Exploring the Caribbean Island’s Spectacular Mountains and Beaches
By Eric Putter
Leaving base camp, we skated along a slippery, pockmarked dirt road, then bisected a bustling city district teeming with new cars, banks and supermercados. Escaping urbania, we ride down a smooth, gently sweeping mountain pass, kamikaze kids on smoking motos buzzing by us with inches to spare, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic.
Beyond the shock of impending calamity, we roll past shanties, modest housing, a country club and run-down motels. The road is alive with people outside their houses, most of which-all around the country-are a few feet off the tarmac, allowing us to literally peer into their lives.
The adults we pass happily socialize, play dominos, dance in the street or at rancheta clubs, and watch life whiz by. Kids, being kids, run wild and help work their families’ roadside businesses and wave at us and improvise baseball games on makeshift diamonds in the rough. Everything from spit-smoked pork to vegetables to homemade baked goods are sold inches from the roads in tiny shops, out the back of pickup trucks and in brightly painted, wooden stands.
In the first five miles of day one it’s apparent that the Dominican Republic is a developing nation of contrasts: Citizenry of various origins and socio-economic classes; also in housing, industry and road quality. This was merely a prelude of things to come during a six-day riding and cultural experience with MotoCaribe Adventure Tours.
Situated between Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic sits on the eastern side of Hispaniola, where Christopher Columbus first staked his claim in the New World more than 500 years ago. It’s the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, about on par with Denmark’s landmass.
The Caribbean’s second-largest island, Hispaniola is 240 miles long and 162 miles wide. Dominican geography is wildly divergent. In addition to 900 miles of coastline, it has rugged highlands with mountains rising 10,000 feet and fertile valleys in the central and eastern potion of the country; rocky, desert-like conditions and arid savannas in the southwest.
The northeast coast and the centrally located Caribbean Alps were the focus of this Motocaribe tour. This island-based motorcycle travel operation is quarterbacked by American ex-pat Robert Cooper and his bi-lingual wife, Alida, a native Dominican well versed in the DR’s tourism industry. Built like a linebacker, Cooper, a former pro football player, is a motorcyclist who has lived many lives. He’s been a competitive yachtsman, corporate bigwig, in-home healthcare company CEO, owner of airplane hangers, flight schools and a sports bar. He founded MotoCaribe in 2007 after visiting this diverse land of friendly people and natural wonders numerous times in the prior two decades.
To evoke the feeling of riding with a group of friends, MotoCaribe tour groups are relatively intimate, accommodating up to 11 riders on its fleet of Suzuki V-Strom 650s. Our New Year’s tour was scheduled to include five riders, but at the last minute, a two-up couple from California postponed due to a family emergency. The lone paying customer was Clemens Mandell, a Ducati-riding real-estate agent from Los Angeles. Robert led. We followed. Alida was just minutes behind us the entire time driving the company’s 15-passenger Ford van, handling logistics, hauling luggage and being our mobile caterer.
After those telling five miles on this balmy, 70-some-degree day, we veered off the mountain road and visited our first of many cascadas, or waterfalls. Accessed by hiking along shifty, steel-cable suspension bridges, Jimenoa Falls plunges 100 feet, fueling a hydroelectric plant, which is guarded by the Army, along the way.
Mi Vista Mountain Resort, just outside Jarabacoa, hosted the first of many outrageous lunch stops. The property is dotted with intimate cabanas and a swimming pool featuring inlaid tile lounges in the water. It is owned and operated by another ex-pat character. Angel is a retired U.S. Navy diver from New York who built the place himself in five years.
True to its name, Mi Vista offers scenic views of mountains punctuated by palm and fruit trees. We dined on a typically simple meal of rice, beans, goat and chicken prepared by Angel’s wife, Magaly. Similar to the population, Dominican cuisine is a mix of Spanish 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.
MotoCaribe tours start and end in Jarabacoa (say it: Hah-Dah-Bah-Co-Ah), set in the elegantly named Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range), 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, this mountain 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. All this, and it’s a convenient 45-minute drive from a charming, little airport in Santiago.
Sampling some more tasty roads, another small cascada and the Balneario La Cortina swimming area after lunch, the final treat of the day was touring the Monte Alto coffee-processing plant, which is owned by Alida’s cousin. Other than sugar cane, coffee is the DR’s biggest cash crop. We were led through the entire process by an official guide-from seedlings to burlap sacks stacked and ready for shipment.
Aside from what went on in the hulking steel-roofed factory, we learned that the bigger the bean, the better the coffee and that the best coffee is grown at high altitudes. Besides coffee, sugar and professional baseball players, the Dominican Republic’s best-known export is cigars. At smoke shops around the country, you can watch crusty craftsmen rolling the stogies that fill boxes on the stores’ shelves.
Before dark, we returned to base camp at Hotel Gran Jimenoa. Set above the Jimenoa River, which provides a soothing soundtrack as it roars past, the resort has 65 modern, tastefully decorated rooms, a pool and a spectacular al fresco dining area high above the raging river. It is one of the two places we stayed throughout the tour. Similar to the Edelweiss Bike Travel Touring Center concept, day rides commence from these centrally located digs.
