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Trip Report Trip report- 6 night/7 day Santiago/Puerto Plata/Santo Domingo

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Day 1:
Well, we travelled during the Christmas break. A family of 4 with 2 kids.
We landed in Santiago in the early hours. We had a car rental lined up with National.
However, per the advice of some to not drive up to Puerto Plata that early in the morning,
during darkness, we instead had a hotel "Hotel Platino" lined up in Santiago to rest
for a few hours prior to heading up North.

Santiago:
-------------
Hotel Platino is an older hotel. The hotel room was not upto the mark. The toilet
flush kept running. The water in the sink would not drain. We paid $80/night. They
gave us a single bed for the 4 of us. We never had the energy to request a change of
room. We had called the hotel every day about the reservation we made through
expedia. They did not seem to have it. Moreover, i asked that they send a taxi to pick
us up. They said they would, but we never saw the taxi when we exited the airport.
I called the hotel at that early hour and asked that they send a taxi. Finally after another
20minute wait, a taxi showed up. Apparently, i was told that the taxi came at 3am and
did not see us exit the arrivals and left. Oh well. Moreover, no breakfast was provided
by the hotel for the $80. The staff are a bit helpful once they interact face to face.
However, i would not stay in Santiago again. On hind sight, the sun would have risen
around 6am and we should have hit the road to puerto plata and skipped the hotel in
Santiago altogether.

Anyway, we went to the airport around 11am , got the rental car and drove up to
Puerto Plata.
Now, for the GPS, we had a Garmin with routable maps purchased from.
http://www.gpstravelmaps.com/dominican_republic.php

The Garmin showed perfect routing from the airport to the hotel Platino. However, it
would not route us to Puerto Plata from the airport. It went nuts recalculating. We
finally got back into town and asked another driver. Luckily he spoke English and was
headed into Puerto Plata, so we just followed him.

Puerto Plata:
----------------
Day1:
We arrived at the Riu Mambo around 2:30pm.
It was our first experience in an All Inclusive. It was a nice
stay. Good rooms. Lots of food and activity for adults and kids alike. The beach was
so so. The pool was great and the coctails as well so to speak. The maid did our
beds and cleaned the rooms and would never take the tips we left on the table. We
had to explicitly give it to her.

Day 2:
We drove to downtown Puerto Plata to see the fort and
the amber museum. One will get hammered with offer for guide service. Just say
"no thanks". We also did the Isabel de Torres, the cable car that goes up the mountain.
All this was a one day activity. We came back to the Riu for lunch before we went to
the Isabel de Torres.

Day 3:
The next day, we went to Sosua. There is a beach near the "waterfront restaurant".
This is close to the public beach. We did not like the beach, so we hit the road again
for puerto plata and spend the rest of the day in the beach at our
resort. May be we, did not pick the right beach in Sosua. May be the next time around, we will try a different spot in the town.

Santo Domingo
--------------------
Day 4:
We got a Claro SIM card for our Motorola phone. Had to show the passport and
US drivers license to get the card activated. We filled the gas and hit the road to
SD. It was a nice drive. Once we got into Santiago, we again got lost and went into the
city. Driving was a pain, but not too bad. I am used to driving in such places, so it was
a different mindset. However, i would warn anyone used to a streamlined driving to
be very cautious if one were to drive in these towns. The GPS somehow worked this
time around and put us on the right road. We also asked one or 2 folks for directions.
We don't speak spanish, so they would say something, we would just observe
their hand signals and interpret the message.
We had a good drive to SD. However, once we got into SD, it was a nightmare to
find the right road . We again got lost and went in circles for 2 hours. We finally
ended up in an office building and asked for directions. The google maps that we
had downloaded was not sufficient. Moreover, the roads were all oneways, making it
difficult to find the streets. We must have gone through some bad spots in the town,
which we would never have dared to transit during the night time. Finally we ended up
in the hotel. We found that we were not too far from the hotel and went in circles.
We checked into Hotel Palacio in Zona Colonial - it is on Avenida Duarte. Close to
El Conde. Nice hotel. We will stay there again. The hotel has a secured parking lot. So our car stayed there. We relied on the GPS, which was so-so in its use. However, i would take one again, since at the least you can see the road names on the display.

