Citadelle’s actual entrance on top of the mountain, and the path is very very steep. Although it’s well-paved, it’s not an easy climb for those who are physically unfit.
We decided to trust our thighs and legs: no horses. It took us about 2 hours to reach the top.
Along the way you’ll notice that families and entire communities live and die on the sides of the path you’re hiking up. Some of them encourage you to pay the extra money to hire a horse, some ask for a dollar, some try to sell you beads or bottles of water, but most will generally watch you curiously as you go.
One of the rare flat paths we came upon; I had to take a picture of it
About 80min in, you'll get the first glimpse of the Citadelle (up top btw some trees)
After about 90min of hiking you’ll hit a parking lot where you can rest your legs a little bit. Those of you who hired a motor vehicle or a 4WD jeep to get up the hill will park here. Then it’s another 30min steep climb up to the top before you finally hit the Citadelle.
Reaching the parking lot
Optional rest stop and water break at the parking lot
And from there, you are rewarded with the best views in Haiti. In other words, you literally are at the top of La Hispaniola island:
Citadelle la Ferriere just got served
We spent about an hour and a half there before we headed back down, but you easily can lounge around here for a couple of hours taking it all in (after a grueling climb like this, you deserve it!)
The descent back down was pretty uneventful, but spend the rest of your time exploring Sans Souci Palace if you haven’t already.
Then it’s back through Milot on a taptap to Cap-Haitien. Just retrace your steps of what you did this morning, and you’ll be back home in time for dinner.
- At time of posting in Milot, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The 7 hour bus ride from Port-au-Prince is relatively straightforward, but you have to choose your poison; shall you go with the public transportation that’ll cost you no more than a few dollars for a nary a bench space on a vehicle without shock absorbers? Or a more private company for $20 USD for some cushion on your tush?
Saying goodbye to our new friend Daniel of Trinity Lodge
On our way to find a bus to Cap-Haitien
While waiting for our bus to Cap-Haitien, we noticed something was going on by the United Nations plane:
Once you find your bus, these are the views you’ll get along the way:
The rest stop food was actually pretty delicious:
Buses will drop you off about a few km west of Cap Haitien, where you’ll have to find a tap tap public van for less than a $1 USD or a taxi for $10 USD (they’ll charge you much more initially, from where you’ll have to haggle down) in order to get into Cap Haitien itself.
There you’ll arrive at Cap-Haitien: Haiti’s “second city” and the assumed location of La Navidad, which is where Christopher Columbus landed on his voyage to the New World. Cap-Haitien was relatively untouched by the 2010 earthquake but still suffers from the issues of being in a third-world country and a lack strong infrastructure. Nevertheless, Cap-Haitien boasts a well organized grid system (Avenues go from A to Z from east to west; Streets go from 1 to 30 from south to north) that is very easily walkable.
The town cathedral
Very well organized Cap-Haitien
Finding our hostel: COOP Guesthouse for $18/night (a steal!)
You’ll notice as you go north, the streets become less chaotic and more orderly. Then you’ll hit the U.N. buildings at the very north where it’s most peaceful.
You can also hug along the eastern part of town, which you’ll appreciate unhindered views of the Atlantic Ocean.
What’s unusual is that this is the first developing country I’ve been in where I’ve seen a large number of people regularly exercising: there are gyms packed with weights and weightlifters, runners in jerseys jogging along the ocean as early as 7am in the morning….usually you’d associate a populaton who have the privilege of exercising with more developed nations. Haiti is an exception.
A concert was going on inside
Cap-Haitien at dusk
Go have a beer or even a dinner at popular La Kay, where if you’re brave enough, teach the kids on the dance floor how to dougie or Gangnam style.
La Kay inside. The dance floor is towards the back.
After a dance session, we took pictures with our dance partners
Cap-Haitien seems to have a more popping nightlife than Port-au-Prince as everywhere on the streets there will be live music and DJs playing into the wee hours of the night. It was like every corner was a small block party. Take advantage of this!
- At time of posting in Cap-Haitien, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear