Back Home

Some months ago I asked Viktor to write a free text as an exercise in writing within the homeschool experiment. I gave him the topic ‘Home’ thinking that after so many months living on the boat he would write about the boat as his new home.

He sat down very inspired and wrote uninterruptedly for a few hours producing the following text:

 

The Good Old Ways of Home

-by Viktor

My home back in Canada was just like any other big old country house but mine was transforming depending on the seasons.

In summer, staying inside was like staying in prison: I lacked oxygen and I felt depressed, like I was missing out on things. So I would go outside where life was welcoming and vast. I could take a stroll around the house and I would see my dad mowing the lawn, my sister singing on the swing, birds pecking about, or even a little grey rabbit staring at me. It was green, it was bright; the summer feeling was greatly appreciated, and I would never have the same experiences repeated since every summer something new would always happen.

But when those pretty lime-colored leaves camping on the trees fell down to my knees, I knew that summer was over… A new season would take place. Some called it fall or autumn, others called it the time of sickness and disease, an unforgiving season that brought coughing pain and confusion about what to wear. Me? I yelled: “Yes! My birthday is finally coming!” All those season-names were telling the truth. Leaves would fall, people would get sick, and I would celebrate. I think, if it wasn’t for my birthday, this would be the worst season of all times because all it brought was misery, viruses, and a handful of cheap candy and broken potato chips.

This next one will break your heart. You will need a box of tissues at your side. Winter will not help your coughing but it will help you feel better if you have good friends and entertaining games…mostly virtual.

After a crushing blow of a snowstorm and an overnight earthquake of machinery, I would wake up in the morning and I would see a bright white light shining through the curtains. I would look through the window feeling like someone had injected ecstasy in my system. No more dead leaves, no more grass. I would see snow. Mountains of snow. I would take a deep breath of happiness and then suddenly I would hear a series of pounding knocks on the door.

I would smile, run down the stairs, run across the corridor, and I would approach the door while glancing through the glass at the dark sinister figure outside. I would reach for the door knob and quickly open it to make way for my frozen friend. Over my pajamas, I’d put on my black snow pants, my heavy winter boots, my gloves and Russian hat, slip on my jacket, ready for battle. Next thing, I’d be beating the crap out of my friend with snowballs and then we would return home for some video games and hot chocolate.

There were tons of other great events happening during this joyous season of ice and fire but I will have to write a book the size of the holy bible to describe my full emotions on this topic.

Sooner or later, the glorious white element melted into our sewers and that marked the start of the season of rebirth: spring. Almost everything was reborn anew: the grass, the sickness, school. I have mixed feelings about this season for it gave me joy as it would bring an end to the never-ending cold wrath of winter, but I was also sad to think that I had to wait six months to play with snow again.

Honestly, I miss my old home and friends. Now I will have to adapt to my new life at sea and Neptune’s anomalies, stuck on a boat with my family.

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After a little over a year stuck on a boat with his family, cruising aboard Fata Morgana and visiting many countries and islands all over the Caribbean region, Viktor, almost 17 now, decided it is time to return home. To his friends, to school, and to all those places and things he missed so much in the past months.

Cruising is a great learning experience for families with young children and we have met countless little sailors everywhere we have been, children with a unique sense of adventure, exploring, and love of the world that school-based and land-based kids lack.  We wanted to open the world for our children as well, to show them an alternative way of life more disconnected from the civilized material world and more connected to nature, more free. For Viktor, a very shy and introvert person, we hoped that our travels will provide a way to unplug from the computer and video-games which were at the center of his interests through a healthier, more active way of life. That he will accumulate knowledge and acquire new skills. And surely he did, despite his nostalgia. He became a good sailor, and will forever keep the good memories of our travels, the moments we enjoyed together, the places we visited, the people we met. But at his age, he is anxious to begin his own independent journey, to follow his own dreams back in Canada.

We can only wish him good luck, help him and support him in any way necessary.

Farewell Vik!

 

 

That day Viktor caught 10 flounders

The day Viktor caught 10 flounders

Evo and Viktor

Evo and Viktor

 

Viktor and Dylan

Viktor and Dylan

Dylan and Viktor

Dylan and Viktor

Viktor and Evo taking a rain-shower

Viktor and Evo taking a rain-shower

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Viktro with a puffer fish

Viktro with a puffer fish

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Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

Viktor "pushing" Maya off the roof of the fort

Viktor „pushing“ Maya off the roof of the fort

Viktor, Maya, and Ivo walking with bug-repellent palm leaf hats, Cuba This is how we showed up at the beach.

Viktor, Maya, and Ivo walking with bug-repellent palm leaf hats, Cuba
This is how we showed up at the beach.

Ivo, Viktor and Maya, The human pyramid

Evo, Viktor and Maya, The human pyramid

Viktor on the helm, Maya keeping him company.

Viktor on the helm, Maya keeping him company.

Viktor swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes (because we forgot the shoes on the boat...)

Viktor swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes (because we forgot the shoes on the boat…) Mexico

Viktor, Agua Caliente, Guatemala

Viktor, Agua Caliente, Guatemala

Viktor Jumping from Agua Caliente waterfall, Guatemala

Viktor Jumping from Agua Caliente waterfall, Guatemala

Walking in a canyon, Guatemala

Walking in a canyon, Guatemala

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The epic ride downriver in a cayuco.

The epic ride downriver in a cayuco.

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Best swimming pool, Bahamas

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The swimming pigs, Bahamas

The swimming pigs, Bahamas

Viktor and Mira with iguanas.

Viktor and Mira with iguanas, Bahamas

Viktor in Thunderbolt Grotto, Bahamas

Viktor in Thunderbolt Grotto, Bahamas

Viktor

Viktor

Vick and Maya building a small fire.

Vick and Maya building a small fire on the beach, Bahamas

Maya and Viktor (Ivo behind them) with burgers.

Maya and Viktor (Ivo behind them) with burgers.

Viktor and Nick

Viktor and Nick

Viktor, Maya, Mira

Viktor, Maya, Mira

Viktor, Maya, Nick

Viktor, Maya, Nick

Vick and Nick

Vick and Nick

Vick and Nick

Vick and Nick

Up on the mountain El Mogote

Up on the mountain El Mogote

Damajaqua Cascadas

Damajaqua Cascadas, Dominican Republic

Viktor on the way to Pico Duarte, Dominican Republic

Viktor on the way to Pico Duarte, Dominican Republic

Viktor with the mules. Hiking to Pico Duarte, DR

Viktor with the mules. Hiking to Pico Duarte, DR

Viktor and Evo

Viktor and Evo

Viktor and Maya at the summit. Pico Duarte

Viktor and Maya at the summit. Pico Duarte

Damajaqua Cascades, DR

Damajaqua Cascades, DR

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Viktor

Viktor

The Nomadiks & Friends at Caja de Muerto, Puerto Rico

The Nomadiks & Friends at Caja de Muerto, Puerto Rico

Maya and Viktor, The Baths, Virgin Gorda, BVI

Maya and Viktor, The Baths, Virgin Gorda, BVI

Viktor, The Baths, Virgin Gorda

Viktor, The Baths, Virgin Gorda

Viktor, The Baths, Virgin Gorda

Viktor, The Baths, Virgin Gorda

Viktor

Viktor

Viktor hovering above baby fishes

Viktor hovering above baby fishes

 

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Happy One Year of Sailing To Us

Mira, Evo, Maya and Viktor 1 year The Life Nomadik

Mira, Evo, Maya and Viktor
1 year The Life Nomadik

 

Our Sailing Journey is One Year Old Today

 

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One year ago, in July 2013, we took off from Florida aboard Fata Morgana, our new home and ocean vehicle.We headed south.

