Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

40 days itinerary from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince and back

In 2014 I traveled with my boyfriend to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As usual we left Italy without a defined itinerary in mind, we were ready to let our feelings guide us along the way.

We arrived in Santo Domingo after a long flight with a stop over in New York to save money, but that left us super tired.

Santo Domingo is a nice town with some beautiful colonial architecture. It can also be frightening in some areas, like around Parque Enriquillo, where most of the buses leave and arrive. It was scary at first for Luca, who had never been out of Europe and was not used to the chaos and crazy traffic.

Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo

From Santo Domingo we decided to go South-West, by the coast. Los Patos was recommended by the Lonely Planet as one of the best beaches of the South. So we went there, because the intention was to see as many different parts of the country as possible. We had a great time there. There were very few foreign tourists, many local tourists, so if this is what you are looking for, I recommend this part of the Republic instead of the North and East.

After Los Patos we went to Pedernales, right at the border with Haiti. From there we went to Bahia de Las Aguilas, a natural park with one of the most amazing beaches I’ve ever seen. We were near Haiti, but still couldn’t decide if we wanted to go or not. Everyone we talked to recommended not to go, because it was dangerous and expensive. Probably because we were advised not to, we went. And the true adventure started.

baia delle aquile
Bahia de las Aguilas

Adventurous backpacking in Haiti

Just after the border we had to take a boat in the night to take us to the nearest town, because going by land would have taken days.

Fist stop in Haiti was Jacmel, a lovely artists town in the Southern Coast, that still showed the many damages of the earthquake in 2010. We had the first glimpse of how Haiti would have been: dirty, chaotic, almost impossible to get money, but with sweet people (mostly).

This is how we were going to travel in Haiti

From Jacmel we took a tap-tap to Port au Prince and from there to Port Salut. It was the first of the many long journeys we had in Haiti. Traveling by local transportation is not easy at all in Haiti. Every time it took us many long hours to do just a few hundreds of kilometers. That was probably the worst part of backpacking in Haiti, because it was a huge waste of time and very tiring.

Port Salut is a pretty holiday resort, very quiet and relaxed. From there we went to Les Cayes one day, trying to go to the Ile de Vache, but the hours lost waiting for the tap-tap to fill up and finding a working ATM prevented us to go to the little island.

After Port Salut we went to Port au Prince, the capital. The first introduction wasn’t of the best, as we were approached by a guy who tried to steal from us. The town centre of Port au Prince is not bad, if you don’t mind the heat and dust, but out of the main roads and square it’s messy and not reassuring. We managed to see some voodoo art, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Haiti.

After Port au Prince another loooong and scary journey to go to Cap Haitien. Cap Haitien is actually pretty and clean, very different from the capital, even though it’s also a large city. But this in the town centre. Just out of the centre there’s a canal full of rubbish, a very bad sight.

cap haitien
Coming out of school in Cap Haitien

From Cap Haitien we crossed the border to the Dominican Republic (so basically we entered Haiti in the South and exited in the North; there’s another border crossing in the centre, between the two capitals).

A much easier backpacking in the Dominican Republic

It was very nice to be back in the Dominican Republic. We realized how difficult it was to travel in Haiti. The Dominican Republic was much cheaper, so much easier to travel, food and coffee available everywhere, easy to get money from the bank, hotels cleaner. Now, many years later, I’m glad I had that experience in Haiti, but I don’t know if I would be able to do it again, it was really tiring. It’s probably different if you have money and can rent your own car or driver. Cap Haitien was the best place, of all.

Once in the Dominican Republic we spent a few days in Monte Cristi, to recover and to eat some good food. From there we went to Santiago and then Constanza, in the mountains.

After that it was all beaches. And every place was pleasant and welcoming.

First one was Cabarete, a surfists spot. This was the first place where we met may foreign tourists, and all the Northern coast has many foreigners, mainly from the US (and many Italians and French living their their retirement years). In Cabarete I had the best breakfast ever.

rio san juan
Beach in Rio San Juan

We went East to Rio San Juan, where there’s not much to do nor to see, but that I loved, probably because of its relaxed atmosphere. After that it was the Semanà Peninsula, with Las Terrenas and Las Galeras. Pretty, touristy.

