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.
MotoCaribe tours mostly keep to the street, but we spent some time doin’ it in the dirt to
Lunch was at Mi Vista Mountain Resort just outside Jarabacoa. The property is dotted with intimate cabanas, a swimming pool and thatched-roof umbrellas. It offers scenic views of mountains punctuated by palm and fruit trees. We dined on traditional fare of rice, beans, goat, and chicken. Dominican cuisine is a mix of Spanish, Taíno Indian, and African influences. Neither spicy nor bland, it usually consists of simple meat and vegetable dishes, with the odd fruit thrown in to inject a contrasting taste and add some color.
Sampling some more tasty roads, another small cascada and a swimming area after lunch, the final treat of the day was touring a coffee-processing plant owned by Alida’s cousin. Other than sugar cane, coffee is the DR’s biggest cash crop.
The Dominican Republic’s beautiful, twisty roads were broken up by sleepy-yet-colorful vil
Before dark, we landed back at Hotel Gran Jimenoa set above the Jimenoa River, which provides a soothing soundtrack as it roars past guest rooms and the al fresco dining area.
Kickstands were up before 9:00 a.m. as we headed toward the Grand Paradise Samana resort on the island’s easternmost point. A light rain dampened my enthusiasm for canyon carving on the way to a coffee stop in Moca. Approaching the road’s peak, I saw a studious-looking kid under a tree on the side of the road with his face buried in a laptop computer, one of the country’s estimated 3 million web-enabled netizens. The DR’s cell tower infrastructure is far better developed than its old-school landlines.
From Moca, it was a 45-minute ride to La Entrada for a first glimpse of the DR’s postcard-worthy beaches. Shaded by palm trees, we lazed by the Atlantic Ocean waves gently rolling up the beach before continuing up the Samana peninsula. Highway 5 was a moving picture show of ocean, palm trees, rice paddies, resorts and those ubiquitous roadside shanties.
The curiously named Tourist Boulevard of the Atlantic, a new toll road that rollicks throu
In contrast to these bucolic scenes was a roadside reality check. While leading the group to Samana, I spotted a rope stretched across the 60-mph thoroughfare. Confused and flustered, I rolled the ‘Strom to a stop and the offenders dropped the line and reached their hands out expecting a toll. Less than 10 minutes later, another posse loomed in the distance. The 13 percent unemployment rate among 10 million inhabitants drives people to desperate measures, and this is just one way for some to survive. It was a reminder that despite the lush scenery and beautiful resort destinations, the country lives in degrees of economic contrast.
In contrast to the toll-collecting bandits, it’s estimated that one in seven citizens work at the Dominican Republic’s many resorts. After a stay at the Grand Paradise resort that night, we woke to the threat of thunderstorms. The DR enjoys a tropical maritime climate with little seasonal temperature variation. Rain showers
are frequent but generally brief. Luckily, we only ran into a few light, fast-moving showers. During MotoCaribe’s busy season, from December until May, daytime highs hover in the 70s and 80s everywhere except the mountains. The rain moved on and the moisture eventually burned off, providing a rich canvas for a day spent exploring natural wonders.
We went spelunking in a stalactite-rich cave and visited a blowhole carved out of lava rocks lining the craggy shoreline below. At low tide it wasn’t much of a blowhard, but when timed perfectly, it will launch a coconut into the stratosphere—or so the locals claim.
Considering that there are more bikes than cars cruising this tiny country’s 12,000 miles
La Cascada El Limon was easily the most dramatic attraction of the day. We gained access to this 200-foot drop via a 30-minute donkey ride before an aerobic climb up and down innumerable steps carved into the hillside. Equal parts waterfall, swimming hole and informal Dominican Extreme Diving Championship precipice, it teemed with ecotourists who were there to watch locals precariously scale the rocky cliff through fast-moving water and then plunge into the pool several stories below.
The final leg of the trip focused more on the riding. Returning to Samana, we tossed the V-Stroms left and right over a mountain pass reminiscent of California’s serpentine coastal mountains. The Wee Stroms proved a good, if uninspiring choice for touring the island. Putting out adequate power, they enjoy pothole-avoiding handlebar leverage, a decent windscreen and a comfy seat. The V-Strom is a non-threatening ride that allows you to concentrate on the scenery.
We met this fellow enthusiast atop a tight, second-gear road at the Ermita a la Virgin de
On the way back to Jarabacoa, we bypassed the beach route taken to Samana and headed for higher, twistier ground. Soon, we found ourselves at Tourist Boulevard of the Atlantic. Connecting the airport in Las Terranas with El Catey, it is similar to California’s famed Angeles Crest Highway. This brand-new stretch of pristine pavement winds its way through canyons carved out of hillsides and drops down to the beach. Of course, motos are free on this toll road while cars pay $11.50. By this point, we were used to this luxury, and could instead enjoy the countryside.
In our six days of riding, we covered 745 miles; a 32-mile stretch of autopista being the longest straight road we traveled. We saw a depth and breadth of natural wonders, and gained a true sense of this developing country.
The MotoCaribe tours has been a well-kept secret among a loyal fraternity of riders, many of who are repeat customers, and I can see myself becoming one of them. Robert promised that his tours were just like riding with friends. He also said that I’d fall in love with the place just as he did more than 20 years ago. Yes, I’ll be back to this beautiful, diverse country of contrasts.