Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
11 March 2019 | Zar Par Marina, Boca Chica, Dominican Republic
Barbara Johnston | Hot and muggy, with occasional squalls
In the Dominican Republic, everyone loves to have their music REALLY LOUD! Yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, about 50 motor boats were anchored in shallow water, a few hundred feet from us, most pumping out their own favorite music – salsa, merengue, rap, what have you. Several of the boats seemed to have ranks of speakers mounted above everything else, competing to drown out their neighbors.
Saturday afternoon at the same time there was some loud music, but mostly it was jet skis, back and forth, back and forth, sort of like motorcycle gangs. They stirred up the water into huge confused waves. We bounced around, pulling hard on our dock lines. I vacillate between amazement that people would choose to get their fun this way, and anger that it’s sometimes so loud I can’t think. Fortunately, most nights, it quiets down after dark.
One of the boats in the marina here supposedly belongs to the professional baseball player, Robinson Canó. Sometimes a huge crowd of people gathers on the docks – beautiful young people – we wonder if it’s the baseball player or some other celebrity that’s attracting their attention.
The boat next to us gathered a huge crowd of beautiful young people this morning and started pumping out loud rap music at 10 am. Security guards stood by on the dock. We asked, and it’s a merengue band, “Negrito Dolar”. We feared they’d stay all day and into the night, but as of right now it’s pouring rain, and they all seem to have left.
We have read or heard in several places that the Dominican Republic is known as “La Bella Isla” (the beautiful island), but this part of the island – the streets adjacent to Marina Zarpar – are not beautiful by any definition. The marina staff tells us we shouldn’t walk in the surrounding neighborhood after dark. There’s garbage everywhere in the streets and vacant lots. Fires burn at night; I think they’re burning plastic bags and other sorts of garbage, we sometimes find the ash on our decks in the morning. One morning Sue and I decided to walk east toward Boca Chica, along the beach. We left the marina grounds at 7 am (well after sunrise) and the first thing we saw was two guys with rifles, seemingly guarding the beach. We didn’t feel very good about proceeding, and indeed, the marina staff told us that we shouldn’t go that way until after 9 am.
Yesterday – on a noisy Sunday afternoon – the beach was packed with swimmers, sunbathers and trailers for jet skis. Something louder than all those boats was coming from the direction of the distant beach. Thumpa-thumpa.
We did, indeed see parts of the island that definitely meet the “Bella Isla” description. On Thursday we had signed up for a tour to Saona Island. It turned out not to be what we had signed up for, but we did see some very beautiful beaches. Friday was much more interesting and to our liking: we took a van north to the Samana peninsula for a whale-watching expedition. The countryside becomes much more lush, with beautiful plantations of rice, sugar cane and oil palms. Sadly, the whale-watching boat went too close to the whales, to the point of what seemed like harassment, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit of outrage on their behalf. These were humpback whales, in a location where the females give birth in February. Not long from now they’ll start their migration back to northern waters. After the whale watching excursion we spent a few hours on Bacardi Island, another beautiful beach.
Our driver for the whale-watching excursion was a maniac. He drove that 11-passenger van faster than any other vehicle on the road. He passed everything in sight, whether there was enough sight-distance or not, whether there was oncoming traffic or not. Villages with speed limits of 25 kph he took at not less than 60 kph. One picture that is burned into my memory: our van is passing a fully loaded pick-up truck. There’s oncoming traffic. A motor scooter with a young couple aboard zooms up between us, the pick-up driver shoots his hand out the window holding a coke bottle; the motor scooter driver grabs the bottle and they drop back as our van zooms past the whole affair in sufficient time to miss the oncoming traffic. Yikes!!!!
We met an interesting Italian guy (Matteo) aboard the speeding van. He said that his counselor advised him to travel in the Caribbean to reduce stress. With the maniacal driving that was happening, I asked him how that was coming… He said they have crazy drivers in Rome, too. He and his partner were interested in our sailing travels. At one point he asked whether we had kids, and weren’t they worried about us? Matteo has an office job for his day job (no doubt the source of his stress), but he’s really an artist. He showed us photos of some of his artwork – He paints religious iconography in the Byzantine style – quite amazing to all appearances. Judge for yourself, his Instagram page is piermatteotortorella.
Yesterday was our third day of touring – we visited the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, the capitol city of the Dominican Republic. Lots of beautiful old buildings to see, as well as a cave complex with crystal blue lakes – cenotes, similar to what occurs in Mexico’s Yucatan Penninsula. We saw the Christopher Columbus lighthouse, which our guide described as a spending boondoggle, wasting vast amounts of money, much to corruption, which could have been spent on education. Despite the monument’s name, it is not a lighthouse and not close to the ocean. They moved the supposed ashes of Columbus from the Cathedral to this new monument. In fact, apparently, Spain claims it has Columbus’s remains, as do Italy and several other Caribbean islands.
We saw the Cathedral – the oldest in the Americas, with many parts built in about 1520. We saw the house where Hernan Cortes (one of the conquistadores) had lived – it’s now the French Embassy. Other old buildings were both rough and beautiful – plenty of old and new art.
