Caribbean Journey – Part 5: Amber Cove (Puerto Plata), Dominican Republic and Kralendjik, Bonaire (2022)
We spent March 30 in the Dominican Republic, which we had never visited before. Like most Americans, prior to booking this cruise our knowledge of the Dominican Republic extended little beyond Columbus’s visit, long time dictator General Trujillo, and the astounding number of Major League baseball players who originated here.
Amber Cove is a self contained cruise ship port built by Carnival in 2015 with swimming, shopping and even a zip line, we think. Having just been to Grand Turk and Half Moon Cay we didn’t need any more of that so we signed up for an excursion to Puerto Plata, a city of about 330,000 some five miles away on the island’s north coast. Some ten or twenty miles further is the site of the first European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, La Isabela, founded by Columbus on his second voyage. There had been an attempted settlement in 1492 but it had been destroyed by the local people by the time Columbus returned. La Isabela lasted until 1496 when Columbus decided to move the settlement to what is now Santo Domingo.
We didn’t get to visit La Isabela but at least we saw Puerto Plata. We rode in a bus that was decorated like some grandmother’s parlor. Our first stop was at the home of General Gregorio Luperon, a hero of the struggle for independence from Spain in the 1860’s who had a long and storied career as a soldier and politician. If you have ever visited a 19th century house containing period furniture and clothing you would not find much here that is new. However the tour guide gave an interesting talk about Luperon, his family and Dominican history.
We next drove down near the edge of the bay to visit the Fortaleza San Felipe. Completed in 1577, this is the oldest structure in Puerto Plata. It was built to protect the town from English and French pirates who frequented the area. In 1800 US Marines captured the fort briefly during the “Quasi-War” with France that lasted from 1798 to 1800. It was officially opened to the public as a museum in the 1980’s. The fort is made of stone on a hilltop overlooking the bay.
Next stop was the Macorix House of Rum. Before our tour began we spent some time in a park area with some very nice flowers. The tour consisted of walking through rooms filled with barrels of aging rum, then a short film about the history of Dominican rum and how Macorix makes the best. Then the best part, a rum tasting in a large room with exhibits from the history of the company. Dominican rum is reputed to be particularly smooth because of the process used here and the 8 or 9 types of rum we sampled were smooth and flavorful.
I mentioned that the rum was very smooth, and it really snuck up on you. Those of us who participated in the sampling staggered out to the bus and we drove to the center of town. Puerto Plata was founded sometime between 1496 and 1506 (contemporary reports vary) . The first British ship of enslaved people delivered 400 captives from what is now Sierra Leone here in 1563. In 1605 the Spanish depopulated and destroyed the town to counter English pirates and a hundred years later it was reborn with immigrants from the Canary Islands. Then in 1863, during the Dominican Restoration War for independence from Spain Puerto Plata was entirely razed, then rebuilt beginning a couple of years later. This is why the Fortaleza is the only surviving building from before that time and also why the city is characterized by Victorian buildings. Independence Square, the central square of the city, is surrounded by such buildings.
On one side of the square is the Cathedral of St Philip the Apostle. The first church here was built in the 16th century and burned down, with the rest of the town, in 1863. Reconstruction began in 1870 but wasn’t completed until 1956. It became a cathedral in 1996. In the square is an ornate round building that looks like a sort of kiosk. There is a lot of action in the square; one fellow was wearing a riding outfit complete with horse and some walls nearby have impressive paintings.
We walked down Calle de las Sombrillas (Umbrella Street), a pedestrian block covered by a matrix of hanging umbrellas lined with restaurants and boutiques. Very colorful and different, of course, but we couldn’t tell whether this was built for tourists or has a local history. We also spent a good deal of time in a large store full of souvenirs and local crafts and products. Then we had a nice lunch sitting in the patio of a restaurant in the area whose sign outside just said “Kaffe,” so maybe that’s its name. In the time of Covid its always better to eat outside if the weather permits and this courtyard was nicely surrounded with greenery.
The excursion over, we returned to the port where we spent some time examining the shops then back on the ship. In late afternoon we departed for the Dutch Antilles.
After a sea day we arrived in Kralendijk, Bonaire, on April 1 (yes, April Fool’s Day, but this really happened). Part of the Dutch Antilles until it was disbanded in 2010, Bonaire today is a special municipality within the Netherlands (although it uses the US dollar for currency rather than the Euro). Located some 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire’s population of about 20,000 is mostly Dutch citizens but the predominant language is Papiamento, a creole language with Spanish and Portuguese roots. In explaining the language the guides love to tell you about the word “sushi”, which means garbage rather than a Japanese dish (although left over Japanese sushi could become Papiamento sushi I guess).
