Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Dominican Republic: Travel Tips and General Observations

The following are tips and general observations related to travel to the Dominican Republic ("the DR") based on our recent (late June-early July 2019) travel to La República Dominicana.

Brush up on the Dominican Spanish

It was very helpful to have our son who had lived recently in the DR for two years with us on our trip to the Dominican Republic. His Spanish skills helped tremendously in communicating with staff at the resort and on most of the excursions. Although we could have gotten by with English and our own very limited Spanish, it was significantly easier having a Spanish speaker. Even Spanish speakers who have not been to the DR might want to review "Some Really Popular Everyday Dominican Slang Words and Sayings."

Consider Dominican Republic Pesos for Currency

The resort we stayed at had an ATM machine that made it easy to access Dominican pesos. While we were in the DR, the exchange rate was approximately 50.8 DOP per $1 US. Because almost everyone we encountered accepted both the Dominican peso and the U.S. dollar and because almost all of them used the obvious simplifying assumption of 50 Dominican Pesos for every $1 U.S. dollar, there was a minor savings incurred by making purchases in pesos rather than dollars. More importantly, we didn't want to carry around (even in the airports) large amounts of cash and the ATMs we accessed only gave out Dominican pesos (and limited each ATM transaction to 10,000 pesos [~200 USD]). It is important to not withdraw too many Dominican pesos because Dominican Republic laws disallow many institutions from converting Dominican currency back to other currencies. Banks can covert the DR pesos to other currencies, but at a poor exchange rate for the consumer. I like to use the Fidelity Cash Management Debit Card for ATM withdrawals when on foreign travel.

See the Trip Advisor Currency Issues page for more details." See also the post "Dominican Republic Currency" for other useful details regarding currency and financial transactions in the DR. The Frommer's article "Money in the Dominican Republic" also provides good advice.

Finally, although many places will accept the Euro, I recommend visitors use Dominican Pesos or even U.S. dollars instead of Euros because the exchange rate for the Euro is often simplified to 1 Euro = 1 U.S. Dollar, which currently is a conversion loss for the holder of the Euro.

Safety in the Dominican Republic

From my experience, it seems that the largest significant danger for travelers to the Dominican Republic is driving, especially in or near Santo Domingo. I highly recommend that travelers who are unfamiliar with DR driving norms allow a local who is familiar with those norms to do the driving, especially if going into cities such as Santo Domingo or even busier parts of Punta Cana.

During our visit to the DR and as I write this, there is a media-fueled hysteria regarding "suspicious deaths" in the Dominican Republic. The death of a couple in the same weekend are the two cases that seem most suspicious to me, but statistically it doesn't seem any less safe in the DR now than it has been in recent years and, statistically, might even be safer than a couple of years in recent years. Our biggest health-related issues on this trip were digestive issues that seemed highly correlated to overindulgence at the resort's excellent buffet. Two articles that provide a less-sensationalized view of the current reports out of the DR are "Tourist Trap: Dominican Republic Tourism Deaths Not Unusual" and "Media frenzy over Dominican Republic deaths causing more harm than good."

At the time of this writing (and for our trip to the DR), the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic's "U.S. Citizen Services" provides links to greater details regarding travel in the DR. Its "Alerts and Messages" page currently states (they provide the emphasis): "Exercise increased caution in the Dominican Republic due to crime" and links to the U.S. State Department's "Dominican Republic Travel Advisory" dated 15 April 2019 that rates the security advisory level as "Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution." The last referenced page provides in greater details the types of crimes that are frequently committed and outlines actions to take when traveling in the DR. To provide context to this, other nations currently with "Level 2" advisories include Mexico (crime and kidnapping), the Bahamas (crime), France (terrorism and civil unreset), United Kingdom (terrorism), Spain (terrorism), Germany (terrorism), Belgium (terrorism), Netherlands (terrorism), Denmark (terrorism), Brazil (crime), and Jamaica (crime).

