A month in the Dominican Republic in the time of Covid-19… and seaweed

Gorgeous Bávaro Beach, Dominican Republic, in front of our condo home-for-a-month

We spent 2020 and then some sheltering in place with my high-risk parents. It was a beautiful place to stay and a privilege to be useful until we could all be vaccinated. But, after a year+ of being in one place with a lot of togetherness (plus doing all the shopping and 98% of the cooking), we were getting restless and everyone needed some space. First up were a number of visits to family and friends, then it was time to find somewhere new to light for a while. A search of places we could just live for a month (May 2021) with minimal hassles and no quarantine led me to the Dominican Republic. I’d only been once before to Samaná and that was ages ago. I found a beautiful 2-bedroom/2-bath condo at a great price on Bávaro Beach near Punta Cana. We were a go!

Covid issues top my usual travel research these days, and I knew the DR has mask requirements, social distancing and curfews in place because of the pandemic. In practice, this means very little to us. We wear masks when shopping and in restaurants until we’re seated and eating or drinking. Otherwise, we never wear masks since the majority of our time is spent outside or in our condo. The curfew is not at all unreasonable (M-F 10pm-5am, Sa and Su 9pm-5am) and a grace period for travel from work to home makes it even more so. Since daylight arrives here at 5:30am and it gets dark around 7pm, we’re finding ourselves leading a pretty early-to-bed/ early-to-rise lifestyle regardless of the curfew. For safety reasons, we’d planned not to be walking around the beach after dark or staying “in town” too late anyway.

I read about crime issues in the DR before coming here. Because of warnings about violent crime in certain cities and on the roads, we knew we wouldn’t be renting a car and driving around the island like we would elsewhere. This area of Punta Cana, though, feels very safe, and we are totally comfortable walking into the nearby commercial area where there lots of restaurants and shops and both local and tourist pedestrians out and about. We have walked back from restaurants after dark without concern, although never very late at night. Our condo complex is gated with guards walking the grounds 24/7. [Our two favorite restaurants–both less than a 5-minute walk away–are Dolce Italia with its authentic pizza oven and great piña coladas and Citrus with its eclectic menu and stylish interior.]

Just because this collage makes me happy. All but one of these pics is on the grounds of Stanza Mare. The yellow-and-red hedge is on our walk into our favorite restaurant area.

Another point to be aware of in the DR is that there isn’t potable tap water. This is a common situation on Caribbean islands (places like our beloved Barbados being rare exceptions). Our condo came with a 5-gallon water bottle in an office style “bubbler” that chills it before dispensing. A new bottle is delivered promptly upon request for $2.

We’ve been here 26 days now and agree this has been a great stay. Bávaro Beach is gorgeous with powdery white sand that stays surprisingly cool even in the heat of the day. It’s also very wide in places, wonderfully so in the area just in front of our condo complex where chairs are set up every day and watched over by an ever-present guard. We’ve spent the majority of our days sunbathing or just sitting in the shade of a palm leaf palapa-style umbrella, watching the water and scattered passers-by, reading and chatting. We’ve made friends with a fruit vendor, Daniel, who walks the beach daily and supplies us with fresh fruit and vegetables. We’ve enjoyed blending fruity concoctions and cooking just for us. It’s a long stretch of beach in either direction and despite walking for an hour or more, we’ve never run out of beach in either direction. We usually wrap up all that activity with a dip in the immaculate pool. Like I said, we planned this trip from the start as a low-key, just-live-somewhere-else month.

These are the joys of Bávaro Beach and the reason it’s a tourist favorite. There are downsides, though, and anyone thinking of coming here should be aware. First off, I guess the beach vendors are worth a brief nod as I’ve read complaints about them. Sure, you’ll be approached regularly by men offering tours or inviting you to “visit my shop” and women offering on-the-spot massages and hair braiding. This happens on the beach, in town, and pretty much everywhere. Such vendors are a staple of much of the world and we’ve found the Dominicans to be friendly and polite, and they do generally take no for an answer if you just say, “No, gracias,” and treat them like fellow human beings trying to earn a living. If they persist, David has taken to fibbing that we’ve already shopped and bought a lot or I just explain that we’re too lazy (“perezosos”) for an excursion which usually gets a smile. In short, they’re really not a problem, and we understand that times are very hard here now with tourism at a fraction of normal due to the pandemic.

There are a lot of empty beach chairs and some entirely closed resorts (like Paradisus Palma Real) on Bávaro Beach now because of the pandemic. It’s a good time to visit if you want a peaceful experience, an uncrowded beach and an appreciation for your presence. (The tire tracks are from police four-wheelers that patrol the beach.)

More of an issue than the beach vendors is the invasion of the beach by mats of floating sargassum seaweed. We’ve seen it get progressively worse over our month here and we sadly think our upcoming departure is well-timed because of it. I’ve done some research and found staggering numbers about the proliferation of sargassum (“sargazo” in Spanish). According to the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Laboratory, since 2011 the scratchy, floating Atlantic seaweed has exploded 20x from the historical mean. [“…the amount of Sargassum increased during the month of April 2021, showing a total Sargassum coverage of 1036 km2 as compared with a historical mean of 50 km2 between 2011 and 2017…”] It’s a problem in Florida, Mexico and across the Caribbean, varying from beach to beach with location, currents and winds. I’ve read that peak season is from April to October or from May to August. Whatever it is, it seems the warmer months are worse. A Dominican newspaper wrote of a $15.6 million public/private fund to clean the stinking stuff off the beaches. Recently, we’ve seen bulldozers and dump trucks hauling large loads of sargassum away only to have it begin to accumulate again the next day. I’m told it’s not compostable, so can only imagine a fetid mountain of the stuff somewhere inland. It would be hard to burn until it dries and then there’d be the smoke. It’s a huge problem and another blow to the already suffering economy here and elsewhere in this part of the world.

