Last week was Santa Semana (Holy Week) here in the DR. The college was closed for the week, so we decided to take a road-trip through the interior of the country. We hired a car (not the Big White Happy Truck this time) and over four days we covered a little over 400 miles. When the roads are a mixture of potholed carriageways, switchbacks through the mountains, dirt tracks only fit for 4x4s, clogged city centre roads and the (very occasional) dual carriageway, four-hundred miles over 4 days is a long, long way. Here’s the tale of our roadtrip.
We started early on Tuesday morning. Our hire car – a Honda CRV 4×4 had been collected the day before and we loaded it with our luggage. Clothes for 4 days. Swimmers and towels. Cereals, bowls, cutlery etc. to not have to pay for breakfast. Money, passports (just in case), keys, children loaded and we’re off.
Day 1: Constanza
Constanza is the breadbasket of the Dominican Republic. It’s a unique location – up in the mountains in the Cibao Valley (altitude 1300m) it’s a bowl maybe 20km across, created millenia ago by a meteor.
You reach Constanza via a twisting mountain road. As you crest the final ridge and look down into Constanza from the east, laid out ahead of you is a flat plain, a patchwork of fields, with the town of Constanza in the distance. Ben’s great description of the patchwork – ‘como los pantalones de una espantapajero’ (like the trousers of a scarecrow). All around are the mountains which enclose this bowl.
Constanza is to the south-west of Nagua, a journey of about 80miles. The roads were pretty decent all the way – short stretch of (almost) motorway. Route 1 (Duarte Highway) is the main north-south road in the country and we joined it for a short stretch. It was very strange to be driving at motorway speeds – elsewhere I never drive above 50mph, the roads are just too bad and the other drivers just too unpredictable.
Turning off the Duarte Highway the sign said 42km to Costanza. Not far then, except the road immediately started climbing into the mountains. Switchback followed switchback. As this is also the main artery for taking produce out of Costanza and everything else in, every vehicle seemed to be a lorry – either crawling painfully uphill, or fizzing dangerously down again.
We stopped about half-way up. I saw a stopping point and wanted to take in the view. Alison took the opportunity to sneak into the bushes for a much needed pee. Just as she disappeared, a JCB lumbered into view and turned into our lay-by. Loaded with rubble it stopped about 2m from where Alison, mid-flow, was able to see the whites of the driver’s eyes as he in turn unloaded his shipment.
Despite her embarrassment, even Alison agreed that the view was magnificent. Down across a valley and to the mountains on the other side. Fabulous. But much better was still to come. We passed smallholding after smallholding. Patches of arable land carved into every flat space on the hillsides. Then came a multitude of roadside stalls selling strawberries and strawberry jam (we bought a punnet of the first and eat them there and then, and a jar of the latter which was finished by teatime). We passed other stalls selling fresh flowers by the bucket load (I told Alison to take her pick of the flowers that I wouldn’t be buying her – she said it’s the thought that counts (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
Twenty winding uphill then downhill kilometres further on we crested the final summit and there was Constanza Valley spread out below us. I have seen few more landscapes than this. Constanza is set in a bowl, the crater of an immense meteorite from prehistoric times. The sides all around rise steeply into mountain ridges, while the base is a level circle of highly fertile land. The altitude (1,300m) and the micro-climate mean that Constanza is much cooler than most of the DR. Of an evening there is a nip in the air – enough to warrant long sleeves. In the winter it even occasionally snows.
As we drove into town the earthy smell of fresh vegetables was pungent. “Garlic”, Alison said after a couple of minutes. “It’s Garlic.” Sure enough in the fields to either side were rows and rows of garlic. Some harvested and laid flat, drying in the sun. Some still to be harvested.
In other fields we were to see potatoes, cabbages, parsley, lettuce, cauliflower and other crops that would not be out of place in middle-England let alone mid-Caribbean.
After 4 hours in the car the kids were hungry and travel weary. So time for a late lunch. Lorenzo’s was recommended by the Rough Guide, and Ben was bribed with the promise of pizza into a few minutes more good behaviour. Once seated, Fransisco our waiter told us “no hay pizza”. Aaaarrrgggghhhh. Luckily, “Hay pasta?” was answered with a “Si, hay mucha pasta”. The food was excellent and well-priced – about £20 for 6 of us to eat a hearty lunch of tasty food, with fresh (and truly delicious) orange juice all round.
Now to find a hotel! We hadn’t pre-booked – a slight risk given it was the Easter Holiday, but very few hotels here have on-line booking and our Spanish isn’t yet up to reserving a hotel by phone and being sure we’re secured accommodation for 6 for one night, and not accommodation for one for 6 nights! We had checked out the options in Rough Guide and Lonely Planet – and there were a few budget options recommended.
We decided to try Hotel Aguas Blancas – and when we couldn’t find it we decide to try the Tourist Information office – and when we couldn’t find that we headed back to Lorenzo’s to ask Fransisco if he knew where either was. With some frantic waving of arms (and to our credit a half decent conversation in Spanish), Fransisco jumped on his motorbike and we followed as he drove away. Muchas Gracias (and a decent tip) later, we were at the Information office.
The very nice lady there – who seemed also to be running the computer shop that housed the Tourist Information office, was very friendly but about as much use as a chocolate teapot. “¿Tienes una mapa?”. “Si, aqui”. A streetmap – a promising start. “¿Donde el Hotel Aquas Blancas?” “Esta aqui” (pointing to the map). “¿Y donde estamos ahora?” (where are we now?). Hmmm. Locating the Tourist Information office on the map was oddly difficult for her.
Eventually the Tourist Information office was located on the map. Our next question “Como vamos alli?” (how do we get there?) caused even greater confusion. Admittedly, Constanza is riddled with one-way streets, but Gringos that we are we had hoped that the Tourist Information Officer would know here way around her town. Eventually, “Esta detras del restuarante Aguas Blancas”. (It’s behind the restaurant Aguas Blancas) – the one that we had passed at least two times but (being Gringos) hadn’t wanted to stop at and ask if they know where Hotel Aquas Blancas was located.
The main tourist attraction in Constanza is Salto Aguas Blancas. The waterfall (salto) has a drop around 130m – so would make a pretty splendid sight. The guidebook said “12km out of town. Follow the road past ‘Colonia Japonesa’ and head on up the road – 4×4 needed”. So with bags safely stowed in our hotel we climbed back in the car and headed off.
A quick aside – Colonia Japonesa is, or was, a small settlement of around 500 Japanese farmers brought to the DR by Trujillo in the 1950s. They brought their expertise of hillside farming, but today it is little more than a road sign and a few part-blood descendants of the original immigrants.
We never did get to the waterfall. Past the settlement the road deteriorated rapidly, to little more than a dirt track. After 5 hours driving already – and in a hire car with a specific insurance exclusion on ‘off-road’ driving, my desire for further teeth-rattling was too low to tackle the trip. Instead, we headed back to the rim of the crater to watch the sun go down. We found a viewing spot – actually a private BBQ area of a local farmer who, with typical Dominican hospitality introduced us to his wive and two daughters and said we could stay as long as we liked.
After dusk we headed back to the hotel. Fresh bread and local butter was bought from a panaderia on the way, and back at the hotel the strawberry jam was devoured. Oh, and the in-room TV had the obligatory 200 channels, including Discovery Kids and Disney, so the kids went to bed (2 to each bed) very, very happy, replete on bread and jam and Scooby Doo. We followed them not much later, one adult to each room – kids in the double bed, adults in the single.
The next day was to be Jarabacoa, which I’ll cover in part 2.