Now we’re planning for a three-day passage to Jamaica, starting on Tuesday. We had originally hoped to go to Cuba, but that is not to be. Just not enough time, and too many unknowns.
But let me back up a little bit – I haven’t told you yet about our very interesting time in Puerto Rico, nor about the overnight trip to get here. Since I’m going generally backwards, we’ll start with the passage from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. George and Sue aboard Julia Max departed from Ponce at 6:30 am, since their speed tends to be a bit less than ours. We set out at 8:30 and set off downwind in what is becoming a familiar sail pattern: Genoa and staysail both deployed from their respective forestays, staysail on a pole and genoa free-flying. If the wind is at least 12 knots we are able to keep both sails full and make 5-6 knots. If we have 15 knots of wind, the speed increases to 7 knots. We were in and out of that range all day, but at dusk the wind lessened and we were back to motoring. By that time we were in the Mona passage, with no sign of Julia Max. In the middle of the night we finally heard from them, about 3 miles north of us, near Mona island. Gradually we moved past them, mostly motoring until our arrival at Marina Zarpar at about noon the next day. It was a somewhat exciting arrival because part of the entry channel was narrow and only about 7 feet deep. We slid in and found a spot in the marina.
We figured Julia Max would only be an hour or two later, but the afternoon continued with no sign of them. Finally in the late afternoon we received a text message and then a phone call. They were having engine trouble and were traveling at slow speed, not expecting to arrive until after dark. We talked to them on the radio and persuaded them to come in and drop anchor, even if they couldn’t make it to the dock. It was a real relief to see their navigation lights come into sight around the end of the island guarding the entrance. We talked to them as they made their way through the sets of approach buoys and then finally through the very narrow, shallow channel. They ended up anchoring about 100 feet away from the dock in 9 feet of water. Big sigh of relief! I’m glad to report that the engine troubles were at least temporarily resolved the next day by a local mechanic.
One of the things that has been very much on my mind over the last week or so is a French traffic ticket! We had rented a car in Point a Pitre, Guadeloupe, back in January. Craig was the designated driver since I had my purse (and license) stolen back in November. Imagine our surprise when our housesitter forwarded an official notice from the French government, accusing Craig of speeding near Point a Pitre on January 16. No doubt a tricky radar camera. But as we started wading through the dense French of the notice, we realized that our last day in Point a Pitre was on January 12. I started dragging out receipts and looking for photos, and it soon became apparent that the rental agency had given Craig’s information to the French government for a time and a car he hadn’t been driving. At the time of the supposed infraction we had been at the Botanical Gardens in Deshaies with our friends the Szekelys and the Stonecliffes.
So I went into lawyer mode and started preparing declarations and then translating them into French (thank-you Google-translate and Alliance Francaise for the classes that enable me to mostly spot the Google-translate deficits, and thank you to Sue Stonecliffe, whose French is way better than mine!) Everything finally came together yesterday and I was able to get the documents uploaded to the French website. So that’s what I was doing when all that music chaos was going on with the boats anchored out in the shallows.
Now, let me take you all the way back to where the last trip report left off. Our first stop in Puerto Rico was the island of Culebra, which I wrote a bit about in our last trip report. It would be an interesting place to spend more time. The people are very friendly, but their resources are somewhat taxed by the 2017 hurricane damage. They are still running on generators and many buildings are heavily damaged or destroyed.
From our anchorage we went ashore to the Dinghy Dock Restaurant, tying our dinghy to the dock and then sitting at a table a few feet away. Fish are prominent on the menu, and the custom is that you empty your plate of fish bones into the water, where a large school of tarpon fish are waiting to go into a frenzy over your leftovers. These fish are 2-3 feet long, and a bit off-putting when it’s time to get back into the dinghy.
The next day we joined George and Sue in a dive trip – they dove while we snorkeled, all with a commercial divemaster with a small boat. There are lots of tropical fish to see, as well as plentiful sea fans, brain corals and sea urchins. The divemaster told us that there are probably still unexploded munitions in the area (from years of US weapons testing), but no one was touching anything… Coming in after the dives we zoomed through a big rain squall, actually getting cold. (Haven’t been cold for almost a year!) One of the other divers aboard the boat was a local who is a big supporter of local music programs. He invited us to a fundraiser where local children would perform various types of music (including classical). Sadly, our schedule required us to move on before the fundraiser.
From Culebra we went a short distance, past multiple small islands, to the port of Fajardo on the big island of Puerto Rico, where we stayed at Sun Bay Marina. The fairway between the docks is fairly narrow there, and a big barge with crane turned out to be occupying 2/3 of the fairway as we approached our assigned slip. The wind was blowing 20 knots, and it was a real fire drill coming in. We had the help of at least six people on shore taking lines and helping us turn the boat into the slip without actually damaging anything.