We experienced the DR’s colorful moving-picture show on Japanese bikes that locals call Harley-Davidsons. Actually, they think any bike bigger than 125cc is a Harley. Being that police ride similar-looking Honda Transalps, many thought we were The Fuzz. I’m not sure if this was a good or bad thing.
MotoCaribe’s well-maintained, low-mileage Wee Strom adventure bikes are perfect for their intended mission on the island. To better accommodate a 30-inch inseam, my bike was lowered almost and inch with aftermarket rear linkage dogbones, bringing the perch down to about 31 inches. This do-it-all steed puts out decent power, provides pothole-avoiding handlebar leverage, a reasonable amount of wind protection and a comfy seat. Super-stable on their fresh Michelin Anakee 2 tires, we occasionally pressed the big enduro into sportbike lite mode on some of the DR’s pristinely paved roads and pressed and took on some light-duty off-roading.
Kickstands up before 9, today’s destination was the Grand Paradise Samana resort, located on the island’s easternmost point of the Samana Peninsula. A light rain dampened enthusiasm for canyon carving on our way up to this morning’s coffee stop at Rancho La Cumbre restaurant, fittingly located in Moca. Approaching the road’s peak, damned if I didn’t see a studious-looking kid under a tree on the side of the road with his face buried in a laptop computer.
I jumped back on the bike and headed downhill while the others sipped java from dainty white cups to find 22-year-old Pither Sanchez Rodriguez doing his college homework. Outside his multi-hued home. While tethered to the Internet via a cellular modem. He is one of the country’s estimated 3 million web-enabled netizens. Turns out that the DR’s cell tower infrastructure is much better developed than its old-school landlines. The wonders of modern technology never cease to amaze.
From Moca, we careened down what visiting American motorcyclists call Tail of the Iguana, a clear riff on a particularly undulating portion Highway 129 in Deals Gap, Tennessee, know as Tail of the Dragon.
It was a 45-minute ride to Gaspar Hernandez, then an hour to La Entrada, where we got our first glimpse of the DR’s postcard-worthy beaches–in a much more analog setting. Shaded by palm trees, while we were enjoying lazy Atlantic Ocean waves gently rolling up the beach, MotoCaribe’s van suddenly lumbered through the sand, rudely breaking the serenity. A chipper Alida jumped out and promptly unfolded a no-frills picnic with furniture from the Caribbean version of Costco and local take-out fare from Parador de Todo.
Continuing on our path to the Samana Peninsula, Highway 5 was a moving picture show of ocean, palm trees, rice paddies, resorts and those ubiquitous roadside shanties, the occupants going about their day on the ninth most populated island in the world.
Time for 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. When the offenders dropped the line and reached out their hands, I gassed it and escaped without sustaining bodily harm. Not less than 10 minutes later, another posse loomed in the distance. Mad as hell at these jokers for possibly endangering my life, I pointed the bike straight at them in a game of chicken.
The rope went limp as they dispersed. Upon reflection, I figured that this “personal donation” trick was one way the locals subsist in a country with a 13 percent unemployment rate among its 10 million inhabitants. Worse yet, instead of being a roadside scam, I later found out that this is a perfectly legitimate practice, usually undertaken to collect charitable contributions for everything from surgery to senior proms. As a guest in their neighborhood, I vowed to better follow local customs should it happen again.
In contrast to the toll collectors, it’s estimated that one in seven citizens work at the Dominican Republic’s many resorts. After the tour’s longest day, a 200-mile jaunt in the saddle, we arrived at the Grand Paradise. This all-inclusive, beachfront property has 248 rooms, 50 quaint bungalows, three pools, an array of non-motorized water-sports equipment, a trio of bars, a 24-hour supply of food and drinks, a disco and other nightly entertainment.
Heavy overnight rains led to sprinkles by the time we shoved off on our day of natural wonders. Streaming sun gradually chased the clouds away. The DR enjoys a tropical maritime climate with little seasonal temperature variation. Rain showers are generally brief, but can be frequent. Luckily, we only ran into a few light, fast-moving showers throughout the tour. During MotoCaribe’s tour season, from December until May, daytime highs hover in the 70s and 80s everywhere except the mountains, which are around 10 degrees cooler.
But the day wasn’t dictated by weather. First, we went spelunking in a stalactite-rich cave. A 10-pound flashlight illuminated bats taking flight as our voices echoed off the walls. Next stop was a blowhole carved out of lava rocks lining the craggy shoreline below. At low tide, it wasn’t much of a blowhard. Reportedly, when timed perfectly, it will launch a coconut into the stratosphere.
La Cascada Salto El Limon was easily the most dramatic attraction of the day. From the stables at Parada #5, we accessed this 200-foot drop via a 30-minute horseback 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 happy ecotourists watching locals precariously scale the rocky cliff through fast-moving water and then plunge into the pool below-some headfirst, others jumping right-side up, using their heels to cushion the landing. In sight of our final stop, we returned to find another awesome Dominican lunch of rice, beans, beef, chicken and anise-infused fried yucca (pronounced “jooka” by the natives) set out at by local legend Dona Nega and her family who organize these equine-fueled excursions to the falls.
