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jimbaffico: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic - 2007-10-24

Driving to Punta Cana

Call it bad planning on my part, but I didn't adequately scope out the roads between La Romana and Punta Cana. Since there is such a heavy tourist trade in both places, I guess I figured that it would be tourist friendly. You know the kind of place where if you had a problem with driving directions you could just pull over, find somebody who spoke English, and ask: “Hey, how do I get to,” oh, let's say, “Punta Cana?" or something of that nature.

Little did I realize that the Dominican Republic is -- and I hate to use the phrase, but there’s no other way to say it -- a third world country, a place with no highway signs. Highway signs? heck there were no highways. No maps, no route markers, not one sign for our Hotel, The Sivory Punta Cana. No nothing.

In Higuey, the biggest town we went through on a busy Saturday afternoon, there were a great many traffic lights, but none of them worked. We were later told that there might have been a power outage. That happens with some regularity. Either that, or the traditional weekend sport involves lots of traffic dodging, pot hole jumping and family daredevil games. It reminded me of Saigon on evacuation day. Pretty much complete chaos.

The locals mainly ride exhaust spewing little motor bikes, sometimes getting as many as four on in various contorted positions. They then sort of parade up and down the main drag, like we use to on a Saturday night, running intersections with abandon, playing chicken with dump trucks, and generally behaving as if road life were a direct descendent of a video game. Let me put it this way, there’s only one rule: take care of yourself. No right side my side, left side your side; no right of way; no speed limit; no seat belts, safety helmets or crash pads; no passing only on the left; no stopping; no yielding; and, no fair signaling turns!

In this continuing game of “Chicken” we proceeded as Super Chicken, and cautiously at that. At one intersection there was a truck and three or four bikes approaching opposite. While trying to divine just which way those bikes were going to pass the truck and where they would cut in front of me, two bikes appeared almost simultaneously from each of the other two sides of the intersection! Eight bikes, a truck, and me. And nobody was going to stop. It’s a game of dodge ‘em or die! I slowed and then plowed on straight ahead, which you figure out after a short while is what the locals expect you to do. Stupid! Nobody gets hurt. Everybody misses. Because they’re all looking out for number one.

The drive was exciting, if nothing else. And adventurous, too. On the whole 90 kilometer drive, there was only one, honestly, only one road sign to Punta Cana. And that was broken so that you couldn’t read it. We missed it. I got that awful feeling in the pit of the old stomach, stopped, had some bogus conversation with two local guys who didn’t understand English. Thank goodness they understood pointing, and when I pleaded “Punta Cana” they pointed ‘go back’ and somewhere back there ‘go left.’ We did as pointed. And at the only intersection where we could turn left, we did and we saw that broken sign. Aha! See. We felt so smug.

As the afternoon’s fun turned to boredom and then annoyance, we finally arrived somewhere near the Punta Cana airport. There are dozens of high class hotels on the beaches there. Ours must be near by we reasoned. I stopped any number of times at the gates of the hotels and asked in my best Spanish, “Esta est La Sivory?” Or when obviously given a negative answer: "Donde est La Sivory?" To which I got a wide variety of answers. All of them wrong.

The Sivory is only two years old. It's the last Hotel on the northern most part of the Punta Cana Coast. I started looking for it on the Southern most part of the Punta Cana Coast. Let me say again, no highways, no signs, no maps, no directions, no nothing. Knowing that The Sivory was on the beach, I had to proceed north by dead reckoning, then turn East at every possible opportunity until I got to the beach and could see what hotel was there. We hit at least a dozen dead ends. And saw a lot of beach front.

I had more questions for the locals. There were lots of bemused looks in response to my questions, even a few concerned frowns, but not much hard information. Phone calls produced lots of bad guesses on the parts of the askees, like “turn right at the Shell station.” Sounds reasonable, until you discover days later that the only Shell station in the Dominican Republic is back in Higuey. Naturally this sort of stuff produced lots of frustration on the part of the asker.

