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15. Jan, 2010

Bravissimo

Bravissimo

At night, the Ocean World Casino presents a Vegas style show they call Bravissimo. The dancers, costumes, and music is nothing less than first class! If you have never been to Vegas, this is about as close as you can get. And being that this show takes place in the Dominican Republic, it’s nothing less than amazing!

Starting at 9pm and lasting approximately one hour, after taking your seat, get ready for the show to begin. With a combination of Latin music ranging from Samba to Bachata, the performers sing, dance, and simply wow the audience with every number they perform. Between each song all the performers change costumes. And these costumes are nothing less that spectacular! (more…)

12. Jan, 2010

Cave Diving in the Dominican Republic

Cave Diving in the Dominican Republic

Today, I tried something new…cave diving!

A couple months back, I met with a guy who owned a dive shop in Santo Domningo. I asked him, “What’s so special about diving the Dominican Republic?” “The Caves”, he answered! Hmmmm, I thought. I’ve never done that before. Sounds fun!

So today, I met with a Dive Master in Boca Chica, just East of the capital, Santo Domingo. Normally when I dive, I get into a boat. Or sometimes I just head down the beach and walk right into the ocean. But not today. Today, I’m getting into a mini-van! Today is going to be a new experience for sure. (more…)

19. Dec, 2009

My Fascination With Bolivia

7 Mile Beach, Grand Cayman

7 Mile Beach, Grand Cayman

Years ago, during another adventure, I ended up on the island of Grand Cayman just South of Cuba in the Caribbean. I had just finished hitch hiking a few thousand miles from California to Florida, with a couple detours in between. Now it was time to leave the USA. Sitting in the Miami airport, I watched the marque displaying airline departures and wondered how far South I could get for as little money as I had on me. After a few question at the ticket counter, I was on my way to Grand Cayman.

After arriving in Grand Cayman, you must go through customs. I was a little naive at this time and did not know then, what I know now. The customs official asks you questions such as, how long will you be staying? And at what resort are you staying at? It’s obvious now that the purpose of these questions is to make sure you have sufficient funds to stay in their country, and that you will contribute to the local economy instead of become a drain on it.

Well, being stupid and very naive at the time, I told the customs official I had no reservations in a hotel, and that I would figure out my lodging options upon arrival. Of course, that did not go over well and was very unacceptable to the customs agent. He gave me a 3-day visa, and told me that would be enough time to arrange for my immediate departure!

That night, I spent the night under a bridge. I arrived in the afternoon, and hadn’t had enough time check out the local scene yet. The next day I headed toward the beach. The famous 7 Mile Beach on Grand Cayman. This is where all the rich people stay in their fabulous all inclusive resorts. If you walk past all the hotels, the end of the beach is (was) desolate. Perfect! This would be my home. There was a huge Sea Grape tree that I would call home for the next 10 days or so while I figured out what to do.

I had a hammock, and actually lived “in” the tree. Just like Robinson Crusoe. In the day, I would swim offshore and find conch hidden in the eel grass for food. Then I would sell the shells to tourist to get a little extra cash. And since my clothes where getting pretty ragged from my travels, I would visit the resorts at night, and find lost shirts and pants left on the beach by tourists that still lived in the world of excess.

After exploring the island and avoiding deportation, my goal became to leave the island without jail time. There are two ways off an island, by plane and by boat. A boat seemed like the obvious choice.

After hanging out at the marina, I found a 47′ Ketch that was sailing for Roatan, Honduras. I had no idea where that was, but I knew it was better than staying here. A couple days later, I was free of Grand Cayman and sailing South to a little know island of Roatan, part of the Bay Islands in Honduras.

The first mate was a nice guy, but a strange character. He had the forward cabin and was an avid HAM radio operator. He had no license to operate, so he would just “borrow” a license and call sign from different people depending on the day. I also think he was ex-military too.

Sunset at Sea

Sunset at Sea

If you have ever spent time on a boat doing blue water sailing, you will know that you have a lot of time of your hands. So the people you are with become your best friends and you share, and talk about anything and everything. This guy, was one of those people. And he had some great stories to tell. He is how I found out about Bolivia.

Whether his stories were true or not really didn’t matter. They were great stories just the same. He spent much time in South America before he started crewing on this boat. I would listen to his stories for countless hours and dream of a life like the one he painted.

He was a pure capitalist, and saw opportunities in everything everywhere. The details are fuzzy, but his stories entailed exporting (smuggling) uncut emeralds out of Colombia. And importing (smuggling) arms to freedom fighters in different locations in Latin America.

