Category: Island Travel (Page 1 of 4)

Adventures in Paradise Part 1: A Puerto Rico Itinerary

You should devote an entire trip to Puerto Rico (here’s why)! If you are wondering what you would do while you are there, I’ve put together this quick and dirty two week Puerto Rico itinerary (this is part one). This is perfect for high energy travelers that enjoy the outdoors as well as history and culture. It has a little of everything (but lots of nature). If you aren’t so high energy, you can use this as a list of ideas of things that you might be interested in seeing. There is so much! Even getting this down to 14 days was hard.

Day 0: Arrive in San Juan
puerto rico itinerary

San Juan! (c) ABR 2015

Get in at the main airport, pick your car, and take some time to rest. Eat some delicious food in Old San Juan and sleep!

A quick note on driving in Puerto Rico: You will need to be very defensive. Take your time and expect the unexpected. Remember that your safety is your responsibility.

Day 1: Loiza and the Corredor Ecologico del Noreste
puerto rico itinerary

A Northeasten Corredor beach (c) ABR 2018

Take the 187 out of town to the east. This will follow the coast, and just outside of town there are some very beautiful (and popular, on the weekend) beaches that you can stop at. This area also has a lot of kiosks that serve wonderful street food.

Follow the 187 over the river and enter into the town of Loiza. Look for the Parque Historico Cueva Maria de la Cruz. In this little park, you can pay to take a tour of a cave and learn about music and dance in Puerto Rico. The central part of Loiza is also a great place during the weekend for shopping.

If you aren’t one for beaches and small towns, keep on working your way east to the Corredor Ecologico del Noreste. There is hiking and wild beaches here that have been protected by the communities of this area.

Stay the night in the Luquillo area.

Day 2: North El Yunque
puerto rico itinerary

A waterfall in El Yunque (c) ABR 2015

Today is the day for the famous north El Yunque. Strap on your hiking boots, and start early to avoid the crowds. Many of the trails are being repaired post-Maria but you can find updated information here.

If you have the energy, you might consider staying in Fajardo for the night, and doing the bio bay in the evening. 

Day 3: The Old 191 and Humacao
puerto rico itinerary

The closed 191 in South El Yunque (c) ABR 2018

Take the 53 down past Naguabo, get off on the 31 to Rio Blanco, and take the 191 up into the southern part of El Yunque. Local guides in the area can take you on some amazing trips in the rainforest here, or you can drive down to where the road is closed and hike/bike up from there to the landslide that closed the highway.

If you have time afterwards, visit the Reserva Natural de Humacao. If you drive into the reserve a little bit you can see some of the damage that the hurricane did to natural coastal areas. It is very sobering, but there is also a lot of new growth that should remind us all that nature recovers. There are also some neat historic things in the reserve from the sugar plantation days, as well as some coastal bunkers.

Monkey island is also in this general area, if you are interested in doing a tour.

Stay in Humacao.

Day 4: Lechones and Charco Azul
puerto rico itinerary

Along the path to Charco Azul (c) ABR 2015

Continue on the 53/3 to Palmas and then head north to the 184. This will take you up to Bosque Carite, where you should take some time to hike and swim at Charco Azul. If there is no one at the parking lot for this area, make sure that you take all of your valuables with you.

When you are done with a morning at the swimming hole, continue on the 184 through the forest. Along the way, as you get back into civilization, you will notice many restaurants along the side of the road serving lechones. If you eat pork, please stop at one of these. They are famously delicious and should not be missed.

Take the 52 down to Salinas and stay the night in the historic town.

Day 5: Salinas and Jobos Bay National Estuary
puerto rico itinerary

The view of Jobos Bay landscape from the old hotel (c) ABR 2018

Head over to the small town of Aguirre to enjoy the old central part of this historic area, and to access the Jobos Bay Visitor Center, which you will see along the main 705 road. You may want to try to schedule a tour ahead of time in this area as there is amazing kayaking in the National Estuary, as well as wildlife viewing opportunities. You can also hike and go horseback riding in the area.

Drive to Ponce and stay the night there.

Day 6: Ponce
puerto rico itinerary

Architecture in Ponce (c) ABR 2015

Enjoy a day in this historic city. There is beautiful architecture, museums, and plenty of food to enjoy in Ponce.

Stay in Ponce for second night.

Day 7: Casa Pueblo and the Central Mountains (Toro Negro)
puerto rico itinerary

Casa Pueblo (c) ABR 2018

Get an early start and take the 10 north from Ponce to the mountain town of Adjuntas. Here you can see some absolutely beautiful mining architecture and most importantly, visit the AMAZING Casa Pueblo. Be sure to support their organization by getting a souvenir and/or some coffee here.

Then you have a lot of different options (which all require some mountain driving).

There is a lot of agricultural tourism in the area, and if you are a coffee fan this is a great place to learn more.

You can also some cultural sites in Jayuya including museums about the Taino people and the revolutionary history of the area.

Toro Negro forest is here as well and there are some spectacular hikes here.

PART TWO COMING SOON!

In the mean time, please check out this amazing blog for more information on everything Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Itinerary

puerto rico itinerary

Why Visit Puerto Rico: 4 Reasons This Island Is Calling Your Name

Why Visit Puerto Rico: More Than San Juan and the Beach

It’s a common theme in all of my Caribbean posts… countries in this region get constantly pigeon-holed by all-inclusive and cruise trips. If these companies had their way, there would be one thing that the Caribbean would be known for, its white sand beaches… because most Caribbean countries have them! This is good for mass tourism business, particularly in the case of cruise ships, because that means that different Caribbean countries won’t be able to negotiate for things like higher entrance fees. You can’t negotiate when you are interchangeable, and tourism can’t help local people if they can’t look out for their own interests. What does this have to do with the question: why visit Puerto Rico?