From there we crossed the country to go to the Southern coast; we also thought of going to the Eastern coast, maybe pay 80 dollars for an all-included resort and spend a day or two just sunbathing and eating (there’s a lot of chicken involved when you travel in the Dominican Republic, and at one point you crave for something different), but we hadn’t a lot of time left so we decided to go directly South.

Boca de Yuma was pretty but Luca wasn’t feeling well so we didn’t really enjoy it. From there to Juan Dolio, the last stop. We stayed in this little town by the sea until our flight back to Italy, and went on a day trip to Santo Domingo where people were celebrating Easter. When we had landed in the Dominican Republic we didn’t spend much time in Santo Domingo because we thought we would be there again before departing. But once in Juan Dolio we were suggested not to go to Santo Domingo before flying back, because it was easier to get to the airport from Juan Dolio and it was nicer to stay in Juan Dolio. It was a good idea.

Would I go back to the Dominican Republic and Haiti? Yes, and I would probably do a similar itinerary. I know that Haiti was a nightmare, but I would like to see if things have improved now.

Last days in the Dominican Republic

Last days in the Dominican Republic

Farewell to the Dom Rep from Juan Dolio

April 20, 2014


Last day in the Dominican Republic and the sky is super dark. We are at the beach, were thinking of going for a walk but I guess it’s better if we don’t walk too far, we should be ready to run back to the hotel if needed.

La bellissima micia con strabismo di Venere del Fior di Loto
The beautiful cat with strabismus of Venus at the Fior di Loto

We found a way to save on the transportation to the aiport, that is not mentioned on the Lonely Planet! We took a gua-gua towards Santo Domingo, until the crossroad; there you can get a moto-concho to the airport. A bit before that there are taxi, but we can save even those two euro as a motorbike is good enough for us. This way we can save almost 1.000 RDS, 20 euro. Or maybe more.

Mara Sandri of the Fior di Loto founded an NGO that manages a school in Pushkar, Rajasthan, where there’s the holy lake and the camels fair; it’s a school for poor or abused girls.

It started to rain and there’s no sign of the sun.

Baretto sulla spiaggia in Juan Dolio
Cute pub at Juan Dolio beach

7.03pm Last beer. In the afternoon it cleared out and people rushed to the beach to celebrate Easter. In half an hour restaurant Oreste should open. It was recommended by S. But we can’t spend more than 1.000 RDS because we don’t want to get more cash and/or exchange money before tomorrow.

Women and girls made braids for Easter. The President prohibited the use of motorbikes these 3 days of celebrations, because every year hundreds die because they drive when drunk.

The last Dominican beer is a bit hot unfortunately. They are cleaning up after today’s celebrations. The beer in this pub is 25RDS more than the Liquer Store nearby, but here you can listen to merengue music :).

There’s a group of Italians here. In the morning they meet for coffe at S’s, in the evening here, apparently. Two girls that were drinking with two Dominicans are now with two white man, white skin and hair. I was thinking that it must be hard here for men, if you want to talk to a woman you have to offer her something to drink; and you never know if she talks to you because she likes you or your money. S. told us that men with 500 euro of retirement here can live well: 100 euro for rent, 100 for food, 300 for women.

beach in juan dolio

April 21, 2014 10.57 am SDQ-LAS AMERICAS

Check-in done. So the transfer to the airport cost us 300 RDS, instead of the 900 we paid when we arrived or the 1500 a taxi would have cost from Juan Dolio.

Last night the spaghetti with fish and lobster at Oreste’s were delicious. And this morning last breakfast at S’s. What a guy! You could write a book with all the stories he has to tell.

I <3 Fior di Loto
I <3 Fior di Loto

Last night we talked a bit with Mara. She told us that her mom went back to Italy yesterday, from La Romana airport. in 1984 Mara wanted to go to India to volunteer in a leper colony. Her mom was living here and was married to a Dominican, and asked her to move here to help her on a project. So Mara got onto a life she didn’t really want. Her mom after a while got tired and went back to Italy, she stayed here. 30 years ago Juan Dolio was a fishermen village, without hotels, and it was very pretty. She wanted to open a school and a yoga center, but things didn’t turn out as she hoped. So here she is today at her super-welcoming hotel, where you meet the most interesting people, but during the Summer months (after Easter) she goes back to India to her girls. A lovely person this Mara. Why do I always meet the best Italians abroad?

