The Puerto Plata Report: news and travel info from the Dominican Republic's north coast

Luperón: a Hurricane Hole And An Adventure Of A Lifetime

Luperon Bay
You step onto the dinghy dock. Luperon village is out of sight, but not out of mind, as you ascend onto a wharf built and maintained (somewhat) by the government of the Dominican Republic. Saint Dominic was surely the patron saint of amplified sound, and Gen. Gregorio Luperon, the liberator of guitar music: You can’t see the settlement yet, but you most certainly hear the boom boxes. So you march on wobbly sealers toward refrains of love lost, past the mangrove swamp, and into this not-so-sleepy village of 8,000 people.

A building boom is under way, and the open-air welders on the edge of town are busy banging out decorative iron security gratings for homes of the prosperous. A wash dries on barbed-wire fencing, and a local fishmonger scrapes the neon pink scales off that morning’s catch; he’s getting old, and his tan face sports two-day-old white stubble. Naked brown toddlers chase chickens as grandmothers sit on miniscule front porches bemoaning the price of beans. Girls–formidable in styled hair, tight jeans and red lipstick–attend to their errands from the backs of motoconchos, the motorcycle taxis endemic here.

(Holy moly! There goes a family of four on one of those little bikes; blue smoke puffs out the stern.)

You had planned to stay a week or two, but you lose the urge for going. Your boat throws down roots like a mangrove, and your anchor rode grows a coral reef. It happens all the time in Luperon’s harbor. It happened to me. Welcome to the flip side of the Americas. Goodbye, rational exuberance. Hello, magical reality.

 

Going Native

 

I arrived in March 1999, and stuck around, fascinated. The place had the transitional feel of Spain in the 1960s, where I’d lived as a child. The D.R. today is transporting itself from the 19th Century directly into the 21st, but it’s a little groggy, having somehow slept through the intervening 10 decades. (There’s a story I love to tell, which says it all: I came across a cane cutter walking to the fields at dawn, machete in his left hand, his right holding a cell phone to his ear, talking to his boss, no doubt.)

By May of ’99, I had a job. For the next year, I lived aboard and commuted to work in a shopworn Opel with three other resident cruisers. My Spanish started coming back, and I traveled the width and breadth of the Dominican Republic, a country about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

During my stay I heard sea stories told by many a skilled mariner as they wet their whistles with fine Dominican pilsners. And I beheld a gaggle of expatriates.

I met a Dutch sea captain who bought a hilltop where he’s building a splendid hacienda. I met a blind British spy, now retired. I met a former anti-Castro saboteur, two English con men and a professional poker player from California (a witty, easygoing, clean-cut fellow without a hint of Damon Runyon in his demeanor).

I met a corpulent Canadian banker charged with money laundering; he beat the rap. I met a woman whose ex-husband was the ex-husband of the sister of a former vice-president of the United States; he was a rake and had absconded with the better part of wife No. 2’s inheritance. I met a South African couple raising two children aboard their 41-foot sailboat, whom I dubbed, despite their nationality, the Swiss Family Robinson.

I met old men seeking young women, and pale women in search of dusky gods of the dance floor. I met a gringo lawyer who refused to sit on seat cushions because he thought doing so would cause germs to enter his body–plastic seats only, please.

Former Fortune 500 execs were a dime a dozen.

The lesser of the con men (I say lesser because of his mitigating streak of generosity) became a friend once he disabused himself of the suspicion that I was CIA. Last time I saw him he had concocted a hat trick of scams to finance his cruising. He was hawking pirated electronic charting CDs, advertising D.R. investment “opportunities” over the Internet, and offering to bring together love-hungry foreigners with Dominican beauties.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You are a copyright-infringing, pyramid-scheming pimp.”

“Exactly,” he said.

Calling All Trawlers

 

I met a few delivery skippers on powerboats, but only one real cruiser under power; only about 35 of the estimated 700 yachts that stop in Luperon annually are power, and most of those are sportfish boats on delivery. The one cruiser I met was French via California. He was solo and on his way back to Florida from Saint Martin on a 26-foot Boston Whaler. He also had spent enough time buzzing around Cuba to be declared persona non grata by the Castro government.

Where were all the trawler jockeys? If a crazy Frenchman in a Whaler–not to mention some kids in sailboats whose engines couldn’t be started since the Exumas–can make it from Florida to Luperon, why can’t you? Your boats are tricked out better than the U.S. Navy of 30 years ago. Regular fuel stops line the route all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Venezuela. Sorry to scold, but why aren’t more of you getting as far as Luperon in particular, and the Caribbean in general? Mom-and-pop retirees are getting there in sailboats by the scores, most of the time using those itsy-bitsy engines–that is, by motorsailing into the contrary trade winds.