In the next twelve months we visited a dozen countries and over 50 islands.

 

Florida

Fort Jefferson, Florida

Fort Jefferson, Florida

Cuba

Cuban girls

Cuban girls

Mexico

Tourists at Tulum

Tourists at Tulum

Guatemala

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The Bahamas

Maya and Mira

Maya and Mira

Dominican Republic

Comparticion, last basecamp before Pico Duarte

Comparticion, last basecamp before Pico Duarte

Puerto Rico

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U.S. Virgin Islands

Water Island, Honeymoon Beach anchorage

Water Island, Honeymoon Beach anchorage

British Virgin Islands

The Baths, BVI

The Baths, BVI

Saba

Saba. View form Scout's Place bar and restaurant

Saba. View form Scout’s Place bar and restaurant

Sint Maarten

Evo's bottle, St Maarten

Evo’s bottle, Sint Maarten

Saint-Martin

Mira at Fort Saint-Louis, Marigot, overlooking the harbor, Saint-Martin

Mira at Fort Saint-Louis, Marigot, overlooking the harbor, Saint-Martin

St Barth

Anse de Flamand

Anse de Flamand

St Kitts&Navis

Verevet Monkey, St Kitts

Verevet Monkey, St Kitts

Our Journey

We met remarkable people and made many new friends.

Noial, Sofia, and Maya in traditional mayan costumes. The skirt is called corte and the top is gupil. Mayan women in Guatemala wear similar clothes.

Noial, Sofia, and Maya in traditional mayan costumes. The skirt is called corte and the top is gupil. Mayan women in Guatemala wear similar clothes.

We swam with dolphins

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And we swam with pigs

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We walked across spectacular forests and river canyons.

Maya walking through the jungle, Guatemala

Maya walking through the jungle, Guatemala

We jumped from waterfalls

Viktor Jumping from Agua Caliente waterfall, Guatemala

Viktor Jumping from Agua Caliente waterfall, Guatemala

We entered caves

Daeli and Ivo lightpainting in a cave, Guatemala

Daeli and Ivo lightpainting in a cave, Guatemala

We discovered new flavors and fragrances.

Mira, trying cashew fruit for a first time

Mira, trying cashew fruit for a first time. Saba

We snorkeled in coral gardens with tropical fishes in water like liquid glass.

Underwater sculpture of grand piano and mermaid, Bahamas

Underwater sculpture of grand piano and mermaid, Bahamas

We learned to surf

Maya

Maya

We got involved with many of the communities we visited, we volunteered and worked with the locals.

Near Finca Jocoro, Guatemala

Near Finca Jocoro, Guatemala

We met a whale

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And a sea turtle

A green sea-turtleheading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

A green sea-turtleheading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

We met howler monkeys

Black Howler Monkey

Black Howler Monkey

We saw flamingos

DSC_1797

 

We caught a lot of tasty fish

Mira and her Birthday Gifts

Mira and her Birthday Gifts

We lived the dream.

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We did all this while being very conscious about the fragile environment we enjoy so much.

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We sailed for over 3,700 nautical miles without polluting the air and the sea, almost not using the engines. fueling once every 6 months. We also used a kayak instead of a dinghy.

Mira "sailing" the kayak with an umbrella

Mira „sailing“ the kayak with an umbrella

We lived off-grid not paying electricity bills, water bills, mortgage, taxes, or any other bills thanks to our solar panels and watermaker.

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

Our average speed was 3.7 knots which makes us Slow Pokes Drifters, but we had to sail against waves and tradewind most of the time heading east-southeast, tacking constantly, but not turning the engines on, no matter what.

Evo pulling the boat with the kayak in deadcalm. The engines remained turned off...

Evo pulling the boat with the kayak in deadcalm. The engines remained turned off…

 

Thank You!

The people we met along the way, whom we befriended, who helped us and guided us, who shared our adventures and joys are the most treasured part of our journey. We thank you!

Friends Key West, Florida

Friends
Key West, Florida

Tyler, you started us sailing and helped us so much. Thank you, we love you!

 

Vanessa Linsley, you were not just our broker, you literally adopted us, guiding and helping us so much. Thank you!

 

Rich, you were there for us when we needed you most. Thank you!

David, Lori, Kashara and Dylan, we value so much your company and all the lessons you thought us about sailing and cruising even before we started. Thank you!

 

Dale, you were the best boatyard neighbor. Thank you for the books and the veggies!

 

Peter, you fixed our jib and thought us so much in our first days of sailing, thank you!

 

Sherry and Nate, you adopted our Baba Ganoush, best thing that could happen to her! And you gave us Agent Orange! You have no idea how much we appreciate this kayak, thank you!

 

Tony, Cherri, Stacie, Ryan, Joey, Rebecca, Miranda, Sky, we had so much fun with all you guys in Key West. Thank you!

 

Suzy Roebling, we learned so much about sea turtles thanks to you and we really enjoyed the coconuts. Thank you!

 

April and Harley from s/v El Karma, you gave us lures, helped us to fix our watermaker, and shared some great moments in Cuba with us. Thank you!

 

 Daeli, Joni, Elan, Lovam, Noial, and Spirit from s/v Friendship, you and your journey inspire us so much. We love you, we miss you and we hope we will see you again soon!

 

Joseph, Jana, Katchka, and Anichka s/v Blizzard, so grateful we met you guys and shared so many crazy adventures in Guatemala together!

 

Alice s/v Suricats, yoga in the morning with Joni and you was one of the best things in Rio Dulce anchorage. Thank you!

 

Angie and Marty, thank you for your hospitality!

 

 Scot, Stephanie, Riley, and Wren, s/v Kiawa, without you our journey in the Bahamas wouldn’t be the same!

 

Ben Rusi, s/v Christel, great meeting you in the Bahamas!

 

Susanne and Jan s/v Peter Pan,so good sharing a few moments with you!

 

Mary, Shane and Franklin, great meeting you all, you have amazing stories! Hope we meet again around Australia next year!

 

Kate and Rob, nice bumping into you, twice!

 

Gabriel and Jade, how awesome of you to take us surfing in the Dominican Republic and show us how it’s done! Thank you!

 

Joao, Nae, Maria, and Noel, s/v Dee, it was wonderful having friends along the way between Domincan Republic, Puerto Rico and St Maarten, and sharing so many moments (and a rental car)!

 

Ivan, Nikola, Peter, Nanny, we had the best time with you in the Bahamas and in Puerto Rico, good old friends. Thank you for your visit and for all the gifts!

 

Greg and Michelle s/v Semper Fi, great meeting you in Puerto Rico guys and sharing your amazing stories! Thank you for the tips, the T-shirts, and the hats!

 

Tom, you mad our stay in Water Island unforgettable, thank you!

 

Ilian and Bisi, it was so great meting you in Saba, hope we meet again!

 

Martine Dora and Raphael, happy to have met you in St Maarten, hope we see each other again, maybe in Tahiti? Raphael, thank you for the ride!

 

Line and Corentin, thank you for your company in St Kitts and for the music!

 

Sejah Joseph, thank you for being our friend and guide in St Kitts!

 

We also want to thank our Sponsors, all those companies and individuals who supported our journey. Thank you!

 

 

What’s Next?