why visit Puerto Rico

A stream through the mountains near Toro Negro (c) ABR 2018

Because, it’s hardly any different for Puerto Rico. When most people visit they want to see 1-2 of three main things that get marketed for this island over and over again, Old Town San Juan, the beaches, and El Yunque. Now, don’t get me wrong, these are all absolutely worth seeing. San Juan is the most beautiful Caribbean colonial city that I have ever seen. The beaches are sublime, and El Yunque is a tropical, mountainous area that I would dare call magical. But Puerto Rico has SO MUCH more! If you want to experience a good chunk of things to do in Puerto Rico, this is a country deserving of a week or two (or more) of devoted exploration, not just a couple nights tacked on before a cruise ride.

why visit Puerto Rico

The mysterious 191, cut off by a landslide long ago (c) ABR 2018

But instead of listing a bunch of places for you to visit, I’m going to do this, I’m going to give you a bunch of reasons why you need to stay in Puerto Rico (and places like it) for longer than a few hours, or one day, if you have the means to visit the Caribbean. And if you are doing an all-inclusive, go out and meet the locals, experience the real country.

THE LIST

(1) Most people have a lot of misconceptions about Puerto Rico or just don’t know anything about the island and its people at all. Getting out and exploring will give you the opportunity to learn more about this beautiful country and its amazingly strong people.

why visit Puerto Rico

Agricultural tourism has huge potential on Puerto Rico (c) ABR 2018

(2) Every Caribbean island has things on it that you can see nowhere else in the world; things that belong in travel magazines along side of pictures of Thailand, India, and Peru. Puerto Rico has kaarst formations covered in tropical forests that will make you feel like you’re on another planet. Puerto Rico has rivers that run through caves big enough for you to float through. It has verdant mountains that touch the sky. Deserts, places to surf, rare birds, and beaches with tanks left abandoned. I could list a million things that make this island a special place. It’s a shame to not see at least one of these unique things. From the travel perspective, these are the many reasons why visiting Puerto Rico is perfect.

why visit Puerto Rico

Mangroves on the east (c) ABR 2018

(3) You exponentially lessen the good that you can do for communities by traveling when you just stay in high tourist areas, cruise-owned ports, and resorts. There are so many good people in Puerto Rico that are just dying to have the chance to make tourism work for their community. You can make a huge difference in a small community looking to host visitors and share the special things that their home has to offer.

why visit Puerto Rico

Hurricane damage on the coast (c) ABR 2018

(4) Puerto Rican culture is rich and unique and you won’t get a real taste of it from San Juan or an all-inclusive. There is an insane amount of delicious food all over the island. There are little restaurants and kiosks that specialize in succulent tastes that will blow your mind. Dance and music are big in Puerto Rico as well, like the rest of the Caribbean; eat good food and find a place to learn some moves or listen to the beats of the island. There is honestly an endless list of things to do in Puerto Rico.

why visit Puerto Rico

Lechones from the central region of Puerto Rico (c) ABR 2018

If you want to learn more about things to do in Puerto Rico be sure to visit our Guide to Puerto Rico.

Dominican Republic Roadtrip and Hiking Itinerary: Finding An Explorer’s Paradise

Most of the time, when I see travel discussions about the Dominican Republic, I see references to Punta Cana, and all-inclusive resorts. However, there is SO much more to this country, and I wanted to put together an Dominican Republic roadtrip that highlights all of my favorite things in the Dominican Republic, which I discovered during my two months living there. This includes a summit attempt on Pico Duarte (the tallest mountain in the Caribbean), many of the varied ecosystems of the Dominican side of Hispanola, and you will not miss the beautiful beaches that the Caribbean is known for. This is a high energy trip, and one which will give you a whirlwind tour of many of the amazing natural and historic gems of the Dominican Republic. However, I have to start with a serious disclaimer.

**IMPORTANT: Driving in the Dominican Republic can be very dangerous. If you take this roadtrip, drive with the UTMOST caution; have ALL insurance for your rental car. DO NOT DRIVE DRUNK. Avoid driving at night. Drive defensively and expect anything. You are responsible for your own safety. Also, be aware of crime in any area that you are in, and try to avoid being out on your own at night.

DAY ZERO: TRAVEL

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

La Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo (c) ABR 2016

Try to land during the day. Bring DR pesos.

Fly into Santo Domingo; you will need to bring $10 USD cash with you in order to buy your 30-day tourist card.

Pick up your rental car to start your Dominican Republic roadtrip.

Note that there will be tolls on the roads.

Stay in Santo Domingo.

DAY ONE: SANTO DOMINGO

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Tres Ojos in Santo Domingo (c) ABR 2016

Spend some time resting in Santo Domingo. La Zona Colonial or Tres Ojos are are some options of things to explore if you have the energy. See our short guide to Santo Domingo for more ideas.

Stay in Santo Domingo.

DAY TWO: DRIVING TO PICO DUARTE

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

The stream at the base of Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

There are two ways to attempt the summit of the Caribbean’s tallest mountain, arguably some of the best Dominican Republic hiking. Both methods require a guide. You may join an organized tour, or you can drive to the village at the base of the mountain and speak to a ranger about hiring a guide (best to do this if you are with at least one other person and one of you speak relatively good Spanish).

In order to organize your own trip, drive towards the town Jarabacoa. When you get there, pick up some groceries for your trip, and get directions to the ranger station at the bottom of the mountain (this is not on Google).

You will need to take mountain roads to get there, so only do this drive if you are experienced on mountain roads. Due to the driving styles on the Dominican Republic, I suggest honking your horn briefly when you near corners. Drive slowly and cautiously- never in the middle of the road. Also note that dirt roads are on this route.

Arrange your guide, and spend that night at the mountain’s base at the ranger’s station. Enjoy a picnic by the stream.

For the story of my attempt on the summit, as well as some pictures that should illustrate why this is worth doing if you are a hiker- look through my summit attempt story.

Camp at the base of Pico Duarte.