Luperon, on the D.R.’s North Coast, is a logical stopover on the “Thorny Path” from Florida to Anguilla, where the Caribbean islands take a turn to the south. Until Anguilla, boats from the United States are eastbound and therefore, dead nuts into the relentless trade winds. Add a few thorns for contrary prevailing currents and seas as well. Northern sailors avoid the Thorny Path to windward by voyaging to the Caribbean via Bermuda, thus making an “easting” in the high latitudes above the trades.

For many of us short-legged diesel-sippers, however, Bermuda is less an option. Besides, cruising the length of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos is great adventure and a fine prelude to a completely different adventure–the Dominican Republic. It is a stunningly beautiful and varied nation; her people are among the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet. Farther down, Caribbean islanders resent your material wealth outwardly, but not in Luperon. In fact, Americans are preferred to Europeans because we tip and because so many Dominicans have family in the U.S.–some of them with well-known names like baseball stars Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez.

In the Dominican Republic, I like to say, there’s a surprise around every corner. Sometimes it’s a spectacular vista; sometimes it’s a cattle drive coming right at your car. The earliest promoter of the D.R. was Christopher Columbus, who stopped in Hispaniola on his first voyage. His words, written to Queen Isabella of Spain, are as true today as they were on Jan. 10, 1493, when the Great Navigator himself sailed into Luperon:

“May Your Highness believe that these lands are so greatly good and fertile, and especially those on this island, that there is no one who can tell it; and no one could believe it, had he not seen it.”

 

Hurricane Hole

 

Luperon, sometimes referred to as Puerto Blanco, is an extraordinary hurricane hole, made secure by surrounding hills and holding ground of anchor-swallowing gelatinous muck. Thievery happens, but is rare. Many cruisers wait out hurricane season in Luperon because of its shelter, but also because hurricanes avoid this part of the North Coast, tending instead to track through the Bahamas or, like Georges in 1998, pass to the south on the other side of the Septentrional Mountains.

Unlike the Bahamas, the D.R. is a country best seen by land–a truism that affirms and enhances Luperon’s status as a great cruising destination. That’s because Luperon is the best staging area from which mariners can explore the entire D.R.–Santo Domingo included–whether by rental car or guided tour. Leave your prejudices behind, and the Dominican Republic will prove to be immensely amusing, filled with curious contradictions.

On the practical level, everything you need to continue your voyage is either readily available or, with patient investigation, obtainable. This is crucial to cruisers heading west to Cuba, where supplies are short. For eastbound cruisers, Luperon is the place to hunker down and await a weather window. In these waters, that means a period of diminished trade winds and seas; otherwise you face a head-on bash to Puerto Rico with only one port to break up the trip–Samana, a nest of outboard motor thieves.

Approaches

(19°57.0N, 70°56.5W is a point two nautical miles north of the harbor entrance.)

 

Even in the pre-dawn darkness you can see the bold shores of Hispaniola from far at sea, one black mountain ridge dwarfed by a bigger, blacker one behind. After weeks in the salt-scrubbed Bahamas, your noses and tongues will re-acquire a familiar odor. It is the cumulative of soil, grass, trees, manure, cars and charcoal fires, but mainly just damp soil like your garden’s.

As you near the waypoint above, the Hotel Tropical Luperon Beach Resort will stand out as white forms against the terrain. The harbor entrance is just to the east.

Your next waypoint is 19°55.0N, 70°56.5 W, at 1/4 of a mile from the harbor mouth. Inside the mouth, a small headland extends from the eastern shore; from the waypoint, come in toward the tip of that headland on a bearing of 190 degrees magnetic. This will take you between occasionally breaking reefs on either side, which are marked (usually) by red and green balls.

As you enter, the depth should level off at 12 feet then deepen. Before the headland, come right gradually, keeping between green and red stake buoys leading to the westernmost of the harbor’s two pools. Mangroves divide this pool in two parts with Marina Puerto Blanco’s docks to starboard and the government wharf to port. Mind the marks, motor slowly and watch for sandbars.

For local knowledge, put out a call on Channel 68, which is monitored by every cruiser in the harbor. Channel 16, while not restricted to Dominican military use, is nearly useless because no one but the Navy listens to it.