Day 5:
We went to see the monuments. We walked for a few blocks, saw a couple monuments. Then we decided to take one of those horse carriages. It worked better since it was hot and humid. The carriage was better for the kids. we went and saw a few more mounments on our carriage ride. On one of the streets, the carriage brushed against a motorcylist who had a box full of thermos with coffee all secured to the tail of his motorcycle. The brushing of the carriage tossed the bike and broke all the thermos. There was a war of words between the 2 parties, while we observed. We were luckily near the cathedral, so we went away.
At the moment, the police were around. They asked if we spoke
spanish. We said no and left for the cathedral. It turned out the carriage driver had to
settle for 300pesos for no fault of his. The issue was settled and over. We went around,
saw a few more mounuments and then walked back to the hotel to chill off in the pool.
I then saw the travel brochure in the hotel room. It had a description of Catalina Island.
I thought it would be nice to go there instead of our original plan of driving to Guyacanes beach. The hotel front desk referred us to Colonial tours which was located 2 streets
away. On speaking to one of the tour salesperson at Colonial, i was told that the tour departs at 6:15am from the zona colonial. we will be on a boat to Catalina at 9am.
The cost was quoted at $98/adult and $49/child. Here is what happened.

Day 6:
They picked us at 6:30am instead from our hotel. The van went to Boca chica and
dropped us off at another resort. Here we got on a bus and pretty much stopped in
every resort in Boca Chica, Juan Dolio and La Romana. It was already close to 11am.
The bus then went to a river near Los Altos Chavron and we were on a 10 minute
amphibian ride - bus/boat. They served beer/soft drinks and some of the people in
the tour company taught bachata for the tourists. Then the bus went through this
posh resort that all the hollywood stars own villas - Do i give a rats posterior? Sorry.
Later at around 1:30pm, the bus goes to "playa Caleita" in La Romana. Here is the
point where all the boats leave for Catalina Island. So we were taken to Catalina finally.
We were provided with Lunch and drinks. We stayed for about 3 hours and got back
on the boat around 4:30pm. I spoke to one of the tour guides. I have a tip about
Catalina Island which i will list at the end of the trip details for Day 6. Anyway, the bus
then had to start dropping people off. The reverse follows. Every hotel in La Romana,
Juan Dolio and Boca Chica was visited. We finally were picked up by our van and
dropped in our Hotel at around 8:00pm. Now the darn Colonial tours would not
say all these details. I could have driven my own car that was in the parking garage.
Since we were told that the boat leaves around 9am, we did not want to risk getting
lost during the 2 hour drive. I later found that there are 2 types of tours to Catalina.
The VIP tour is the one that i was offered and is $15 more than the other tour which
is a straight Catalina Island to/fro. The Colonial tours did not mention this, since they
were making a good $45 extra by selling me the VIP tour. Moreover, i could have used
other tour agencies, if these folks were honest about the trip. They are after
just $$$ and don't respect nor care for their customers experience nor time during
a vacation. May be i should place a hold on the card for the payment, since i did not
receive what i was promised. Anyway.
Some of the European tourists were upset as well, since it appears that they did not
expect this ploy. Will Colonial tours get my business down the road? Absolutely Not.
Folks, ask questions. Ask lots of questions. Hold these people accountable. I called the
Colonial tour agency right from La Romana, while on our Catalina Island tour. I was told that the saleperson who sold the tour will call me back in 10 minutes.
I never heard back.
So they knew they did wrong. I am upset not about spending the money, but rather about
the mis-representation. We wanted more time on the beach instead of sitting on a bus for 6 hours and adding items to our itinerary that we did not care for.
To go on that VIP trip or not should have been my call and not that of Colonial Tours.