He was a helicopter pilot, probably trained by the US government and practiced combat in Vietnam. Supposably he made pretty good money doing this for a couple years. But the adrenaline rush and adventure of it all was the true reason he kept doing it. That was until he was ambushed and almost caught one time. He had to ditch his helicopter and hike out of the jungle on foot to avoid capture.

He always said, that when he had the time, he would go back to Bolivia where he had ditched the helicopter and hidden it in the jungle, fly it out, and start doing it all over again! And of course, I was invited to come with him.

Well, that was many years ago. Whether any of the story is true, or whether he ever went back and got his helicopter I will never know. But the seed was planted. Adventure, espionage, all the makings of a great movie. And all I had to do, was get to Bolivia. Well finally, I’m on my way…

15. Dec, 2009

Ocean World

Ocean World in the Dominican Republic, is probably the most popular and best tourist attraction this country has to offer. Just North of Puerto Plata, Ocean World has Sea Lions, Dolphins, Birds, Tigers, Sting Rays, Sharks and more!

Arriving in the morning, we got there just in time for a the Bird Show. They have beautiful Macaws, Parrots, and Love Birds that do a great job at entertaining the guests. As soon as the Bird Show is over, the Sea Lion show begins.

Sea Lions have to be a favorite of everyone. They’re smart, cute, and funny as can be, both in and out of the water! Some of the skits they do are hilarious and they really get the crowd involved. Especially when the Sea Lions start splashing everyone in the front row.

Taking a break from the shows, we toured the grounds and went into the Bird Avery. The Avery is really quite cool. All the birds from the bird show are kept there, and you can see them up close and personal. If you are lucky enough, you even get to hold or pet a couple of them. They also had a few Toucans in their too. But holding or petting the Toucans is pretty damn hard. They got a big beak and like to use it. Take my word for it, I know!

Outside of the Avery is another aquarium with Piranas in them. If you’ve never seen piranas, you should. They are smaller than I imagined, but I still wasn’t fooled by their size. Probably not a good idea to hand feed these guys.

Next we checked out the Bengal Tigers! These cats are HUGE! Separated by some pretty thick plexiglass, you can swim in a pool right next to the Tigers. And if you are lucky enough to be there when the Tigers are active or swimming, it can be quite a show. They also feed the Tigers at regular intervals. And for a price, you can get your photo taken with a Tiger while you feed it through a small hole in the plexiglass.

Getting hot, it was a perfect time for a swim. So we headed over to the Coral Reef for a swim. There you can put on a mask and snorkel and swim around a coral reef with live fish everywhere. If you are afraid of the ocean, or have never experienced swimming with fish in their natural habitat. This is a definite MUST DO!

After cooling off a bit from our swim, we headed over to the shark enclosure for a close up Shark Encounter. It’s really pretty cool. They have a bunch of Nurse Sharks and let some of the audience get down in the water and actually hold and pet the sharks! It’s quite a good show. You learn about sharks, and laugh your ass off while the Shark Trainers take turns scaring the people in the water holding the sharks. They are harmless, but hearing that and believing that are two different things.

At the end of the day, we went to the Dolphin Encounter where we got a chance to hold, pet, and interact with some dolphins. It’s incredible how intelligent and powerful these animals are! Of course, you get a chance to get your photo taken with Dolphins too. We finished up the day watching the Dolphin perform. Probably the best show in Ocean World. I’ve heard they have the largest Dolphin enclosure in the Caribbean, and they need it too! With the Dolphins jumping, doing acrobatic trick, and giving their trainers rides, it’s the one show in Ocean World that cant be missed!

29. Nov, 2009

Playa Esmeralda

Playa Esmeralda

On the North Coast near Miches, you will find a small Pueblo called La Mina. This is the gateway to Playa Esmeralda, one of the most beautiful and unspoiled beached in the Dominican Republic. Here you will find another dirt road heading North towards the coast. The drive isn’t far, but because the road is in such poor condition, it will take you about 25 minutes to reach the coast from La Mina.

We were foolish enough to drive it at night when it was pitch black! There is a fork in the road and you must go left. First we went left, and after navigating around numerous “body bags” and almost getting stuck in some mud. We decided we must have taken a wrong turn, so we headed back to the fork, and went right this time.

