Punta Cana, on the Dominican Republic's east coast, is well known for its sugar-fine beaches, idyllic weather and all-inclusive resorts, and be prepared to wear a plastic bracelet. A decade ago, there were only two resorts along this beach. Today, there are more than two dozen, and your trusty wrist trademark ensures your room and all you can eat and drink at the resort of your choice.
Most are grand, like The Gran Bahia Principe Ambar. Its 528 five-star junior suites are set in pretty gardens facing a golden beach; there are marvellous swimming pools, a spa and more than a dozen restaurants. (It's part of a three-resort complex and you can dine in any of the restaurants.) Each day, the sun dazzles with its brightness and worshippers from myriad countries imbibe its rays as well as the overloaded buffets and free booze.
While resort life is a wondrous cure for winter blahs, it is always heartening to learn that there are worthwhile programs behind the scenes. When I explored, I found that eco-tourism thrives in Punta Cana.
Beauty beyond the Beach
"I'll show you the countryside," announced my friend, Javier, when he picked me up from my all-inclusive. Soon we were out of the traffic of Bavaro, which is both the name of the area as well as a bustling town near Punta Cana's beach. The region from Punta Cana north to Playa del Macao is known as Costa Del Coco for the palms gracing its shoreline. The stately Royal palms grow inland on Hispaniola Island (DR shares the island with Haiti to the west) and are used to build houses, as the hard wood resists termites. In Javier's small pick-up truck we headed north along the two lane road that meanders through the countryside. Everywhere, lush growth is punctuated by small farms, often with colourfully painted houses.
Javier points out a 'gas station' which is a couple of cans of gasoline at a stand. Since there are no gas stations in this area, people buy it in bulk and then sell it by the jug. We also pass fruit and vegetable stands and one roadside vendor has dozens of colourful wooden parrots for sale. Nearby a wood carver shapes yet another.
Soon we turn off the paved road to follow a rugged route up Anamuya Mountain where we careen around deep ruts and over boulders. The scenery is breathtaking with rolling fields and towering trees; rustic fences border some properties where horses roam; chickens and children along the road are common. We stopped several times to give children items I brought from Canada - crayons, the most popular, producing huge grins.
Meet this Enterprising Family
Birds scatter from a huge mango tree as we whip around a corner and pull up to an eye-catching house - pink trimmed in turquoise - gorgeous plant life surrounding it. A stunning, blue flowered morning glory overtakes part of the front yard; coffee trees are laden with beans and banana palms droop fruit. Maria Del Rosario gently rakes coffee and cocoa beans spread to dry on a thick slab of concrete. In an outside kitchen, daughter, Marleny stirs a bubbling lentil stew and in a shaded area of Maria's and her husband, Quino Pena's 5.5-hectare (14-acre) farm, a fire is blazing and coffee and cocoa beans are roasting. Their tiny granddaughter, Kiara, chases a kitten among the coffee, cocoa, mango, banana and lemon trees. A scene reminiscent of a gentle way of life, a joy to share, even for a short time.
Maria, who understands English but answers in Spanish, smiles endearingly as she shows us her home. It's tiny but spotless. A solar panel on the roof and a battery are their source of power. The kitchen is a separate structure - picture a shed with a concrete counter, a few cupboards and a wood stove. Javier explains that it is separate to avoid heating up the house in this warm climate. (The average annual temperature is 26 degrees C.; the rainy season is in summer.) Although basic, the kitchen is roomy and its appeal is that it is just steps out the door to fresh, organic fruit and vegetables.
Taste Organic Goodies
Outside, Maria shows us the large area where coffee and cocoa beans dry in the sun. Next, the dried, coffee beans are put in a wooden cylinder and Maria and Quino pound them with wooden 'bat' to remove the shells. Did you realize that the coffee you purchase in DR has been serenaded? It's a tradition to sing as this pounding takes place.
There is a wonderful aroma from the outdoor shed where two young men, one, Luis, the couple's youngest son, stir the roasting coffee and cocoa beans. Quino shows me the next step with the cocoa beans - he processes them through a grinder and out comes huge globs of black chocolate. It tastes bitter and oh so rich. This small farm is a chocoholic's fantasy, cocoa growing all around you. Although processed similar to coffee, cocoa beans grow inside a large, yellow tubular fruit. Most of the cocoa here is used for making the powdered drink that we love in winter; DR is the world's leading exporter of organic cocoa.
Maria pours samples of both the coffee and cocoa; both are rich and memorable. The coffee grown here is Arabica and like all the other crops, organic. Maria has her products spread out on a table with a tray of fruit. Javier and I indulge in melons, grapefruit, crunchy strips of coconut and sweet lemons. The farm grows both the traditional sour lemon, but this one is as sweet and much tangier than the best of oranges.