Consider All Major Airports

When scheduling flights to the Dominican Republic, keep in mind that there are multiple airports in the Dominican Republic. For our trip to the southeastern portion of the country, the three most likely airports are Santo Domingo International Airport (SDQ), Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ), and La Romana International Airport (LRM). Our Costco package arranged flights into and out of the busier Punta Cana Airport.

The Punta Cana airport is a modern airport with several dining and shopping options and relatively comfortable seating for waiting. We flew out of the air conditioned Terminal B, but my understanding is that Terminal A is open air. This airport felt in some ways more like a United States airport than a Dominican Republic airport due to the prevalence of fast food operations most commonly associated with the United States and due to most prices being listed primarily in U.S. dollars. This is one of the places where Europeans are currently better off using U.S. dollars or Dominican pesos because many of the food establishments treat 1 Euro as 1 U.S. dollar, but the current exchange rate for these currencies is 1 Euro costs $1.13 US. For more details on traveling through the Punta Cana Airport, see TripAdvisor's "Punta Cana: Arriving and Departing" and "Helpful Tips For the Punta Cana International Airport Arrival / Departure​."

Taste Dominican Republic Food Favorites

One of the more interesting aspects of travel to different regions and different countries for many travelers is to taste local cuisine in the travel destinations. Before traveling to the Dominican Republic, I thought it's cuisine would be relatively bland. There are some bland food choices that are popular in the DR, but I was surprised at how many great flavors I enjoyed when eating Dominican favorites. About the only Dominican delicacy that I did not care for was Concón (burnt rice).

We did not see many berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc.) while in the Dominican Republic, but the fruits we did try were excellent. In particular, the pineapple, papaya, and mango in the DR are particularly tasty. I thought I liked pineapple before this trip to the DR, but I now realize what pineapple can taste like and it's even better than what I thought I loved already. The sweet, succulent pineapple of the Dominican Republic is plentiful and refreshing.

Dominican Republic: Bayahibe Submarine

For our final excursion, we returned to the water and participated in a "half-day" excursion (all of the other excursions had been full-day). We purchased the Kenavo Tropical "Submarino" excursion in Bayahibe from our Blue Travel representative associated with Costco Travel. After long excursions to Punta Cana and Santo Domingo, it was nice to return to Bayabibe marina for the final excursion (and third excursion from Bayahibe marina). We were picked up a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, picked up three more people from a nearby Bayahibe-based resort, and made the short ride in a van to Bayahibe. I was reminded how much I love the beauty and quiet of the Bayhibe marina once the tour groups have set out for the day (the submarino excursion started later than most).

We were taken by a speedboat from the beach to the yellow/orange "submarine." The "submarine" does not fully submerge, but instead consists of a top portion that looks like a submersible submarine but is treated more like a boat. There are stairs down into the portion of the submarine that is below water.

Although the "submarine" never fully submerges, there are still great views of the ocean floor and sea life. The participants on either side of the submarine are a few feet below the surface of the water. This is particularly well suited for those who don't or cannot snorkel because it provides a very snorkel-like experience without the effort required for snorkeling and without even getting wet.

After spending time underneath the surface, participants return to the surface of the boat and can snorkel from there. This was welcome because the submarine portion made me think how fun it would be to snorkel that area and then we had the opportunity to do so! The water is relatively warm, was very clear on the day we were there, and it was easy to snorkel in that area. One of the young men working the tour was scraping off and cleaning the submarine and this attracted more fish.

The cost for this trip was reasonable and was a great way to see the underwater beauty of Bayahibe's port both via snorkeling and via the submarine ride. This shorter excursion was also appealing after four full-day excursions in the previous five days.

Dominican Republic: Bávaro Beach and Bávaro Splash Tour

For our third full day in the Dominican Republic, we used the excursion credit provided by Costco partner Blue Travel Partner Services that we received as part of our Costco Travel package deal (airfare, resort, and transfers between airport and resort) to cover a portion of the excursion called "Bávaro Splash". Not only did we enjoy the three activities associated with this excursion, but the excursion provided the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Punta Cana and to experience Bávaro Beach even though our resort was located in Bayahibe.