Three consecutive days (May 17, 18, 19, top to bottom) showing the biggest influx of sargassum seaweed during our stay and then the clearing by a combination of nature and human effort

For us, sargassum is not a huge issue as the slope of the beach means we don’t usually even see the seaweed across our pristine expanse of white sand. But, it does make swimming in the ocean unappealing despite the warm water. On other, narrower stretches of the beach, though, it is a real problem with beach chairs right up against piles of the smelly brown weed. It’s worth some serious research before choosing a resort or condo here now, especially if you’re envisioning perfect wedding photos, etc. We’ve seen two weddings on the beach and imagine the couples never even thought about seaweed.

Big mounds of seaweed almost blocking the beach during clean-up near the Playa Turquesas resort and Zoho restaurant

The only activity we wanted to do while here was scuba diving and we did spend a day diving off of Isla Catalina in the Caribbean near La Romana. The diving itself was fun. We dove both the Wall and the Aquarium and found them to be pretty, typical Caribbean sites. Visibility ranged from good to fair and we saw lots of the usual marine life. The biggest issue with diving the Caribbean from Punta Cana, which is on the Atlantic coast, is the transportation.

Vendors on the beach and in town are all selling the same line-up of excursions, including diving. There are dive sites just off of Punta Cana, but I wouldn’t recommend them. By all accounts, visibility is poor and sea life minimal; it is the Atlantic after all. I wanted to dive the Caribbean where we were sure to find clearer water and the kind of colorful coral and varied animals we expect in the Caribbean. We bought our dive trip from Amaury, a friendly guy operating from a “Mega Caribbean and Sweet Land” office by the Huracán Café near us. We booked a 2-tank dive day with transportation to and from La Romana, a dive boat out to Isla Catalina, all equipment, and lunch with beer and rum on the island. We got the transportation, dives and lunch, but much was not as billed by Amaury with regards to transportation and the island lunch. We changed minibuses twice and ended up with 12 people crammed in a “12-seater” minibus each time despite being assured we be in a 15-person bus with only 8 passengers total. The transportation process is chaotic with minibuses from all over Punta Cana arriving at a large souvenir shop on the highway where we milled about as men with clipboards sent people to various buses and minibuses according to their destinations. Quite a few people’s names seemed to be missing from the clipboards, but those people (us included) were sent to minibuses anyway. It was kind of crazy, but apparently the way they do things in the DR and we did eventually make it to La Romana.

At La Romana, we were sent to a dive/snorkel boat where we found we were diving with a dive company (Passion Paradise) we’d never heard of. We’d been assured we would be with Happy Diving, whose owner, Debbie, we did see between the first two minibuses and who indicated what size wetsuits she’d have for us. We waited about 45 minutes before the boat left while they waited on other expected passengers. No one had our names, but they were expecting someone named “Chris Henderson” with three divers and two snorkelers. We were three divers (my cousin joined us in the DR for 5 nights), and they seemed to just decide that we would do. I have to wonder what happened to the Henderson party. Did they get those wetsuits Debbie supposedly had waiting for us? I also wonder how money gets distributed down the chaotic chain from Amaury to the diving company. Oh well, some things must remain mysteries.

We got a briefing on the dive sites, then learned that wasn’t our dive master. Hmm. No one ever checked our PADI and NAUI cards or asked about our experience. On the bright side, our dive master, Joel, took just the three of us and one other diver while the dive master who did our briefing took a larger group. On the not-so-bright side, the fourth diver with us was very inexperienced, flailing around as he swam and burning through his oxygen quickly. Fortunately, the dive master took him up then returned to let us continue diving. The dive master was also very attentive to my cousin who hadn’t dived in 20 years. Finally, we had only 45 min. on Isla Catalina, a made-for-tourists island stop where we had a lackluster buffet lunch and no beer or rum. The DR had passed a law a few weeks ago banning alcohol on such trips, something Amaury should have known and probably did. Not a big deal, but not what he sold us. Finally, the boat ride back to La Romana from Isla Catalina was really rough, a condition I gather is pretty common. I enjoyed it, but two young women were clearly seasick and rushed often to the two heads. We paid $150pp cash, less than several other operators we saw and on-par with others. We met at 7:30am and were dropped off at our condo around 5pm.

The dual-hulled dive boat was very nice, but small boats are required to serve as tenders from the dive boat to Isla Catalina.

I highly recommend this condo complex, Stanza Mare (see the top link above with pics on AirBnB); it’s immaculate, extremely well-tended and secured. It’s blessedly quiet, too, with no poolside “entertainment” blaring as in some resorts. Loud music is actually banned at the pool. My idea of heaven! (If you’re looking for a party scene, go elsewhere.) The management company servicing our condo, Volalto, has been exceptionally responsive to any requests. The U.S. requires a negative Covid test prior to our return flight. Volalto arranges Covid-19 antigen tests to be done in our condo for $40pp plus $10 for the house call. When my cousin had hers done, she was told the negative result within minutes then received the document result by text and WhatsApp some hours later. Our awesome Volalto agent, Kerstin, printed it and brought it prior to the ride she’d arranged for my cousin to the airport. So easy!

One thought on “A month in the Dominican Republic in the time of Covid-19… and seaweed”

  1. Splendid account of the area- I was very glad for the condo’s WiFi since my AT&T plan isn’t as travel friendly- my 5 nights there were just what the doctor ordered- a home away from home in a beautiful place with wonderfully comfortable accommodations- hats off to the personal chefs and grill master – my cousins Tamara and David. ♥️

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