Our plans are weather dependent and as fluid as the sea. If all is well, we will keep sailing south the Windward Islands, exploring some more interesting places, until we reach Tobago. From there we will sail west to Columbia, then Panama and across the canal to the South Pacific and Australia next year.

 

Follow our journey and LIKE us on Facebook to find out what will happen in our SECOND year of sailing. Everyone is welcome aboard!

Viktor, Maya, Mira

Viktor, Maya, Mira

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Dominican Republic Conclusions

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The Dominican Republic is a small tropical country occupying two thirds of the island of Hispaniola. It is the most visited destination of all other Caribbean nations attracting tourists with its natural beauty and geographical and biological diversity, luxurious beach resorts, small mountain villages, cities, rainforests, high mountains, caves, rivers, waterfalls. Here is the highest mountain peak in the Caribbean, the biggest lake with the lowest elevation, some of the best surfing beaches in the region and the first cathedral, castle, monastery, fortress, and university in all of the Americas. There is so much to see and do! Not surprisingly, we met many people from different corners of the world who have moved here permanently after visiting the country making the Dominican Republic their home. Even whales come here for their honeymoon.

We spent one month in the Dominican Republic travelling inland and visiting many of its historical sites and natural monuments. The further we explored the more we fell in love with this country and its nature and we promised ourselves, one day we will return.

The Best Hurricane Hole in The Caribbean

Anchorage in Luperon, Dominican Republic

Anchorage in Luperon, Dominican Republic

The anchorage in the small rural town of Luperon on the north shore of the Dominican Republic is a notorious hurricane hole surrounded by hills and cow pastures. Deep inside a channel among mangroves, with excellent holding, the bay harbors a community of sailboats, some staying here for years. It is a safe anchorage protected by the National Guard against theft where we left our boat at anchor for days and went to explore the interior of the island not worrying for the boat’s safety. 

Read full article The Hills of Luperon

The Highest Caribbean Mountain

Early morning on Pico Duarte

Early morning on Pico Duarte

Climbing the 3087 meters-high Pico Duarte was the best part of our visit to the Dominican Republic. It is an adventure that requires physical strength and endurance, provisions and gear for at least two days, a guide and mules. Walking through rainforests, inside dry riverbeds, through high-altitude meadows, pine forests, and mists was the most beautiful experience of our lives so far. And it’s not the summit but the journey to the summit that we so much enjoyed. We would do it again and again, once or twice every year if we had the chance.

Read full article Pico Duarte. Journey Beyond the Clouds

Most Extreme Waterfall Adventure

Evo

Evo

The Damajaqua Cascades is an extreme waterfall adventure that we all absolutely loved, more than we expected. The tour includes hiking up river for about 30-40 min and then swimming, sliding, cliff-jumping and diving downriver for about one hour. Young children are not permitted, and only physically fit adults can do all 27 waterfalls and cascades.

Read full article Swimming, Sliding, Jumping, Diving Down Damajaqua Cascades

The Oldest New World Capital

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Santo Domingo and its Colonial Zone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, should be on every visitor’s list. This is the oldest New World capital with some of the oldest colonial buildings, museums, and ruins. To us, it seemed much more impressive and preserved than the colonial zone in Havana, Cuba. In and around Santo Domingo there are many other tourist attractions. We only had time to visit the National Botanical Garden.

Read full article Santo Domingo. History, Culture, Nature

The Biggest and Lowest Caribbean Lake

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Lake Enriquillo in the southwestern part of the DR near the border with Haiti is one curious place. It is the biggest and saltiest Caribbean lake lying some 30 meters below sea level, populate by the densest in the world population of American crocodiles. On its arid shores, among dry spiky trees and cactus plants, we also met lots and lots of friendly lazy Rhinoceros Iguanas. Near the lake, in the town of Descubierta, we slept in the best hostel ever, an old house once belonging to a high-ranked official in Trujillo’s government, one of most terrible dictators the world has seen.

Read full article Lake Enriquillo. Crocodiles, Iguana, and Other Predators

The Surfing Mecca of The Caribbean

Kitesurf Beach, Cabarete

Kitesurf Beach, Cabarete

Cabarete near Puerto Plata on the north shore of the island became our favorite small town in the Dominican Republic. It is a very touristy, artsy, and laid-back place with a large community of expats who, together with locals and tourists, spend their entire time mostly surfing. Or kite-surfing. Or wind-surfing. Or paddle-boarding. Or chilling. We spent two memorable days in Cabarete with our friends Jade and Gabriel, surfing-maniacs and traveling junkies like us, who started us surfing a bit. Read about Jade&Gabby’s adventures and follow them at We Travel And Blog.

Read full article Surfing Cabarete

Oldest New World Settlement

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The ruins in Isabela Historica, a National Monument, are from the oldest settlement in the Americas constructed by Columbus and his settlers. Not much is left of the buildings but the place itself, a site up on the rocky cliffs facing the Atlantic Ocean near a snug little harbor is a beautiful place to see and hang around for a bit. There is a small museum with artifacts and historical information, as well as gift shops with hand-carved wooden Taino figurines, extremely cheap. Not too far is Montecristi, a small coastal town with very relaxed atmosphere and beautiful seascapes. One day was enough fo us to visit obth, Isabela and Montecristi.

Read full article Isabela Historica and Montecristi

Sailing Dominican Republic

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Cruising by sailboat around the Dominican Republic, especially on the north coast and especially going east, is not a joke. These are considered some of the most dangerous and difficult  waters for sailing due to unfavorable strong Trade winds, North Atlantic swell, strong Equatorial current and rocky shores with very little possibility for anchoring and sheltering, especially in bad weather coming from the north. A hook that helped us get from Luperon to Puerto Rico across the infamous Mona Passage safely is a must-read for anyone attempting the passage: The Gentelmen’s Guide to Passage South by Bruce Van Sand.

Read full article The Murderous Mona Passage

Our Biggest Regret

Cabo Samana, DR

Cabo Samana, DR

Not visiting Samana and the national park Los Haitises is our greatest regret. We were planning to stop there with the boat on our way from Luperon to Puerto Rico, but we had such a nice weather window that we ended up sailing all the way non-stop taking advantage of the favorable sea conditions. Samana and the park Los Haitises with their gigantic rocky cliffs looming over the sea and caves where the Taino Indians used to hide form the conquistadors provide the most impressive owe inspiring Jurassic vistas. The deep bay is also humpback wales breeding ground in the winter months. We hope to return to Dominican Republic some day and visit Samana. This time, we just sailed by the cape early in the morning absolutely stunned by the size and beauty of the cliffs.

Dominican Republic Facts

Entry Procedures for Sailors: The entry procedures are somewhat lengthy but not necessary unpleasant. You will have El Comandante from the National Army come aboard and inspect the boat, but chances are he is a really good guy. On shore you will go through customs and immigration and you need a dispacho when leaving a port.

Currency: They spend pessos in the DR. One USD is about 43 DR Pesos.

Language: Spanish is the language here and not many speak English or any other language. Moreover, the Dominican speak a very fast and muffled sort of Spanish, hard to hear and understand them even for Spanish-speaking people.

Security: Be vigilant, theft even gun shots are not uncommon occurrence in this part of the world. We didn’t have any problem, but it does not mean it is totally safe. Lock your boat/car/room and guard your stuff. Don’t get in trouble and respect everyone.

Music: If you don’t like merengue tipico you will be in hell here. Loud music is everywhere all the time booming from huge loudspeakers from restaurants, shops and cars parked at some street corner.

