It was as if the sky’s jaw dropped, along with ours, as we approached Amber Cove port in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Puffy, gray clouds parted right when the mounting peaks started to pierce the horizon in front of us.
Bright green flora grew in front of our eyes as we sailed closer. Palm trees looked alive even, as the salty ocean breeze shook their fronds like a devout Christian on Palm Sunday. The bright blue Caribbean Sea crashed against a jagged coastline, wrapping the mountainside like a frame around a picture.
An observatory, akin a small Roman temple, served as centerpiece.
The cove, as it lushly enveloped us, reminded me of home.
Welcome to Puerto Plata: a destination in northern DR that remained out of cruise ship itineraries for decades. It has now reopened cruise passengers in the form of a multi-million-dollar development by Carnival Inc.
But…what does it look like?
When you think of a Caribbean cruise port, you probably imagine scores of souvenir shops, swarming touts, and haggling voices bouncing between buildings.
Not here. Not at Amber Cove.
Yes, there are souvenir shops–but take out the hassle. Sprinkle some chill. Add more flavor.
Better yet: Amber Cove employs LOCALS. It was refreshing to see beaming Dominican faces, thrilled to be working in this resort-style cruise port.
My Amber Cove cruise shots will make you want to book a Fathom cruise.
Picture the grounds of an all-inclusive resort: those that, as a cruise ship passenger, require you to buy an expensive day pass to enjoy.
Now picture this:
Views at the top of a flight of seemingly-melting asphalt stairs toward fun water slides:
Ahhh, water slides! One is predictable:
While the other is…weeeell…
They will shake the kid inside out of you. Like a bear out of hibernation.
Then, head the opposite direction + dip into the largest hot tub you’ve ever seen:
Yes: the Caribbean sun heats Amber Cove’s waist-deep resort pool in no time
Thank goodness there’s a swim up bar:
and friendly bartenders who pour heavy–Latin style!
Still: it feels like an all-inclusive resort. BUT IT’S FREE
(minus drinkies, of course. And USD $6-per-ride or $12-unlimited zip line)
Or splurge anyway: take a ride to Damajagua River and slide down 27 waterfalls:
Your legs will shake after chugging down so much adrenaline!
Deep down, I always knew there was a better alternative to rum & souvenir shops
When it comes to adventure travel, I’m super weird. I’m always scared out of my mind, shaking,.until I DO IT! Thus, “I don’t know how I get myself into these things” is something you will constantly hear through the action-packed 27 Waterfalls video below.
So please, bear with me as I hike, hesitate, and then finally slip through natural water slides; shoot through carved canyons; and jump off many cliffs throughout a Dominican rainforest and the Charcos Damajagua in Puerto Plata! 😀
This half-day Amber Cove port adventure with Iguana Mama was, hands-down, one of my top 5 most incredible excursions I have ever taken–anywhere in the world.
27 Waterfalls, Puerto Plata: My Charcos Damajagua Adventure
If you’re feeling impatient, skip to 2:00 – that’s when the REAL fun begins! 😉
Support Local Tour Operators!
Amber Cove is a relatively-new cruise port–and the first to open up in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic in decades. While the area is filled with all-inclusive resorts, this port of call could be a game changer for the local economy and true boost to authentic tourism.
My hope? That passengers book excursions through local operators vs. the cruise lines that dropped them off here (unless it’s through a responsible, social impact cruise line such as Fathom Travel!).
Also: enter either sharing a taxi and hiring a local guide or booking excursions with local agencies such as Iguana Mama.
27 Waterfalls: Logistics
Since I booked with a local operator, I had to walk for about 10 minutes, out of the Amber Cove complex, to meet my guides. Grounds and main gate are well guarded, so no problems there– felt very safe as a solo female traveler.
Iguana Mama keeps groups quite small, so there were two buses as I believe there were over 20 of us going. Comfortable, decent A/C, funny and informational guides for the 20-35 min. ride (it’s harder to time things in the Dominican Republic, I don’t know why it haha).
