A December 2005 trip
to La Romana by Jose Kevo
Quote: Tourists are swarming into La Romana these days, and if you're anywhere within the southeastern region of DR, expect to likely be one of them! The country's new travel frontier is booming in a city that's no stranger to sweet success. Now, hospitality also tops their list!
For those who haven't researched, I can imagine apprehensions when a ship steers into the Río Soldado and drops anchor next to tankers and freighters. An industrial park waits to the east; the country's largest sugar-processing factory, belching smoke into what should be a mesmerizing tropical blue sky, dominates the west. Let me assure you, paradise still waits nearby!
La Romana, and this southeastern region, has mushroomed overnight as the Dominican Republic's new tourism frontier. Thanks to that misleading greeting card upon arrival, sugar has always blessed this as one of the country's more prosperous cities. Casa de Campo, one of the Caribbean's most exclusive resort communities east of the city, has been around for 30 years. Recent development of the Bayahibe coast prompted a new regional infrastructure. Still, very few tourists ever ventured into La Romana, but the arrival of cruise ships has changed that forever.
Construction and beautification projects are sweeping the city, which was already one of the most inviting. What a traveler chooses to make of their experiences will depend upon how much time they've been given, but here's some recommendations guaranteed to officially put La Romana on your map of hot destinations:
Port of CallNumerous cruise lines now include La Romana on itineraries. Passenger ships were often double-parked on the Río Solado, which runs along the city's eastern border. If taxis aren't available, it's an easy walk into town.
Avenida LibertadHighway 3, which runs to the airport east of town, is the main artery passing through southern part of the city. From the cruise port heading west, the avenue is under a major beautification project with terraced walkways in the median. Públicos to Bayahibe depart from the pull-through parking area on the south for RD35 per person. An official taxi stand is a block down also on the left.
Getting Around TownCovered excursion trucks with benches in back were seen driving around with signs advertising La Romana City Tours, but no one seemed to know anything about them or where they originated from. Perhaps they're from one of these major resorts listed in the tips section.
Prices for a motoconcho had doubled to RD20 for anywhere within the immediate city, but the best way for exploring is walking. A Walking Tour is in one of the Free Forms.
The small warehouse was basically abandoned the day I passed by. Rows of rolling stations dominate the central area, enough to accommodate 56 employees who can twist upwards of 1,500-plus cigars on any given day. Since this was the holiday season, most were still on vacation, but I was very impressed with efforts to extend the full-blown tour for an individual randomly walking in off the streets.
A display table off to the side contains small clusters of the four varieties of tobacco that are used. Three are Dominican and the others are Cuban. The acrid smells became all but overwhelming when stepping into the sealed curing room where piles of tobacco were scattered around for drying. Between the heat and sudden sneezing, continuing the spiel in the warehouse was a welcomed option.
The man and woman, who had given up their day off, were eager to demonstrate how they craft the cigars. The seven-step process was done with such ease, my mind was calculating how each employee managed to roll only 27 cigars a day based on the numbers given above. They didn't mind having photos taken, but make sure you've brought a flash. Otherwise, pictures will be fuzzy in the darkened interior with rapid hand movements.
The company office doubles as a make-shift cigar store, where an entire wall is lined with shelves containing different blends and quantities. The gentleman in charge had just proudly shown be their biggest seller, The Hummer, in honor of Bill Clinton and Monica. An escorted tour group arrived before we could talk specifics, but I was invited to stay and look around. Unfortunately, nothing was marked with prices. Perhaps they're also willing to haggle over prices, but over the years, I've heard many local people brag about the company's cigars in both quality and price.
The cigar company is located in the western section of town 1 block off of Avenida Padre Abreu at the corner of Lopez #31 and Tribuciomilloa #24. The building is rather unsuspecting, but any taxi or motoconcho driver will know exactly where to find it. A tour with shopping can be completed in 45 minutes. Either pay your driver to wait or catch a new ride on heavily traveled Abreu.