Food: Food is not expensive even in the restaurants. You can have a grilled chicken with french fries and beers for four people for less than 20 USD. Plantaines are everywhere and often they will serve you fried plantains instead of french fries, so make sure to make it clear what you order.

Shopping: mostly everything is available in the DR but only in the big cities. In the small ones like Luperon shopping is limited. For groceries there is a big chain store like WalMart in the big cities called La Sirena. Food is not expensive (especially after the Bahamas).

Water: Fresh water is a problem. There is no such thing as drinkable tap water and everyone buys huge water jugs. Not expensive.

Electricity: Electricity is a problem too. Many places have electricity for six hours and then don’t have electricity for the next 6 hours… Some people install generators.

Transportation: Getting from place to place is a hustle for visitors and locals. Fuel prices are high and there is no pubic buss. Instead, there are public guanchas, normal cars where 7 strangers get squeezed and the driver is usually crazy. The big highways are in excellent conditions but the small roads between cities are all broken up and sometimes not passable. The motoconcha, a motorbike, is another option to travel cheaply, but it is even more precarious than the guancha. Renting a car is a good option to travel independently and visit the country. You can rent a car for about 1000-1500 DR Pesos

Climate: the best of the tropics, always sunny and hot, windy near the shores, but rainy and very cold even freezing in the mountains. Bring a jacket if you plan to climb Pico Duarte.

Nature: Diverse, abundant, mostly unspoiled green nature virtually everywhere. Mountains, lakes, rivers and waterfalls, pastures, forests, beaches, banana plantations, paradise on earth.

 

 

* Other similar articles from the blog: Bahamas Conclusions

 

 

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The Murderous Mona Passage. Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico

After exactly one month in the Dominican Republic, a month full of unforgettable adventures and precious experiences all over the island, we are ready to continue our journey. But it doesn’t matter if we are ready or not. Continuing our journey depends entirely on the weather.

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The passage east from Luperon along the north cost of the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous passage in the world. This 250 nautical mile stretch of Trade winds, high North Atlantic seas, untenable rocky shore, great variation in depths, unpredictable currents, and fast-forming storm cells across the Mona Passage and the Puerto Rican trench, the deepest hole in the Atlantic Ocean, has been the final stretch for many sound boats and experienced crews, including Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria.

For one month at anchor in Luperon we listened to the horror stories of fellow sailors who have braved these waters, many damaging even losing their boats.

“We call Luperon ‘The Trap’. You know why? Because lots of cruisers arriving from the Bahamas get stuck here for months even years and cannot continue east. Some sell their boats and take the plane home”, they tell us.

They also tell us that the only possible way to transit these waters safely is to study Bruce Van Sand’s book The Gentlemen’s Guide to Passages South and do exactly as he says. Not to read the book, to study it! Bruce Van Sand, “an American working internationally as systems engineer” who lives in Puerto Plata (and we had the good fortune to meet him there and chat for a while), has been cruising these waters for decades back and forth over 100 times and knows them better than anyone else. His book is the result of extensive research and experience providing all necessary information about choosing weather and sailing strategies, planning routes, understanding wind, land and cape effects, avoiding shoals, currents, and storms.

Cabo Samana, DR

Cabo Samana, DR

Luckily, we have the book.  We begin reading and re-reading it hoping the precious information inside it will enlighten and reassure us. It surely does enlighten us, but instead of reassuring us it terrifies us even more. In The Mona Passage and Sailing The North Shores chapters we read about such terrors as “the cape effect” which “can murder you”, “severe wicked thunderstorms” that “charge like bulls”, “a wedge of swift and raging water” behind capes, “unpredictable currents everywhere”, “coastal acceleration”, “ferocious swells”, “rough shoals”, “shock waves of heavy conditions” , and “hydro-thermodynamic chaos”. Sailing here can be “flat out suicidal”, according to the author. “You probably shall have the stuffing kicked out of you”.

Mira with Bruce Van Sand, Puerto Plata, DR

Mira with Bruce Van Sand, Puerto Plata, DR

Not a fun book to read if you are planning to actually go out there and attempt sailing the Dominican Republic north coast against the Trades and crossing the Mona Passage, but it surely thought us a lot, and we did appreciate every bit of information and advice in it. We did follow the few simple rules from the book and we did have “a thornless passage”

The rules:

·         Choose an oversized weather window;

·         Go only when the forecast gradient wind blows less than 15 knots south of east, less than 12 knots if blowing dead east, and less than 10 knots if the wind has any northerly component;

·         Hide behind the capes in the daytime and transit them at night motoring when the wind dies out due to the night lee and the katabatic wind effect;

·         Stay close to shore, 1 to 3 miles, or in about 80-100 feet depth;

·         Plan 2 nights and 1 day to cross the Mona Passage;

·         Stay clear of the shoals in the Mona Passage;

·         Avoid the storm cells by tacking north-northeast for half the Mona Passage and then tacking back south.

Wing-on-wing

Wing-on-wing

A weather window opens up right when we need it, after a month of steady 20-25 knot east trades and two days after we return from our epic Dominican Republic road trip ready to sail! It is a giant window of mild south and southeast winds less than 10 knots, an oversized window forecasted to be wide open for about a week with a period of deadcalm and virtually no swell. This kind of weather conditions form here probably once or twice a year. We and about a dozen more boats anchored in Luperon among which our friends the SailingDee family, grab the opportunity and…jump right out of the window!

Dolphins guiding Fata Morgana

Dolphins guiding Fata Morgana

We start in the evening, as Mr. Van Sand taught us, shamefully motoring, stopping in Rio San Juan, 50 NM east of Luperon, to rest for a few hours. We plan to stop again in Escondido, then in Samana, and finally in Punta Macao before crossing the Mona Passage but we end up sailing straight to Puerto Rico from Rio San Juan non-stop as the sea conditions are perfect and we decide to keep going. The crossing takes us 5 days, sailing 80% of the time, motoring only the first two nights along the Dominican north shore and past some of the capes. The Mona Passage is so calm, we let the kids steer the boat. We even have a period of becalmed seas but the “unpredictable shifting current” is in our favor and we slowly drift towards Puerto Rico, avoiding shoals and storm cells from the north.

We arrive in Ponce, Puerto Rico after 5 days of very pleasant relaxed sailing, our fuel tanks half-full (last fueled 5 months ago in Key West), nothing damaged on the boat, none of us tired or scared. We actually enjoyed this passage a lot, enjoyed sailing, and even enjoyed a nice big mahogany snapper who joined us for lunch (and for supper) near the Puerto Rican shores.

What to do with a big fish in 4 steps:

Step 1 – Pull it out of the water;

Step 2 – Remove head, skin, and bones and form nice juicy fillets;

Step 3 – Fry the fillets with egg and flour;

Step 4 – Enjoy!

Mahogany snapper

Step 1

 

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Step 2

 

Step 3

Step 3

Step 4

Step 4

 

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Lake Enriqillo. Iguanas, Crocodiles, and Other Predators

Lago Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic is mind-blowing.

lago Enriquillo

lago Enriquillo

Located to the southwest near Haiti, it is the largest lake in the Caribbean (375 square kilometers) as well as the lowest point in the entire region and on any ocean island in the world falling 45 m bellow sea level. It is a hypersaline lake with waters three times saltier than the seawater and has no outlet. The lake is located only 53 miles to the north-east  from the highest point in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte, and is one of only a few saltwater lakes  in the world inhabited by crocodiles. It has the largest documented population and highest concentration in the world of the endangered American crocodile, about 18 crocs per square mile. Rhinoceros Iguanas, anotherr threatened endemic species, also proliferate near the shores, and flamingos visit the lake’s only island, Isla Cabritos.