Day tour to Santo Domingo

Day tour to Santo Domingo

April 18 2014, 5.44pm

In Juan Dolio they brought the sand for the beach, it would be all rocks otherwise. And here they come to swim from San Pedro and Santo Domingo, La Capital. I like it today because there’s a nice breeze, but at the same time it is annoying because it throws sand onto your face.


We are eating pizza. Italian owners here too. Juan Dolio is full of Italians. One pizza for two because we are running out of money, despite the money we saved by staying at the Fior di Loto.

Spiaggia a Juan Dolio
Beach in Juan Dolio

In Juan Dolio there’s the beach as attraction and nothing more. But it’s convenient from the capital. In Boca de Yuma there wasn’t much to do neither, and there wasn’t a beach neither. There was one sandy beach, but you could only get there on a boat, and there was a cove between rocks where on Sundays Dominicans would go to swim and party, with music and beer, like at the Bahia Blanca. Everywhere else rocks and rubbish. Boca de Yuma luckily is at only 30 minutes from Higuey, quite a big town, where you can find anything you need. Juan Dolio is at one and a half hour from Santo Domingo. From what I’ve heard the capital must be lively and interesting, with theatres, cinema, museums etc. From all over the country you can get to the capital in a few hours, so it’s easy to reach it from anywhere.

Good Friday (today) is a big holiday for them, more important than Easter day. And today they are all at the beach. Big parties and big drinks. In the water with their glasses or bottles. They like to be in the water, and drink while the waves hit them, kids and adults alike.

April 19, 3.15pm Santo Domingo

The plan was to stay in Juan Dolio only a couple of nights and spend the last night before the flight in Santo Domingo, but Mara suggested we stay here and we go back to Santo Domingo on a day trip, if we want to go. And it is actually a good idea, as the airport is between SD and Juan Dolio, so there’s not much difference if we leave from here or La Capital.

We are at a Chinese restaurant in La Capital, near Parque Enriquillo, the square from where depart most of the gua-gua that go around the Republic.

We came here this morning, got off in Parque Enriqullo (that as I suspected didn’t scare us so much after we visited Haiti as it did the first day), we walked around the Zona Colonial, then towards the new part of Santo Domingo, to see the presidential palace and down to the Malecon, the seafront. Without knowing it we ended up in the middle of a big party. They closed to traffic part of the road, brought in sand, plastic swimming pools, music and gym (with the risk to have a stroke in this heat).

We spent some time at the party, enjoying the atmosphere, then we went back to Parque Enriquillo, and here we are, drinking a fanta at the Chinese restaurant. We probably have walked about 20 kilometers today, and Luca has some blisters in his feet, we had to exchange sandals.

Some Italianity in Juan Dolio

Some Italianity in Juan Dolio

April 17, 2014

11.51am Juan Dolio

They left us at Villas del Mar, 3 km before our destination, the most elegan part of Juan Dolio, reserved to tourists. We had to spend 100 RDS more for a motoconcho to take us here.

The Fior di Loto hotel is owned by an Italian lady, Mara, dressed Indian and with a bindi on her forehead. Indian is also the entrance and most of the furniture. The room is small and nothing special, but it costs us 630 RDS (12 euro), half of what we normally pay. And there’s wifi. She offered a more beautiful and more expensive room, but we are happy with this one. We have more money to buy food. Only downside: too many mosquitos.

Gogol Maps positions the Fior di Loto at a beach far from here, and clients sometimes arrive out of breath and upset. Mara tried to complain to Gogol, but they won’t hear.

In this moment we are in a “panaderia“, a bakery-eatery-cafeteria, owned by an Italian, waiting for a sandwich with homemade bread and a piadina. We are so hungry!