After seeing several giant toads, giant crabs, and a couple of Tarantulas cross the road, it was getting a little bit eery going down this road alone at night. Tired and hungry, you had to squinting to see the road ahead of you. We had no idea what they were, but there were “body bags” everywhere! White bags big enough that you could fit a body in. You would be driving down the road, pitch black, and would have to swerve because this damn body bag was right in the middle of the road. I’d be damned if I was getting out of the car to check to see what was inside one of these bags. And every now and again, we would see a small one. Just large enough to hold maybe a head! OMG! We were scaring ourselves to death!

 

Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, some big bird comes swooping down out of the black abyss, inches from our car, and right in line with our headlights! All I hear was a scream! The car swerves… then yelling and cursing! Mother f*$k3r, Damn it, this is not the way. No way! We are turning back RIGHT NOW! I was laughing my ass off!

We turn around, go back to the fork, and head left one more time. This time we drive further and finally find the beach! It’s pitch black when we setup our tent, but we were excited we finally made it. It looked beautiful, but we would have to wait until morning to really see where we were.

Morning came and we were eaten alive by bugs! But, the beach was beautiful! Nothing like a swim in the ocean to wake yourself up in the morning. Some security guards came by and said how they would protect us during the night. The were actually very nice. Venezuelans own the land by the beach, and the security guards where there to protect the land. From what? I dont know. But they were doing a good job cause the land was still there, and the beach was as beautiful as can be.

After breakfast we headed back into the town of La Mina to get our defenses against the mosquitos and fleas for the next night. Bug repellant, Baygon, and a slow burning anti-mosquito coil. They didn’t have a chance tonight!

We drove back to Playa Esmeralda and could see the body bags in the daytime now. We actually drove through a rice field and the “body bags” where bags of raw rice that fell off the truck ! Oh well, I still like the idea of seeing body bags at night. It makes for a good story!

Back at Playa Esmeralda we hiked down the beach to the point and went skin diving. Along the way we found a new spot to put our tent. It would be our All Inclusive Resort for the weekend! And there were less bugs there too. We moved the tent, fumigated the area, and setup our new camp. It was heaven on Earth! Better than Gilligan’s Island, and even better than Swiss Family Robinson. We were living in style now!

That night, we build a bonfire, ate dinner, and drank cold margaritas around the campfire. As the stars twinkled above, and the rays of the moon lite up the ocean, Playa Esmeralda was the most beautiful spot in the Dominican Republic tonight.

[mappress]

27. Nov, 2009

Playa Coco

Heading North from Higuey along the coast towards Miches you’ll find a small unmarked dirt road. If you follow it all the way to the coast you’ll find yourself a beautiful and secluded beach called Playa Coco, with no one else around for miles and miles! (except for John, but I’ll get to that in a minute). From as far as you can see in both directions there is no one. Just palm trees, ocean and sand. Oh, there is the occasional pig, chicken, and maybe a dog or two that might cross your path. But that’s about it. Now, back to John…

John lives here. He left his family in Haiti to try and make a better life for himself here in the Dominican Republic. He’s been here for one year, and lives totally alone and rarely sees another human. I think we were the highlight of his month. Well, at least the highlight of his past week. He lives off coconuts and was kind enough to open a couple of fresh coconuts for us as we shared stories and learned more about his life in Playa Coco.

The only other people that John see’s are the Dominicans jumping in boats and heading East towards Puerto Rico. This happens to also be the departure point for Dominican fleeing the country in search of a better life in the USA. Entire families of 10-20 people cram themselves into small little fishing boats that are not much more than a dug out canoe. These brave (crazy) people, try to navigate the 80 plus miles of the Mona Passage towards Puerto Rico, the most difficult and dangerous passage in the Caribbean.

John see’s many people leave, but has never seen anyone return. Do they make it, who knows. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but the next beach over is called Playa Muerte, or Death Beach. Coincidence? I’ll let someone else be the judge of that…

[mappress]

25. Nov, 2009

Pico Duarte

It was Saturday afternoon when we arrived in La Cienega, a small pueblo an hours drive outside of Jarabacoa. The plan, was to get aquanted with the area, and come back around 4am to climb Pico Duarte and return back to La Cienega all in the same day. Right away we ran into a problem. They, the guards with big guns, will not allow you to begin your hike in the dark. So our only alternative is to start this afternoon by 4pm, and hike 4km to the first camp which is called Los Tablones.

The other issue was finding a guide. Luckly, we had a contact. “Mon”. Mon is the head of the guides. So we asked around and finally found Mon. Mon recommended us a guy named “Ziro”. We needed a guide who could do this hike in one day, and Ziro was our man. The price was 600 pesos per day with a 3 day minimum. So even if you hike the mountain in 1 day, it will cost you 1800 pesos for your guide! Ouch! We were not expecting that. But what were we supposed to do? 1800 pesos for the guide, and another 150 pesos per person for entrance into the park.