Tip: If you plan to visit Catalina Island, just go over to Playa Caleita in La Romana.
Park your car and talk to one of the tour guides or boat operators.
Just pay them for the trip and board the boat to get to the island. They keep making
multiple trips during the day back and forth to the island and i am sure for the money
which you will pay these hardworking folks, they will be glad to take you both ways. I
was told that the tour agencies that sell these excursions take away 50% of the cut
upfront. They then contract these boat/bus operators and just pay them the other half.
So you get the idea. Make sure you get the cell phone number of the tour guide who is
aboard the boat, so you can call and have them pick you when you are ready to return
back from the island. They could very well be on the island with you for that matter with
their own tour group. Tips($$) works wonders in DR.

Day 7:
We went shopping on El Conde. We then checked out from the hotel and went to see
Los Tres Ojos. We ate the last pieces of sugarcane we had purchased in a village near
puerto Plata. We then headed to the airport. On the way, we stopped to take a look
at the beach/shore line just before getting into the airport. We return our National rental
car and went to the airline counter to checkin.

Impressions:
Having travelled to developing countries, our trip and thoughts about DR is no different.
People are nice. per my conversation with several people in DR about the security aspect from a Tourist standpoint, i was told that if one were lawful and practised common sense and stayed and left as a tourist, things will be fine. If one were to get into the underworld dealings to have a unique experience with drugs and everything else, then trouble will cometh pretty fast. It is a parallel world that exists out in DR.

Driving in DR:
We drove around and did not speak spanish. However, i have driven in other countries in the past and understand the mentality of driving with motorcyles/ buses and lorries in a lane -less world. The GPS was So-So. My problem was not knowing when to trust its guidance from a routing standpoint versus my interpretation of the routes from reading a map. We survived the trip.
Will i do it again.? Absolutely. I did not like the $$ squeeze from the taxi guy who took
us from the Santiago airport to the hotel and back. Moreover, the way our taxi driver in Santiago shot past a stop sign getting out from the airport was enough to call it quit using taxis. I am a defensive and yet aggressive driver and will take only calculated risks. If you rent, skip the compact car and go for atleast the Nissan Sentra. Our
Chevy Aveo gave us good gas mileage, but was underpowered when we needed the extra power to make passes. Do not drive at night. I went and visited a contact in puerto plata town. I had to return back at night around 8:30pm. I found that there were no street lights on the way to the resort. The police had stopped a few cars in the opposite direction and were with shot guns. Why bother taking the risk at night.The cars pretty much drive with highbeam at night. They dip the lights for you to see the road and you are supposed to reciprocate it. Moreover,you gotta be handy to deal with car issues. Changing a flat was something i was expecting to happen, but we were thankful to not have a flat tire.
Check the rental car carefully. Our car had the check engine lights come on.
However, National car rental at puerto plata airport told us it was ok. Remember, that the service number for road side assistance was manned by someone that never spoke english. So i would recommend that you list the service of someone on the island and cut a deal with them to give them their cell phone number, so you
can call them to help with translation and reward that person later. We also got the agent at the rental counter write basic stuff in spanish to "fill up the gas", "to find a place to fix the car or tire" etc. We also had a spanish dictionay on hand. We had the contact numbers for the tourist police, ambulance, Consular office etc. We purchased
emergency evacuation medical insurance. We do this for all our trips regardless.

Nice island with nice people. We did not find one pushy person anywhere in all the 3 towns/cities we visited. We will definitely go back to SD again.
There is poverty everywhere and i tipped well and did care to employ the guides at
one or 2 places, did purchase goods. I was more of a spend thrift knowing that the money would do good to the families of some of these people at least for a meal or two in my name. A credit to my account in heaven i should say.

I was afraid of a trip that i planned in the last minute and it turned out well after all the time i spent doing my research and planning the moves.

Like one of my friends mentioned. You control what you can control and then deal with the issues and manage the risk as things unwind. I think it was well said, words of wisdom.