DAY THREE: TREK UP TO CAMP COMPARTICION

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Up and up and up the trail of Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

This is the big hike of this Dominican Republic itinerary (about 18 kilometers, all up hill). You should only attempt this hike if you are a competent hiker and have a guide.

Stay the night at Comparticion Camp; be sure that you work with your guide to insure that you have all the food and gear that you need. Wear good shoes.

Camp at la Comparticion.

DAY FOUR: TO THE SUMMIT

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Near the summit of Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

Hike to the summit of Pico Duarte and enjoy a quiet day at camp in celebration of your accomplishment in Dominican Republic hiking.

Camp at la Comparticion.

DAY FIVE: RETURN TO CIVILIZATION; A DAY IN SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS

Hike down from Comparticion, and resume your Dominican Republic roadtrip by driving up to the city of Santiago de Los Caballeros. This is about a 1.5 hour drive without traffic.

Spend a restful day in the city. If you need something to do, consider checking out the historic downtown area. There are a few historic sites here, but mostly some local shopping and places to eat.

Stay in Santiago.

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Santiago de los Caballeros (c) ABR 2016

DAY SIX: 27 CHARCOS

If you aren’t afraid of heights, and are a good swimming, today is the day to enjoy some of the coolest waterfalls in the Dominican Republic at 27 Charcos. I cover this experience in a bit more detail in my list of the best natural spots in the DR.

Have a restful morning and then do the 50 min drive up to 27 Charcos. You will buy tickets at the entrance and be partnered up with a guide who will keep you safe. Bring or rent a waterproof camera! Wear some junky tennis shoes and hike up to the top of the falls.

Then you will get to jump down waterfalls and swim/wade back to the base. This is absolutely one of the most beautiful things I did in the Dominican Republic.

Dry off and take the 45 min drive to Puerto Plata where you will spend the night.

Stay in Puerto Plata.

DAY SEVEN: PUERTO PLATA

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Puerto Plata (c) Pixabay

Spend a restful day on the coast in Puerto Plata.

If you want to get back out into nature, consider checking out Parque Nacional Isabel de Torres. Otherwise, enjoy this tourism hotspot, and a restful day on the beach.

Stay in Puerto Plata.

DAY EIGHT: COASTAL ROAD TRIP

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

The bridges out to sea near Samana (c) ABR 2016

Take the coastal road from Puerto Plata to Samana and enjoy the beach and resting your legs a bit more. It is about a 4 hour drive, one of the longest in this Dominican Republic itinerary.

If you get into town with some more daylight hours, consider walking around the Malecon and the bridges that go out to the small, bay islands. There are MANY scooters/motos in this area, so be extra careful while driving and walking.

Stay in Samana.

DAY NINE: SAMANA

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

One of the oldest churches in the region (c) ABR 2016

This is the day to take an organized tour to Los Haitises National Park, El Salto de Limon, and/or for whale watching. You may want to take an extra a day here to make sure you have time for it all.

Stay in Samana.

DAY TEN: TRAVEL DAY

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

The view from a Bayahibe restaurant (c) ABR 2016

Make your way from Samana down to Bayahibe/Dominicus. It will be about 4 hours (the final day of long driving in my Dominican Republic itinerary! Phew!).

Bayahibe is an absolutely beautiful village, so I would highly suggest planning to get in early enough to wander around before it gets dark. There is also so many good places to eat here, so have a nice dinner by the ocean.

Stay in Bayahibe.

DAY ELEVEN: CAVES!

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

The cave in Nuestro Padre (c) ABR 2016

Take a nice slow day and to visit the caves near Bayahibe and do some lowkey Dominican Republic hiking. Cueva de Chico is one that you can swim in in Padre Nuestro (individual ticket is needed to enter this park). There is a short hike that you can take near the cave as well, but bring some sturdy shoes because the rocks are volcanic and very sharp.

You can also drive down to Parque Nacional de Este, where it is about 100 DR pesos to visit the beach, and do some hiking. If you do plan on hiking, be sure to get directions from the ranger on where to go as the trails lack signs. There is a small cave in the area that is fun to explore as well. Be sure to bring water on this hike, as this is a relatively dry area (I would suggest bringing water and food on any hike, just for safety).

Stay in Bayahibe.

DAY TWELVE: ISLA SOANA

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Near Soana Island (c) ABR 2016

Take an organized day trip out to Isla Soana, where you will get to see some beautiful starfish, beaches, and possibly baby turtles (depending on the season).

Stay in Bayahibe.

DAY THIRTEEN: PUNTA CANA

Take the 1.5 hour drive to Punta Cana. While you could treat yourself and stay at a resort for a couple nights, I would suggest that you don’t. It is a really eye opening experience to see Punta Cana from outside of the all-inclusives. It isn’t the most beautiful thing, but it is something you should be aware of as a traveler.

There are plenty of things to see and do in Punta Cana even if you aren’t at a resort, so feel free to explore, rest, or spend another day on the beach. For some more ideas, check out Culture Trip’s list.

Stay in Punta Cana.

DAY FOURTEEN: CUEVA FUN FUN

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

The exit of Cueva Fun Fun (c) ABR 2016

If you aren’t scared of heights or horses, take the epic day trip out to Cueva Fun Fun where you will ride horses, hike, rappel, and swim to and through a beautiful cave. This is also covered in more detail in my favorite natural places in the DR.

Stay in Punta Cana.

DAY FIFTEEN: CUEVA DE MARAVILLAS

It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo. Stop at the historic Cueva de Maravillas on the way into the capital and take a tour. Not only is this cave beautiful, but it is home to some ancient Taino cave paintings. Spend the afternoon and late evening in La Zona Colonial enjoying the historic buildings and delicious food.

Stay in Santo Domingo.

DAY SIXTEEN: HOME!

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

A beautiful restaurant in Santo Domingo (c) ABR 2016

Head home after a successful completion of this Dominican Republic roadtrip!

