Day trip from Punta Cana to Samana, Dominican Republic

Good morning! Yes… once again we’re up before dawn during our holiday… “What is supposed to be a relaxing time to rest and recharge from a long year of hard ‘graft’, feels rather less-so at five a.m!” I think to myself, standing in the open-air foyer of the hotel … but it’s about 23 degrees – nice and cool – and the stars in the sky mean it’s going to be a sunny day. The busses arrive and we manage to get the front seat of a twenty-seater and settle in for the three-and-a-half hour journey to Samaná – where the humpback whales are. Maybe we’ll get lucky and manage to find them.

A rather large gamble to be driving half a day on a ‘maybe’… But what a great country! Rather larger than you would expect. Thick bush and forests. Palm trees, sugar cane, dirt roads… We pass little shacks built from board and tin. Old buildings probably built by the Spanish and never been renovated. Litter all over the place. Potholes everywhere. Meat hanging by the roadside. Small farmshacks cobbled together from driftwood and selling fruit. People walking along the road in the middle of nowhere. Houses that are but empty shells. A general appearance of unkempt-ness (is that a real word?)…

It reminded me of Mocambique when we used to go diving in Ponta d’Ouro. The Portuguese colonials had invested a huge amount of time, energy and money to build roads and some rather large houses. When they left, and as a result of the civil war, it was just left to crumble. Nowadays the shells of the houses are still there – windowless, doorless, shutters hanging and the roof only partially covered. They are inhabited – by the locals – but maintenance seems to be put on hold, permanently.

Everyone is smiling and even waving though, as they lie under a tree or on the beach and let the day develop. Naturally, if I were looking for a reason, it might be a lack of funds to keep the infrastructure going. Although, what was noticable were the bright colours. Yellows, greens, blue-painted walls… There always seems to be time and a couple of dollars for a tin of paint. No matter how dilapidated your house is, at least it looks good in the sunlight!

Colourful is another word I would use to describe the Dominicans… And teeth – a lot of smiling. Maybe all that rum?… One senses that Africans and also the decendants in the Caribbean are unencumbered by the European instinct to keep everything ordered and tidy. This I can only describe as admirable and enviable. Nothing wrong with that! I guess the weather also plays a huge role. Why rush around when it’s another beautiful day! As well as the countryside. To our eyes it looks wild, but our reference point for the last ten years has been Holland. Having to do without the luxury of space and a large population living in close proximity sort of forces you to be stricter about things. It’s clean, neat and tidy everywhere: roads, cycle paths, gardens, verges, parks, even the forest is tidy… In stark contrast with the Dominican – as seen from our little bus.

The pace is rather different to the mad rush in Europe as well. Nobody seems to be in a hurry. From the smoking scooters in town, ancient cars and pick-ups way past their useful life, old American schoolbuses, to the donkey cart ambling along in the countryside. The relaxed atmosphere sort-of creeps up on you. We start to mellow and take it as it comes. The bus dodges a pothole and clambers up another hill. A boy on horseback trots past us as we stop to stretch our legs. And a lot of people just sitting around. But the palm trees, banana trees and Çana trees just kind of ‘make’ the backdrop a picture postcard. Lovely and green – a beautiful setting if your going to hang out under a tree…

Bacardi Island & Humpback Whales

Welcome to Samaná Bay! To the left you will see fishermen with their small canoes and dug-outs. Fixing nets and clearing boats for another day on the water… Ahead you will see a mass of people crowding the end of the pier. Waiting for the speedboat to ferry another load to the larger vessel anchored half a mile away. Join the queue, let’s see if the whales are in town … Once everyone is aboard the captain weighs anchor and guns the throttles… The boat slowly gathers speed until we start crashing over the swells and soon we are getting drenched by the spray! This sets the mood and everyone is grinning stupidly in the sunshine, like kids playing in the surf. What is this draw and fascination with water…? Our video camera doesn’t seem impressed and promptly gives up just as we see a number of boats – of all sizes – in the distance bobbing up and down in the gentle swells.

All the boats are loaded to the gunwhales (pun unintended) with tourists craning over each other to get a snapshot of some sea… No wait… look over there… Despite the activity – with shouting and excited pointing as well as the engines of the maneuvering watercraft – there are some dark shapes in the water. They seem oblivious to everything going on around them. I hadn’t expected that. I always thought that these creatures are stressed-out and irritated and basically trying to get away to calmer waters. I guess that’s what I would have done, but then again, I’m not a whale…

Mommy and junior – two humpbacks – just floating and seemingly motionless. Perhaps drifting on the current… Or snoozing… who’s to say? A burst of air and spray signals a quick breath… The whole boatload is now on the port-side causing the a sharp listing angle. This actually works to everyone’s advantage for a better view. All snapping away with a multitude of digital devices. Convinced that theirs’ is THE SHOT… Well I hate to disappoint; but it is not easy to get a flattering picture of a whale from amongst a hundred heads and hands and fingers pointing… The whales were holding up their end of the bargain though. Great models on the day, even waving a fin… Maybe they enjoy coming to see the people? Like they are also on a tour: “…Come on son, let’s go look at the crazy humans. It’ll be great!…” I must admit, that even though it was packed and busy, it was fantastic and humbling seeing these massive mammals. Worth the long ride in the bus from Punta Cana.

The moment was gone in, what seemed like, the blink of an eye. We left the whales and headed for lunch. By now we had all been up since before dawn so a quick meal would be welcome… The island we were steering towards was actually quite famous. En route we were told that the Bacardi ad was filmed there. This was a while ago (not sure which one it was…), but now forever re-christened: Bacardi Island. And we could see what all the fuss was about. Picture postcard? Understandable that a camera crew would come all the way here for a minute worth of video footage… Perfect beaches, palmtrees (of course) and relatively isolated, until the boatloads of tourists descended upon it…

We were directed into a clearing in the trees where a simple roof covered what looked like a field kitchen or open-air cafetaria. A long line of hungry mouths waited for the cooks to bring out the food. A plastic plate and utensils was offered and a small beaker for juice. We found a seat at one of the picnic tables and had what can be described as a mediocre meal. After the excitement and serenity of the whales this was a quick return to earth. “Lunch-is-served, sir” – but on an industrial scale. Best to eat and then head to the perfect beach for a (half-an-hour) swim. Nice, but once again, too many people on a tiny little island. At least the laid-backness (another enigmatic word) and vibe was chilled and the sunshine was glorious.

Then it was the queue at the boat again and a boat ride back to the mainland. At the pier a throng of locals and tourists. Possibly the only negative on the day. Wholesale mass-tourism exposed. But a nice buzz as we strolled back to the waiting busses. A long ride back to the comfort of our beds awaited us. However – we were now in the ‘zone’. Dominican style. And nothing seemed to phase us, even a kamikaze minibus driver intent on getting us there before midnight. A good day! Whales close-up isn’t something you do everyday. Exploring an island – and pretending to be Robinson Crusoe for five minutes – also… A bus ride through a fascinating and beautiful countryside? Yeah, I’d do it again…