For our two previous full-day excursions to Saona Island and Catalina Island, we had short rides to the port in Bayahibe to go to these respective islands whereas the tourists coming from Punta Cana had to ride approximately one hour to get started. For the Bávaro Splash, we were the ones who had the nearly one hour commute to the excursion location. Fortunately, we were able to ride in a comfortable mini-bus and the ride was interesting and enjoyable. I was happy to not be driving in Punta Cana as it's a much busier place than Bayhibe and we saw more of the driving conditions the D.R. is famous for in Punta Cana.

Although we arranged for the Bávaro Splash through Blue Travel Partner Services while at the resort in the Dominican Republic, the receipt we received showed "TUI" and the bus that picked us up was branded "Ocean Adventures." Everything else we saw on this excursion also featured the "Ocean Adventure" brand.

Things seemed chaotic when we initially arrived at the location for the Bávaro Splash, but we soon realized that things were more organized than they first appeared. There were two main groups formed with one group (Bávaro Splash) supposed to congregate in Briefing Area #2 and the other group (Caribbean Pirates) congregating in Briefing Area #3. Both groups were large, but the Caribbean Pirates group seemed noticeably larger than our group and things seemed less chaotic once they boarded their pirate ship.

We received life vests before boarding the ship for the three aquatic activities associated with Bávaro Splash. The "Ocean Adventures" employees on the ship were good at their jobs and brought organization to the large group of passengers on the ship. They were able to rotate all passengers who wanted to do all the activities through snuba diving, snorkeling, and driving speed boats. Our particular party did the Snuba first, then snorkeled, and finished with the speed boats. It seemed like we had 20 to 30 minutes for the Snuba and speed boat driving and a bit longer for the snorkeling (the Snuba and speed boats had some more time for logistical setup).

The "Ocean Adventures" crew helped the Snuba divers to see interesting fish and to pose for underwater photographs with their traveling companions. These photographs were available for purchase on CD at the end of the trip and we decided to purchase the photographs for a variety of reasons, including that they used a really nice underwater camera. They also took video of us driving the speed boats and we should be able to download that video in the near future because we purchased it in conjunction with the Snuba photographs.

We returned to the dock we had departed from and received sandwiches to eat on the way back to Bayahibe. The sandwiches were relatively simple (bread, cheese, and ham with condiments available in individual packages), but were welcome nourishment after not eating since breakfast and being involved in swimming activities.

Overall, we really enjoyed the Bávaro Splash activity and are happy that we opted to do it. It would have been nice to have more time on the Snuba and speedboats, but we were used to that amount of time on Snuba from doing that activity near Molokini (Maui, Hawaii). We would have particularly liked more time on the speed boats, but the allotted time was exhilarating and quite different than anything else we did while in the Dominican Republic or even other ocean-oriented trips we've done.

The "Ocean Adventures" staff was helpful and friendly. There were times, especially at the beginning of the activity, where it felt like we were waiting a long time, but each time that thought crossed my mind, I looked out over Bávaro Beach and at the beautiful Caribbean and decided that waiting wasn't so bad in a spot like that. This activity had lots of variety and fun to offer. This excursion's negatives were mainly those consistent with large groups of tourists involved in the same activity. By splitting the larger group essentially into three smaller groups for the separate activities, things were much better during the activities themselves.

We really enjoyed the three activities associated with the Bávaro Splash, but found other benefits from selecting this excursion. We appreciated the opportunity to experience Bávaro Beach and Punta Cana. Although we realized how fortunate we had been to schedule a resort in quieter Bayahibe with its own gorgeous beaches and easier access to the stunning scenery of Saona Island and Catalina Island, we still enjoyed seeing and briefly experiencing Bávaro Beach and Punta Cana. The Colonial Tours site claims that "Punta Cana and Bavaro are considered among the best 10 beaches in the world!" and adds, "The Dominican Republic is the small corner of our planet that boasts two real earthly paradises: Bavaro beach and Punta Cana." Bávaro Beach felt busier than the other beaches we had experienced in the DR with all types of aquatic activities going on. We were also surprised at how much seaweed is present on the beaches in this part of the Dominican Republic coast (we had seen very little seaweed near Bayahibe or on Saona Island or on Catalina Island). We were also surprised at how much busier Punta Cana felt than Bayahibe felt.