Weekday hours of operation are sketchy based on quota-quitting time, so consider mornings the best bet. Organized tourist excursions include your own official guide that will translate information. Independent travelers will need to have Spanish-speaking abilities to understand the tour, though English was quickly substituted when it came time to make a potential sale.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 20, 2005
Lopez 31 And Tribuciomilloa 24
La Romana, Dominican Republic
But with local tourism's uncharted boom, innocently questioning where the nearest beach is could likely mislead you here. In fact, when asking, I was told this is the better beach of the region because it's used by locals and has yet to be turned into a tourist trap like Bayahibe beach. Regardless, if you're in town for the day and looking for paradise, take a taxi or público to Bayahibe. You won't be disappointed.
In all fairness, Playa Caleta was still in hideous shambles as of January 2005 thanks to a ravishing hurricane season. Massive regional flooding channeling through nearby Río Chavón had driven downed palm trees and debris into the small lagoon the beach is situated along. Clean-up efforts were a long way from completion, but even under normal conditions, this is not a place you'll ever find on a Dominican postcard. Sands were a hard-packed, dirty gray, and the strips were rather narrow. Because of positioning, there was no tide to freshen waters, also potentially polluted because of close proximity to the city.
Lining the beach are 20 or so open-air bars and cafés serving up inexpensive local food and drink. I'd missed out on a couple of weekend invitations to join friends, when the area runs full tilt. Lazily passing the day here with a group of people over conversation while swillin' favorite beverages could make for memorable encounters, but the area was abandoned on a weekday.
The beach is a good 12km off Avenida Libertad. After arguing with several motoconcho drivers, it became obvious that they've organized to charge RD100/US$3.35 for the one-way ride of getting there. With hardly any weekday traffic, there was also quite the wait for any taxi or motoconcho for heading back into the city.
The ride through the country was actually the best part, but you could not tell why anyone should plan on coming here, unless you're a locomotive enthusiast. Abandoned boxcars, which once fueled the city's sugar-processing factory with deliveries of cane, are now haphazardly scattered across fields. Train engine cars have been placed in some of the new plaza median parks along the western entry to the city and are in various stages of rust and restoration.
Perhaps within a few years, Playa Caleta will be worth a visit. The entire countryside, between the city and the sea, is under major development with hotels, resorts, and gated communities. Development of the beach is sure to follow, but until that time comes, don't bother!
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on May 20, 2005
South of Town
La Romana, Dominican Republic
Banks, internet cafes, Casas de Cambios for exchanging currencies, and Codetel telephone can be found in the immediate area, but I've always considered the daily life in general as the genuine feature. Some of the most unsuspecting surprises await inside places like the drug store, supply company or hardware store where business is conducted with nostalgic throw-backs to the 60's. Visions, even smells have served as comforts of childhood with chances to step-back into memories of when life was simple; an appeal La Romana has still managed to retain despite very obvious signs of progress.
Streets south of the center running towards Avenida Libertad are dominated with shops specializing in clothing and shoes. Dominicans especially love dressing-up their small children in lace-frilled dresses and stylish suits for boys; unique purchases beyond souvenir shopping. The area often feels as if it's in a permanent state of sidewalk sale since many stores take advantage of pleasant weather for moving racks of merchandise outdoors. There's no shortage of baseball caps, knock-off designer wear, and even truck loads of second-hand clothing parked curbsides that eagerly get pawed through.
Joyerías, (jewelry stores), have a better selection of amber and lorimar creations than you'll find in most tourist-related outlets. Prices reflect the higher quality, but merchants are often willing to haggle over prices; paying with cash guaranteed to net lower costs than using plastic.
The City's Outdoor Market
Across from the northern side of the park is the city's original Cathedral centralized within a large yard surrounded by a caste-iron fence. It's rather plain and unimpressive, and at no point have I ever found the yard or church open for a quick peek inside. Follow either one of the side-streets to find the outdoor market which is north behind the church.
Regardless of when you arrive, expect to find a frenzy of activities. Vendor boothes line streets and sidewalks surrounding the central block which has a cluster of buildings jammed with commodities. Casual browsing nets immediate attention from tradesmen, and while they'll insist you take a closer look, they'll also smile and take "no" for an answer, unlike high-pressure tactics found in some poorer countries.