LEARN MORE:

Dos and Don’ts for the Dominican Republic

Nightborn Travel’s Guide to the Dominican Republic

 

 

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dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

dominican republic itinerary, dominican republic roadtrip, dominican republic hiking

Five Great Things To Do in Santo Domingo

 

things to do in santo domingo

Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic. It is also the largest city in the Caribbean, and has a population of 3 million people. Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in the Americas, and was once home to Columbus’ family. It’s a city full of history and mystery, with beauty around every corner. All the being said, tourists hardly visit the capital compared to Punta Cana and Puerto Plata. If you want a taste for some of the places that make the Dominican Republic special, Santo Domingo is not a city to be missed. When I lived there for a summer, these were the five things to do in Santo Domingo that I enjoyed the most (not arranged in any particular order).

Contemplate the Mystery of Columbus at Faro a Colon (Or Columbus Lighthouse)

things to do in santo domingo

The Dominican government began construction on this massive, cross-shaped monolith in 1986. El Faro was completed six years later on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first journey to the Caribbean. The memorial houses a museum with artifacts from all over the region, and what is said to be Columbus’ remains. There is some debate about this, however, as DNA tests have proven that Columbus is housed in the Seville Cathedral of Spain. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic did not allow its own holdings to be tested.

things to do in santo domingo

When I visited, I marveled at the stark building. I have read that its cross shape is in reference to the coming of the Christian religion to the New World. The bulky, grey mass of the monument wasn’t cheerful in aesthetic or in its meaning… at least not to me. The Caribbean (and many other regions of the world) are still recovering from the colonialism that this symbolizes. Even so, I don’t think this is a place to be missed. History, even regretful history, is something that we should never forget. And there is no arguing that Columbus played a major role in shaping the world we live in today, for better or worse. There is no where else like this in the world.

Walk El Malecon

things to do in santo domingo

The Malecon is a stretch of Santo Domingo that runs along the water. If you enjoy the ocean, this is about as close to a beach that you will get in the city. Rocky cliffs are otherwise the norm in this area. There are some shops and food to be had here, as well as some more of the city’s monuments.

things to do in santo domingo

The Malecon is a public space, and its somewhere just as enjoyed by local residents as visitors. With large swaths of grass areas and small places to eat, it was full of families and weekend festivities when I went. It’s one of those unique things to do in Santo Domingo that is the perfect place to mingle with city residents.

Ponder the Past in La Zona Colonial

things to do in santo domingo

La Zona Colonial is a part of Santo Domingo that has a very high concentration of historic buildings, and which is honored on a global scale as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you can visit Christopher Columbus’s son’s home, as well as colonial forts and churches, and museums full of antiquities. Santo Domingo was the first major bastion of European influence in the “New World” and that is still preserved in this beautiful part of the city.

things to do in santo domingo

There is really something very enchanting about La Zona Colonial. It encompasses so much Dominican, Caribbean, and European history in one small area. Colonial buildings, carefully preserved and protected, are nestled between traditional Caribbean architecture. The colorful store and home-fronts are sometimes interrupted by the result of garrish Western architectural fads, and tragic evidence of past conflicts in the region (such as the US occupation of the Dominican Republic).

Enjoy Nature at Los Tres Ojos

things to do in santo domingo

Being that I am both a nature and national park lover, Tres Ojos was by far, my favorite place in the city and I visited it multiple times. Here you climb down into an interconnected system of three lakes which I would describe as cenotes or sinkholes, although I am not sure that that is technically correct. Most are accessible on foot, but one you can pay a little extra to see the final after a short boat ride. It’s worth the fee just for the ride, in my opinion, but the view after is pretty unbelievable as well.

things to do in santo domingo

The Dominican Republic has some of the most beautiful caves that I have ever seen, and I was lucky enough to explore a few of them. Even so, Tres Ojos was probably one of the most captivating of all of them. The expanse of the park, with its twisting trails through the forest and subterranean world was a great place to mingle with other travelers, or find little spots to contemplate the beauty. The sparkling blue water, ringed by capes of green, or made utterly clear by encapsulating stone was unforgettable. If you see nothing else in Santo Domingo, Tres Ojos is the place to go. You would never expect somewhere so beautiful to be in the middle of a thriving city.

Eat and Drink Amazing Things

things to do in santo domingo

The capital is home to some extremely amazing food. So, exploring its restaurants is one of the best things to do in Santo Domingo. In La Zona Colonial, you can get anything from traditional Dominican dishes to global flavors. Artful chefs who put their own unique spin on all sorts of culinary delights also call this part of the city home. I’ve never heard of the Dominican Republic being known for its assortment of perfect restaurants, but it should be. Santo Domingo might just be one of the best places in the Caribbean for foodies (up for debate!).

things to do in santo domingo

Some Notes on Safety

things to do in santo domingo

Santo Domingo isn’t without its dangers, and I think (like any big city) travelers would be well advised to be wary and careful. Theft and violent assault can be common in some areas, and travelers are always a target for scammers no matter where you go. That being said, I never had a bad experience here. Not even when a bus dropped me and my friends off in a bad neighborhood, and not when a friend of mine got dropped off at the wrong building by a taxi when she came to visit. The worst I got was a taxi driver who thought he could charge me more than standard fare. Even so, here are some tips to keep in mind (which could honestly be applied to any city, but nonetheless).

Hide Your Valuables (Especially Your iPhone)

iPhones were in demand among thieves when I was living in Santo Domingo due to the extremely high price of these phones on the island. However, flashing any valuables is something I would suggest avoiding. It just gets the wrong sort of people interested in you.

Avoid Problem Areas

There are some parts of the city that even local people prefer to avoid. Stay in touristy and highly developed, vibrant areas, and you should be safe. These things change over time, so be sure to do a bit of research before you start your trip. Worst come to worst, hotel staff should be able to help you figure out where to stay away from. And trust your instincts, if something feels off, just turn around, flag down a cab, or call an Uber.