The slips in this area of the world seem to have pilings at the entrance, so that you can actually tie your boat up from all four corners against sometimes very strong winds. We had been assigned a slip with a 16 foot width available (our width is 13.5 feet), so we had to line up fairly straight to get in. We didn’t know about that custom or this piling, so its appearance added considerably to our frustration. Most local boats here are power boats which, with their usual two or more engines, can turn on a dime. Sailboats here often have bow thrusters – something that’s not common in our home cruising grounds – so they can also turn almost on a dime. Both those things probably contribute to the narrow fairway configuration of most marinas.
We did get successfully docked. Craig went up to talk to the marina owner, venting his anger, but finally calming down and having a very nice conversation with her. Olga is the local SSCA and OCC port officer, and over the course of the next several days, she proved to be a most helpful and sympathetic host. She has several rental cars parked at the office, and the marina enjoys the high-security advantage of having the local US customs and immigration office right across the parking lot. We rented one of those cars and were able to to do a lot of shopping for groceries, boat parts, and almost anything we wanted. Hey, this is the United States – there’s a West Marine store – wait, there are TWO of them!
Craig launched into the fix-the-toilet project (the pump was now leaking a cup of water over the course of a few hours), and determined the pump needed to be replaced. Of course there wasn’t a pump assembly to be found in Puerto Rico. We briefly considered sending Craig by short air flight to Florida, where there are an amazing 58 West Marine stores, but then we determined that for less money we could buy a complete replacement toilet, pump assembly and all, in the San Juan West Marine Store only an hour’s drive away. Our boat is now 18 years old, and that’s the original toilet, so it’s not an unreasonable plan.
Together with George and Sue Stonecliffe, we made a couple of outings to the old, colonial part of San Juan. During the first outing we met up with Brian Abel, who had crewed for us in the South Pacific, back when he was about 20. Brian is now working in Puerto Rico as an engineer for Crowley Maritime. The day before he joined us for dinner in San Juan, he was at the christening of a giant Crowley container ship (called the Taino) built for the mainland US-to Puerto Rico run. Brian is in charge of the design, construction and maintenance of onshore facilities for Crowley’s port in San Juan. Perhaps I’ve stated his job wrong, because he seems to travel quite a bit in the Caribbean, presumably to other Crowley facilities. Anyway, it was really great catching up with him and finding about all the interesting turns his life has taken.
We toured the two forts which formed the almost impregnable defense of San Juan during the nineteenth century. The design and construction of these forts is quite amazing, in part because the walls are not conventional or rectilinear. Instead they are at odd angles, designed to confuse an enemy. There were a number of exhibits about the history of Puerto Rico, and particularly its relationship to the United States. From the highest point of one fort, we watched a group of crazy kite surfers in the 25 knot wind, jumping off the top of waves and staying in the air for perhaps 20 seconds.
Puerto Rico has sprung back from the 2017 hurricane damage somewhat better than some of the other islands we have seen. But we were looking only at the urban parts, and reportedly things are much worse in rural areas. Puerto Rican drivers are somewhat crazy, and the rule seems to be “whatever you can get away with.” Many traffic lights are non-functional, perhaps due in part to hurricane damage. But we also had people tell us that the traffic lights were out long before the hurricanes.
We stayed several days in Sun Bay Marina, and then sailed south and west to the city of Ponce (named after Ponce de Leon, the sixteenth century fountain-of-youth guy who thought he was going to find it in Florida). We stayed at the marina operated by the local yacht club, which had very nice facilities (nicest shower yet in the Caribbean, with actual hot water!) The big deficit (there’s always a deficit, isn’t there?) was that across about 500 feet of water was an arcade/amusement park/music venue. It was fine during the day when the kiddies were there, but after dark they brought in live bands and turned up the volume to an earsplitting level, even inside our boat. The music went on to at least midnight, and one night until 3 am.
On Friday night, the first day of Carnival, George, Sue and I went into the City to watch the parade. There were a few floats, and a few vejigantes (people dressed up as very scary critters), but mostly the focus was on young people. There were little girls in beautiful dresses and local officials riding on the back of convertibles, but the bulk of the parade was bands from local middle schools and high schools. The parade got started about an hour late, so we engaged in a lot of people-watching as onlookers gathered. The bands stopped at every intersection and performed music, drum routines and a bit of dancing before moving on. We would like to have seen more Carnival events, but boat chores and a relentless schedule to get through the Panama Canal are driving us on.
Like other Caribbean cities, Ponce suffered quite a lot of damage in the 2017 hurricanes. Many of the museums and tourist attractions seem to be closed, notwithstanding the websites and public notices saying they were open. We had particularly wanted to see the museum of Puerto Rican music, which reportedly had a collection of instruments available to pick up and play. But it was closed, so we chose a local history museum instead. It was a beautiful old building with elaborate mosaic floors and stained glass windows. Exhibits – all in Spanish – focused on all periods of history, with very complicated explanations of the political situation and unrest in the 1930s.
I think I’ve come full circle and brought us back to the passage between Ponce and Boca Chica, which I described above. So with apologies for the length of time since my last blog post (I blame the French traffic ticket!), I’ll leave you here with us in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Tomorrow, we’ll set sail for Jamaica, a likely three day passage. Best wishes to all!
Craig & Barbara Johnston