Entry procedures: Anchor anywhere with Q flag hoisted and wait for Dominican entry officials in a skiff; it is customary to offer them a cold soft drink. If they don’t show, dinghy to the government dock and walk into town. At the outskirts, to the left is a path leading to a small bridge and the hilltop naval outpost. The commandante will record your presence, giving you legal permission to wander about on land. The immigration officer will catch up with you later.

Fees are $10 U.S. for the boat, $10 for each passport, a $5 harbor fee and $5 garbage and water fee at the government dock. The passport fee buys you the equivalent of a 90-day (renewable) tourist visa.

As in Mexico, Dominican officialdom enforces an antiquated system of “despachos,” requiring cruisers to check in with the Navy and fill out paperwork at every port. In fact, cruisers are technically forbidden from visiting places that are not ports of entry.

That may change by the time you arrive. As new marinas are developed, the Navy’s top admiral is pushing to establish a system of three-month cruising permits similar to what is done in the Bahamas. Go Navy. Beat bureaucracy.

Charts: Incredible as it may seem, no large-scale government chart of Luperon exsts. Hispaniona 017 by Wavey Line Publishing, available at major chart providers, depicts a small-scale view of the Turks and Caicos, the north coast of the Dominican Republic and western Puerto Rico with several harbor charts on the backside. It’s an excellent chart, which includes waypoints, but again, Luperon is inexplicably omitted. Your solution is in the next paragraph.

Cruising Guides: All the chartlets and waypoints for landfalls between the Turks and Caicos and Puerto Rico are included in “The Gentleman’s Guide To Passages South” by Bruce Van Sant. This excellent resource is not a cruising guide per se, but a discussion of passage-making techniques intended to exorcize some of those thorns from the “thorny path to windward.” But because there is no cruising guide to the Dominican Republic–or Puerto Rico, for that matter–Van Sant has devoted substantial portions of his book to shoreside information about these places, including provisioning tips and an amusing section on how to master “Spanglish.”

Van Sant, himself a denizen of Luperon, keeps his Schucker 440 trawler Tidak Apa in the harbor, while he and wife, Rosa, make their home a dozen steps up the hill from Puerto Blanco Marina. Van Sant long ago traded the real world, where he was an aerospace engineer, for the peripatetic life he has led since.

Whenever he’s not cruising the Bahamas or Spanish Virgin Islands to update his books, Van Sant holds court–he would hate the phrase–at the marina restaurant, dispensing advice and debating politics. Easy to identify, Don Bruce likes to wear a white Panama hat, white shirt with French cuffs and cargo shorts.

The “Gentleman’s Guide” is available at stateside marine stores or through Cruising Guide Publications at 727.733.5322; www.cruisingguides.com.

For the Boat

 

British expatriate Julia Bartlett founded Flutterby Boater Services in association with Puerto Blanco Marina and it’s a clearinghouse of valuable information. She’s a bit of a legend, too, having single-handed across the Atlantic and cruised the Caribbean for years. Don’t worry about having to look for her or her associates; they’ll find you. If Julia’s not off cruising, she’ll be the blonde putt-putting up to your boat wearing butterfly wings, hence Flutterby.

The Flutterbys will boat-sit while you explore the interior, as well as care for your pets. They will deliver your boat to Puerto Rico or provide crew for the sometimes difficult Mona Passage crossing. They will also deliver fresh baked bread to your boat, a small loaf for 25 pesos, larger for 50 (at this writing the exchange rate was 16.5 pesos per U.S. dollar.)

Fuel and water: While there are no gas docks anywhere on the North Coast, quality diesel fuel is available in Luperon. Ask Flutterby to help you arrange a delivery; small amounts will be jugged out to your boat; otherwise you can make an appointment for a fuel truck to meet you at Puerto Blanco Marina or the government dock. Fuel in the D.R. likely will be substantially cheaper than in the Turks and Caicos, your other refueling option thereabouts. Water is available at the government dock and Puerto Blanco marina, but it’s for washing, not drinking. Bottled water in 6-gallon jugs is sold at the marina.

Marinas: Marina Puerto Blanco (809-571-8644) is more than a marina; it is headquarters for the cruising community. Owned by the Fernandez family and managed by Lenin Fernandez, it is a one-stop shop with bar and restaurant, drop-off laundry, garbage facilities, showers, water and car and truck rentals.

The restaurant menu is a balance of Dominican and gringo dishes–cheeseburgers being a favorite. The restaurant/bar puts on film nights, trivia contests, dance nights and, on Sundays, a boater’s flea market in the morning segues into an afternoon barbecue.

Moorings: A couple of years ago the government placed moorings in the harbor, but my correspondents now report that many have broken loose and any remaining are best avoided.