Expect to Get Attention

The Dominican Republic is a musical, romantic place. People are not afraid to let you know if they find you attractive. Sometimes the attention is more than just a fascination with foreign visitors, however. The Dominican Republic has a notably large sex tourism industry. Again, not something I had an issue with.  These sex workers did harass a friend of mine, though, so it happens.

The Roads Are Crazy

The Dominican Republic is known for being one of the most deadly places in the world to drive. Be aware that driving there is nothing like the US or Europe. The infrastructure is present (traffic lights, stop signs, and nice roads), but people don’t follow rules that they find inconvenient. This is especially bad at night. Even if you are on foot, don’t expect cars to stop for you. Don’t trust that everyone will stop at lights or signs.

For more ideas about things to do and see in Santo Domingo be sure to visit Live Love Voyage’s Santo Domingo Guide.

If you want to find out about more off-the-beaten path destinations in the Dominican Republic, be sure to look through our guide to the country!

Do’s and Don’ts for Travelers to Japan

How to Respectfully Experience Japanese Shrines and Temples

Nikko shrine (c) RDB 2017

  1. There are wells (purification fountains) on the way into shrines and temples, and if you rinse your hands, try to avoid touching the ladle anywhere but the handle, and pour used water into the gutter. You can also pour some water into your hand to rinse your mouth (don’t drink).
  2. If you want to worship at a Shinto shrine, when you get to the offering hall toss some coinage into the offering box. If there is a bell, ring it, bow two times, clap your hands twice, and then bow one more time.
  3. Don’t eat or drink anything other than water in the shrine or temple.
  4. Be quiet and respectful; these are holy places.

Being Polite In While Traveling by Train in Japan

The shinkansen (c) ABR 2015

  1. When waiting to get on the train, pay attention to the lines painted on the sidewalk, and be sure to stand in line.
  2. Don’t talk on your phone; if chatting with a pal, try to be quiet.
  3. If it gets crowded, take your bag off and hold it in front.
  4. If you have an assigned seat, make sure that is where you sit.
  5. Don’t be pushy, and make sure that you leave room for other people to get on and off the train.

How to Avoid Annoying Japanese People

Crowds in Japan (c) RDB 2017

  1. Read ALL the signs, especially when you are in a shrine or temple. Many will tell you where you can and cannot go, and what you need to do while in any area (e.g. take off your shoes, etc).
  2. Stand in line. This goes for lots of different places that you might not expect depending on where you are from. We even stood in line while hiking, and while that ad hoc happens in the US sometimes, it was not ok to move up in the line in Japan.
  3. Learn and use please (“sumimasen,” which really means excuse me) and thank you (“arigato”) in Japanese. When you are in a restaurant, it is not impolite to hail your waiter by saying “sumimasen.”
  4. Be quiet if you are in an Airbnb, because people live very close to one another, and the Japanese work day/week is very long.
  5. Be quiet and respectful in Onsens and follow all rules while bathing.
  6. Watch other people, and take note of their behavior. This can serve as your guide for how to act when you are uncertain.

Other Japanese Customs You Might Want to Know About (But Which Visitors Aren’t Expected to Understand)

Tokyo (c) RDB 2017

  1. Bowing. In Japan, there’s a complexity to bowing in which people of different standings bow to different depths. Bowing can also be casual or formal. Luckily, visitors aren’t expected to know how this all works.
  2. Gift-giving is another important but complicated aspect of Japanese culture. Generally speaking, people don’t open their gifts in front of the gift-giver, and whenever you receive a gift, you are supposed to return the favor. Again, however, travelers aren’t expected to do this all properly.

The National Parks of Japan Have It All

Map of Japan’s national parks from https://www.env.go.jp/en/nature/nps/park/

Japan has a total of 33 national parks, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spread out across its major islands, they showcase the vast variety of ecosystems and unique landscapes that characterize the natural world of Japan. These parks are also home to many important historic and cultural attractions, making them the perfect places to experience the multifaceted wonders of Nippon. I’ve only seen a small fraction of these special places, but they deserve a post highlighting how amazing they are.

Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

As you may be able to tell from the name of this park, Fuji-Hakone-Izu has three distinct sections, one of which is home to Mt. Fuji (the highest mountain in the country), one is for Hakone, and one for the Izu islands south of Tokyo. Of these, I have visited Hakone and Mt. Fuji.

That’s boiling hot water running down those steps in the geothermal area of Hakone (c) ABR 2017.

When I went to Hakone, it was my first time in Japan, and I wanted to have the chance to see Mt. Fuji, since we wouldn’t be able to actually visit the mountain. We heard that the journey through this part of the park would give us the best chance for a glimpse of the crown of Japan (although we didn’t actually get to see it that time due to cloud cover), so we bought a transportation value pass (for details click here). This takes you from Toyko via multiple different modes of transportation (train, funicular, cable car, boat, and bus) through the Hakone area. This includes a stop in a geothermal area where you can see some hot springs and buy special black eggs cooked in the searing hot waters of the mountain. You will also get to ride an oddly pirate-esque boat across Lake Ashinoko. Not included in the pass, but well worth the extra cost, is the Old Hakone Check Point, which was used during the Edo period to monitor people moving through Japan.

Old Hakone Checkpoint on a cloudy day (c) ABR 2017.

On our second trip to Japan, I did summit Mt. Fuji, which was a just-as-memorable-as-you-would-think two-day experience that I will devote an entire post to later this month. I will say that this mountain is busy, but makes up for the crowds with unimaginably beautiful views and a uniquely spiritual experience.

Torii gate near the summit of Mt Fuji (c) ABR 2017.