The trip to Bávaro Beach and Punta Cana to participate in the Bavaro Splash Tour complemented nicely some of our other excursions in the Dominican Republic. We especially appreciated the variety of activities and the opportunity to experience Punta Cana and Bávaro Beach.

Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo, Tres Ojos, and Zona Colonial

After three full days of water-related excursions, we took an excursion to Santo Domingo for our fourth excursion while in the Dominican Republic. Santo Domingo is the capital city and largest city in the Dominican Republic. Besides seeing the most famous sites of Santo Domingo, it was interesting to see the harrowing driving that occurs there. We were definitely happy to have a driver driving us to, around, and from Santo Domingo. The parts of this large city that we most focused on in this Dominican Quest's Santo Domingo - Bayahibe tour were Los Tres Ojos National Park and Zona Colonial. The Dominican Quest page about this tour provides a nice overview of the tour and I add some personal perspective and details in this post.

Our three previous excursions had started on time (or even a little early), but we had a rougher start for our excursion to Santo Domingo. Dominican Quest was really good about keeping in contact with us and letting us know when the departure time from our resort changed (in advance) from 7:45 am to 8:50 am (a change our party welcomed!). They also kept in contact on the morning of the tour when they would not be able to arrive until 9:20 am due to a delay caused by other customers. Our party of six departing from Bayahibe joined a party of eight who had departed from Punta Cana. This seems to be the reason for the change in pickup time at our resort: they needed time to pick up the people first in Punta Cana and then pick us up on the way to Santo Domingo (Bayahibe is closer than Punta Cana to Santo Domingo, though neither is a short ride). I suspect that one or more individuals in the other party were not ready for the revised departure time and that held everyone up. It's been rather remarkable that different parties being picked up at different resorts has not caused this type of trouble on more of the excursions we've participated in here in the Dominican Republic.

The ride from Bayahibe to Santo Domingo was longer than the ride on the previous day from Bayahibe to Punta Cana and we needed to get gasoline for the van first. After getting gasoline, the driver drove the fourteen of us from Bayahibe to Santo Domingo. My favorite parts of the drive included crossing bridges over chasms and rivers, seeing the transition from beach/tourist towns to rural areas to metropolis, and seeing the vibrant red flowers of the "Flamboyant Trees" (Delonix Regia). The flamboyant trees were particularly striking when there were several of them close together among an even greater number of the many trees with deep green leaves common to the DR. The red and green contrast is striking!

The one place we knew we wanted to see when booking this first trip to the Dominican Republic was Los Tres Ojos National Park and this was our first stop on the day's tour and was a great way to start. Our tour was on a Saturday and our son who had been to this park multiple times before on weekdays said it was significantly busier on this Saturday than it was on the Mondays in which he had previously visited. Even with more people, there was incredible and interesting natural beauty at Tres Ojos. The three "eyes" ("three main underground lakes inside caverns") are different from each other and are named ("Lago de Azufre", "La Nevera", and "El Lago de las Damas"). The fourth body of water (called "Lago Los Zaramagullones" and not one of the "eyes" because it is not inside the caverns) is arguably the most stunning of the group.

Leaving Tres Ojos requires walking through a short walkway with sellers on both sides offering various trinkets and wares for purchase. These unsolicited sales attempts are common in the DR (and sometimes even within the resort), so we were relatively used to it by the time we went to Tres Ojos. We purchased some beverages at a snack stand just before exiting the park and the prices were similar to what one would pay for the same beverage in a convenience store in the United States. The ice cold drink was very refreshing after walking up and down the stairs in the warm humidity!

