Packed in, not packaged – travelling around the Dominican Republic

Being a regular tourist can be an altogether easy task; everything can be laid on for you, all inclusive, gated living, clean beaches and no hassle from the locals. What is missing for many is the interaction with the daily life of the host country and the feeling that, for all intents and purposes, one could be anywhere in the world.

I had chosen the Dominican Republic, referred to as the DR, as an extremely last minute trip and had magnificently underprepared, getting a guidebook at the departure gate. In a previous article I talked about getting last minute tickets and the joys of local transportation. In this story I want to talk about the country in general and the opportunities for an independent traveller in the land of the package tour dollar.

bag and bike in the dr

First of all do not be put off by the lack of hostels and pre bookable budget accommodation, with most visitors taking the all inclusive options it is relatively simple, in all but high season, to get a bed for the night at a reasonable price. Secondly cast away all doubts on how to get around, the transport system is designed to get almost everyone and anything anywhere although not usually at night!
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This is the story of a hurricane

I am rapidly becoming a hurricane magnet and it not funny!

The Caribbean in summer is notorious for hurricanes however by October they no longer come over from the Cape Verde region but are formed more locally and can arrive like a gatecrasher at a party.
My latest brush with the weather has been Hurricane Paula, a tightly packed dynamite of a storm that just nicked the Yucatan and executed a sharp right turn to Cuba. No damage was recorded apart from the fact that the authorities chose to enforce a dry law for 12 hours right in the middle of my hurricane party! It’s Mexico for god’s sake….what were they thinking? The next day I managed to get a boat to Isla Mujeres, where the weather was calm and sunny and the beach devoid of tourists, it was a nice silver lining from the storm.

I started writing this story whilst travelling around the Dominican Republic during Hurricane Earl, another drive by tropical cyclone that dumped plenty of rain but thankfully didn’t hit us square on. The original settlers of the Dominican Republic were the Taino Indians from the Amazon basin who had migrated there over two thousand years ago. They brought many words into our contemporary use such as barbeque (from barbacoa), canoe (from kanu) and of course the god Hurican from where we derive the word hurricane.

These storms can be small tight entities or huge raging monsters and any travel in the western Atlantic Ocean during the designated “Hurricane Season” has a fair chance of encountering one of these storms. I have had the misfortune (or some might say misadventure) to have experienced three hurricanes in recent trips with varying degrees of strength, some sideswipes and one direct hit.

Of course once in a decade storms like Hurricane Katrina occur and the playbook seems to go out of the window.
If you are unfortunate to be in an area with an imminent hurricane threat I would offer the following tips:

1. Take it very seriously, your safety is paramount. Listen to local authorities and heed their advice. They want to ensure your well being and will normally provide free shelters for tourists likely to be caught up in the coming storm.

2. Don’t try to “ride it out” unless you are well protected, on high ground, have adequate resources and emergency supplies and have no other choice.

3. Check the weather channels and the US National Hurricane Center website for the latest storm track; aim to plan your travels to avoid the major impact areas.

4. If you are stuck in an area that will possibly be hit with a hurricane the likely effects will be power outages and lack of fresh water and loss of communications. Get cash from an ATM well in advance as these can break down, send an email to your friends or update your Facebook to let others know where you are and stock up with plenty of water and food. If you have a mobile phone keep it charged up and sealed in a plastic bag to keep it dry, it may be a lifesaver in an emergency situation.

5. An important thing to remember is that many casualties from Hurricanes and tropical storms occur after the storm has passed. Electricity lines are often toppled and the mix of pooled water and damaged lines can be deadly. There are also dangers from unsafe structures so take care when venturing outside.

6. The most obvious dangers of storm surge and wind damage are to the fore of protection during these storms but it should also be noted that huge volumes of water are dumped on land farther inland. These inundations often cause landslides, mudslides and flash flooding. Heading too far inland to avoid a hurricane can prove a perilous as staying near the shore. The best advice here is to get to solid structure, preferably a designated hurricane shelter.

7. Check your travel insurance (assuming you were wise enough to have purchased some) and your airline for their advice on onward travel or compensation for delays and or property damage.

Storms and other natural disasters are part of life and for many, especially those in developing countries who lack the resources to get out of their way, they can be devastating. Relatively rich travellers and tourists are often cushioned from the harsh impact of these disasters however we would be doing all concerned a great service by not being part of the problem. Stay safe……