There's numerous clothing and shoes available for comparative shopping with what's found in official stores. Similar products at the market will likely cost less depending upon your haggling skills. Initial asking prices are often double of what the vendor hopes to earn, and they enjoy bartering. While most local people encountered will only speak Spanish, vendors have often mastered numerous languages based on survival. Basic Spanish will surely help, but expect an interesting exchange, and don't be afraid to walk away to help seal a better price.
Opportunities for buying local music on downloaded cd's should be bypassed since there's no guarantee of overall quality, even if they've played a couple of songs. There are smaller walk-in booths with tourist-type souvenirs that are rather generic in mass production. A shopper is likely to find more original purchases among the house wares and things Dominicans consider everyday standards.
Foods dominate choices in the typical outdoor market environment that always manages to stir concerns of sanitary practices. Filth and waste are rudely alarming, especially along meat counters where processing takes place and flies swarm carcasses. Regardless of cringing, realize how everyone appears healthy and happy from consuming such questionable products on a regular basis. A bag of inexpensive mangoes, grapes, or bananas from the mountains of produce are great for snacking without fear of bacterial illnesses.
The largest building of the market contains a curious assortment of spices, herbs, and dry goods as well as botánicas selling items used for Santería worship. This area is also where you'd look if wanting to take home an authentic bottle of Mama Juana. Most of what's sold in tourist traps is priced higher and contains fewer ingredients. These bottles are loaded for the locals, and prices vary with size. If you know what to ask for, they specifically make blends upon request, including favorites that contain dried seafood and have legendary potencies. The 1.75-liter I requested cost RD300/US$10 with only the dry goods, but will last as long as I keep adding rum, red wine, and honey.
A Lunch Favorite
Located off the northeastern corner of the central plaza on the north side of Calle Eugenio Miranda, Trigo de Oro Café is an unsuspecting find. The French-run bistro and bakery is housed in a renovated two-story house concealed behind a wall. Awnings and a jungle-like canopy shade the entire yard, which contains the main dining area. The upscale ambience seems out of place, but prices don't reflect poshness. Inexpensive baguette sandwich baskets run less than US$5, the pastry cases and specialty coffees definitely worth saving room for.
The New Shopping Circuit
When leaving Trigo de Oro, heading left/east runs you into Calle Francisco de Castillo Márquez. Take a right on this street if you still want to shop. I was shocked by the number of wall-to-wall tourist-related stores that have opened within the last year. Most contain the same assortments of junk found everywhere with comparable prices, but if looking for unique treasures from the Dominican Republic, be sure and take a peruse through Corazón Latino located at No. 52.
Their selection of artwork, sculptures, and trinkets qualify as home decor and were certainly worth minimal splurges in price. They add a 5% service charge for using credit cards, and don't be surprised if the clerk needs help running the processing machine.
Continuing south will intersect back on Avenida Libertad at the corner of Jumbo Department Store's complex, where you'll need to check all bags upon entry. American Airlines has a new location in front and next door is an outlet selling more junk, but the best buys are in the store.
The Music Department has local percussion instruments and a section labeled Versión Economica, factory seconds of Latin music cd's sold only in the Dominican Republic for RD85/US$2.85. You'll need to pay for anything within this area before leaving. Perhaps you'll find other good buys within clothing and house wares, but my most-requested souvenirs are in grocery stores.
A 1-pound bag of Dominican coffee costs under US$2. Just across from the bread aisle is a section you'd never know to look for, but it's stocked with mouthwatering sweets, including Jalao, 16 coconut and molasses balls for US$1.65,Dulce Leche, various forms of sweet milk candy with a fudge texture in one-pound bricks, some containing fruit for US$1.30, and packages of tropical pastes, great for making side-dish sauces, for US$1.34. There's also a well-stocked liquor section with local and international spirits priced as cheap as duty-free shops. A recommended favorite is Ponche Crema de Oro, excellent rum cream for US$4 a liter.