There are 2 main excursions you can take from Amber Cove to the 27 waterfalls, also known as the Charcos Damajagua. One option is to take a short 2 km hike round-trip to waterfall 12. Second option, for the most intrepid, is a longer 4 km hike to waterfall 19, 27 (about USD $20 more booked via Iguana Mama).
Which one you pick, of course, highly depends on your physical condition. I took the 2 km hike to be safe and didn’t find it strenuous: only gentle slopes, minimal change in inclination (watch the Damajagua waterfalls video again for sample terrain!).
However, if you have any knee problems, I highly advise you think twice before going. We climbed several long stairs, up and down, throughout the excursion. Furthermore, it’s a rain forest. Expect the ground to always be either damp or very wet–you need both a good grip and good reflects. Buy waterproof sandals like I did! Best investment for my travels, right up there with my goPro Hero3+ 😉
Charcos Damajagua, Amber Cove excursion
Special thanks to Iguana Mama for inviting me on this tour! All opinions and incredible adrenaline rushes, however, were a product of my honest experience. In fact, I reached out to them because they are a top-rated local tour operator on the Lonely Planet Dominican Republic and couldn’t wait to put them to the test 😉
Her big chocolate eyes widened even further. This time, they were filled with hopeful tears. The gasp and loving shove of her daughter was further confirmation that we had achieved something special. I never thought a few hours of Dominican Republic volunteering could break such a thick wall of fear.
“Eje!” – a popular Caribbean interjection, typically expressing endearment and surprise, quickly followed.
Dominican Republic Volunteering Cruise Excursion: My Life-Changing Day
We went through all the colors and shapes, in addition to reviewing 2-3 lessons from previous weeks. Whenever Anastasia struggled, all I had to do was lift my left shoulder and chin for her to relax, do the same and say the word in perfect English immediately after.
Her daughter kept shoving her shoulder, chuckling with watery eyes, in amazement.
Time was up too quickly, but I had their undivided attention for some last words:
“Never fear English, never fear mispronouncing. Whenever you’re having trouble, remember this shoulder lift and say it like you don’t care! It’ll come out, you can do it, you’ve seen it here today. Keep practicing your English with all the tourists that come to your communities; the Fathom volunteers that come your neighborhoods. Only with persistence and practice you’ll be able to become fluent in English just like I did.”
I can only have faith in their hopeful, teary eyes that they will. They will.
One afternoon – that’s all it took for my Dominican Republic volunteering experience to make a lasting social impact. Better yet? Future Adonia cruise passengers, who will come to the same communities 2 weeks a month, will continue teaching the English curriculum where we left off.
You can make an impact too! By taking just one day out of a 7-day Dominican Republic cruise with Fathom, you can touch the lives of locals like I did. Or go on 6 half-day volunteering excursions during your 3 days in Puerto Plata!
Volunteer as much (or as little) as you can – now you don’t have an excuse to give back during your vacation.
Many thanks to Fathom Impact Travel for inviting me to join this 7-day Dominican Republic volunteering cruise. The story of impact I just shared, however, is a true recollection of my experience during one of the Community English Program excursions. It was much better than I expected and I can’t wait to join them on another social impact voyage!
One of my New Year resolutions for 2016 was to get more involved with charities and social impact activities–both while traveling and once back home. My yearnings were answered when Andrew Hickey reached out to bloggers to take part of a Fathom volunteering cruise to the Dominican Republic.
Wait a second: volunteering while at sea?! Or during my vacation?
Fathom Volunteering Cruise Experience: Pre-trip Research
First question I wanted answered, even before I applied for the trip: how will a few hours of my time make a difference on those impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic?
By working with local communities and organizations, Fathom identifies their specific needs and address them with special projects–which are supported by a constant flow of volunteers and investments.
I also found out that Fathom sticks to the same social impact activities, helping the same communities, cruise after cruise.
This means that those hours I spend teaching English to children will make a difference because they will be able to practice what I taught them with the next wave of Fathom volunteering cruisers.
On and on and on. Two weeks a month.
Sounds good, sounds good.
Furthermore, Amber Cove is a brand-new, multi-million-dollar port of call that will be receiving many other cruise ships soon. The proximity of this development to Puerto Plata and nearby communities we will be volunteering at means that these Dominicans could compete for jobs created by that tourism boom.