Sebastiano ed la sottoscritta alla Panaderia  Italiana Juan Dolio
Myself at the Panaderia Italiana Juan Dolio

The Panaderia Italiana Juan Dolio is owned by S, from Bari, that has been living in Central America for… 15 years? He doesn’t even remember. He lived in Brasil, Panama, Costa Rica, a few months in Miami, Bahamas. He’s one of a kind. He travels a lot, but he’s picky about food. He only eats Italian or Mc Donald’s. Why McD? Because food standard is the same everywhere, the meat is from the US (you don’t have to eat meat of cows from the Dom Rep that feed on plastic and rubbish – I didn’t know this). Even in the middle of the Portorican forest you can find Italian food, as long as you are ready to pay. He would go back to Panama, because life is good, nobody starves, and in the evening you can go to a casino and with 20 dollars you go in and can drink all that you want and be with others. And women go out with you only if they like you, not because you have money like in Brasil. Here, it’s even worse. Sometimes teenagers take you to a hotel and if you don’t pay they press charges. You can still meet a good and honest woman in the Dominican Republic (like the one he’s married), but they are few.

Pasqua in spiaggia a Juan Dolio
Easter at the beach in Juan Dolio

He’s really cool, told us a lot of stories. His food is true Italian, among the best I’ve found around the world. One of a kind indeed.

In troubles in Boca de Yuma

In troubles in Boca de Yuma

April 14, 2014

12h45pm with my new Bic Boligrafo Stic Velocity no sabe falgar, that I bought a few hours ago in La Serena, a shopping mall in Higuey, where we also got some cash. I also bought a book by Mario Vargos Llosa, a novel about the former Dominican dictator Trujillo. After we got the money we went for a short walk around Higuey; breakfast in a “French” patisserie and visit to the cathedral and its beautiful park; I think they are the only two sites of interest in town.

1.10pm I sent Luca to buy some empanadas, 20 minutes ago already. Where has he gone? Has he found a pretty girl that invited him on his scooter like last night when we were walking together?

Oh, here he comes.

1.52pm, I’m starting La Fiesta del Chivo.

April 15, 8pm

Luca scared me! This morning he came back to the room whie I was in the swimming pool, because he was tired, he said. When I went to the room, I found him shaking with cold. I tried to warm him up, to no avail. I read in the Lonely Planet that the shakes for the cold are symptoms of heatstroke, dengue and malaria. I don’t know what is worse. The heatstroke can cause collapse and death. Well, probably this would be the worst case scenario.

Now he’s better. We went down for dinner. I ordered past with tuna. He’s hungry. He feels much better, earlier he didn’t even want to get up. He’s still a bit cold. We are at our hotel. They also cook food and there’s a couple coming from outside to eat pasta, at a table by the pool. She’s strange. I don’t mind the 12cm heel, but the nails are about 3 or 4 cm long, they turn as if they were claws. She takes her tissue as if she was using pliers. I would prefer not to look at them, but she’s sitting right in front of me. The tuna pasta is good; a bit too much garlic maybe.

El Viejo Pirata is owned by a guy from Trieste, former deep-sea diver that to celebrate the sea built this hotel that resembles a ship; now he has trouble walking, has various health issues, and he rented the place to another guy from Milan. This guy had shops in Milan, but bureaucracy in Italy is so bad that the business was more a hassle than a pleasure, so he decided to invest in the Dominican Republic instead.

April 16, 9.40am Luca is not feeling better. We don’t know if we should stay or go. Because we don’t just have to get on a car and get off at the next hotel, we have to walk and carry a backpack. We can stay here a bit longer.

Pomeriggio a Boca de Yuma, paese alla fine del mondo
Afternoon in Boca de Yuma, town at the end of the world

10h30 I hope he doesn’t have malaria, but the symptoms are the same: he keeps shaking, has fever, headache and diarrhea. If in a few hours he doesn’t feel better we’ll go to the hospital to take some exams. He has started to shake again. He seemed to feel better, but no.

2pm Now he’s sleeping, fortunately. We went to the hospital in Rafael de Yuma, 15 minutes from Boca de Yuma. Sandro was so kind to took us there with his car. They gave him a shot, I don’t know for what, and prescribed an antibiotic and a pill for fever and headache; an hidrating solution and another thing to dilute in water were given to us at the hospital for free. We had to pay the pills (750 RDS, almost 15 euro) because the hospital pharmacy was closed, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have had to pay for those neither. If tomorrow he still has fever we’ll have to go to Higuey for more blood exams, to see if it’s malaria, ameba, dengue or other.

Here if someone breaks a bone, they do the x-ray and put a cast at zero cost, even if they are foreigners. They might not have the X-ray to print the results, but they do them. Because it’s Easter, there won’t be blood experts in Rafael de Yuma tomorrow, otherwise we could have gone there.