The Deli is my other favorite place to eat, with an endless selection of creolle cuisine sold by the pound. There's an upstairs dining area great for people-watching and absorbing the brisk air-conditioning. At any of Jumbo's check-out counters, credit cards or US dollars are readily accepted, and change is returned in pesos based on daily exchange rates.
There's a taxi stand in the parking lot with rates posted, or there are other transportation connections along Avenida Libertad. Depending on the amount of purchases, tip the bag boy, especially if they've helped carry things outside. If you've driven with your own transportation, there is no parking fee, but questionable lot monitors also expect a tip for watching your car.
Top of the photo is south
Getting to Parque Central is an easy walk or taxi ride from the cruise-ship port. If arriving by público from Bayahibe, the van makes numerous stops and eventually passes through downtown. For public transportation transfers to other destinations, a shuttle bus leaves from the park's northwest corner for the main terminal west of town. From there, local and express buses frequently depart for anywhere between La Romana and Santo Domingo. The small terminal for east-bound destinations connecting through Higuey is on the right side of the central street, which heads north from the square.
Outside La Romana is the gated entry to Casa de Campo. Unless you're a registered guest or have access to an employee's day pass, don't bother trying to get in. When the US-owned Gulf & Western Industries bought the local sugar industry in the 60s, they also purchased all the coastal land between the city and Río Chavón valley. Casa de Campo quickly developed into a hideaway for global rich and famous and still attracts the country's highest concentration of Americans. Miami Cubans now own the complex. What properties lack in palm-laden beaches, facilities make up for with their world-famous Pete Dye-designed golf courses, including a third that opened in 2003.
As of late 2004, Highway 3 was under major expansion trying to accommodate traffic growth. In DR, these projects can get strung-out forever, increasing risks for drivers and passengers. In some sections, half the highway was blocked off, leaving two lanes of traffic to split what remains, including a rutted shoulder. Defensive driving will get you through, but with traffic increases has also come a greater presence of law enforcement randomly pulling over vehicles for spot checks. Make sure to have documentations in order.
The turnoff on the right for Altos de Chavon isn't clearly marked these days, but it's approximately 6km once passing the Casa de Campo entry. You've gone too far at the airport on the left. Since opening in late 2000, rural vistas along this route are gradually succumbing to development as locals and expats try to cash in on tourism.
Just beyond the airport, the highway descends into the Río de Chavón Gorge, which has served as backdrop for numerous Hollywood blockbusters. The lush river valley was destroyed during the 2004 hurricane season when four back-to-back systems culminated with Jeanne stalling as a tropical storm for 48 hours. Chavón drains the southeastern region, and massive flooding was so severe that Highway 3 bridge washed away under 20 feet of water and debris.
For the next 2 months, traffic was severed. Travelers arriving at the airport planning to stay at Bayahibe resorts were left to navigate like the locals. Watercraft that hadn't capsized or washed away now served as water taxis plying the coast and shuttling tourists with luggage between La Romana and Bayahibe. This unplanned adventure lasted until a smaller roadway was completed across the river, while construction of a new bridge proceeded in record time.
Heading into town on December 17, a burst of color accented the valley from Dominican flags lining the new bridge and furling in the gorge's wind tunnel. A stage had been erected, surrounded by chairs and event tents, for a dedication ceremony that would restore traffic flow. However, it will take decades for the river banks to return to an Edenistic appearance.
A word of caution: There are places to pullover on both sides of the bridge, and rarely will you pass without finding locals swimming in the river, especially near the north side's low-level damn. The country has an extremely high rate of deaths from drowning in rivers, so proceed with caution.
Once cresting the gorge still heading east, you'll see signs for the roadside community of El Limón, which is a perfect example of overdevelopment gone bad. Back in the mid-90's, investors constructed a monstrous shopping plaza of stone that housed an overpriced supermarket, a few small shops, and what was supposed to be office space. Business never took off, and today, the complex is an overgrown eyesore. Across from the plaza is a dirt-road intersection with an arrowed-sign pointing towards the small community of Boca de Chavón.
