I negotiated a half-day trip around the nearby town of Puerto Plata with a middle-aged man named Modesto Toribio. He quoted me $50. After a few grand gestures and some faux exasperation we settled on $30. Our first stop was the teleférico, or cable car, which bills itself as the only one in the Caribbean. The fee is 350 Dominican pesos (about $8) or 100 pesos for Dominican citizens.
The brightly colored teleférico is suspended high above ground like a ski lift. It lurched into the air and I was treated to a gorgeous view of the town below. After roughly 10 minutes, we arrived at the top of Mount Isabel de Torres, greeted by an enormous Christ the Redeemer statue.
Once at the top, I wandered around the lush, peaceful surrounding national park. You’ll probably be approached by people trying to sell you souvenirs or offering to take you on a tour — feel free to say no in a firm but friendly manner.
Modesto met me back at the bottom of the mountain and we drove into town. We got to talking as the day went on, and I asked him about the economic situation in the country. He spoke eloquently about the income inequality and poverty that afflicts the Dominican Republic, but said he had hope. “But many things have to change,” he said. He also said that, on balance, he appreciated the influx of tourists. “For many Dominicans, tourism is the only way they make money.”
We drove through the center of town, past hawkers of candy, magazines and fresh fruit, until we arrived at the Fortaleza San Felipe, a 16th-century Spanish fortress that sits imposingly on the shore, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The old weapons, armaments and homage to Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the country’s founding fathers, are interesting (there’s also an English-language audio tour), but what was really breathtaking were the grounds around the fort and vistas.
Puerto Plata is famous for its beaches, which are quite lovely. Modesto and I drove along the coast until we came to a pair of adjacent beaches, Cosita Rica and Long Beach. Modesto called out to a man on the sidewalk, “Levántale la cabeza, levántale!” — “Lift up your head!” It turned out they were old friends. “Tranquilo,” said the man, with a smile. “Luchando.” Struggling.
We sat at a beachside cafe called D’Mariolis and ordered a café con leche and a milkshake made with sapote — a soft tropical fruit that tastes vaguely of caramel and blends wonderfully into icy, milky drinks. The total cost was 115 pesos, or about $2.50. Beach chairs can be rented for 100 pesos.
I had a great time exploring with Modesto, but some activities are more fun when done in a group. On a different day, I set out with 10 fellow cruise passengers in a rented white minibus (my share was $10) for 27 Charcos, the waterfalls of the Damajagua river. Yes, there are 27 waterfalls, and yes, it is possible to jump, splash and slide down each and every one of them.