Public schools are also free and offer lunch to the students. Because there are many children they do three turns: some kids go to school in the morning, others in the afternoon, more in the late afternoon.

Incontri mentre vado a prendere l'acqua per il moribondo
Encounters while I go to buy some water for the moribund

I must go to buy some water and force him to drink. And I must remember to give him a pill every 6 hours and another one, the antibiotic, for 5 days. They gave him a shot, he took off his shorts in the room where he was examined, which is also the room where all other patients wait, and he took the shot without saying a word, and he hates syringes! But in that moment he couldn’t understand anything, he was dumb. As soon as he feels better we will leave; maybe it’s not malaria, just something he’s eaten. Who knows?

When I told the doctor that it could be malaria because we were in Haiti (in the Dominican Republic there’s no malaria), she asked for how long we went and why. 10 days, on holiday. But is Haiti nice for a holiday? Mmmm… not really. And the doctor and the nurse said to each other “So why did they go there?”. Right, why? To see, know, discover.

From Samanà to the Southern Coast of Dom Rep

From Samanà to the Southern Coast of Dom Rep

April 13, 2014


Breakfast and we leave for Saban de la Mer. Let’s just hope the gua-gua won’t leave while I’m having my egg. The guard of the bank, 50 meters away, is also here; you’d think he’s here for a coffee, but he is actually here every time we come to this splace. He’s a bit weird: he sings, speaks Italian, stays here 5 minutes and goes back to work.

Las Galeras is as international as Las Terrenas, but less touristy and less luxurious maybe. In Las Terrenas there’s a long line of restaurants with western menus along the beach. Las Galeras has a few hotels and one resort, a couple of western restaurants and overall it’s quiet. There are many expats, that manage a restaurant, a cafè, teach English or that are simply retired but can’t rest, they come here to take over some sort of business, often real estates. It’s a nice quiet village, probably because it’s at the end of the road, at the furthest end of the Samanà peninsula, it’s not a place that you pass by by chance.

La stada principale (e una della uniche due) di Las Galeras, deserta al mattino
The main road in Las Galeras. One of the two roads in town.

Las Galeras is the first place where at 7am people are still sleeping. There’s someone at the restaurant, but few people. Maybe because it’s Sunday or because they are more relaxed. The area by the sea is dedicated to tourists (with a couple of luxurious hotels and a resort), but just behind this line of buildings there are places for local residents and for poor tourists like us.

Here comes the gua-gua. A lady with a nice perfume is going to Costa Rica. She was talking with another passenger about her blood pressure and cholesterol. They were saying that we should eat less fat food, less salt, drink a lot of water and walk. Mmmm.. I do walk. The rest, I’m very bad at it. We are not living a healthy trip: we eat a lot of fried food (chicken, potatoes, fish, pork, even bananas), we drink little water because we don’t want to carry it around, we have a lot of salt. When we go back home we need to detox.

Processione mentre aspettiamo la barchetta
A procession while we wait for the ferry


From Samanà we took a ferry to cross the gulf; as soon as we got on the other side, in Sabana de la Mer, we took a gua-gua to Hato Mayor, where we’ll have to change and take another one to Higuey and then another to Boca de Yuma. I think we should be there by 3pm. It’s nice to be back on the road.

Saman?. "Traghetto" per attraversare il golfo e arrivare a Sabana De La Mer
Samanà. “Traghetto” per attraversare il golfo e arrivare a Sabana De La Mer

3.50pm Boca de Yuma, Hotel El Viejo Pirata.

So pretty! There’s a road separating the hotel from the ocean, but the shade of the terrace and the sea breeze make me feel quite comfortable here too. The owner, Sandro, has been here for three days. Before there was another guy, also Italian from Trieste, that for some reason got tired; he still lives here, with the second Dominican wife and a daughter, but it’s now Sandro who manages the hotel. Sandro has a son that manages a resort in Juan Dolio, the place where we are going next. Sandro can ask him to make us a good price, but I doubt it will be cheaper than the hippy hotel mentioned in the Lonely Planet. We only have a thousand pesos left, tomorrow we’ll have to go back to Higuey, at about one hour from here, to look for a bank.