Of all my years exploring this region, I'd yet to make it to this bedroom community of Bayahibe, which is closer by boat than roadway. A few evenings before Christmas, a friend asked if I'd like to catch a ride on back of his motorcycle. Ráfa had always been a trusted comrade of adventures, this night proving no different.
From the Highway 3 turnoff, it's about 14km to Boca de Chavón, which conjures a feeling of being lost, even though heading in the right direction. The Dominican countryside is surreal through these parts, like a tropical Jurassic Park where nonchalant brahmas graze and nomadic goats roam. The dirt road winds its way, like you'll need to do around rutted potholes, with just enough curves to charm anticipation of what awaits beyond. Random farm houses are scattered; every time thinking one was abandoned, someone appeared out of no where with a wave and a smile. At no point were we passed by a vehicle; only other cyclists, horse and burro riders, and pedestrians all with recognizable saludos a "¡Ráfa!"
At the first signs of modern civilization, we pulled over at the communication towers. A roadside guard, positioned in a squalor camp, welcomed us and apologized for just finishing supper with nothing left to offer. The smell of grease from frying chicken over an open fire was tantalizing, dogs and giant chickens tangling over the scattered scraps. Ráfa gave a quick rundown and went back to the conversation while I explored.
North of the road overlooks the Río Chavón valley and the distant cliff-top structures of Altos de Chavón, with the newest Pete Dye golf course just beyond. The views were impressive, even with the scarred riverbanks from recent flooding. There's potential to explore farther along the gorge, provided you're wearing more than shorts and flip-flops.
To the south, the plateau eases into lower-elevated river bottoms, with the small community of Boca de Chavón situated at mouth of the river, as seen in the final Overview photo. The Caribbean shimmering at sunset, with Isla Catalina fading in the distance, outshines the construction cranes and bulldozers of mass development taking place along the Casa del Campo side of the river.
The road eventually becomes the main street in town, with one aspect I couldn't help but notice. Civil engineering at some point had painstakingly constructed curbing and sidewalks on both sides but had never returned to pave the street, unlike in Bayahibe, where streets were paved some years back, but without support curbs, flooding eventually washed away streets. Ráfa pulled over at a clearing that overlooks a small harbor on the Boca side and across to the rock barrier that protects Casa's new international marina.
Numerous buildings are springing up along the Casa boundary, but my attention kept refocusing on the palm-thatched Boca building extending over the water. A young man was waving from the balcony, Ráfa explaining this was a restaurant that survived by shuttling Casa de Campo guests across the river. Later, when putzing around, el muchacho had tracked me down and offered a brochure for the La Casita Ristorante specializing in Italian and International cuisine. I was surprised by the elegance represented in the photos. Unfortunately, they don't have a website, but contact numbers include 809/359-6155 or 809/556-5932. They open at 11 am and again at 6 pm daily.
A few wealthy have invaded to build waterfront mansions secured behind walls, elevated views of the sea in exchange for floodwalls instead of beach. Otherwise, Boca de Chavón is a typical poor but proud Dominican village. I'd been wandering around when Ráfa called me into a backyard for introductions. The height of the afternoon coffee hour was in order, and I couldn't help but notice how everything was so immaculately kept, even the dirt yard swept free of leaves. Saying goodbye, we were detoured twice on the short walk to the motorcycle for more chatting and coffee.
We made a quick zip across the baseball field where local youth were busy indulging Major League dreams. The cluster of shacks behind the field was obviously the poor part of town without utilities and motorcycle paths doubling as roads. We stopped in front of a couple of homes occupied by young women followed by broods of youngsters. Ráfa slipped them both pesos, and whether some of the children were his or as part of the Christmas spirit, I didn't ask.
Shades of dusk were painting the skies as we prepared to make the Highway 815 turnoff for Bayahibe. We'd been chatting it up when Ráfa pulled into an overgrown lane and stopped. He quickly hopped off, looked at me, and spun around while unzipping. I had to laugh before joining him. Call it the consequence of Dominican hospitality.