It was now almost 4pm so we needed to start hiking and get to Las Tablones before night fall. Lucky for us, Mon was able to round up a couple of sleeping bags for us to sleep in for Los Tablones. Ziro, was going to show up at 3am and we would start our main ascent then.

The hike to Las Tablones is an easy one. Literally 4km and 45 minutes later we were there. We may have ascended a 100-200 feet, but the hike itself was easy. We met a couple other people from New York as Las Tablones that were going up the next day also. After not much of a dinner, we went to sleep early. We had a long day a head of us, and had to wake up early.

Since we slept on concrete, we did not get much sleep and 3am came by to fast! Ziro was waking us up, and we were on our way. We literally went from a dead sleep to hiking within 10 minutes. No time for breakfast or any food. We just started the hike. About 1km into our walk, there was a stream which we were told was the last water till we made it to Aquitas Fritas about 12km away. We drank some water, then filed up as much as we could carry. For me, that was 24 ounces.

For the next 6 hours and 50 minutes we assended to 8900 feet on a trail that was barely fit for a goat. With 20-30% inclines on sand, mud, and loose rocks, coupled with hiking in the dark, and no food, it was almost a certain recipe for disaster. Despite a small bout of leg cramps, minimal dehydration, and fighting low blood sugar, we made it.

Along the way we stopped at Aguita Fria to replentish our water supply. Aguita Fria is little more than a trickle of a spring. The water is full of alge, and your kitchen faucet produces more water. But hey, water is water. And this water was like gold once you get there.

From Aguita Fria to La Compartición is another 4km. After the gruling ascend between Las Tablones and Aquita Fria, this was almost easy. I say almost because the trail is downhill, but full of switchbacks and very loose rocks. Footing is very shakey, especially since you are tired from the previous ascent.

Once at La Compartición we rested about 1/2 hour before our final assent to Pico Duarte. There was no water at La Compartición when we were there. Lucky, there is a small spring not to far away. But it is a little hike to get there. And of course, it’s downhill. So you have to hike back up, after you get your water.

From La Compartición to Pico Duarte is 4km and almost 2000 vertical feet! After about 2km into the hike, I developed servere tendonitis in my left knee. I could no longer walk. So our guide Ziro, and my friend Thomas, continued without me. I rested for a good half hour and my knee was still in a lot of pain. I tried to walk, but couldn’t. So with a couple of sticks and shoestrings, I splinted my knee and headed back towards La Compartición.

Thomas and Ziro made the ascent and arrived back at La Compartición at 2pm. They would no longer allow us to continue back to La Cienega today. So we had to spend the night. Of course, this would be fun. We had no sleeping bag, and had not prepared enough food to spend the night on top of the mountain. Lucky for us, the other couple from New York was spending the night at La Compartición and were going to make the ascent the next day. They had extra food and we had the best rice and corn beef hash ever!

That night, we again lucked out. The couple from New York paid good money for this “all inclusive” trip and were able to sleep inside by a fireplace. We joined them. I slept on the wooden floor, while Thomas “rented” a mattress for 200 pesos. I think the mattrass was more psychological than anything. Because it was about an inch and a half thick, and I doubt kept him any warmer than me. It got down to about 3C that night and the fire kept us alive. We would sleep for 15 minutes or a half and hour, then wake up cold. Get more wood, stoke the fire, and fall asleep again for another 15-30 minutes.

Finally 4am arrived and we were on our way back down the mountain. For me, the trip downt the mountain was probably worse than the trip up. This was because I had two walking sticks for balance and my knee was still in a splint. It was not fun, but we made it. About 30 hours after we left, we arrived back in La Cienega were we started the day before.

Hiking Pico Duarte is not fun. It’s painful and you should ride a mule if you decide to do it. But, I now own the distiction of saying I hiked the highest mountain in the Caribbean. Even if I did fall short 2km from the top.

[mappress]

As a side note:
There was some excitement in La Cienega while we were gone. In small pueblo’s like this, domestic violence is all to common. Some guy decided he wanted to kill his wife for whatever reason. So he stabs her. She falls to the ground and lies there bleeding. He must have been drunk or something. Because feeling a sense of accomplishment of killing his wife, he sits down at the table and decides to have a drink. Unfortunately, the cup he picked up was full of brake fluid. In the end, he died from drinking the break fluid and his wife lived.

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