Our 2016 Family Travels to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Are you thinking of traveling to the Dominican Republic? This post is about how we did it the fun, inexpensive way with a family of four!
Our family spent almost 3 weeks in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic* in February. Last year, we spent 6 weeks in Sunny California to escape winter, so we wanted to try something different by visiting the Caribbean. We are debt free, but still have to be mindful of spending since I am home schooling full-time this year. I chose the Dominican Republic for multiple reasons:
- It’s been on my dream board as a place to travel for almost 7 years.
- If you do it correctly, you can get a great Caribbean vacation for a reasonable price.
- It’s the only Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean I haven’t been to.
- My husband and kids had never been out of the country, so I thought this would be the perfect trip!
We decided not to go the resort route. Why? I’m just that kinda girl. Having spent time “roughing” it in places like Cuba, Panama and Puerto Rico, I was certain that we would not need a 5 star hotel to enjoy ourselves on the island. Resort vacations are nice but we wanted to spend a longer time in the Dominican Republic to explore and be immersed in the culture around us. We rented a two-bedroom condo in the Rosa Hermosa community from AirBnb.com. From here, there is 7-8 minute walk to the beach and about a 10 minute walk to multiple restaurants and stores. We had cable with several English channels and with free (though slow) Wi-Fi. It also turned out to be an awesome community of mostly Canadians. (A plus because we got to practice speaking French as well as Spanish!) This was a nice, new property with meticulous grounds, a pool, outdoor eating area with a BBQ and gas grill. All units had a washer and dryer, and a fully equipped kitchen. This place over-delivered, as I was expecting the accommodations to be more rustic. (Click here to get a free $20 credit for Airbnb.com with my special link. Can be used in any country for any property even in the U.S.)
Volunteering & Giving Back
Since we had so many days to be there, I wanted to give back in some way. Through a neat non-profit called Beach Bum Cares, We were able to organize a trip to the local elementary school in Macao to bring Valentine’s day goodie bags and school supplies to children there. We were even able to give away 2 iPods filled with Christian music in both English and Spanish to two special children who had been chosen by the teacher as good students. These iPods and supplies were a special gift from an awesome organization my daughter is apart of. Thank you to Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago for this donation!
Just so you know, sending kids to school is a not a requirement in the Dominican Republic, but it is difficult for some families because they cannot afford shoes, clothing or school supplies to support the child’s education. This sounds weird but I did actually see a child near the school with no pants or underwear on, just shirt and shoes. So the struggle is valid and real. The reason many kids don’t attend school is because parents send them to beg on the nearby beach frequented by tourists (the short term reward of immediate cash is more useful in the moment.) People in the region encourage tourists not to give to begging children because it can actually keep their parents from seeing the value of education. It was truly heart-warming to see how grateful the children were to receive what we had at the school. Our tour-guide, Eduardo of Olympus Tours, loves taking treats and supplies to the kids because it only reinforces the parents’ decision to keep their kids in school. As we all know, education is the fast track out of poverty. Eduardo was very passionate about this idea which served as the subtext for our village tour. I am glad our children got to see, first hand, how fortunate they are compared to children in other countries. It hasn’t reduced their whining about having to do school yet, but we are hoping they remember this experience forever.
Eating & Food
I have to be honest here. This was a regular prayer request before and during the trip. I was very concerned that one of us would get food poisoning while here. With this in my mind, I went a head and added a travel insurance policy to our vacation through World Nomads (covers accidents, sickness and trip cancellation.) Thankfully, nothing happened, but I was glad to be prepared as I did hear stories of other travelers who got sick or had injuries while there. (Bless the power of prayer!) We also cooked quite a bit of our food, which I think helped.
Many people (especially if they are from the Midwest or the Western United States) think they will come here and get tacos and nacho chips. This is a Caribbean country, not Mexico! The food will actually be more similar to islands like Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. The African influence here is strong so dishes like rice and beans with plantains are common. The seafood fare is delicious, too. You can get red snapper, grouper and other shellfish pretty inexpensively here. There were a number of vendors who came by our complex selling fruits, vegetables, seafood, ice cream and fresh juice daily. Mostly everything was fresh and delicious (the ice cream was actually addicting, LOL.) The only complaint is that they did not follow a regular schedule. I waited for the fruit man for 4 days once and didn’t see him any more 🙁 While there, we ate things like passion fruit, star fruit and papaya. The smoothies we made were worth the trip alone!
Language & Culture
The national language here is Spanish. Punta Cana is a diverse tourist destination so there are people who come from many nations. We encountered people who spoke French, Russian, Polish, Portuguese and English. In a bind, mostly everyone here understands English and Spanish. Note: the Spanish here is a Caribbean dialect. If you learned Spanish in school, you were likely tutored under a “neutral” accent with teacher who spoke slowly and clearly. This ain’t that Spanish. It’s akin to someone from China going to Jamaica to learn English. Some things will click, but lots of things won’t, as the accent is strong here. After a few days, you will get used to the Caribbean accent and understand more of what people are saying. The good thing is that you will be understood by most people, even with a basic level of high school Spanish. People here are favorable to Americans and will treat you well, but in many instances, will try and get whatever money they think they can get from you. We were duped a few times, but I chalk it up to kindness and keep it moving. We are truly blessed in the United States, a few extra pesos would not change our financial situation.
