Standing at the intersection, my arm hadn't even reached a full upwardly extended position when no less than four motoconchos came screeching to a near-collision halt at the curb. Passing a moment's worth of judgment over which driver might not only accommodate the safer passage but also be willing to provide more than just a ride, I climbed on behind, held on, and was off at a frenzied pace. To where? Sometimes it just doesn't matter!
Without the motoconcho (motorcycle taxi), Dominican life would all but come to a stand still! Most travel guidebooks warn that these should only be used for transportation as a last resort due to the danger levels of riding helmetless behind what's often perceived as reckless drivers. These advisories are obviously derived from more fact than fiction, but to never risk testing fate by going for a spin is denying yourself part of the Dominican experience.
Call it forbidden fascination! Growing up, my father was a State patrolman. Based on the number of motorcycle accidents he'd encountered, he made sure we knew and had seen all the gory details in hopes of squelching any desires to go for a ride; little alone ever owning one. His methods worked, but neither of us ever counted on my life eventually evolving in DR.
I'll never forget that late afternoon shopping run in La Romana years ago when approaching rains and other circumstances beyond our control prompted Junior to hail us a couple of motoconchos for getting to the publico stop ASAP! He hated these things; even more so after a brother had recently been killed while riding a motorcycle along the open road.
Everything my Dad had ever drilled in my head came rushing back as I apprehensively straddled the seat and began fumbling/shifting packages to free a hand for some means of holding on. No such luck; the driver quickly racing off almost as fast as my lifelong embedded doubts and fears fled to be replaced by an exhilaration that turned fixation. Since the initiation, local friends are somewhat perplexed by my always wanting to ride the motoconchos; something like an excited little kid at the carnival.
In a smaller city like La Romana, using motoconchos is a great introductory environment though I still confess cowardice towards the bustling, chaotic traffic of Santo Domingo. The convenience of getting anywhere around town for RD10 has became more than just transportation or excitement. And if you're brave or adventurous enough, it won't really matter where you go as main and side streets reveal aspects of Dominican life hidden to the majority of travelers. Without jeopardizing your safety holding on, definitely have your camera out; auto-focus is more suitable than manual.
Taking a spin around the southern, central area of town is a great way to begin even if you're already familiar with these areas from walking or passing using public transportation. Make a couple of loops around the beautiful central square plaza, which is the hub of La Romana activity, before heading north along the plaza street, which parallels the old church. This feeds you right into the heart of the lively open-air market where a multitude of smells prevail to accompany the visionary experience.
Navigating further afield through the busy streets in a deep-seated manner, you'll be surrounded by other cyclists out and about perhaps loaded down with three passengers, a mother with her children. Despite close proximity, you can read lips for the random, inaudible greetings but there needs no interpreting of the smiles which warm you quicker than the Caribbean sun.
For the most part, island life is about being laid-back where nothing is hurried. Keep reminding yourself of this when approaching a busy intersection; especially when your traffic light is red! Motoconchos will pass right through the narrow lanes of traffic to cluster in front. An impatient driver revs his engine setting off a concerted fanfare from the others. The light turns green . . . and everyone is off with a vengeance but there's nothing to fear. Within a block, the exhaust fumes have subsided, the cycles have raced ahead and dispersed back to the outside of lanes, and traffic flow resumes to the slower pace - just as your beating heart will, too!
Here's additional tips for helping travelers maximize the motoconcho experience while minimizing risks:
- Ready Availability will be obvious the first time you experience several drivers racing at once to try and pick you up. Selecting an older, more experienced driver tends to cut-down on some of the perceived recklessness.
- Costs when riding anywhere in town should never be anything more than RD10 though I've experienced some drivers trying to charge me more as the perceived wealthy tourist; even when in the accompaniment of local friends.
Tell the driver where you want to go and ask, por diez pesos / for 10 pesos? If wanting to go to the baseball stadium, basketball arena, or souvenir-related shop complexes on the western outskirts of town, expect to pay at least RD20 one-way. For the latter, consider offering the driver extra to wait while you shop since motoconchos back into town aren't as frequent.
- Official Motoconcho Stands can be found along the southern and northern perimeters of the town's central square, and outside of Iberia, Jumbo and Orenses Department Stores.
- Passengers per motoconcho is at your discretion, but unless you're two medium-sized people or smaller, I highly recommend separate drivers. Hail the number of cycles you'll need, tell the drivers where you want to go, determine the same fare to be paid to each driver, and they'll follow/somewhat race to your destination.
- Joy Riding takes a bit more effort; especially if you don't speak Spanish. Tell the driver: Quiero ver La Romana. Por cuanto me lleva? / I want to see La Romana. For how much you take me? I've paid as much as RD100/$3.00 for a good driver that not only was willing to show me around and interact for a couple of hours, but also took me to his house to meet the family.
And no matter what your reason for daring or caring to experience a Dominican motoconcho, be prepared for the ride of your life!