After Tres Ojos, our van took us to two stops where we were able to get out of the van to hear more about the sites we had stopped at and were able to take photographs. We stopped in front of Faro a Colón ("Lighthouse to Columbus"). It is claimed that Christopher Columbus's remains are interred there, but this is controversial. From this point, the guide also showed us a street from which some well-known Dominicans rose from rags to riches.

We also stopped in front of the Palacio Nacional (Dominican Republic National Palace). Our tour guide explained that the while the president of the Dominican Republic has an office in that building to conduct government business, the president does not actually live in the building. We took photographs next to the guard who stood guard in front of the gate and enjoyed some fresh pineapple the tour guide purchased from a street vendor near us. By the way, the pineapple in the Dominican Republic is unbelievably sweet and tasty! It was also refreshing on a warm and humid day in Santo Domingo!

One of our tour stops was near the Obelisk of the Malecón de Santo Domingo after passing by the "Obelisco Hembra". The paintings on the obelisk are by Dustin Muñoz. This provided a brief taste of the Malecón of Santo Domingo and it was a welcome respite to feel the breeze and occasional splash of water coming off of the ocean.

We had a traditional Dominican buffet lunch at a restaurant in Santo Domingo that our tour guide took us to (the lunch was included in the tour). The food was excellent, the restaurant was modern and comfortable, and the service was top-notch. I tried to locate the name of the restaurant on its exterior, but was unable to see it displayed anywhere that I looked. I wish I could have located its name to recommend it here. We were able to try authentic La Bandera Dominicana, excellent pina juice, and even concon (the concon is the only thing I didn't care for, but this wasn't surprising).

We toured the oldest cathedral in the Americas, called Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor. We saw numerous gorgeous cathedrals in our trip to Europe last summer, including several of Gothic or Baroque architecture, but what made this particular cathedral interesting to me was its place as first in the Americas and its twelve unique side chapels. This tour was based on audio recordings for a particular chosen language and we listened to the clear English narration (with Spanish accent) regarding the cathedral and its side chapels.

We exited the cathedral into Parque Colón (Columbus Park) and briefly stopped there before proceeding to the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic. There was a guide in the Pantheon Nacional who led just our English-speaking group of six through the main chamber and told us about the famous people memorialized there. I was surprised at how much he knew about United States history that he tied into his presentation for this group of six from the United States. This was a short but interesting tour that gave one a bit deeper understanding of Dominican culture, history, and politics.

The last major sight we saw on this tour was the oldest paved street in the "New World" ("Calle Las Damas").

We stopped once more at the ocean for some photographs and then headed back to Bayahibe. We did have a couple of visits to local stores and vendors along the way that I did not mention previously. We were not interested in buying anything, but the often air conditioned or at least shaded spaces were pleasant enough to spend a few minutes between sight-seeing attractions.

Overall, we were happy with our introduction to Santo Domingo and are happy that we chose to do it, but there were some minor disappointments. Because we were picked up last after a large group from Punta Cana had already boarded the van, our party of six was distributed throughout the van rather than being together with four of us in the very back row of the van. It was hotter back there and definitely less comfortable than other rows (which had at most three seats) in the van.

At Tres Ojos, it seemed like our party of six got to see less of the park than the party of eight because of the way we were split up in crossing (and returning) on the boat to (and from) the fourth body of water. The irony of this is that I suspect we were rushed because someone in the other party caused us to depart 30 minutes later than planned. I also suspect that if everyone in the group had been traveling to Santo Domingo from Bayahibe, things might have gone smoother for everyone. Even though the other party had more comfortable seats on the van than we did, I did not envy them needing to ride for nearly another hour from Bayahibe back to Punta Cana after we were dropped off! The bus driver got us there quickly once he was finally able to pick us up and he got us back quickly and safely, which is nothing to take for granted with Santo Domingo traffic!