Also produced here, along with coffee, cocoa, molasses, vanilla, jams and chutneys, is the infamous
Mamajuana, which Javier says is ingested for everything from stomach ailments to joint pain and jokingly referred to as the Dominican answer to Viagra. It consists of dried plants and roots, first soaked in wine to get rid of the bitter taste then drained and rum and honey are added. It is left to become a thick dark libation; it tastes so strong that an ounce sends your head zooming. It is sold everywhere in DR, but don't try to bring any home; importing it to Canada was recently made illegal.
As Javier and I say good-bye to Maria and her family, Bavaro Runners pulls up and more than a dozen passengers unload from the back of a huge Mitsubishi truck. Maria and Quino's farm is a stop on a day trip with this popular company that introduces tourists to the outdoors and culture of DR. This day excursion also includes a horseback ride, visits to a rum shack, cigar outlet and sugar plantation as well as a chance to swim and boogie board. There is a stop at a school that the company sponsors. Visitors to DR are encouraged to bring school supplies or other worthwhile items for families.
A nice kicker to the above story-when Carolos Medrano was planning Bavaro Runners 13 years ago, he was driving the countryside looking for locations to include in the trips. Maria heard of this and when he was driving by, she called to him, insisting that he visit their farm. Now some 10,000 Bavaro Runners' clients visit Maria and her charming family yearly. The visitors meet this charming family, and the family sells their organic goods. This farm tucked into the mountainside is a small but fine example of eco-tourism working well.
Have a Thrill
Bavaro Runners offers a variety of excursions; the one I couldn't resist was their zip lines adventure. It takes place in this same region where ten zip lines are strung among the mountain's verdant canopy. Visitors are well prepped for the 'flights' between 11 platforms. (The company belongs to the Association for Challenge Course Technology and adheres to their strict safety regulations.) Once in a harness, helmet and gloves, there is a detailed safety briefing as well as a demonstration on a short zip line. The zip lines begin with an easy loop across a small valley and extends to a 250 metre long one that has everyone in our group whooping with excitement, including a seven-year old. (Minimum age is 6 years; the oldest person they have taken is a 96-year-old man.)
Check out the Ecological Centre
When I heard there was an ecological centre nearby, I assumed it would be of the 'walk-in-the-park' ilk. Instead, I discovered the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that manages a 1012 hectare (2500 acre) conservation area, an interpretive centre and network of nature trails but it does so much more. This organization whose board boasts American, Ted Kheel, Spanish singer, Julio Iglesias and fashion icon and Dominican-born, Oscar de la Renta, were here when tourism began to take off. In fact, when an airport was required, they built it and today, Punta Cana Airport, which opened in 1984, is still privately owned and run. (Everything at the airport is re-cycled.)
With a focus on sustainability, they work with U.S. universities, researchers and the local government; one project saw the development of a health clinic; another is a study that will ensure low land density development of one of the local villages. They contribute to local housing, build schools and in 2001, a biodiversity lab was opened that is utilized by many of the Punta Cana properties to test water quality, among other things. Director Jake Kheel, says they are not set up for large group travel but, at this low-key, ecological centre, you can walk trails in the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve enjoying the pristine native foliage, visit organic gardens - the produce is used locally - and a small ranch.
Meanwhile, back at the resort, sipping a pina colada at the swim-up-to bar or chowing down at one of the buffets, it's nice to know that sustainable tourism is alive and well in this beautiful beach resort.
Judi Lees is 2002 winner of Choice Hotels Award of Excellence for Best International (Travel) Article and Thailand Award for International Media. She has written for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, many magazines &
Air Transat services the Dominican Republic from Canada. Check out Transat Holidays for the variety of packages available from November to May.
For information on the tours mentioned in this story:
Water: While all the water at the resort restaurants is filtered, it is recommended that resort tap water be used only to brush teeth. Drink bottled water.
When you arrive, several reservations have been made for you to dine at the resort's a la carte restaurants. However, you soon realize that there are favourites, the Mako Japanese Restaurant is an example. Reservations can be made at the desk in the lobby; plan to make them early so you get the time and restaurants of your choice.
ATM: The Gran Bahia Principe has two ATM machines. Proceed with caution. If it does not readily dispense money, don't continue to put your card in. My card was not returned and there was nothing anyone could do to assist me. There is also a bank that is 'open' 9-4. However, it is often closed during this time for 'breaks.' If you see a bank open, go in and use it.
Tipping: Just because it is an all-inclusive does not mean that you don't tip. Tips left on the restaurant table are shared by the staff; if you give it to a waiter personally, it is pocketed. Tips (as well as clothing items) for maids should be left on the pillow.
If you go
Lat/Lon: 18.6° N 68.4° W