That’s my own hypothesis, of course, but seems to be a pretty plausible one.
Fathom Volunteering Cruise Experience: Impact Activities and Excursions
I made a mistake I don’t want you to repeat, though.
Once you book, you are sent a code, which is used to register for the Journey Planner of your Fathom volunteering cruise. As soon as you get it, access their site and book your favorite activities and excursions!
Availability of social impact activities and excursions are on a first-come first-served basis. I was having problems with my code, then I got busy and procrastinated contacting their team…
When I finally reached them, most of my favorite social impact activities were full. This means I could only take part of two English teaching workshops.
I was so, so sad 🙁
For each of the 3 days (except day of departure), you get to pick up to two social impact activities: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. You can book as many as two a day or as little as one during your entire stay. Up to you how much time you spend volunteering on this cruise!
While most social impact activities are free, a few of them do carry a small fee: typically used to cover materials needed to help the community.
I reserved mine late, so missed the boat on other cool activities such as a culture and arts camp. Lesson learned!
Luckily, I could pre-book fun excursions around Puerto Plata, Cabarete, and beyond. Because those are not included in the cruise fare, there were still spaces available when I logged in. I reserved a badass power snorkel adventure, where I will ride a cute little motor while enjoying the marine life. Sounds so fun, can’t wait!
FOLLOW ME on my first volunteering cruise to the Dominican Republic!
I forgot to mention: I’m taking a flight to Miami TOMORROW and board the Fathom Adonia cruise ship on SUNDAY–so the real fun hasn’t started yet! You’ll get a chance to follow me day-to-day as I catch some sun, relax, and help the good people of the Dominican Republic at the same time.
Happy Cultural Tidbits Monday! Today we are Traveling through Dominican Republic food (and dessert!), continuing our series of delicious photo essays, introducing you to traditional dishes from all parts of the world.
Dominican Republic food plate looking just like the nation’s flag – genius party idea! (Photo:Sharoliz Báez, my cousin!)
I lived in Dominican Republic for a month, when I was just 12 years old, with my aunt Lissett. The beautiful Puerto Rican married a Dominican cardiologist named Rafael (“Rafelito”) and moved to the neighboring island short after I started elementary school. I have fond memories with this particular pair of relatives because I would see them daily, even more than my always-hard-working mother, as they would take me and pick me up from school, cook me breakfast and dinner, and watch me study until mom picked me up after work in the evenings.
It was a sad day when they moved away, so mom thought it would be a great surprise to send me to Dominican Republic for a month after graduating from 6th grade (end of elementary school in Puerto Rico).It was a little more than mom wanting me to spend some quality time with my favorite aunt, though. Of course, she knew I’d been wanting to scratch my itchy travel feet! Ahh, mom does know best 🙂
Mis tíos are awesome! (Photo from a Halloween house party at an undisclosed location in the Domican Republic…bahaha)
Now that you know a little bit more about my connection to the Dominican Republic, with no more preambles, I introduce you to the Dominican Republic food! A succulent mix of Taíno, African, and Spanish cuisine. As its neighbor Puerto Rico, you may ask? My answer to that question would be “same same but different” 😉 ¡Buen provecho!
Mangu (bottom) topped off with onions and fried cheese loaves (Remo del Orbe, Flickr)
I don’t think any article talking about Dominican Republic food can start with any other dish. Mangú is as traditionally Dominican as the turquoise Caribbean waters that bathe La Española‘s coasts. Very similar to Puerto Rican mofongo, it is a West African dish made of mashed, boiled plantains. The main difference is that mangú firmer than mofongo, in addition to having 3 special Dominican ingredients, typically dubbed as los 3 golpes. Meaning “the 3 hits” in Spanish, these are the traditional sides (acompañamientos) of the mangú: Dominican salami, eggs, and fried cheese. Albeit a heavy dish, mangú is more-often-than-not eaten for breakfast — although it can be mangú time at any hour! 😉
Dominican Republic mondongo with plantains (Remo del Orbe, Flickr)
Another dish brought by the African, mondongo is beef stripe soup. It is also a traditional dish in Puerto Rico, although it is more commonly eaten (and a favorite!) in DR. The best thing about the dish, naturally, is the spices that go on the sauce. All-purpose seasoning, celery, tomato paste, spicy sweet peppers (ajíes dulces), cilantro, and Sazón Goya with culantro y achiote might not seem like much…but they can be magical together! Oh, before you try to make mondongo yourself, though? Mrs Diana Cruz warns: “It can take anywhere between 15-20 minutes to cook it, so its all about observing and checking for tenderness. DO NOT OVER COOK OR YOU’LL HAVE SLIME FOR DINNER.” Noted!