Rhinoceros Iguana

Rhinoceros Iguana

It takes us two days to get there from our anchorage in Luperon, we start in the afternoon. First we drive south to Santo Dominigo and from there we start going west. The land gradually becomes dryer, we drive across a salty desert now, cacti by the road. We spend the night at a roadside motel, terrible place, everything dirty and broken, sheep roaming among junk in the backyard, but cheap…

The next day we keep driving west and sometime before noon the road brings us along the shores of Lago Enriquillo. There are not many people in this part of the country. It is a beautiful hot day and the lake sleeps under clear skies.

Lago Enriquillo

Lago Enriquillo

Here we meet the iguanas who are almost tame waiting for handouts near the visitor’s center and we even have a close encounter with the crocodiles. After a short walk through tangles shrubs and dead trees near the shores we suddenly notice someone is watching us from the water. I start taking picture thinking the crocodile will soon get scared and run away, but instead it slowly turns towards us and starts swimming in our direction. Well then, we get scared and run away instead. At the visitor’s center a guy explains that it is nesting season and the crock-mamas are protecting their eggs deposited in nests of sand and mud near the water’s edge, so good thing we left the scene on time. I still snap a picture though!

American Crocodile, Lake Enriquillo

American Crocodile, Lake Enriquillo

Guided boat tours are organized daily starting from the visitors’ center and going around the lake and to Isla Cabritos where hundreds of wild American Crocodiles live undisturbed. But it is very expensive unless there are at least 10 people sharing the boat and its cost. But there is no other visitors than us, so we skip the tour. Plus we already saw a crocodile, didn’t we?

Instead we walk around the shores. We wander and we wonder. Why so many dead trees? The shores look flooded. And they are. Local people explain that after a great hurricane which brought much rain and inundation a few years ago, the lake expanded and flooded much of the shores. Many people lost their lands and crops.

Near the shores, Lago Enriquillo

Near the shores, Lago Enriquillo

From the lake’s visitors center the small town of Descubierta is just a few miles to the west. It is a charming little town near the lake with a park where the river has been captured to form a big natural pool, they call balneario, and the entire town’s population gathers here on weekends to chill and bathe. Young and old swim and jump, and soap each others hairs. There are a few restaurants around the pool and the music never stops.

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For only $12 we rent a room in Descubierta in a big old house built and owned by a high-ranked official in the Trujillo’s government.

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Hostel in Descubierta

After his death, his daughter and her husband, now a retired old couple, transformed the big house into a hostel with 5 or 6 rooms. They live in one of the rooms and rent the rest.

Living-room

Living-room

We are welcome to use all common spaces, the kitchen, the living-room, the backyard, and we get a complementary bag of mangoes (it’s mango season in the Dominican Republic and mangoes are all over the place). It feels like we are guests at some old friends’ house. It is a great house and the best hostel we ever been to. Our room has two huge double beds, it is clean and we have a big ventilator. The kids love it, what to move in and live permanently.

Our room

Our room

For me, the best part of this house is its story and background. I can’t hide my amazement at hearing the whole thing about Trujillo’s high ranked official building this house and now we sleeping in it. I spend hours talking to the daughter and the son-in-law who turns out is a retired school inspector and Philosophy graduate from the university in Ciudad Trujillo (Santo Domingo was named Trujillo during the dictatorship period). They are great people, very cultured, very open and welcoming. We talk politics.

In short, they tell me that Trujillo’s government „was not such a bad government“ in terms of progress achieved (if we don’t count the horrible massacres, assassination of political opposition, and plots against other countries and their presidents, among other horrors).

Trujillo, a short history lesson

The beginning of the 20th century was for the Dominican Republic a time of political and economic instability and civil wars escalating in a political deadlock in 1914 with a few presidents assassinated.

As a result, in May 16, 1916 U.S. Marines occupied the Dominican Republic and established a military government. Censorship and limits on public speech were imposed.  A professional National Guard which later became the National Army was created. The guerrilla war against the occupation U.S. forces was met with brutal response.

But there were also some positive aspects of the U.S. occupation regime which kept most Dominican laws and institutions. The economy was revived, the enormous Dominican debt reduced, and a road network that interconnected all regions of the country was built.

Opposition to the occupation continued, however, and in October 1922 the U.S. government in Dominican Republic ended. The victor of the 1924 elections which followed was Horacio Vásquez Lajara, who gave the country six years of good government, in which political and civil rights were respected and the economy grew strongly, in a peaceful atmosphere.

In February 1930, when Vásquez attempted to win another term, opponents rebelled, in secret alliance with the commander of the National Army General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Vásquez resigned. Trujillo was elected president.

The Trujillo iron-fisted regime supported by the U.S. and the Dominican elite was a time of violent political repressions, massacres, plots against other countries, absolute repression and the copious use of murder, torture, and terrorist methods against the opposition. However, it was also a time of considerable economic growth. There was progress in healthcare, education, and transportation, with the building of hospitals and clinics, schools, roads and harbors, an important housing construction program and the creation of a pension plan. Trujillo also negotiated an undisputed border with Haiti in 1935, achieved the end of the 50-year customs agreement with USA in 1941, instead of 1956 and made the country debt-free in 1947. He also became the country’s wealthiest person and one of the wealthiest people in the world.

But Trujio will forever be remembered for the inconceivable crimes he and his government has committed.

Some famous crimes committed by Trujillo

He promoted propaganda against the large Haitian population in the DR and in 1937 ordered the mass-killong of Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. During the Parsley Massacre or, El Corte (The Cutting) Army soldiers using machetes killed an estimated 17,000 to 35,000 Haitians over six days, from the night of October 2, 1937 through October 8, 1937.

On November 25, 1960 Trujillo killed three of the four Mirabal sisters, nicknamed Las Mariposas (The Butterflies). The victims were Patria Mercedes Mirabal, Argentina Minerva Mirabal, and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal. Minerva was an aspiring lawyer who was extremely opposed to Trujillo’s dictatorship since Trujillo had begun to make rude sexual advances towards her. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is observed on the anniversary of their deaths.

In 1960 Trujillo’s agents attempted to assassinate the Venezuelan president, Rómulo Betancourt.

Trujillo was assassinated on May 30, 1961.

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Swimming, Sliding, Jumping, Diving Down Damajaqua Cascades

On the 7th day of our Road Trip we visit the Dmajaqua Cascades, a national monument and one of the most thrilling tourist destinations in the Dominican Republic.

Our nomadik family with helmets and life jackets ready for action, Damajaqua Cascades

Our nomadik family with helmets and life jackets ready for action, Damajaqua Cascades

The tour starts with a 30-40 minutes hike along a trail from the visitors’ center through a lush rainforest to the top of the waterfalls where the extreme adventure begins.

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Visitors can choose to tackle 7, 12, or all 27 waterfalls. Most people go for 7. We go for all 27.

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On weekends and later in the day it can become crowded so we choose a Monday and make sure to get there early, around 8 a.m., thus we have the falls to ourselves during our entire visit.

The guide helping Maya

The guide helping Maya

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The experience can be challenging, and only strong swimmers in good physical shape (8 years old and over) should attempt cascading. Walking back down the mountain trail is always an option.

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Viktor

Viktor

 

Helmets, lifejackets, and guides are mandatory and provided by the park. We cannot bring nothing with us but water bottles and a submersible camera. Our guide is very friendly and enjoys the journey as much as us. “The water is a bit wet” he cautions us before we plunge at the first fall, “but it’s not cold. We don’t have cold water in the Dominican Republic.”