Nikko National Park

Nikko National Park includes a huge complex of shrines among a wildly beautiful, mountainous countryside. This is one of the most spiritual places that I have ever been in my life, but it is also very popular. So, the real moments of still and introspection are those that you can steal in a crowd, or find on a quiet trail among the trees. This National Park is also home to Mt. Nantai, Kegon Falls, and Lake Chuzenji. After Mt. Fuji, Mt Nantai is one of the best places for a visitor to get a challenging hike in, but you will need to plan ahead if you are going to make it up the steep trails of this mountain to the summit.

The crowds in Nikko make it hard to find that spiritual moment, but you will find it in this national park (c) ABR 2017.

Setonaikai National Park

I visited this park while staying on Miyajima island of Hiroshima Bay, which is home to the ocean-side Itsukushima-jinga and Mt. Misan, in the western side of the park. For anyone like me, that isn’t super fond of snorkeling, the island is your best destination for this part of the national park, because the rest of Setonaikai is marine, complete with finless porpoises and beautiful forests of ocean plant-life.

Man-made, anti-erosion waterfalls on Miyajima (c) ABR 2017.

Whirlwind Tour of Japan (Part 1)

Preparation:

Get a 21 day JR pass. You will need to plan ahead to do this, because your paperwork will be sent to you via mail. You won’t want to do this last minute.

Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo

Once you get to Tokyo, pick up your JR pass at the airport. You can then take the monorail and JR trains (subway lines will cost you extra, but when you get tired of walking you will likely end up taking them) to get to your accommodations. Just show your pass to the staff at station entrances when entering JR stations. Google Maps can help you find your way via trains and by foot if you pick up a pocket wifi at the airport as well, or if you have international data.

I would suggest taking a rest today. Walk around near your Tokyo accommodation, and eat some good food. (But avoid scam restaurants like this one!).

 

Day 2: Tokyo DisneySea

Little Mermaid world in Tokyo DisneySea (c) ABR 2017

If you are a Disney fan, take your second day in Tokyo to visit a park that’s only in Japan, Tokyo DisneySea! There are some totally unique park environments here, and some familiar rides as well, including Indian Jones and the Tower of Terror. There are also some interesting food combinations/interpretations here, including Mexican food with a Japanese twist. The park isn’t huge, so it is likely that you will spend around a half day here.

If you end up having some time to explore other parts of Tokyo in the second half of your day, consider shopping in Harajuku, or checking out the anime capital in Akihabara. The JR train will get you everywhere that you need to go.

 

Day 3: Exploring the City

Meiji Shrine entrance (c) ABR 2017

            Spend the day seeing some of the different areas of Tokyo. I have mentioned a couple above, but some other neat locations are Meiji shrine and the park surrounding the temple. There is also a beautiful garden in Shinjuku that is a great place to spend an hour or so, and escape the crowds for a bit.

 

Day 4: Journey to Mt. Fuji

A mountain hut close to the 5th Station (c) ABR 2017

Mt. Fuji’s hiking season is from early July to early September; it is illegal and extremely dangerous to attempt the summit outside of the hiking season. So, if you plan on including this in your trip, make sure you plan accordingly. I would also suggest that you try to get out on the trail during the very first week of the season, as it will only get more and more busy once school lets out.

In order to get there, take a bus from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji’s Fifth Station; note that you should plan on buying your tickets for this ahead of time so that you are guaranteed a seat. You can do this online here. The ride takes around 2.5 hours and is on a mountain road, so take some motion sickness medicine if you struggle with that.

The fifth station is a pretty big tourist stop, so it can be quite busy there, but it is also a great area for resources for those of you trying to travel light. They have rain gear that you can rent, along with some other equipment options if you need trekking poles; never rent hiking boots, as you NEED to hike in shoes that you have already broken in. There are also a bunch of options for a hot meal before you set off.

When we did this hike, we decided to just make it to the hut where we were staying for the night on the first day, and since this was the highest hut on the mountain where you can stay the night (Goraikokan), I think that this worked really well. Although, be aware that this is a popular place to stay, and you will need to be proactive about reserving yourself a spot there. Also, Goraikokan is at a relatively high altitude for most of us, so be sure to plan ahead to prevent altitude sickness one way or another (here are some tips).

 

Day 5: Summit Mt. Fuji and Return to Tokyo

Getting close to the summit! (c) ABR 2017

If you are a strong hiker, summiting from Goraikokan will most likely take longer than you are expecting, because there is a good chance that you will be forced to queue up near the summit. When we went, I think we spent about an hour in line, and we were lucky that it had cleared up a bit when we started down, because there were times that the line was in both directions.

Depending on how early you get to the top, how much energy you have, and when your bus home leaves the 5th station, you may want to walk the trail that circles the summit. Otherwise, enjoy the top and then start the long hike downhill. This part of the trek destroyed my legs, whereas, I was just fine hiking up. Be ready for a long, steep walk down the mountain.

We caught the bus back to Tokyo once we got down, and then we basically just ate dinner and fell asleep (you probably won’t sleep well at the mountain hut, unless you enjoy sleeping shoulder to shoulder with strangers).

Suggestion for accommodations (budget): Khaosan Tokyo Samurai Capsule – This is the first capsule hostel/hotel that I have ever stayed in, and I wish all hostels were like this! You had your own space, and the staff here are great!

 

Day 6: Traveling to Kyoto

A beautiful doorway in Gion (c) ABR 2017

After our adventure on Mt. Fuji, and a night’s rest in Tokyo, we hopped right on the Shinkansen (or bullet train) to Kyoto (my favorite city in Japan!!). It takes about 3.5 hours to make it from Tokyo to Kyoto, and that’s not including the city trains you may need to take.

This may be a an all day affair, depending on when you leave, but if you get to Kyoto and have some time, try walking around the Gion area. The architecture and atmosphere in this area is absolutely beautiful, and there are some beautiful canals that you can walk along. Plus, plenty of food.