Pastelon with extra plantains, please! (Joan Nova, Flickr)
Another quintessential Dominican Republic food, I personally dubbed it “plantain lasagna” when I first ate it. Others think it looks more like a Dominican Shepard’s pie. Regardless, this is how I can best describe pastelón to you: Think of the noodles/pasta being replaced with layer upon layer of sweet, ripe plantains instead. Then, stuff with adobo-seasoned ground beef or chicken, but without a chunky sauce. Finally, top it off with a mix of cheeses, cheddar preferred. Pop it in the oven and listo 😀 Plantain pastelón, however, is only one of about 6 variations of the dish. Other kinds are made with yuca (cassava) in lieu of plantains. Want to try it out? Here’s a good Dominican pastelón recipe I found!
Bean sancocho with longaniza (sausage) and sliced plantains (Yensy Gonzalez, Flickr)
Sancocho is a very chunky, hearty soup made of a myriad of ingredients. It is similar to the asopao, but even thicker. Both are traditional dishes in several Latin American countries. However, the unique Dominican varieties are sancocho de siete carnes (7-meat sancocho) and sancocho de habichuelas (bean sancocho).
Bollitos de plátano, stuffed with melted cheese! (star5112, Flickr)
Ready for some snacks? The Dominican bollitos can be made of either plantain (bollitos de plátano) or cassava (bollitos de yuca). As its Spanish name suggests, they are like little deep-fried dough balls filled with cheese — the “dough” being mashed plantains or cassava. Think of light-colored hush puppies with different ingredients and you get the idea. A delicious blend, of course!
Sliced spicy tongue – allegedly, not the rubbery texture you expect! (joo0ey, Flickr)
Of course, I had to add the “odd dish” to this Dominican Republic food post! 😉 Direct translation is “spicy tongue” — and comes from a cow. Allegedly, it is not the rubbery flavor you expect! If cooked right, it should melt in your mouth. Today, I also learned that it can be a perfect treat for Rosh Hashanah. Nope, I haven’t tried it yet…
Habichuelas con dulce
Habichuelas con dulce dessert – for the whole family! (Sindy Santiago, Flickr)
As a Dominican would say, in order to close this post with broche de oro, here’s a sweet delicacy from the Caribbean nation. This dessert means “beans with candy” and it is just that: Red beans, cinnamon, nutmeg, coconut milk, condensed milk, raisins, butter, sugar and salt (Katrina Taveras, Daily News NY). What I didn’t know before is that this is actually a soup! All you do is puree the boiled beans with salt, then add the coconut and condensed milk, along with the rest of the ingredients. Interesting! If you want to give this a try, here’s a recipe for you.
Have you tried Dominican Republic food and dessert? Comment below!
In the Western & Christian worlds, we celebrate Christmas this weekend. In celebration, I decided to compile some unique Christmas traditions around the world! Since our globe has more than 200 countries, the list below includes only the ones I have personally visited and/or lived in. This way, we keep the number close to 30 😉 Hope you enjoy it!
Ajaca: Traditional food eaten during Christmas in Aruba, it is made of plantains and stuffed with pork, chicken or beef (Photo:Mourinhospenis.tumblr.com)
In this beautiful Caribbean island, it is commonplace for families to go to church together on Christmas Eve. Then, families gather again for Christmas dinner the next day and sing Aruban songs as they eat ajaca (also eaten in Puerto Rico, but known as “pastel”), salted ham and salmon.