Living & Relocation
While there, we also met with the famous, Maria Williams of Reliable Realty, featured in HGTV’s House Hunters International show more than a few times. She and her husband Todd are one of the pioneer realtors of the Punta Cana region who sell real-estate and manage rentals. The Dominican Republic is fast becoming a popular destination for retirees and those wanting an inexpensive change of pace in a Caribbean nation. We looked at VERY nice condos, close to the beach ranging from $95,000-$130,000 for two bedrooms and two bathrooms. If you are willing to live 20-30 minutes from the beach, then you can get a 2 bedroom condo for as little as $40,000! Some people buy properties to rent out for vacationers and others buy property to live there. We are strongly considering the latter, but more about that when the time comes. If you are considering buying here, note that mostly all transactions are done with cash and occasionally some owner financing. Obtaining a mortgage is NOT common for transactions in the DR. To set up a rental or look at properties available for sale, connect with Maria Williams here: http://reliablerealtydr.com/.
Activities & Excursions
We were about a 7-8 minute walk from the Playa Doña Matilde Beach. This route gives you direct access to the Cortecito area beach front. Though there are many resorts along this strip of beach that will shoo you away, there are a few public access spots. You can either bring your own chairs and shade (like a tent or umbrella) or buy a drink at a restaurant which will give you access to their portion of the beach in exchange for patronage. Other than the beach, there are so many things to in the Punta Cana area. This is why we see ourselves coming back time and time again. The plant and animal life is exotic and can be studied at places like Scape Park and Indigenous Eyes Park. We went on a “Buggy Tour” to Macao Beach. During the excursion we stopped to do a cave swim and learn about local products like coffee, chocolate, green tea and coconut. If you are wondering how to access an excursion, don’t fret. On the beach area and all around you will find many and PLENTY of people selling tours to Saona or Catalina Islands or to Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital. There are also whale watching tours in Samana, if you are there during the migration season. Plus, there are water sporks like parasailing, snorkeling and booze cruises up and down the coast. Almost everyone here sells excursions. You will be stopped on the street several time to partake. If you become buddies with a nice fellow (we liked our doorman at the condo) here, ask if he sells them. It’s a way to give the locals extra money on top of tips because of the commissions they make on these tours. The hotels and resorts sell them, but I’d rather buy through a friend or someone who had been helpful to us. Before knowing that our kind “portero” sold tours, we scheduled our Buggy excursion through LivingPuntaCana.com. In addition to the excursions, there are a few gyms that are close by and convenient: El Gym, Muay Thai Boxing and Crossfit Punta Cana. Since, I started weight training last year I was happy to find and join this box within 5 minutes walking distance: Crossfit Punta Cana. It was super fun! The trainers were patient and helpful and the outdoorsy design brought in plenty of sea breeze and fresh air. I had never done Crossfit before, so I think anyone could drop in and figure out what to do.
I did a lot of research to find out how to do the least expensive Caribbean vacation and the Dominican Republic won out over other considerations mainly due to cost and accommodations. I was considering Puerto Rico (too expensive) and Cuba (not yet developed enough for a young family, in my opinion, but I’d gladly go with just me and hubby.) Here is a breakdown of what we paid for our 17 days in Punta Cana:
Rental housing- $2,000
Travel Insurance through World Nomads– $225
Excursion & Dining Out, etc. $1,200 (rough estimate)
This sounds like a lot, but to put it in perspective. We saved up for it over time AND it beat out the typical resort stay. The average all- inclusive resort charges about $1,000 per person per 7 days NOT including airfare in many cases. So, if we had gone to a resort for 17 days, the bill would have been about $10,000, not including airfare. Also, our food bill was a little higher, because we didn’t find a sensible grocery story until a few days into our stay and this is a very touristy region. Here, I estimate prices to be only about 20% cheaper than the U.S. and in some cases 10% more expensive due to tourism. If we had ventured out more, I’m sure we could have found the places that would have charged us like “Dominicans” and not tourists. Our grocery bill is $600-$800 a month anyway, so we spent about an extra $850 for incidentals like eating out, activities and transportation above our normal food spending. All in all, I am happy with the value of what we paid for (all cash of course.) My kids got a very memorable experience with a few home school lessons snuck in. It was worth it and I look forward to visiting again.
Human Rights Issues
*I want to address something that some of you may or may not be aware of, I’m sure I’ll get some commentary on it, so I will address in case there are questions. The Dominican Republic is at the center of a Human Rights watch and some even say crisis. In 2013, the government passed a ruling that revoked citizenship from up to tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian decent, many of which have no direct ties to Haiti in many generations and don’t even speak creole. Many allege that this act was racially motivated. Without getting deep into political discourse, I can say that on the surface, this seems like a terrible, cruel act. However, without knowing all the facts nor knowing all the tenets of legislation, I can’t comment or take a stance at the moment. Once I understand more, I may be inclined to write a post about what I understand, but that will take time and maybe even another visit. Secondly, I know that many have called for a boycott of DR and tourism to “pressure” them into conformity. Though government sanctions and boycotts have their place, having visited Cuba, a prime example of a pure embargo state, the people I see suffer most are those with the most visible African heritage- the darkest of all. This, to me, causes more pain. Rather than withdrawing money in these situations, I feel compelled to use my position, privilege and ability to connect with my brothers and sisters in their native language to encourage and inspire. Albert Einstein was credited as saying something profound, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” Sometimes the oppressed needs as much understanding as the oppressor. After all, you can legislate and put pressure equality but if the oppressed and oppressor never come to a place of understanding and sincere mutual respect and love, laws will only go so far. Again, may of you may or many not agree with my stance, perhaps I’ll write a longer post about it, but that’s where I am at the moment. I have plans to go back to DR for this reason and so what I can to be helpful from a human to human level.