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Mira

Mira

 

From now on we are constantly in the river, walking down the shallow parts and inside narrow canyons with dark slippery walls covered with moss, jumping from cliffs, sliding over small cascades, swimming in deeper pools formed under waterfalls. It’s beautiful.

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Sometimes we slide head first, sometimes we have to jump in a shallow spot with our legs bent, and sometimes we have to jump from the top of a waterfall aiming in a precise very tight place, better don’t miss it because there are rocks around it. People can get injured here easily if they don’t do exactly what the guide tells them.

Mira

Mira

Maya

Maya

 

The scariest part is the 10-meter (30 feet) jump form a cliff in a small pool below.

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Maya goes first every time, I think she is an adrenalin junky, has no fear, and is enjoying every minute of this adventure. It is not the first time she is jumping from a 10 meter waterfall. She has already done it in Agua Caliente, Guatemala a few months ago.

Maya

Maya

Maya

Maya

 

Viktor is no less excited and doesn’t hesitate at any of the jumps.

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Viktor and Maya

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Evo, it goes without mentioning, is eager to make the plunge too, and there is mad joy in his eyes.

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Evo

Evo

But me, I am afraid of heights, and just looking down from the cliff makes my hands sweating. It takes me a few minutes of hesitation.

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Viktor

Viktor

 

I am standing on the edge of the cliff looking down. Evo and the kids are cheering from below “Come on mom, jump!”. The guide is behind me repeating in a low voice: “ Do it! Do it!” I am afraid he might push me.

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Mira and Evo

To jump or not to jump? This is the question. And if not to jump, then how the hell to get down there? I jump! First time in my life (and I hope last).

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Thus, after about an hour of swimming, sliding, cliff-jumping and diving, we are back at the visitors center. We have survived all 27 waterfalls at Damajacua Cascades.

Damajaqua Cascadas

Damajaqua Cascadas

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In The Footsteps of Columbus. Isabela Historica and Montecristi

Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.

-Christopher Columbus

Not far from our Luperon anchorage is the site of the very first European settlement in America, La Isabela, founded by Christopher Columbus and named after Queen Isabella de Castile. We stop here for a visit on the sixth day of our road trip across the Dominican Republic.

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Set on the rocky cliffs near a small river delta facing the Atlantic Ocean, the place where Columbus and the new settlers built their houses, storerooms, and a Roman Catholic church is today a national historical site. Here visitors can see the remains of a few stone foundations of buildings and a lonely tree still standing on the cliffs where the first New World mass was held. There is a unique feel about this place, a strangeness in the air like ghosts, a sense of struggle, disillusion, death.

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After the first unsuccessful attempt to build a permanent settlement in the New World during his first voyage, Columbus returned to the island of Hispaniola in 1493 with seventeen ships bringing more than a thousand settlers: carpenters, stonemasons, and other workers, as well as horses, livestock, wheat, and sugarcane. He also brought priests, soldiers, guns, rats, and a variety of European diseases: measles, smallpox, and typhus. The colonists began the construction of the New World on top of Some Other World that was considered so inferior and insignificant that it could be disregarded and ultimately annihilated. The world of the Taino Indians.

Under this tree the first New World mass was held.

Under this tree the first New World mass was held 5 centuries ago.

Initially, the Europeans and the Tainos who inhabited the island since many centuries led a life of peaceful coexistence, exchanging goods and knowledge. But it didn’t last long. Columbus had an important mission and it was not merely building a new settlement and bonding with the natives. He was in pursuit of gold. But gold was nowhere to be found and the colonists came up with an alternative plan to make a profit. They enslaved many of the Taino Indians and imposed a heavy tax on those who remained free. The ones who revolted against the injustice were brutally slaughtered. Within twenty years of the arrival of the Europeans, the native Taino population was wiped out completely by murder, slavery, imported diseases, and suicide.

Ruins at Isabela Historica.

Ruins at Isabela Historica.

The new settlers did not prosper much either. Within a few years their crops failed, they begun to die of starvation, scurvy and influenza, and their buildings and ships were destroyed by hurricanes. In 1498 Columbus abandoned his settlement project and returned to Spain with a damaged reputation.

The site of Christopher Columbus house.

The site of Christopher Columbus house.

Today Isabela Historica is a site worth visiting. The admission fee is about $1.50. Earlier in the day there are no other tourists but us. Apart from the ruins, there is a small museum with some artifacts and miniature models of the ships and the church, as well as lots of information (in Spanish only). It takes us less than an hour to see everything without being in a hurry.  On the way out we stop at the souvenir shop to adopt a hand-carved Taino figurine for only about $2.

Wooden Taino figurines at the souvenir shop.

Wooden Taino figurines at the souvenir shop.

It is still morning and we have time to explore further. We drive west. This part of the country is dry and desolate. We pass through salt flats and poor small villages populated by Haitians until we arrive in Montecristi, a coastal town near the Haitian border, which was once a prosperous trading center, doing business with pirates. Here Columbus found some gold in the river. It was also the site of the signing of el Manifesto de Montecristi by Maximo Gomez and Jose Marti at Maximo Gomez house on Mella Street.

Village near the salt flats, Montecristi.

Village near the salt flats, Montecristi.

Today visitors come to Montecristi mainly for the dramatic vistas the rocky shores provide. An 825-foot El Morro suddenly rises from the sea 2 miles north of town. Beneath, Atlantic waves crush onto a small beach of red sand and round stones.

El Morro & beach, Montecristi

El Morro & beach, Montecristi

Another beach near the marina closer to town is very popular with the locals who spend their weekends chilling here all day long, to the loud sound of merengue tipico booming from the loudspeakers of cars parked near-by.

Kids at Montecristi beach.

Kids at Montecristi beach.

Before heading back to Luperon, we stop at a small PicaPollo, a local fast-food place surrounded by stray dogs where a portion of 4 pieces of fried chicken with fried plantains, French fries or rice costs less than $2. It is not the healthiest food but it does miracles for hungry people. You can find  a PicaPollo at every street corner in Dominican Republic. The one in Monteristi is the best.

Fishing boats, Montecristi.

Fishing boats, Montecristi.

Mira and Evo, Montecristi

Mira and Evo, Montecristi

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Santo Domingo. History, Culture And Nature

After „conquering“ Pico Duarte, we keep driving south to Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the capital and largest city in the  Dominican Republic and the most populated metropolis in the entire Caribbean region.

Alcazar de Colon, the oldest Viceregal residence in America. The building houses the Museo Alcázar de Diego Colón, whose collection exhibits the Caribbean's most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art

Alcazar de Colon, the oldest Viceregal residence in America. The building houses the Museo Alcázar de Diego Colón, whose collection exhibits the Caribbean’s most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art

Founded by Christopher Columbus’s younger brother Bartholomew Columbus in 1496, the city is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas and the headquarters of Spanish colonial rule in the New World.

Street outside the the French Embassy, in a building said to have been the house of Hernán Cortés.

Street outside the the French Embassy, in a building said to have been the house of Hernán Cortés.

Santo Domingo is the site of the first university, cathedral, castle, monastery, and fortress in the New World and the city’s Colonial Zone is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Ruins of the Franciscan Monastery (Monasterio de San Francisco)

Ruins of the Franciscan Monastery (Monasterio de San Francisco)

We wish we had at least one week to spend here, even a month, as there are innumerable sites, museums, tourist attractions, and cultural events worth seeing in Santo Domingo. But we only have one day. We decide the best thing to do in a day is visit the Colonial Zone and the National Botanical Garden.