Perhaps a bigger issue than the two starting locations was the fact that the two main groups of people were more comfortable with different languages. The other party (eight people from Colombia and Puerto Rico) spoke Spanish and our party spoke English. The tour guide made valiant attempts to communicate with both groups, but this meant spending double time in certain places (which was a benefit in some cases) and/or leaving out portions of the discussion given to one group when repeating it for the other group. There had been multiple languages used on our other excursions in the DR, but in those cases discussion was far less significant and was typically limited to instructions or brief descriptions before spending most of the excursion time in activities with little need for discussion. For the Santo Domingo tour, discussion was a much heavier aspect of the tour and so the need to cover every thing in two languages did have a greater effect.

The Santo Domingo - Bayahibe tour provided a nice introduction to some of the most famous sites in Santo Domingo with special focus on Tres Ojos National Park and Zona Colonial. With this introduction to the area, I'd be more comfortable exploring the city on my own in the future as long as someone else drove me to the area and back again when finished. I'd recommend this tour for anyone visiting Santo Domingo for the first time, especially if not staying in Santo Domingo.

Dominican Republic: Catalina Island

We went to Catalina Island for our second full-day excursion in the Dominican Republic. We arranged the tour for this through Dominican Quest's website, but the tour operator was Saona Dreams. The Saona Dreams page for the Catalina Snorkeling from BAYAHIBE tour provides a high-level overview of this tour, the Dominican Quest page offers more details, and I add a few more details in this blog post.

We had a short ride on a large bus from our resort in Bayahibe to the marina in Bayahibe. Along the way, we picked up fellow Saona Dreams tours participants from other Bayahibe resorts near us. The bus was on time for our departure and the short bus ride was pleasant enough, but things were a bit chaotic after we got off the bus as Bayahibe's marina. There were lots of tourists going on various tours in the same mass of people. While things were sorted out, locals with large and small iguanas came by and offered the tourists the opportunity to take photographs of their family members or friends holding the iguanas or with the iguanas on their shoulders and heads. Payment for this service was highly recommended by these men after the posing with iguanas was complete.

Everything did seem to get sorted out of the seeming chaos and we soon were wearing the wristbands for the same Cotubanamá National Park (formerly Parque Nacional del Este or National Park of the East) that we wore the previous day for our excursion to Saona Island because both islands lie within that vast and diverse national park.

We rode a small boat from the beach at Bayahibe to the catamaran. Once on the catamaran, we sailed toward Catalina Island. The experience on the catamaran was very different from the previous day's speedboat experience. The catamaran moved much more slowly, was roomier, and had two restrooms on board (more important for the long trips to and from Catalina Island). The slower movement and greater mobility allowed for a few people to practice dancing with merengue y bachata and this would be an easier trip for individuals with back problems. That stated, I preferred the speedboat because it fit my personal taste better; I am more interested in getting to these island destinations and the speedboat gets you there quicker. However, different people will prefer one or the other for different reasons and it was nice to experience both.

Our first stop on the Catalina Island snorkeling tour was one hour (that seemed to go much more quickly than that) at "The Wall." For snorkeling, this spot reminded me of Molokini in Maui, Hawaii. Both spots have significant clarity, in part due to lack of a traditional beach and with less sand being stirred up and brought back into the ocean by the waves. In both spots, the boat did not "dock," but instead set anchor in water significantly deeper than a person's height.

From "The Wall," we went by catamaran to a gorgeous beach on Catalina Island. We ate a grilled lunch there and enjoyed the almost-too-good-to-be-true views and then enjoyed snorkeling in the extremely clear water above Caribbean sea bottom of white sand between the reef and exterior corals. The views from the beach are stunning and the snorkeling is easy and interesting.

We loved our day on Catalina Island, but it ended up being far more costly than I originally anticipated because I lost my GoPro while snorkeling near "the Wall" and my mobile telephone got just a bit of salt water on it, but that was enough to make it not turn on anymore. Still, it was a great excursion and a great day. The photographs taken during the excursion and sold to us seemed pricey, but I decided to pay the requested price given the loss of my phone and my GoPro on this excursion.