We did get a very colorful tour of the ENTIRE Punta Cana Coast, though. We saw hotel construction of every type and size. We saw maybe a hundred dump truck loads of Haitian laborers. Probably illegals trying to squeeze out a little something in order to feed the dear ones back home. We saw buses full of bored tourists. I started to seriously wonder where they came from. And where they stayed, too. They were invariably visiting the big hotels and casinos. They appeared to be Germans. But then all dumpy looking backpacking overweight gray-haired tourists in shorts, and sandals with kerchiefs tied around their sweating heads appear to be Germans to me.

In one town, I went into a real estate office and found a girl who spoke a little English. She tried very hard to help me. Even let me use her phone to call The Sivory. I wasn't too hopeful that they could, or would, help me because weeks earlier when I had emailed them asking for driving directions, they told me to go to the town of Higuey and call them from there. Higuey was half way and I didn't think they could really direct me by phone. I asked a second time for driving directions but was just ignored. That's why I wasn't too hopeful when I got them on the phone late Saturday afternoon.

Three different people from the Sivory couldn't tell me where I was, or how to get to where I was going. In fact, two of them couldn't tell me where it was that I was going. Finally, a man got on the phone. He spoke perfect English. Ah, at last, I thought: help. But no, all he could tell me was that I wanted to go to Uvero Alto. "Just keep asking people where Uvero Alto is," he blithely informed me. Then topped it off with a cheerful, "and if you need anything, don't hesitate to call us." IF I NEED ANYTHING? Yeah, how about a life line, jerk! I hung up the phone.

The nice real estate office girl was trying to tell me for the twentieth time, go left, then left again then right at the gas station. Maybe it was the repetition, but I was starting to believe her. She gave me a piece of paper with a xeroxed resort map on it. It actually showed the location of The Sivory. And then I could see for the first time, “Oh, my god, it’s the northern most resort on the whole coast!” The last one on the map!

Now thoroughly depressed, I gave it to Joey, the navigator. I was feeling pretty dumb, not knowing how much more of this I could take and still maintain my cheerful demeanor, and at the same time imagining that I was going to have to duke it out with the Haitians for some space on a beach somewhere that night.

Then the navigator says, "she's right. Go left here, and left there, then right." She shows me the map, but it just looks like worm trails to me. So I just did what she said. Left. Down a dusty dilapidated shanty town street. Left again, past the 44 truckloads of Haitians -- what do all these guys do for women on a Saturday night I began to wonder? And then we come to an intersection with a Gas Station! Excitement: this must be it!

Except that there’s a huge gasoline truck stuck in the middle of the road blocking all four ways. Nothing moves. Occasionally an adventurous motor bike would chance a go around the truck. What to do? I watched for a few seconds, thought about waiting it out, or heaven forfend, turning back, then just set my jaw, fired up my little Kia midget car and blasted my way around the back end of the tanker. My partner screamed. One of those blood curdling, I’ll never forgive you screams. I yelled something appropriately dumb, like, “AAAAahhhhhhh!” and pressed all the way down on the throttle. We darted in between any number of pedestrians, motor bikes and shirtless day laborers who had camped on the sidewalks watching for the sport of it, and blasted our way through.

When I opened my eyes, I found that we were on the way North again. No guarantees that it was North, or that the real estate girl’s map was accurate, but we were hopeful. Not too hopeful, understand. Because we still kept making those reconnaissance probes towards the beaches. All of them useless, of course.

Then we came to a T intersection. Up the stem of the T, to the cross bar. Hmmm? Right to the beach? Of course. Sorry, dead end. Okay, I meant left, which we now happily took. It had to be right. Right? We proceeded along our little pot holed road for miles in what appeared to be a Northerly direction. Until it turned West and headed into the setting sun. This can't be right, I reasoned. We have to go North!

After a half an hour of Westward potholing, I turned around and went back to the real estate town. We stopped at the T intersection again. Cars honked. People yelled at us. But it was all in Spanish and therefore didn’t mean much to me. We looked at the wall of the T, and this time saw a sign that said "Uvero Alto" thataway. The way that we had just gone and doubled back. So we did it again. Off into the night.

“Uvero Alto,” I mused as I drove. Just like the jerk from The Sivory told me. Could it be that he was right? Not too likely.

