Some countries have a branding problem. I’m just back from the Dominican Republic, a country that projects an unfortunate image of heaving all-inclusive resorts, merengue on the beach, sex-tourism and cheap food & booze. In reality only a tiny bit of the country claims those categories, though I’ll admit to having indulged massively in the last one. Cheap, fresh lobster, oysters even (quite divine), cut-price mojitos, Presidente beer…. And these chaps below (near the spectacular 9-km beach of Bahia de las Aguilas) are obviously having a great time- who wouldn’t in such a setting? [photopress:Bahia_de_las_Aguilas.jpg,full,pp_image]
It’s funny too the way no one associates the Dominican Republic with ecology – that’s usually Costa Rica’s ball-court, and hardly associated with Caribbean islands. Yet little (or rather big – it’s huge in island terms) Dom Rep with its incredible bio-diversity is doing pretty well close behind. After years of blinkered vision focused on developing the mega-resorts of Punta Cana on the east coast and, to a lesser extent Puerto Plata in the north, they have now realised the benefits of eco-tourism – both economically and environmentally. in the last few years national parks have multiplied and been hugely extended, so opening up more more areas. It’s still embryonic though, and there’s plenty more to do. The guide I found at Laguna del Rincon in the far south west was wearing army fatigues and greeted us with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Not exactly encouraging. Luckily, he abandoned it for our hike.
And boy did he love his lake – rhapsodising endlessly about the abundance of its fish and crustaceans, the surrounding farmland and natural riches. “We have so much food we can give it all away!” he crowed, possibly exaggeratedly. With desperate Haiti just 30km away, maybe they should. One of the best things about travelling in developing countries are the roadside riches – by that of course I mean FOOD – very fresh. Piles of mangoes, soursop, huge branches of plantains or bananas, pomelos, pineapples, jars of wild honey, cashew nuts, coconuts, mandarins, fresh cheese (even)… my list grew longer by the day. As did my appetite – laterally.
Eating at beach comedores (simple food stalls cooking ultra fresh seafood) became my standard, whatever part of the island we were on – bar that over-populated east coast, though I admit to having devoured an excellent seafood lunch there too, it was just a bit more sophisticated – with much faster service. Grouper, mahi mahi (dolphinfish), chillo (red snapper), lobster, crabmeat (where all the hard excavation work is already done for you) – they all smacked of the Caribbean and would come with a choice of tostones (fried plantains) potatoes or rice. I went for this latter again and again, usually in the form of moro (that’s rice with little black beans and sometimes a dash of coconut). This was particularly delicious when we’d just driven past acres of rice-fields, their watery metallic-like surfaces reflecting the late afternoon light.
Hand in hand with the flavours go the colours. Zing. It’s such a cliché to link the Caribbean with brilliant colour – zesty, fearless, somehow always harmonious – but it is so true. If we only had the same light (and temperatures) back in the UK, maybe we could be a teeny bit more audacious? Sometimes it seemed like the locals had artfully composed and colour-coded their food stalls, all the better to seduce passing motorists – as below. OK, so his T-shirt could have be better.
And then there were hand-painted signs everywhere and, in some towns, murals depicting local beauty-spots. These were sponsored by local companies or the town-hall – so a brilliant form of art sponsorship.
I was totally seduced – not just by the fruit-stands, but by where this country is currently at.