 

Day 7: Kyoto

The trail up Mt. Inari! (c) ABR 2017

Take the train over to Inari-Jinja (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html). This shrine here is one of the coolest locations in Kyoto, and will be familiar if you ever watched Memoirs of a Geisha. Here, you can hike through tunnels of torii gates, and if you are so inclined (which I highly recommend), you can hike up Mt Inari to the shrine at the top of the mountain. The trail to the summit is really unique, and it is a great place to experience some Japanese forests (which surprisingly, you don’t get much of on Mt. Fuji).

After Inari, head back over to the Gion area. There are plenty of shrines to explore there, but I would suggest Kennin-ji, the oldest zen shrine in Kyoto, and where you can see a HUGE dragon mural. Afterwards, consider catching a performance at Gion Corner, which has a nice little show with six different traditional Japanese preforming arts, including Geisha dances.

If you didn’t have the chance yet to enjoy the canals in Gion by night, please do so tonight. I absolutely love this area.

 

Day 8: Kyoto

AMAZING dragon mural (c) ABR 2017

            Take today to visit some of the other shrines/sites in Kyoto that you haven’t seen yet.

You may be tempted to visit the Bamboo Forest, which is in a ton of pictures and blogs, but I thought that it was too busy and the forest was so small that it really wasn’t worth visiting. The area surrounding the forest is pretty nice, however, so if you really feel the need to check it out, you can spend some time in the area.

I would suggest that you brave the crowds to check out Kinkaku-ji, or the golden pavilion, however. It is a really unique spot, so I think it is well worth the lines and hordes of people. But if neither of these is on your list, there is plenty to do and see in Kyoto; I think you could spend a full week in this city and still not run out of things to do.

 

Day 9: Hiroshima and Miyajima

Beautiful Miyajima (c) ABR 2017

            Take the shinkansen to Hiroshima; it takes about 2.5 hours, but it is likely that you will need to transfer, so give yourself some time by getting an early start. Once you are in the city, be sure to visit the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This is absolutely one of the most moving places that I have ever been.

After a sobering afternoon, take the train over to the Miyajima ferry terminal. It is a short ride over to the island, and is covered by the JR pass. If you get there before it closes, check out the Itsukushima Shrine, which has a massive torii gate in the ocean. It is a wonderful place to unwind. If you get in too late for that, feel free to stroll around the town in Miyajima. Lots of things will close early, but the views are beautiful, and there are also deer that mingle among humans here, so it is a very cool place. Please don’t feed them anything though, especially things that aren’t edible (like maps… seriously, people feed them maps.).

Suggestion for accommodations: Hotel Sakuraya– this is a small bed and breakfast with traditional Japanese baths and a prime location on the shore.

 

Day 10: Miyajima

View from Mt Misan (c) ABR 2017

            Sleep in, have a nice breakfast in town, and then take the gondola (or trail) up to the top of Mt. Misan. Not only are the views from the mountain absolutely stunning (you can see the ocean in both directions as well as the big island of Japan surrounding the island), but there is a complex of shrines on top of the mountain. These ancient buildings are home to a sacred fire, and are perched in some of the coolest spots just about anywhere. If you enjoy hiking, definitely take the trail down, because it is a great way to see the forest, as well as some famous anti-erosion landscape engineering. Specifically, there are dams and artificial waterfalls meant to prevent flooding and erosion on the island here, and they are all very sensitive to the nature of the surrounding forest.

For Part 2, head over here.

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 3

PART 3: KNOWING MY LIMITS ON PICO DUARTE

Map to the top (c) ABR 2016

After a night of inventing new ways to sleep in a bunk with zero support in the middle, and a breakfast of bread and cheese cubes, the events of the prior day’s harrowing driving adventure faded fast. I wasn’t enthused about the food we had been able to bring, but I did my best to fill up. The hike up the tallest mountain the Caribbean wasn’t going to be easy, not with the accelerated itinerary we had been forced to make.

We had one day to try for the top, and I wanted to shore up as much energy as I could.

(c) ABR 2016

Martin, my hiking partner, and I finished breakfast around 5, but we ended up waiting for our guide for nearly an hour before we could leave, because our illustrious mule had escaped in the night. Perhaps he sensed the coming hike and wasn’t all that excited about it. Luckily, we didn’t have much for the lovely animal to carry, just a jug of water and our two small day packs.

(c) ABR 2016

The first part of the Cienaga route, the main trail up Pico Duarte, is fairly flat. So, we had a nice warm-up as we followed the stream up the slope, pausing only to take pictures at the little wooden walkways that served as bridges. We moved as fast as we could, anticipating the long haul that was the come. The question about whether or not I could make it to the top hung over my head.

From Los Tablones, things started to get real. The trail became increasingly steep, with the steepest incline hitting us about halfway up between La Laguna and El Cruce. I kept repeating to myself “There is no way that this is only 0.5 kms!” as I struggled up the incline. The trails on this part of the mountain had carved deep canyons into the soft soil of Pico Duarte, some taller than me. The wear of people’s feet and the tropical weather seemed to be a hard force on this place. The trees here also took on an oddly swampy quality, with moss hanging down from the tall branches as the forest shifted from tropical to temperate and the air grew colder.

(c) ABR 2016

Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. We reached El Cruce, and judging by the map that’s at the top of its post, I was expecting to settle back into the same plod that carried us up from Los Tablones to La Laguna. It was tiring, but nothing that we couldn’t maintain.

(c) ABR 2016

This part of the trail was far more difficult than that ever-present map suggested, however. I don’t know if it was just that we were tired after our ascent, but those 3 km felt endless. I have to believe, even now, that whoever measured that segment was simply wrong. Maybe it was the same someone that measured the La Laguna-El Cruce segment. But it was here that the tropical forest finally fell away, leaving us in the fog, amid the temperate pines that seem so at-home on tall mountains.

(c) ABR 2016

As you may read if you look up Pico Duarte, there was a fire on the mountain in 2005 which wiped out vast swaths of the forest. For some, this made for a disappointing trip, but I found this part of the mountain (now partially regrown) to be really beautiful, despite the fact that I was exhausted. The little trees dotting fields of grasses among the tall survivors of the fire opened up a wide view of the mountainous inland. The views of the sunrise from there the next day were unbelievable.