Provisioning: Luperon has three small grocery stores with basic provisions, one of which, Supermecardo El Sol, caters to cruisers by providing free delivery to the dock. A fresh vegetable truck visits the marina regularly, its arrival announced on Channel 68.

Puerto Plata, the North Coast’s biggest city, has three large American-style supermarkets that offer most of the foods you’re used to, including high-quality cuts of frozen meats from the U.S. The inland city of Santiago has a supermarket bigger than I’ve ever seen in the states, but maybe I don’t get around much.

If your vessel runs on beer, this is the place to get it. Presidente and Bohemia are the best in terms of quality and price for a thousand miles in any direction. Aged sipping rums by Brugal and Macorix are as smooth as fine brandy.

A cruising couple, Brian and Margie, have opened a marine store on 27 de Febrero in town, advertising charts, filters, canvas repairs and courtesy flags.

As in Mexico, many drugs sold by prescription in the U.S. are available over-the-counter in the D.R., including Viagra. Luperon’s Danessa pharmacy overlooking the village’s central square is a good place to stock up on antibiotics, seasickness preventatives and painkillers if you are continuing on .

Crew changes: Puerto Plata International Airport is just more than an hour away, with several daily flights to New York, Miami and San Juan. A steady stream of European flights arrive carrying fodder for the area’s all-inclusive resorts. A cab ride from Luperon to the airport costs about $40.

Communications: Codetel on Calle Duarte is the telephone office with direct-dial booths, fax and Internet service. Punto Internet on Independencia also offers email and Internet services as well as a host of computer services and photo developing.

Things To Do

 

Music and dance: Dominican grandmothers bounce babies on their laps to the rhythm of meringue. Dominican teens dance as if their bones were made of rubber, but the moves are quite elegant compared to the “dirty dancing” you may have witnessed in the Bahamas or Miami.

Mario Vargas Llosa, quoted at the beginning of this article, summarizes the relationship Dominicans have with music, but in his list of musical styles, he makes an all-too-common omission. Vargas Llosa fails to mention Bachata, a musical style enormously popular on the North Coast, though it is looked down upon by urban sophisticates who prefer the relentless dance rhythms of today’s techno-meringue.

Bachata, characterized by plinkity-plink guitars and simple drums, is called the “music of bitterness” and is sometimes compared to North American Country Western. The lyrics bewail love lost, and the Dominican people seem to know every word to every song; they sing along with the boom boxes. It seems so romantic–and so unlike Dominican reality. To me, Dominican courtship is highly adversarial, like watching cats mate. Despite or because of that contradiction, I am a Bachata fan, and my favorite practitioner is Antony Santos, who reminds me of a young Frank Sinatra.

Bachata and meringue can be heard at Luperon’s discos, including one next to the Luperon Beach Resort Hotel, which often features live performers. For a night out in the big city, have dinner at Café Cito (see restaurants), then check out Orion Discoteque, a world-class dance venue. Bring earplugs. And beware: Any establishment calling itself “nightclub” is probably also a whorehouse.

Sights And Tours: Once again Flutterby is a good source of information, and Julia herself organizes regular horseback riding tours from Mario’s Ranch in Luperon. Horses are best for touring the area’s lush and otherwise inaccessible countryside. Mario will find a beast to match your skills as a rider because if you’re up to it, the sand flats are good for galloping.

About 45 minutes down the road to Puerto Plata is the crossroads city of Imbert (which has the nearest ATM). Just outside of town and set back in the forest are falls that will remind you of God’s own waterslide. A hired guide will help you alternately climb and swim up successive levels until you’ve reached your limit (four is usual, seven for the boldest souls). You then slide down granite half-pipes worn as smooth as polished marble by eons of rushing water, and leap into a deep pool at the base of the cliffs. Climb and slide take about a half hour.

About 10 miles west is the seaside village of La Isabella, site of the first European settlement in the New World, founded by Columbus. Himself. There is a museum and ruins of the old Spanish fortress, which was bulldozed by mistake in the 1950s.

(That’s a good story. Dictator Rafael Trujillo, villain of the previously mentioned novel “The Feast of the Goat,” wanted to impress visitors with a tour of the old fort so he phoned ahead to local authorities. “Clean the place up,” he ordered, and when Trujillo wanted clean, by God, you cleaned. They revved up the bulldozers and flattened the place. Trujillo, responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people during his three-decade rule, was ambushed and shot to death by a group of brave young men in 1961.)