Christmas market in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Manfred Werner)
While Christmas markets are very popular in several cities across Europe, they are particularly important in Austria. The most popular in this quaint country are found in Vienna (in front of the City Hall), Innsbruck (in square by the Golden Roof), and Salzburg (by Residenzplatz/the big Cathedral).
Christmas Pantomime by St Winifred School, Barbados (Photo:Bajanchristmas.wordpress.com)
In the Barbados, a curious tradition is that children put on a pantomime show (instead of a traditional Christmas play) for school. This is also common Christmas tradition in Jamaica.
Sinterklaas (Dutch Santa Claus) and his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Photo: Looi at nl.wikipedia
In the Dutch Caribbean (including the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire & Curacao) they celebrate what it’s called Saint Nicholas Day. What’s really special in this region, however, is Sinterklaas: The Dutch Santa Claus! He makes an appearance on December 5th and gives out the gifts then! Oh, it is also feast day 😉
"Los Tres Reyes Magos," meaning "The Three Magic Kings" (Photo: Studioporto.com)
While many Latin American countries celebrate both December 25th (Santa Claus/Christmas) and January 6th (Three Kings Day), only the latter is celebrated in Dominican Republic. There might be some exceptions to the rule, such as wealthy families exchanging gifts on both days. This, however, is rare. What, then, happens on January 6th? Children leave grass for the “camels” of the Three Kings to eat under their beds (not tree!) and then see their gifts there the next morning.
Egyptian fattah (Photo: Mylifeinapyramid.com)
Christmas in EGYPT? That’s right! While more than 90% of the population in Egypt are Muslims, there is still a Christian minority, called the Coptic Church. Also, as an Orthodox Church, so they actually celebrate Christmas on January 7th, a day after Three Kings Day in Latin America (Epiphany). Then, on Christmas Eve, everyone goes to church midnight service wearing a brand-new outfit, then goes home afterward to eat delicious fata (pictured above).
Keswick Boxing Day Hunt, Market Square, Cumbria, Lakes District, England in 1962 (Photo: Phillip Capper, Wiki)
Some peculiar Christmas traditions in England are the Queen of England’s speech (radio and televised) on Christmas Day and the celebration of Boxing Day on Dec. 26th, which nowadays involves giving small amounts of money as gifts to those who have helped you throughout the year (i.e. the mailman, the newspaper boy, etc.). When it comes to food, Christmas lunch includes a chestnut-stuffed turkey, Yorkshire pudding and roast beef or roast goose.
Suckling pig: Traditional German dish eaten on “Dickbauch” feast day (Photo:Whydyoueatthat.wordpress.com)
As in several European countries, the day that German kids actually receive gifts is December 7th. Thus, on the night of December 6th, children place a boot or shoe by the fireplace (similar to the mistletoe tradition!) and wait for St. Nicholas to fill it with gifts! Another funny fact? Christmas Eve is called “Dickbauch” (which means “fat stomach”) and if you do not eat well on that day, you will be haunted by DEMONS! Say wha!? Interesting Christmas superstition indeed!
Two of the Yule Lads on a billboard in Iceland (Photo:WikiCommons)
Icelandic Christmas is great, as it lasts 26 days and brings about 13 different “Santa Clauses” (also called “Yule Lads”) and they start bringing gifts 13 days before December 25th! The story behind them is that their parents are mean mother Grýla (who takes away the naughty kids in town!) and father Leppalúði, who is not that bad. Their children then are the infamous Yuletid, and each day of the Icelandic Christmas a different one comes to town, either bringing gifts or a prank, or both! 😉 on December 12th, children place a shoe by the window and expect one of the many “Santa Clauses” to leave gifts – but if you have been naughty, you get a potato instead! The major gift exchange and Christmas celebration, however, happens on Christmas Eve, when many Icelanders also go to midnight mass.
Israel & Palestine
While Jews celebrate Chanukkah around the same time, a minority of Christian Arabs do celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, on December 25th. Celebrations are particularly evident in Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity, where it is believed to be the location of the manger where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago. See the video above to get a taste of Christmas in the West Bank/Palestine!
For part 2, and many more traditions from other countries, CLICK HERE!!
What are your favorite Christmas traditions around the world? Why?