(c) ABR 2016

Once we finally hit Aguita Fria, I cursed the sign. This was the high point before the camp where we would spend the night, and I knew right then that I wasn’t going to make the top. My feet were blistering in my boots, my legs were starting to feel weak, and my head just wasn’t in it. I knew how much further I had to go, and it just didn’t feel feasible, not with the entire hike back down the mountain waiting for me in the morning.

Bad Aguita Fria! (c) ABR 2016

So, I complained my way down to Comparticion camp, annoyed that we had to hike down after hiking up for so long. But the camp was a welcome sight. Several small, wooden cabins huddled around a fire pit. A little garden peeked out from behind a long building with a kitchen that housed wood-fed stoves. Mules relaxed in the fields that surrounded that little spot of human habitation, and when I finally dropped down to rest, a camp cat came to relax in the sun with me.

Our trusty mule (c) ABR 2016

Martin went on to the summit, although he didn’t return until the sun had nearly set. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to the top, but when he finally got back to camp, the look of exhaustion on his face let me know that I made the right decision. Pushing for the top would have been irresponsible of me, and I hike enough to know my limits.

Even without the summit under my belt, the whole experience was adventure enough, and that is still one of the hardest trails that I have ever hiked in a day.

(c) ABR 2016

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 2

PART 2: GETTING LOST AND DRIVING ON DIRT ROADS

One of the nicer dirt roads on the way to Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

I don’t remember what clued us into the fact that we were driving the wrong way, but it had been an hour since we had seen the last sign for… anything, and we wanted to play it safe. After all, both my travel partner, Martin, and I were keen on making it to the top of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. Getting lost in the forests at its base would make that hard and we didn’t have time to waste. With just two days to make our attempt (most people take at least three full days), a failure that morning meant the entire thing was off.

Our powerful little rental car, Tina (c) ABR 2016

Luckily, Martin was fluent in Spanish, making turning around to ask for directions fruitful. Some people eating at a streetside restaurant pointed us down a road being re-paved when we told them the name of the town we were trying to reach.

“But you can’t go that way now,” one man remarked, gesturing at the heavy machinery blocking the way. I felt my heart sink. “There’s another road, but we’ll send someone with you, because it’s small and hard to find.” Another man put down his hard-earned lunch and dropped his conversations to hop on his motorcycle. We followed him back into town, and turned onto… a dirt road.

The good part of the dirt road; that little red dot is the guy leading us to town (c) ABR 2016

Let’s pause here to discuss dirt roads. Some dirt roads are no problem for almost any vehicle. Some dirt roads are fine for my Acura which can barely handle pot-holes on the freeway. Some dirt roads might as well be paved, because they are nice and flat and their only downside is all the dust you kick up driving on them.

This was not one of those dirt roads.

But there wasn’t much of a choice at that point. A kind man had stopped mid-lunch to guide us, and neither of us felt like we could turn back now. So, we followed that motor bike, on a road where divots and holes slowly grew where water ran and pooled into them when it rained. Then, up a steep hill that crested so sharply that I thought we might just balance out on the top and have to stay there.  Onward our guide took us through construction sites, literally weaving our way between massive digging machines as they worked, and along roads with deep mud.

The road down into the construction zone (c) ABR 2016

Finally we followed him through a little town with no sign to clue us in to its name, up an embankment, and into the dirt parking lot of Armando Bermudez National Park. Tina had lived up to her name as far as I was concerned. I was proud of her and me for making it to that point. Now, we just had to find the man that our friend had told us about, who would help us set up our trip and make it to the summit…

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 1

PART 1: AS LONG AS THERE AREN’T DIRT ROADS

Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

I lived in the Dominican Republic for the summer of 2016; there for my PhD field season to study one of the world’s most unique whale watching destinations. It was my first time really living on my own in another country (and perhaps my last), and between bouts of anxiety about bus rides and car accidents, I was primed to explore.

Near my home in Santo Domingo (c) ABR 2016

Hiking Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Dominican Republic and the whole of the Caribbean, was on my bucketlist from day one. Having little experience with hiking in the tropics, I was thirsty for some new adventure, and interested in the ecological rainbow that was no doubt present as one worked their way up from the rainforest at the mountain’s base, to its sparsely forested top.

There was just one problem, most of the tours to the top of Pico Duarte cost between $300-$500,far outside of my budget as a graduate student. It seemed like the mountain was out of my reach, until my growing desire to plod up its slopes led me to ask my Dominican advisor if he had any ideas about making the trip happen.

Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

“How are you driving on mountain roads?” He asked. I wasn’t concerned. I made a hobby out of driving up the Catalinas outside of Tucson during my undergrad, I spent a summer driving up and down the snaking roads of Mt. Graham, and I had just returned from a road trip through the Scottish highlands.

“If there aren’t dirt roads,” I replied. “I will be fine.” My vehicle for the summer was a small Nissan Versa Note, which I had duly named ‘Tina’ after my favorite character in Bob’s Burgers.

Tina’s preferred habitat (c) ABR 2016

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just be careful about driving on the winding roads. Honk at the corners, go slow.” Ah yes, driving in the Dominican Republic is notorious. Did you know that? The World Atlas rates the DR as the #1 country for car accident deaths in the world. After driving there for a summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if it just happens to be related to  the motorcycles that are EVERYWHERE, or the fact that people casually drive drunk. Defensive driving is a 100% must in the Dominican Republic, and most people advise against you driving there at all. So, I got where he was coming from.

Where I was inspired to seek this adventure (c) ABR 2016

I was fairly confident that I could handle it. It was just those pesky dirty roads that little Tina wasn’t equipped to deal with.

So, he gave me directions to a small, small village at the base of the mountain, and told me the name of a man that my hiking buddy and I were to look for there…

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