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A church in the Colonial Zone

The Ciudad Colonial is located on the west bank of the Ozama River. It covers less than 5 square kilometers where the concentration of colonial landmarks is overwhelming.

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Panteon de la Patria in a former Jesuit Church

We walk on the oldest paved street in the New World dating from 1502, Calle las Damas to Parque Colon, a square that borders a 16th-century Cathedral. We see fortresses, cathedrals, ruins and building dating from 1500’s and 1600’s.

Parque Colon and the Cathedral.

Parque Colon and Cathedral.

After visiting the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo we spend a few hours in the National Botanical Garden.

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Named after Dr. Rafael María Moscoso, the first Dominican botanist who wrote a catalog of the plants of the Spanish island in 1943, the Botanical Garden occupies a large territory of a few square mile and was founded in 1976 to study and preserve the varied plant life of the Dominican Republic.

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We take a small train tour inside this plant sanctuary among bromeliads, ferns, palms, orchids, and aquatic plants. A favorite spot is the Japanese garden with its small island in the middle of a green pond.

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We left a small part of out hearts in Santo Domingo, a site of so much history, culture and beauty. One day we will surely return.

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Pico Duarte. Journey Beyond The Clouds

Purple mountains all around us and over our heads. A sea of clouds beneath our feet. The world is mellow. Time is slumbering. The meaning of life has changed in the folds of these moments.  

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In the afternoon, after a day of hiking up and down El Mogote near Jarabacoa, we drive west to La Ciénega, a small mountain village in the heart of the Cordillera Central range, the greatest of the Dominican Republic’s mountain chains. The road is narrow and in bad condition, portions of the pavement are missing, a landslide slows us down, but it is passable and we arrive in La Ciénega before dark.

In the colmado, a small grocery store and bar where village people have gathered in the evening to drink beer, we ask for directions to the national park Armando Bermudez.

          You going to climb Pico Duarte?, a guy at the bar asks us.

Named after Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the Dominican Republic’s founding fathers, Pico Duarte is the highest peak in the entire Caribbean region with elevation of 3,087 meters. There is a well-maintained system of trails leading up to the summit, with trailheads at several locations all managed by the national park service. The easiest access is from the town of La Ciénega. The trail is 23.1 km (14.4 mi) to the summit, with a total elevation gain of about 2,000 meters and a shelter 5 km away from the summit. This is the most popular and shortest route which usually takes 2-3 days, other trails can take up to a week. The route is steep and can be muddy in places, but is not difficult. Hiking Pico Duarte is only possible between December and March when is the dry season. The rest of the year there are too many storms and rain. In April, we are already a bit late.

Pico Duarte Trail

Pico Duarte Trail

We are not sure if we want to climb Pico Duarte, we didn’t prepare any equipment for 2-3 days hike, plus we don’t know if we can afford it.  Apart from the park permits all persons are required by the national park service to hire a local guide and mules; entering the park without a guide is not allowed. We heard the price for a guide and mules is about $100-$130 per person. We are 4 and cannot spend $400-$500 to climb a mountain.

Turns out the guy at the bar, a short chubby guy who speaks a very particular sort of fast unfinished Spanish as if his mouth is full of marbles and I cannot understand half the things he is saying, is one of about 60 official guides in the village and he agrees, after about an hour of bargaining, to lead us to Pico Duarte for a total of $100, two mules included, but we have to make the journey in two and not in three days, and we have to pay for the food. Deal. We spend an additional $25 to buy all necessary food products for the five of us for two days: rice, canned tomato paste, oil, chicken noodle soup, sugar, hot chocolate powder, bread, smoked pork meat, crackers and waffles. Our guide looks pleased with the provisioning. At the park’s entrance we also pay $10 for park permits for the four of us ($2.50 each) and we rent 4 decommissioned American Army sleeping bags for $15 at the park; we need good warm sleeping bags as it gets freezing cold in the mountains at night; the American Army ones are probably the best we can get. Thus the entire excursion costs us $150 including food and sleeping accommodations for two days and nights. Not bad at all.

Bunk beds in the park's cabin where we spend the first night.

Bunk beds in the park’s cabin where we spend the first night.

That night we are accommodated at the park’s lodge at the trailhead, free of charge. We sleep tucked in our army sleeping bags in a small room with two metal bunk beds and occasional night-rats running on the roof beams. Not the most comfortable accommodation, but we are absolutely exhausted and our muscles hurt from hiking all day up El Mogote, so we sleep tight all night. It gets very cold. It rains for some time too that night. I am not sure hiking Pico Duarte immediately after hiking El Mogote and after months of just sitting in a boat at sea level is a great idea. Hope the kids will make it.

In the morning an invasion of people and cars and mules in the parking lot next to our lodge wakes us up at around 6 a.m. Turns out a group of over twenty hikers from Santo Domingo are going to the peak as well. They are all young people looking like professional athletes wearing special bright-colored hiking clothes and special bright-colored hiking shoes and special bright-colored hiking socks, brand new. They have special hiking sticks and special hiking hats and special hiking water-bottles. They don’t have special hiking backpacks, as a large herd of mules will lug their equipment up the mountain: clothes, food supplies, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, tons of stuff. We feel like some poor amateurs, with our unprofessional shoes and clothes all muddy from yesterday’s hike, and decommissioned American Army sleeping bags. We now doubt we will ever make it to the peak. Plus, our guide is late and the group of professional-looking hikers takes off about an hour before he shows up. Finally, our guide arrives with two frail sorry-looking mules, Pintero and Margarita. We load all our stuff on Margarita. Pintero is “the ambulance”, our guide explains, anyone who feels too tired to walk can hop on Pintero.

Our guide, our stuff, the mules, and us.

Our guide, our stuff, the mules, and us.

We begin walking into the foothills of the mountain entering the evergreen world of the tropical rainforest. Palms, giant ferns, and bamboo trees. A creek runs parallel to the trail. The air feels fresh.

Maya in a bamboo forest

Maya in a bamboo forest

Trail through rainforest

Trail through rainforest

 

The trail is divided into 8 portions. The first one, 4 kilometers, is the easiest with only about 170 meters elevation gain walking on soft earth. The second and the third one, 4 km and 3 km, are not bad either, with a total of about 600 meters elevation gain up to La Laguna, walking inside what looks like a dry riverbed. From La Laguna begins the hard part to station number 4 and 5, El Cruce and Aguita Fria.

Walking in a dry riverbed

Walking in a dry riverbed

Evo and Maya on the trail

Evo and Maya on the trail

 

Viktor and Evo

Viktor and Evo

Our guide calls this portion of the trail El Repentimiento, The Repent, for people and mules repent and regret coming here. We now climb a steep narrow path covered with loose rocks. It is very physically challenging, tiring, and dangerous, at 2,600 meters above sea level. 

Viktor

Viktor

Our guide Maya on the mule and Evo

Our guide Maya on the mule and Evo

 

Here the fauna and climate have changed completely. Tall pines begin to appear at the side of the road. We enter a pine forest with understory of shrubs and areas of treeless meadows of tussock-like pajones. The air is cool and humid, it might rain. We now walk inside clouds.

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There are a few fresh water springs labeled „Potable“ along the trail where we fill our bottles with delicious mountain spring water. We stop to rest and have lunch and we continue. Maya, Viktor and me take turns riding Pintero, Ivo walks all the way carrying a big backpack. I figured that it is best for the poor mule if one of us is riding him instead of our guide who is a lot heavier than us and every time nobody is in need on “an ambulance” he hops on top.

