It was the last day Ivone and I would spend in the Dominican Republic. We wanted to make it a good one, at the same time escaping from the overly controlled, too-perfect resort we were living in. We had signed up for the excursion titled simply Jungle River Hike.
The excursion people said that it would take roughly five hours, and mysteriously, that we should take bathing suits and towels with us.
On the appointed day, hot and overcast, we waited in front of the reception area, looking for a truck that would take us and maybe others to the hike. It was a few minutes late. Rancho Salvaje was the name on the side. Horses were painted all over it. In a moment, a cheerful blonde woman walked up to us.
“Hi, you’re here for the trail ride?” She spoke perfect English and did not seem like a local.
I was confused. “Um, no. The Jungle River Hike.”
“Oh. Okay. My name is Sylvie, and that’s Ramon.” She pointed to a figure near the truck. “We’ll be leaving very soon.”
Ivone and I looked at each other, wondering if we’d made a mistake. We climbed into the back of the truck with only one other passenger, a middle aged guy who seemed overdressed in long pants and a light jacket. He didn’t speak or make eye contact.
The truck moved, and we took a jouncing, bouncing ride over some of Puerto Plata’s rougher roads. After twenty minutes or so we turned into a golf course near the beach. Ivone and I exchanged looks once again. The guy sitting with us finally spoke. “We’re here for me.” It turned out he was going for a trail ride on the beach. After picking up Juan, another local, we continued on.
We turned onto what became a mountain road, going past houses, farms, stores, and oddly, restaurants. There was life on this road, with some kids making their way to school, others just making a living. We pulled over near a small convenience store.
Sylvie turned off the ignition and got out, along with her little chihuahua, Shaggy. “I’m just getting water for the hike.” She disappeared inside while we got out and stretched our legs. When she returned she explained that Ramon would lead our hike, assisted by Juan. She had other matters to attend to, but would later take us to lunch.
I got my first good look at Ramon. He wore a striped shirt, jeans and sneakers. From his belt hung a machete, and his face wore a permanent scowl. If I encountered him on a city street, I’d probably give him a wide berth. But he seemed friendly enough; he even offered to carry my plastic bag.
Juan on the other hand was dressed for something other than a hike. His shoes looked like the ones I wore to the office. Juan would serve as the anchor to our group, bringing up the rear, while Ramon led the way.
The first surprise was a river crossing, the first of twenty four (Ivone counted them). I foolishly tried to keep my feet dry by stepping on rocks, but finally there was no other choice than to splash in. I got used to the sound of wet hiking shoes squeezing out water like a sponge as we walked on the drier sections.
Our guides would often stop to point out unusual sites, unusual for us anyway. Banana and avocado trees, edible gourds, and odd plants that closed when you touched them. Ramon often used his machete to deal a mighty thwack to the odd low hanging branch or small logs on the trail. Deep in the jungle, a song entered my head from an old Woody Allen movie:
Rebels are we,
Born to be free,
Just like the fish
In the sea!
I knew I wasn’t marching with a rebel army, but I couldn’t shake that tune.
After the umpteenth river crossing we began to notice a change. The loud sound of cascading water enveloped us, and soon, it was apparent why we were here. A magnificent waterfall, forty feet high, stood before us, feeding an inviting pool. Ivone and I couldn’t get our clothes off fast enough.
It was unusual to swim in the cool water still wearing my boots, but the rocky bottom made it necessary. I swam up to the waterfall, felt its full power, then lazily floated back to where Ivone was. Our two guides did not partake, but rested happily, giving us all the time we needed. Ramon was willing to take several photos of us frolicking in the water, or just standing there posing.
After 20 minutes or so, it seemed time to leave. On the way back we saw several more sights, including some mountain cowboys and their cattle. Ramon tried to sing the theme song from ‘Bonanza’, a television show (slightly) older than I am. He was off key and incorrect, but I fixed the song in my brain, where it took the place of ‘Rebels Are We’. I was grateful.
Sylvie was waiting for us at the truck. After we tipped them (they really earned it), Ramon and Juan left and the remainder of us headed to lunch. Ivone and I rode up front and started to get to know Sylvie. She was from Belgium and had come to the Dominican fifteen years before to visit her dad. She worked at his tourism excursion business for many years, and now she owned it. She loved it here, she said, although she did take trips to her home country now and then.
Instead of going back down the mountain, as I expected, Sylvie drove up. I could not imagine where we might be going, but within ten minutes or so we noticed a sign: Tubagua Eco Lodge.
It turned out to be a mountainside hotel and restaurant. Nothing fancy, but the views were spectacular. We took our places at an open air deck and took in the surroundings. Our host had purchased a large bottle of Presidente Light to go with our lunch, which was brought to us by a smiling landlady. On the table was fish, a vegetable of some sort, and plenty of rice. The beer went down smoothly and paired well with our food.
On the ride back, we got to know Sylvie even better, asking her more questions but also leaving a few silences. Shaggy the dog curled up on Ivone’s lap as he rested his little head on my arm. We told Sylvie we really were not resort people, and she suggested we stay at the Eco Lodge next time.
I was intrigued. “But how would we get there from the airport?”
“They pick you up.” Oh, okay. Problem solved.
Our host wanted to go home for a short break, since she would be leading a sunset trail ride later. So she dropped us off in Puerto Plata with a taxi driver she knew. This gentleman would take us back to the resort by way of several candy stores. (We didn’t buy any.)
We said our goodbyes to Sylvie, with hugs all around. I appreciated that she kept that amazing waterfall a secret, and hired such good people to guide us. Thanks again, and gracias, guys.