After an hour or so we found ourselves on Macao Beach. And I mean right down there on the little sandy beach. Another reconnaissance, you know. Macao Beach was on the little xeroxed map. And, theoretically anyway, it was right next to The Sivory. The sun had just set behind the scrub palms and I was looking for a place where I could carefully turn around, not wanting to take the chance of getting stuck in the sand, when we came upon four young kids who had gotten stuck in the sand. Ooops. After a day of beach going, probably not what they wanted to do.

Joey and I stopped and got out and tried to help them. They didn’t have a clue as to what to do, never having been stuck in the snow, or anything like that. We’d had lots of that experience back in snow bound and freezing cold Nebraska on blustery Winter college mornings. We tried to show them how to stuff palm bark under the drive wheels, then back out. Didn’t work. We tried to show them how to dig out the front bumper. Didn’t work. We looked at each other and I gave her the high sign. The kids weren’t terribly concerned -- hey, they were young and obviously in love, and I was thinking that the guys had maybe planned it like this, “Sorry, girls, have to sleep here tonight” -- and we had exhausted our little bag of helpful snow tricks, so we took off.

Our good Samaritan efforts netted us something really great though. One of the young men had actually heard of The Sivory, he being the first such person we met that day. He told us how to get there. We were close! It was the next right turn towards the beach about 10 miles up the road! If we could get out of there without getting stuck ourselves! We were off in a flash.

One more reconnoitering turn and we should be there! Excitement. Anticipation. Joy. The navigator opened the wine. The pilot bore down and really concentrated on avoiding those pot holes. And the oncoming trucks. Which were also trying to avoid the pot holes. These things are real axle breakers. Some so large that the locals have filled them in with grapefruit sized rocks. And they are all over the place.

You frequently find yourself driving on the left side avoiding potholes when you see the approaching trucks. There's relatively little honking. But lots of sweating, brow mopping and heavy breathing. It's a wonder you don't see people splattered all over the place like road kill. I’m telling you it wasn’t easy, steering with my left and swigging with my right. In that little car, the swig action makes you turn your head towards your partner so that you only have one eye on the road when you sip.

Finally, at 7:30 we pulled up to the destination and tumbled out of the car. Along with a couple of empties. Saved. Hallelujah! Lord, I was happy enough to give thanks. Which we did with a couple bottles of Champagne. I think I fell asleep in the bubble bath and then later, I know I had a very sound sleep in the wonderfully comfortable bed.

The Sivory

You know that Corona Beer commercial that shows the static shot of an unbelievably gorgeous white sandy beach, a couple of palm trees, the sun glistening off the gently lapping azure waters, nobody around to disturb the perfectly tranquil scene and then the lime wedge finally stuffed into the Corona? Well, that’s the beach at The Sivory. That was our beach. Just off of our private patio with splash pool, all visible from our king sized bed through the sliding glass door of our swanky room. It was a little piece of Caribbean heaven. Complete with white uniformed waiter to do the lime wedge stuffing. Just on the odd chance that you didn’t feel up it yourself.

When you got tired of the warm surf, the blue sky or the reading in your private beach hut, you could enjoy the pool which was beautifully laid out with sun beds in the water, various jacuzzi jets, conversation pits, and an “infinity” edge looking out towards the sea. We sat, we floated, we sunned, we ate tapas for lunch, we drank, we even danced a little tango in the middle of the pool when the appropriate music wafted our way.

It was all so perfect, in spite of the fact that we had planned a week of this, we couldn’t take more than three days. One book each and we were done. I asked Joey if she wanted to return to Casa de Campo and play a little more golf. “Can we go today?” was the answer. But then, she’s a golfer.

I have never tried an “all inclusive” type of resort, or resort stay. And I was somewhat surprised to find that The Sivory, a member of the Small Luxury Hotel group was offering the same. The smiling and very enthusiastic young manger who checked us in suggested we try it. Okay, I thought, why not?

I’ll tell you why not. For $300 a day, the two of you can eat and drink without having to worry about a thing. The only catch is that the wine and liquor is so low grade that it makes you sick. Want a brand name? That’s extra. Want something you know? Extra. Want a mixed drink? They don’t know how to make it. Want a lemon twist? Sorry, don’t have them here. Want to get out of there with your insides in tact? Leave, pronto. And don’t look back. This played into my desire to go back to Casa de Campo.

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