Margarita, Pintero and Maya

Margarita, Pintero and Maya

Riding the mule is almost as difficult and painful as walking up the trail. The animal jumps up and down the path, accelerates, and trips over rocks. Pretty soon your butt starts to hurt badly from the saddle and your legs and knees from trying to squeeze, balance and hold on to the mule. But at least your hearth gets a chance to rest from the heavy workout when climbing at high altitude.

Viktor with the mules.

Viktor with the mules.

Maya with the mules.

Maya with the mules.

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Pintero on the way

Pintero on the way

We arrive at Le Comparticion, last base before the summit,  4 o’clock in the afternoon after 8 hours of hiking and riding Pintero, just before a thin rain begins to fall. It gets cold. Some of the hikers from the Santo Domingo group are already here gathered around a small fire outside the hut. They all look pretty tired, but still have enough energy to make jokes; we join in and we even make a new friend, his name is Maurice. The ones who haven’t arrived yet are those we passed on the way up, exhausted, all beaten-up and unhappy. They arrive, wet from the rain, later in the evening, some late in the night. And everybody cheers when they come!

Comparticion, last basecamp before Pico Duarte

Comparticion, last basecamp before Pico Duarte

Comparticion lodge and tents.

Comparticion lodge and tents.

 

We place our sleeping bags in one of the corners of the long wooden shelter near the fireplace. Inside is almost as cold as outside. The Santo Domingo hikers quickly take up all the rest of the space with their inflatable mattresses.

Inside the lodge. This is exactly half of the room. The other half is exactly the same, behind me from where I am standing; there are two doors to my left and right.

Inside the lodge. This is exactly half of the room. The other half is exactly the same, behind me from where I am standing; there are two doors to my left and right.

Our guide prepares the supper for the five of us over a fire stove in the building next to the sleeping hut: tomato rice with smoked meat all baked in a big pot. Tastiest meal ever. We feast on that while the Santo Domingo crowd nibble on healthy energy bars and crackers.

Evo and the guide making supper.

Evo and the guide making supper.

Maya by the fire in the kitchen.

Maya by the fire in the kitchen.

 

Tomato rice with smoked pork.

Tomato rice with smoked pork.

And then we die. We crawl inside our decommissioned American Army „body-bags“, and we curl on the floor. We envy all those people around us mounted on top of comfortable inflatable mattresses with clean shiny sleeping bags and pillows, who even took “showers” in the opposite corner of the hut before going to bed, organizing small shower rooms. The whole cabin smells of shampoo. That night the rats are nowhere to be found probably terrified by so much cleanliness and the smell of perfumes. We sleep to the rhythmical pro-logic surround sounds of people snoring and we wake up every time a girl with a flashlight gets up to go out and pee.

The Santo Domingo hikers and there inflatable mattresses...

The Santo Domingo hikers and there inflatable mattresses…

Us, inside our rented decommissioned American Army sleeping bags... (the empty one is mine (Mira), I am taking the picture)

Us, inside our rented decommissioned American Army sleeping bags… (the empty one is mine (Mira), I am taking the picture)

 

The next morning we wake up 5 a.m. It is still completely dark and unbelievably cold outside, below freezing. We put on all our warm clothes, long pants, jackets and hats, and we eat bread and drink the hot chocolate our guide has made over the fire stove, with extra sugar. The summit is only 5 km away and the hike should not be too difficult but we need to get up there and then walk all the way down to Cienaga in one day. This time we start before everyone else, the Santo Domingo group has to deal with inflatable mattresses, take morning showers, and figure out something for breakfast. We just roll up our second-hand “body-bags” and off we go holding flashlights.

Early morning on Pico Duarte

Early morning on Pico Duarte

About half an hour later, the sun begins its slow rise from the east. First everything around us becomes purple and mysterious. Then, at 3,000 meters, the most beautiful moment in our lives. Golden shafts of sunlight like cathedral light coming from under a sea of thick orange and pink clouds, slanting down the black pines, illuminating them as if they catch on fire, everything still, and the mists rising to meet the sky, grass and pine needles bathed in dew, and all the way around and below us the grand secret mountains covered in frost, slumbering.

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Pretty soon we reach the summit. Nothing stands higher than us now in all of the Caribbean islands.

Viktor and Maya at the summit. Pico Duarte

Viktor and Maya at the summit. Pico Duarte

Cookies and hot chocolate on the summit. Pico Duarte

Cookies and hot chocolate on the summit. Pico Duarte

 

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Mountain After The Rain. El Mogote

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After our brief visit in Santiago, we head to Jarabacoa, a small town in the Central Mountain Range of the Dominican Republic. The road is now narrow going up and down, turning left and right through beautiful green countryside. Cars and motoconchas suddenly appear behind curves. The pavement is damaged, big holes, sometimes there is no pavement at all and we go off-road for a while moving very slowly.

We arrive in Jarabacoa in the afternoon. The town is charming, looks like everyone is in the streets, kids are running around, and we see other tourists in the bars and restaurants here and there.The town in the heart of tropical rainforest mountains attracts many tourists. There are three rivers crossing the region offering  organized whitewater rafting adventures, excursions to waterfalls and rancheos, and lots of hiking trails.

We rent a room for less than $15.00 (600 pesos) at a hostel , a private house which has been transformed into a small hotel.

Hostel's back yard in Jarabacoa

Hostel’s back yard in Jarabacoa

The owner is very friendly and lets us sleep in a room with one double bed and one single bed where we spread our inflatable mattress so that the four of us have enough space to sleep.

We come out here to have supper, food we have brought with us.

We come out here to have supper, food we have brought with us.

We also have internet and hot water (this is absolutely extraordinary, many cheap hotels don’t have water at all, and if they do, it is cold, even though the water in the tropics is never really cold).

Our hotel room

Our hotel room

Rain starts falling in the night. There is nothing more peaceful than abundant mountain rain roaring on a tin roof in the dark.

The hostel cat Missi (Missi is a boy)

The hostel cat Missi in the morning (Missi is a boy)

The next morning we wake up early. Our host tells us we can visit the famous Jimenoa waterfall not far from town, we can drive all the way up to the fall (all tourists go there), or hike all day up the mountain to El Mogote, the highest peak in the area, 5160 feet. It is a long and physically challenging hike, if we want to make it to the top and return before dark we have to hurry up. We choose the mountain.

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It is a challenging hike, very difficult work out at times, steep and slippery after last night rain, but the trail is wide and we don’t need a guide to find it.

The trail to El Mogote

The trail to El Mogote

There are places where we have to help each other and sometimes we fall over rocks and mud. The rain has made the terrain more difficult to walk, but also so beautiful and fresh.

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Maya

Maya

 

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Sparkling raindrops are hanging from the edge of leaves, small wet bugs are drying their winds in the morning sun, the smell of wild oranges fills the air.

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It takes us 3 hours to reach the summit, seams forever. We stop to rest often.

Maya

Maya

We are exhausted, sweaty, covered with mud. But we are so happy to be finally here, on top of the mountain.

Maya resting.

Maya resting inside to tower on the summit

Valleys, fields, small villages stretch beneath us, far in the distance. We see the island, green and vast, silent under the clouds.

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Tower and a locked-down ranger station at El Mogote

Tower and a locked-down ranger station at El Mogote

 

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Viktor, Maya, Mira on the summit, El Mogote

 

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