Leaving the Hotel Gran Jimenoa on a pockmarked dirt road, we bisect a bustling city teeming with new cars, banks and supermercados before heading down a smooth, gently sweeping mountain pass on our Suzuki V-Stroms. Kamikaze kids on smoking motos buzz by us with inches to spare, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic.
Beyond the shock of impending calamity, we glide past shanties, modest housing, a country club and run-down motels. The road is alive with people outside their houses, most of which are only a few feet off the tarmac, allowing us to peer into their lives. Everything from spit-smoked pork to vegetables to homemade baked goods is sold inches from the pavement in tiny shops, out the back of pickup trucks, and in brightly painted wooden stands.
The Dominican Republic is a developing nation of contrasts. Roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, the Caribbean’s second-largest island is situated on the eastern side of Hispaniola, where Christopher Columbus first staked his claim in the New World more than 500 years ago.
The northeast coast and Los Alpes, the central mountain range, were the focus of this geographic and cultural tour hosted by MotoCaribe (www.MotoCaribe.com), a local motorcycle travel operation quarterbacked by American ex-pat Robert Cooper and his tri-lingual wife, Alida, a native Dominican.
MotoCaribe tour groups are relatively intimate, accommodating up to 11 riders on a fleet of Suzuki V-Strom 650s. They offer four-, eight-, nine- and 11-day rides from December into the first week of May, including two during the country’s Carnival celebration, which takes up the month of February. Prices range from $1245 for a four-day tour to $3445 for an 11-day adventure.
Our early winter tour was small, just myself and Clemens Mandell, a 46-year-old German real-estate agent living in Los Angeles. Tours start and end in Jarabacoa, set in Cordillera Central at 1700 feet above sea level. In the distance, four of the Caribbean’s highest peaks can be seen, including the tallest, 10,417-foot Pico Duarte. Called Land of the Eternal Spring by indigenous Taínos, who still make up 15 percent of the population, this town of 60,000 is a summer destination for wealthy Dominicans and hub of the country’s adventure-sports tourism industry. River rafting, kayaking, hiking, climbing, paragliding and horseback riding are easily accessible. Plus, it’s only a 45-minute drive from the small airport in Santiago.
The first thing to adjust to was the actual culture of riding. Dominican motorcyclists are exempt from highway tolls and can park on the sidewalks. They also enjoy rampant lane sharing. Rules of the road are quite simple: slower vehicles always stay to the right; block bigger vehicles from passing at your peril; use the horn often to alert moto riders, car drivers, truckers, pedestrians, domesticated animals, and livestock to your impending presence—but never in anger. As in many developing countries, one rides by custom, not the rule of law. After the initial tour through the city, we nearly had our bearings in terms of geography and behavior and were ready for adventure.
Following that first five miles of riding, we veered off the mountain road to visit the first of many cascadas, or waterfalls. Accessed by hiking along shifty, steel-cable suspension bridges, Jimenoa Falls plunges 100 feet, fueling a hydroelectric plant.