Dominican Republic: Saona Island

Our first day "excursion" outside of our Dominican Republic resort was to Saona Island with Bayahibe-based SeavisTours. After seeing and experiencing several aspects of Saona Island, it's not surprising that Saona Island is currently listed as the #1 TripAdvisor "Top Attraction in the Dominican Republic," is included on the list "15 Best Things to Do in the Dominican Republic," and one of the "12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Dominican Republic."

Because our resort was near Playa Dominicus with a Bayahibe address, we had a short van ride provided by SeavisTours from our resort to the Bayahibe fishing port. It's worth noting here that the bus picked us up at 8:20 am at our local Bayahibe-based resort, but those coming from Punta Cana were picked up over an hour earlier than that.

We were picked up in front of our resort's lobby on time (actually the van was at the resort to pick us up a few minutes before the scheduled departure time). We had six in our party and picked up two more people at a nearby resort and then rode in the van for the short drive to SeavisTours's office at Bayahibe's port. There we joined several more tourists, presumably from Punta Cana resorts and other Bayahibe resorts. We were there for the Saona Crusoe VIP tour, which lived up the high praise we read when deciding to book this excursion. The main page for the SeavisTours Saona Crusoe VIP tour does a really nice job of summarizing the lengthy tour with text and photographs, but I will add my own perspective in this blog post. Another perspective can be found in the post "Snorkeling Saona Island, Dominican Republic."

Bayahibe is a charming fishing village, but is overrun by tourists each morning. Fortunately with SeavisTours and our early (before 9 am) departure time, we seemed to avoid many of our fellow tourists. SeavisTours limits the tour group to 26 participants and I believe we had 24 on our tour. This is a nice size and it meant that there were not long lines to get on or off the boat or for lunch or other activities.

We rode on a speedboat on this tour, which is one of the most important considerations when trying to decide whether to book this tour. For those wanting to fit as much into the day as possible and for those looking for the exhilaration of the speed boat experience, this will be an advantageous approach for getting to Saona Island. As the SeavisTours Saona Crusoe VIP page states, the tour is "not recommended" for "pregnant women" and "people with back disorders." This should not be ignored as the "thrilling ride along the coastline" does come at the cost of choppiness and can be hard on the back with the fast-moving boat slamming through the waves (but it is "thrilling"!).

The first stop on our tour was a brief stop at the rocks of Peñon where our guide Ingrid (called herself Ingrid #2 because another Ingrid accepted our final payments in the SeavisTours office before departure) told us briefly about the area and the Taíno. Although we did not see any iguanas or dolphins, the rocks of Peñon and the clear water above interesting and varied sea bottom next to them were gorgeous.

We next stopped at "Piscina Natural" ("natural pool"), described on the SeavisTours page as a "large sand bank [that] is well-known for the indigenous starfish." Because we were there in the warmer time of year (late June), the boat captain took us first to the deeper water beyond the sandbar to see where the majority of starfish were currently residing due to the cooler water there. Ingrid explained that they move to the sandbar in the cooler months when that shallower water is not too hot. When we anchored at the sandbar, we still were able to see some starfish there as well, though not as many as in the deeper water. Ingrid reminded everyone on board to not touch or pick up the starfish!

We needed to wear wrist bands during this tour that indicated that the entrance fees had been paid for Cotubanamá National Park (AKA Parque Nacional del Este or National Park of the East). One of the reminders that we were in a national park occurred during our stop at the mangroves. The dense foliage created by these plants thriving in salt water was impressive!

Our first beach was SeavisTours's "concession beach" Catuano Beach. This beach offered stunning views and decent snorkeling. We especially enjoyed snorkeling among the dilapidated "pier" that was severely damaged by a hurricane and now mostly consists of the pillars that used to hold up the pier. Pelicans perched on their pillars and fish and other sea life seemed to try to hide from those pelicans and other potential predators among the ruins of the pier. We had a "traditional Dominican buffet lunch" with grilled chicken and grilled pork chops and more stunningly delicious pineapple (the pineapple in "the DR" was consistently delectable and better than any pineapple I ever before tasted) in a shaded area on behind the beach before leaving for Mano Juan.