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    kkumar--I had been looking forward to your report, from reading your pre-trip questions/plans here and on DR1. I have to say I was not disapointed !

    I admire the way you handled every situation that you describe. They key to enjoying the DR, as you already seemed to know, is being flexible; that skill served you well on this trip, and sets a wonderful example for your children. Your advice to always ask a million questions before sealing any arrangements is also an important tip.

    The trip you made for yourselves is not for everyone; many folks just want to take a charter flight to Punta Cana and lie on the beach for 7 days. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. What I love about your trip was your desire to experience some of the real-world DR, the good, the bad and the frustrating. For those who like a little adventure on a vcation, and especially for those of us who enjoy learning more about this beautiful country (DR), your trip report is an inspiration.

    Thanks for the recommendation for Hotel Palacio--I plan to try it my next time in the Capital. And I hope you make it to Guayacanes on your next trip--I think you will love it.
    Looking forward to reading about your further adventures.....

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    Hi Kkumar
    I have been advised by a couple of people on this site, NOT to rent a car and drive myself. If the car breaks down, it will be stripped, people with guns etc. I have driven in Panama City, Panama, so am somewhat familiar with the chaos involved with driving in foreign countries. Since you have actually driven here, what is your take on this. I don't want to constantly be at the mercy of having to get a cab everywhere we want to go. I will be traveling with my wife and father in law. My wife is partially blind also, so it will definitely be more logistically different.
    Any input you have would be greatly appreciated. RJ

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    RastaJohnny66,

    Renting a car in the DR - in my opinion depends on what you want to do and see. Obviously having a car gives you a bit more freedom to see more of the country and it definitely is an adventure. As I rented a car during my stay I would give a few words of caution however. We flew into SD and drove across the island to stay in Puerto Plata - GPS definitely isn't reliable, nor is google maps or other mapping sites, also I tried many times to find a road map and failed to ever find one that was detailed - so expect to get lost as roads are not well marked (especially in Santiago), the road you may want may turn off but will not be marked...even the main ones. However, when asking for directions people were really nice.

    Definitely, agree with Kkumar in suggesting to never drive at night. I too got stuck driving at night (after being lost) and it was definitely something I never want to do again. Also, while I have driven in developing foreign nations such as Brazil and Mexico I found the DR to be a bit worse. Definitely think Kkumar's taxi driver going through the stop sign is the norm for drivers there from what I saw. The only general rule is to try and drive on the right. SD wasn't too bad as there was a lot of traffic which gives people less ability to move but in Puerto Plata and the north where we drove it was more of a get where you are going regardless of safety place. Just had to get used to driving like everyone else which in the DR means, you have the right of way at all times (whether car, semi, motorcycle, moped, bicycle or pedestrian)...The biggest things I noticed consistently were passing cars do not care about oncoming traffic, so when passing continue passing however many people you want to pass regardless of if cars are coming at you; also then know that driving down the road and suddenly seeing a car coming at you in your lane is not uncommon which is why I always took the blind curves a little cautiously (except when I was passing). Other things which seemed a little worse than other places were while making left turns people do still like to pass you on the left, since no one really uses signals I think they might not really be paying attention for it. Also, at stop lights where people actually do stop (normally only the main, busy intersections) expect at least one or two cars from the far right lane to make a left turn as soon as the light turns green.

    Though I did think the driving conditions were a little worse than what I had experienced it definitely did give us more freedom and some stories. Plus the taxis are on the same dangerous roads you'd be driving on so as long as you or someone is comfortable being a defensive, aggressive, yet extremely aware driver then you should be fine. As far as the car breaking down thing goes, obviously there is always a risk of that but since you should never drive at night it would at least be daytime if it happened.

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    I am here now and the night driving is difficult. I have a Mitsubishi Lancer and wished we had gone with the smaller car for ease in squeezing between cars and scooters when passing. I enjoyed reading your report and wondered about the flashing of the car lights at night.

    I'm glad we have a car as you mentioned it gives you so much flexibility and opportunity to see the the country.

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