There are several good tour guides in the Luperon area that can help you hire a late-model minivan and driver for an overnight trip to the capital or a visit to the mountains. In a day you can traverse lush lowlands, cross a desert and finish the day with mountain views, including Pico Duarte, the highest point in the Caribbean at 10,094 feet. Duarte is one of 20 peaks in the “Dominican Alps” higher than Mount Washington in New Hampshire (6,288 feet) or Mount Mitchell in North Carolina (6,684 feet).

On one of those Dominican mountains, is the village of Arrastrando Tu Pierna, where there is said to exist a gravitational anomaly that allows the villagers to bounce around like squirrels and chickens to roost in treetops.

Shopping: Bruce Van Sant’s wife, Rosa, operates a nifty little gift shop at the marina. Called the Dominican Treasure Shop, it sells high-quality jewelry and clothing. Rosa, who is Dominican, is a reliable source of local knowledge, and her shop has a boater’s directory of local suppliers and services compiled by boaters. The Dominican Republic is a mother lode of amber, some of it complete with an ancient insect inside. Larimar, another semi-precious gem, is found only in the D.R. It comes in colors ranging from sky blue to blue-green. This is nice stuff and looks great set in gold and silver.

Cigars: Tim Hall is an expatriate Montrealer, a long-time refugee from the frozen north who wears several hats. By day, he operates a Canadian consulate from a sidestreet in Puerto Plata. By night, he moves to the second floor where he runs Café Cito (a restaurant to be discussed later). Behind the consulate he maintains a well-humidified room filled with Cuevas Hermanos cigars.

Hall took me on a tour of the Cuevas Hermanos factory on my last trip to the D.R., explaining in his gravelly voice that most Cuevas production is bought by famous brands and resold under their labels. As dozens of workers rolled the aromatic brown leaf, light skinned, well-dressed caballeros walked the floor puffing puros. I was warned not to take their pictures lest some reader make the connection between this factory and whichever name-brand these gentlemen represented. Secretive bunch, these stogie-mongers.

Hall led me through the stages of cigarmaking, culminating with a puffing machine, which sends a measured blast of air through each cigar to ensure a good draw. Cigar Aficionado in its April 2001 issue called the factory “one of the best examples of the boutique manufacturer’s art.”

The D.R. is one of the biggest cigar producers in the world, so you can expect to find cigars for sale around every corner–the good, the bad, the indifferent–often at disproportionate prices. Hall, in his effort to create a “cigar culture” for his restaurant, has honed in on the Cuevas house brands to ensure consistent quality.

Because I don’t smoke, I’ve relied on correspondents to whom I provided a Christmas supply of Cuevas smokes for testing.

“The Cuevas Habanos was a surprisingly good cigar, well-rolled with an even cool draw. Mild to medium bodied in flavor, it was an unexpected pleasure. The 1492 with its slightly darker wrapper turned out to be a top-notch smoke with perfect draw, great white ash and again, a mild to medium bodied punch,” wrote Wayne Chick, a New Hampshire newspaperman. “Good and smooth,” commented Ray Kucklinka, a New Jersey high school teacher.

Hall wears a fourth hat. He operates an excellent website providing information on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic: www.popreport.com.

Restaurants: Unlike Mexico, the D.R. is no dining destination. Dominicans eat a healthy, if monotonous diet of beans and rice, salad and small portions of fried chicken, pork chops, stewed beef or occasional fish. So popular is chicken with beans and rice, in fact, that it’s called La Bandera Dominicana, the Dominican Flag.

Dominican food is OK as far as it goes, but what saves the cruising palate from certain boredom is the institution of mixed marriages. Several restaurants in the Luperon area are Belgian-Dominican or German-Dominican husband-and-wife teams. This includes El Belga, Pequeno Mundo and La Casa Del Sol.

Just Go

Conversations with boatbuilders suggest that most power cruisers, at least on the East Coast, aspire not so much to bluewater passages as those comfortable slides down the archipelagoes that lead step-by-step from the Florida peninsula to shores of South America. Island hoppers take a left at Luperon for the Lesser Antilles; a right for Cuba and the Yucatan.

Luperon’s strategic position opposite the Turks and Caicos on the D.R.’s North Coast makes it an obvious component of any southbound cruising plans. The bonuses of such a layover are manifold, not the least of which is the potential for a rich cargo of memories, which in the end are all we have left worth a damn.

Two paragraphs above I used the word “aspire” because as a community our potential for great adventure is largely unrealized. You’ve got the dream. You’ve got the boats. The path lies before you. Luperon awaits

by Peter Swanson
photography by the author

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