In Mano Juan, we learned about the turtle sanctuary efforts sponsored by SeavisTours and conducted in the tiny town of Mano Juan. We were too early to see the turtle hatchlings, but did learn quite a bit about the plight of the turtles. The beach in front of Mano Juan was another beautiful postcard Caribbean beach that had its own unique characteristics.

Another interesting observance in front of Mano Juan was that a crew of varying mixed breeds of small and large dogs had the job of keeping donkeys to one side of the beach. Whenever a curious donkey attempted to move toward the the docked ships, the dogs all ganged up on that donkey and barked at it and nipped at its heels until the donkey retreated back to the area with the other donkeys.

The last beach stop on the tour was the fairly remote Canto de la Playa. This beach was even more "postcard worthy" than the ones before it and had the fewest tourists. We enjoyed snorkeling here and taking in the beauty of this beach. There were donkeys wandering around on this beach as well and no dogs appeared to force them to stay in a particular location on this beach. We also got to taste Limoncillo/quenepa on this beach. That was a tasty surprise treat.

We rode the speedboat all the way back to Bayahibe from Canto de la Playa, but it only took about an hour (or a bit less) to make it back to Bayahibe in that speedboat! Because we were staying at the Dreams Dominicus La Ramona in Bayahibe, we had a short van ride back to our resort.

Jocelyn was the photographer who went on this tour with us. We were impressed with the photographs she took during the trip. We were able to purchase the photographs at the end of the tour for a very reasonable cost (especially when compared to some of the other excursions' prices for photographs) and the price of the photographs did not depend on the number of people in the party. We were mailed a link a few days later to access the photographs we purchased and were pleased to see that we not only could download the photographs that Jocelyn took of us posing in different spots, but were also able to access "general" photographs taken on that same tour of some of the sights, and were provided with some "stock" photographs of some of the places we saw.

SeavisTours does not accept credit cards due to the fees involved. You can purchase an excursion online via PayPal. We paid twenty percent down in advance via PayPal to reserve our spots and then paid the remaining eighty percent in cash (U.S. dollars) on the morning of the excursion when we arrived at their office at the Bayahibe marina.

The Dominican Republic (La República Dominicana)

Our party of six traveled to the Dominican Republic (La República Dominicana) for eight nights this past week (late June into early July) during the seemingly overblown online angst regarding health safety in the Dominican Republic. One of our party of six had lived in "the D.R." for two years, but it was the first time in that nation for the rest of us and we all loved the experience!

I intend to publish several blog posts about our experiences in the Dominican Republic.

We lodged at the Dreams Dominicus La Romana for the entire time we were there and absolutely loved it. It was a great location for activities starting in Bayahibe and gave us easiest access to the postcard-worthy Saona Island and Catalina Island.

With eight nights in the Bayahibe-based resort, we had seven full days in the Dominican Republic (the day before the first night and the day after the last night were largely travel days). Of the seven full days, we spent two of them (one toward the beginning of the trip and one toward the end of the trip) participating in activities within the resort. For the other five full days, we ventured outside of the resort. These are the things we were able to see and do while in the DR for the first time (for most of us):

We flew into and out of the Punta Cana International Airport. I will be covering some airport details and other tips and observations related to our Dominican Republic trip in a separate blog post.

Several of the items referenced above will eventually include photographs.

We're already missing the DR! We'd love to return to the Bayahibe area and Dreams Dominicus La Romana again because they were fabulous, but we'd also love to see parts of the Dominican Republic that we did not get to see on this initial trip (such as Rio Chavon near La Romana, Haitises National Park, Altos de Chavón, Santiago de los Caballeros, Pico Duarte, San Felipe de Puerto Plata, Salto El Limón and 27 Charcos/27 Waterfalls, and Amber Cove.