Having waved goodbye to our son Andrew in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, we set off on our journey to Miami. We were heading 70 miles west for Puerto Rico, to the port of St Juan, where we would rest for the night. However, we really had little idea of what to expect.
When we were 3 miles off the port entrance we were greeted by a surprising and loud “Yeee-ha!” as a hunky, tanned kite-surfer gleefully screamed past our stern. (I knew then that I was going to like this place.) The modern tower blocks and brightly coloured houses on the coastline yielded to the ancient Spanish fort of San Juan, a massive and imposing fortress guarding the entrance to the port itself.
Despite the enormous size of the port, there were only a handful of yachts. It turned out that we were too wide for the Club Nautico marina, which catered almost exclusively for sports fishing boats. As we were deliberating as to where we were allowed to anchor, so the marine police unit came to our assistance, despatching us to the yacht club to clear customs. That was fine, except that the only way to the office was to walk through a very glamorous wedding that was being held there. I was rather incongruous in my shorts and T-shirt. It was all rather surreal, made all the more so by the ceremony being held on a small concrete area at the front of the club, with a prominent sign restricting boat speed (due to manatees swimming about), right next to the priest. The staff were very helpful in getting us cleared through customs, but we still had to present ourselves at ‘Pier 2’ just across the water, but a very long way by road. John was hesitant about tying up our dinghy in the 15’ gap between the sterns of two cruise lines, but they weren’t leaving for a couple of hours so I persuaded him that it would be just fine. We did rather surprise security as we walked in to US Customs by the back door, but they were utterly charming and could not have been more helpful. (They did, however, escort us back to the dinghy!)
So to explore the city – what a great Latin American place! The old town is just that – old. The restaurant we went to was built in 1578 (although I am sure it wasn’t a restaurant then) when the Spanish were in control. The whole place was very well-heeled with buildings freshly-painted and well-maintained, sculptures, interesting street furniture, old trees and sentinals of potted-plants outside elegant terraced houses. But it was the vibrancy that I loved. You could be cynical and say that the great flamenco that was happening in our restaurant was put on for the tourists, but in the street there was a perfect cameo of people just enjoying life: a middle-aged guy was sat playing his guitar and another man who had stopped to listen just started harmonising with him, his arms round his two young daughters. Better still was the sassiness of the OAPs. It seems that on Saturday nights, they don’t care about the rest of the world, they just like to salsa! On the waterfront a crowd had gathered, a band (all oldies) was playing and a woman in her late 60s was singer, raconteur and very good at getting everyone enthusiastically moving to the rhythm and applauding the fun they were all having.
We were sad to have to leave early the next morning, but yet again we has a schedule to stick to with the need to get to Miami, so a new day meant a new country: this time we were heading to the east coast of the Dominican Republic. The 180-mile route took us across the Mona Passage, which in parts is over 5km deep – which for some bizarre reason I find to be a slightly scary thought. It also took us to an area where whales come to calve. We craned our necks and went a bit boggle-eyed, but eventually we saw one!
Despite being slightly further north than the Virgin Islands, it seemed that in the Dominican Republic with the steep hills covered in palm trees, we were far more in the tropics. It was easy to see how the tropical downpours and warm sunshine make it so easy to grow bananas and cocoa here and why agriculture accounts for over 50% of the exports. As soon as we arrived, so a representative of customs, the navy (why?), drug enforcement and agriculture came on board, all of them lead by the local ‘Mr Fix-it’, who smoothed our path through the intricacies of bureaucracy and who enabled us to both clear in and clear out of Dominican Republic at the same time.
The small town of Santa Barbara has benefitted from cruise-liner tourists coming as a drop-off point to go to a lovely waterfall nearby, whale-watching and to visit the cocoa plantations. But although it’s a buzzing place, with many motorbikes zipping about, the restaurants and shops seemed empty of people and there were only six or seven yachts in the bay.
So, after a 180-mile passage and lunch ashore, in the late afternoon we up-anchored and slipped across the bay to the Los Haitises National Park. Here, the only sounds are the various birds chattering in the dense deep green vegetation that clings to the islands of rock as they soar steeply skyways. As we sat in this secluded and beautiful anchorage, watching the sun go down below the horizon of the distant hills, we were amazed that only two days before we were still in the Virgin Islands – who could have expected all that? Here’s to a great boat and a sense of adventure!