This was our first visit to Bonaire and we booked a tour around the island. Driving north along the coast road we passed several diving spots and beaches. Bonaire is known as a first class scuba diving venue and there are some 80 diving spots around the island, most accessible directly from the shore without need for a boat. The coral reefs and coastal waters surrounding the island make up a legally protected national park. Ascending a hill also gave us a nice view back toward Kralendijk, a city of about 10,000 that is the capital and largest town on Bonaire.
During this part of the drive we saw a good deal of flora and fauna. Unfortunately, much of it was hard to photograph from a bus window, since it was often far on the other side of the bus and the birds were not inclined to pose for pictures. But here are a caracara, a type of hawk, and a yellow shouldered parrot. We passed a huge termite nest as well.
Driving further inland we stopped at an overlook of Gotomeer (Lake Goto), a large saltwater lagoon that is not connected to the ocean. It was quite beautiful and some pink flamingoes were hanging out near a long skinny island in the lake. Near the overlook we saw iguanas too.
You may have noticed some large cactus in the lake pictures. In fact, much of the island is covered in cactus, some quite beautiful and some looking a little worse for wear. The people here actually build fences out of cactus lined up against a wire and wood frame. This is very effective, as you can imagine, in keeping wild and stray animals out and domestic animals in.
We stopped for a little while at the visitor center of Washington Slagbaai National Park, which lies beyond the lake and covers the northern fifth of the island. Again plenty of cactus and a few buildings. Most notable, though, was the skeleton of a 40 foot Bryde’s whale that was accidentally impaled on the prow of HAL’s Nieuw Amsterdam (not the current one) in 2000. The skeleton was reconstructed by a team of high school students and went on display here in 2005. It is the largest whale skeleton in the Caribbean.
Next came the long drive to the southern part of the island to see the salt works. We passed more cactus & encountered a wild donkey on the side of the road. Apparently these wild donkeys are descended from some brought to the island several hundred years ago. We passed a number of fairly plain but colorful back country houses and we drove through Kralendijk and past Flamingo International Airport, the buildings of which are pink (no pictures, so you will have to take my word for it).
When the Spanish first visited Bonaire in 1499 it was populated by the Caquetio people. Concluding that the island was devoid of metals and unsuitable for agriculture, by 1515 the Spanish had enslaved them all (between 500 and 2000 people) and transported them to work in the copper mines on Hispaniola. Some of them were returned 10 years later to work on animal plantations stocked with domestic animals from Spain (we saw a descendant of the donkeys above). After an 80 year war with Spain the Dutch conquered Bonaire in 1636 and built a fort (still standing) in what is now Kralendijk. It was the Dutch who began to exploit the salt resources of the island, with African and Caquetio slaves and convicts doing the labor.
The slave population grew and the salt works expanded. Today Cargill Corp. operates the huge salt works occupying the southern 15% or so of the island. They export some 400 tons of 99.6% pure salt each year, produced from large fields of salt water (called pans) from which the sun evaporates the water. The pans of drying salt look pink because of bacteria that reside there. There is a white foam on top of the salt pans which (I think) is caused by the bacteria. When the salt is harvested it is stored in large pyramids, each of which contains about 10,000 tons of salt, before being loaded onto ships. The sun was VERY bright when we were there, making the white and pink strikingly bright as well. Beyond the salt pans is a salt water lake that is the nesting grounds for the flamingoes, but we did not see that as they are protected.
By the seashore are arrayed several rows of old slave quarters. They are tiny stone houses, too short to stand up in with entrances that are only about chest high. The door and single small window are open to the elements. It was very hot the day we were there and these quarters must have been very uncomfortable for those living there. While many slaves had been freed earlier, emancipation came in 1862 when the last 758 slaves were freed (607 owned by the Dutch government).
Bonaire is mostly a coral reef lifted out of the water millions of years ago and still surrounded by offshore coral. The gravel on the beach near the salt works was, upon closer inspection, mostly coral. There was a very bright red sea plant growing among the gravel and we also encountered a small sandpiper called a Ruddy Turnstone walking in the water.
We returned to Kralendijk and walked around the city for a little while (not too long, as it was very hot out). In some of the sidewalks were flamingoes made of stones and there was a nice view of the waterfront to the north from the entry to the pier. Black headed gulls (or maybe terns) were swarming near the dock, probably expecting food from the departing tourists.