The final leg of the trip was decidedly more vehicularly satisfying. Returning to Samana, we tossed the hefty V-Stroms left and right over a mountain pass that might as well been laid out in California’s serpentine coastal mountains. This was the first time we employed body English to hustle the Suzukis into and out of corners.
Dominicans are moto-crazy. Of the 2.5 million registered vehicles, 1.8 million are two-wheelers, mostly 125cc or less. Considering that many more bikes than cars cruise this tiny country’s 12,000 miles of roads, it’s not unusual to see entire families riding three- and four-up on smoky mopeds, plastic-encased scooters and motorcycles of all ilk. But bikes don’t come cheap on the island. Financing on new Yamahas was being offered at 36 percent APR.
Unlike American riders, Dominican motocyclists enjoy exclusive on-the-road benefits such as being exempt from highway tolls and are able to park on sidewalks. As mentioned earlier, they also compete in a unique form of lane sharing. Rules of the road are quite simple in the DR: 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 third-world countries, one rides by custom, not the rule of law.
Holy tail of the lobster! A MotoCaribe edict was announced on New Year’s Eve day. This law established a day of rest. It was interrupted only by a lobster-laden lunch on the beach in Playa Rincon and a 200-item grand buffet for dinner, which included, you guessed it, more of those beautiful, tasty crustaceans.
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 Las Terrenas with the airport in El Catey, it is similar in form and feel to California’s famed Angeles Crest Highway, north of Los Angeles (minus the pine trees). This brand-new stretch of pristine pavement wends its way through canyons carved out of hillsides and drops down to the beach. Of course, motos are free on this toll road; cars drivers pay $11.50.
We celebrated New Year’s with yet another beachside lunch stop. This time, it was at Los Gringos, which features a restaurant, bar and three cabanas – at just $80 per night–in paradise. The owner and head chef, Patrick, is another ex-pat, this time from Belgium, adds European flair, and flags, to the mellow vibe.
Fresh asphalt, lunch on the beach and a hike down to a crazy blue lake were all well and good, but the most entertaining sight of the day was of a totally different nature. While moving along at a good clip on the road to El Limon, we were literally stopped in our tracks by two guys engaged in a rollicking scuffle along the yellow centerline, surrounded by a small, noisy crowd.
Although MotoCaribe doesn’t pick up the alcohol tab, like the Dominican Republic’s all-inclusive resorts do, it offers comprehensive packages. Hotel accommodations, bike gas, meals, beverages, snacks, admission to attractions as well as fees for beach chairs, towels and umbrellas are on the house.
These American-led tours cover the entire country with four-, eight-, nine- and 11-day rides from December into the first week of May, including two during Dominicans’ boisterous Carnival celebration. Prices range from $1395 to $3445. Go to MotoCaribe.com to find out more than you can imagine about riding in the Dominican Republic. It’s replete with videos, a vast archive of photos and customer reviews.
Offering up American standards of quality, piloting like-new motorcycles in an exotic, developing nation, MotoCaribe tours are a tremendous bargain. The operation has attracted a loyal fraternity of riders, many of who are repeat customers. During six-day adventure, where every day felt like New Year’s, we covered 745 miles, each one from 50 to just over 200 clicks; a 32-mile stretch of autopista being the longest straight road we traveled.
Jetting off to the DR is a breeze from the east coast. Direct flights from Miami to Santiago take just two hours; three-and-a-half from New York. This makes it easy and relatively inexpensive to slip in a few days of R&R on either side of a tour with friends, family or that special someone. That said, after the MotoCaribe adventure, a lovely lady friend jetted down from Jersey to join me in decompression mode at a super-inexpensive, all-inclusive 4-star resort near La Romana.
Robert promised that his tours are just like riding with friends. Check. 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. Check mate.
- MotoCaribe Adventure Tours
- Toll-free U.S. phone number: 813-751-0551
- Website: MotoCaribe.com
- Price range: $1395 to $3445
2012-2013 Tour Dates:
- December 2-9: 8-Day Southwest Tour
- January 6-13: 8-Day North Coast Tour
- January 15-18: 4-Day North Coast Tour
- January 20-27: 8-Day Southwest Tour
- February 10-18: 9-Day North Coast Carnival Tour
- February 23-March 3: 9-Day Southwest Carnival Tour
- March 10-17: 8-Day North Coast Tour
- March 19-23: 5-Day Southwest Tour
- March 24-April 4: 12-Day Combination North Coast & Southwest Tour
- April 7-14: 8-Day North Coast Tour
- April 21-28: 8-Day Southwest Tour
- May 5-12: 8-Day North Coast Tour
About Eric Putter:
Eric Putter is a passionate vehicular enthusiast, veteran motojournalist and marketing professional whose editorial work has been published in a wide variety of more than 50 American media outlets specializing in powersports, travel, electronics, mountain biking and men’s entertainment. Additional stories and photos from other adventures can be found at PutterPowerMedia.com and MotostockPhoto.com.