The very first description I read of Casa Bonita argued that “it’s often possible to go very right by lighting out for less familiar territories.” I was won over by the images of an infinity pool, only 12 rooms, the opportunity to go off the beaten path: I’ve never been enticed by all-inclusive resorts, crowded kiddie pools, the “easy” vacation. However, this drive tested even my resolve on the joy of the journey.
After finding out that a hotel-organized transfer would cost $200-$300 each way and that rental car would be $25 a day for a three-hour drive, my budget sensibilities won out: we were practically SAVING money! When I turned 25 in June, the big, bad world of renting a car was opened up to me and it’s been mostly delightful: sleeping next to waterfalls in Iceland, exploring all the beaches in Puerto Rico. My delight was a little shaken when we showed up at the Avis in the airport and a) they still use those credit card machines from the 1970s that take an imprint of your card (side note: my credit card number WAS stolen and used multiple times in the DR) and b) the car we rented was old and covered with dings and scratches. A far cry from the beautiful, basically brand-new car that we had rented from Avis in the Puerto Rico just a few weeks before.
Leaving the airport and driving across the city of Santo Domingo immediately reminded me of the chaos of Saigon: more motorbikes than cars, an orchestrated jumble instead of lanes, livestock and children and men piled high in truck beds or balanced on a motorbike. Vendors poured into the street at stoplights, knocking on the car windows while displaying cans of nuts, whole pineapples, bushels of bananas. Traffic rules were merely suggestions; street signs were non-existent.
The simple directions I had printed from the Casa Bonita website quickly proved unhelpful: given in miles when the car’s odometer and road signs were written in kilometers, no way to know if you had missed a turn. The little blue dot finally showed up on my iPhone as I tried to navigate us on my own, but it only showed the major roads: none of the criss-crossing side streets that wove through Santo Domingo. A blue dot floating through space is never reassuring.
After a left turn onto a side street and a few hopeful guesses at forks in the road, I realized that the blue dot was no longer tracking along the main road. Initially, I thought that little blue dot was just confused: it often thinks I’m on a frontage road when I’m actually on the freeway at home, for example. However, as the blue dot continued to move off the road and we started to go through road-side villages, we got worried. We asked people on the side of the road for help, but were told we were on A road to where we were heading–just not the main road. We decided to take the risk that this road would lead us to where we needed to be instead of doubling back: a mistake that we later realized added about two hours of drive time.
It’s tough to be the navigator in those sorts of situations. I’m good with following directions, I have a good sense of north and south and east and west, I can easily pull up a mental photo of a city map I’ve seen a few times. But without a detailed map, without an iPhone (oh, our reliance on technology!), without STREET SIGNS: it’s hard. It’s also difficult to be the driver when the roads are riddled with potholes, swarming with motorbikes and pedestrians, completely lacking any sort of order. The entire drive was one of those moments when you realize the relationship is being tested, when you know that being able to get out on the other side will make you stronger: so when he told me to communicate and to keep my composure, I tried my very hardest.
We made it through a two-hour detour of winding one-way roads, up a steep dirt road that scraped the muffler, through a deceptively deep, muddy puddles. As the sun set, we settled in for another hour or two of total darkness punctuated by the bright lights of passing cars: apparently, the driver etiquette of turning down your brights doesn’t apply here. We passed through Barahona, the closest town to the hotel–about five hours into our supposed three-hour drive. We pulled over to the side of the road just to ensure that we were on the right road: in a stream of Spanish, a man told us to be careful, that it was dangerous here (the implication, I suppose, that not too many Americans make it this far off the beaten path this late at night).
Finally, we turned on to the final road–10 miles along the coast, and we’d arrive at Casa Bonita. The road was finally paved. We were cautiously blissful. And then we hit a pothole: a pothole so incredibly large that it was impossible to swerve, a pothole so terribly deep that it pierced three–THREE–of our tires. We pulled over to the side of the road; within the same breath, a military police truck passed by and stopped. Two military policeman strode toward us, one toting a rifle.
They spoke not one word of English. They helped us replace one tire with the spare, and then realized another one was flat–and then realized another one was flat. One of the officers motioned for my boyfriend to get in the truck with him to get one tire patched, to buy another one. We hugged, he climbed in the truck, I cried for about five minutes under the stars–I was alone on the side of a deserted road in a foreign country with a policeman carrying nothing but a rifle–and then I decided I might as well work on my Spanish and enjoy the constellations. I spent the next hour working out the basic details of Jefferson’s life–for comic relief, he thought I was trying to convert him to Christianity when I said “I am Christine,” instead of “my name is Christine”–while my boyfriend rode around Barahona handing out $20 bills to a tire repair shop, a tire replacement shop. It took a little over an hour before the red-and-blue lights of the truck came back into view, and I daresay that was one of the longest hours of our trip: both of us insanely worried about the other.
And then as they attempted to replace the last tire, they found out the lug nuts had been stripped. The tire couldn’t be replaced. It was a make-it-or-break-it moment: we decided to try and drive the last few miles to Casa Bonita and deal with the rest in the morning. It was excruciating. My boyfriend warned me it was possible the tire could fall off, to prepare myself for that: cue white knuckles. It didn’t, but we couldn’t go much faster than 10 miles per hour for about 10 miles.
When we finally saw the sign for the resort, I don’t think either of us have ever felt more relieved–or hungry. We were greeted by the after-hours guard–also toting a rifle, also not speaking any English–who informed us that no, there was no possibility of having any food at 11 p.m. Please note that we had nothing to eat since a morning coffee in Brooklyn and a ginger ale and packet of chips on the plane. We had a glass of water, a shot of warm rum (the only thing we had purchased in duty-free) and collapsed into bed after ordering all the possible room-service breakfast to be delivered as early as possible.
Looking back, I’m mostly just incredibly grateful that we made it, safe and sound. The cops weren’t terribly corrupt (they happily accepted our American dollars as thanks). The damage on the car was able to be repaired. It happened on the way to the resort instead of the way to the airport. We didn’t raise our voices to each other or blame each other. And hey, we had a few wonderfully relaxing days with nothing to do but swim, read, drink coconuts filled with rum.
I take a lot of responsibility for things going wrong, for letting my interest in saving some money overcome what was probably the better, safer decision. I also think that this is just a necessary outcome of going off the beaten path. I love to travel, and I love a lot of different kinds of travel: I love to relax on a beach, I love to explore a city, I love adventure sports and museums and shopping and anything that’s new. I know that sometimes things are touristy because they’re worth seeing, and that sometimes things that are worth seeing are missed because of where they’re located or how they’re advertised or because the right people simply haven’t exploited them yet. And sometimes, something incredible is just insanely hard to get to: you make the sacrifice in the journey.
I absolutely recommend Casa Bonita–we had absolutely no complaints once we arrived–but if anything, learn from my mistake. Pay for the transfer, and arrive before dark.
Note: all of the photos, except for the sunset, were taken on the drive back to the airport because it was pitch-black when most of these events occurred. The third photo down is the terrible, awful pothole.