At the airport in Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, everyone is running around blowing whistles. Maybe not everyone. But even a little whistle-blowing goes a long way, particularly when you are rooted to one spot, waiting -- and waiting -- for a driver. A local man finally approaches me. I explain the missing-driver situation. "Is he Dominican?" he asks. "He will be late."
It's muggy and chaotic and very green. On the road (finally) to Cabarete, a fast-growing little tourist town, everyone who was previously whistling is now honking. Motoconchos -- motorbike taxis with three or more people hanging precariously off them -- slow to offer pedestrians a ride, five pesos for a couple of miles. Climb aboard, plenty of room, just squeeze your steamer trunk right up there between that tractor engine and Manuel. It's transportation Ringling Bros.-style.
My accommodations have been arranged by Iguana Mama, the adventure-travel outfit that has agreed to put me on a bicycle the next morning and roll me down a mountain along difficult roads. I'm staying in a fancy compound called Bahía de Arena, a quiet private enclave on the beach about half a mile outside Cabarete. My two-bedroom house is clean and comfortable, with ceiling fans, tile floors, lots of wicker, and bedside stacks of German magazines and French paperbacks. Although the most serious crime in the area is petty theft, armed guards, rifles slung over their shoulders, patrol the grounds round-the-clock.
The day of the trip I'm up at 6:30. By 7:00 my next-door neighbor is poolside with his boom box going, playing the same song over and over. And at 7:30, Patricia Suriel, the affable American who runs Iguana Mama, picks me up and drives me to her office -- essentially a bicycle shop -- in Cabarete. I've signed up for a half-day trip down from the mountaintop village of La Cumbre de Moca, which is an hour's drive from Cabarete. During peak season, December through April, this particular trip might attract twenty cyclists, but it's off-season, so only five have signed up -- and three of them don't show. So it's me and a young Norwegian from New York named August, plus our guide, Junior. Suriel's husband, Freddy, will drive us up to Moca in a truck.
I've done a fair amount of recreational cycling, but apart from a childhood encounter with some abandoned trolley tracks that rendered me briefly airborne, nothing that could be considered even remotely risky. Once I'm matched with a mountain bike, Tricia hands me a helmet. "The Dominican Republic is known for its beaches," she says, "not its hospitals." She recommends being careful with the children who like to line the road and high-five you as you whiz past (some regard it as a form of jousting, the aim being to unseat the cyclist).
During the drive to Moca, past pig and cow farms and fields of cacao, yucca, squash, plantains, sweet potatoes, banana, and pineapple, we get a glimpse of a beautiful, fantastically colorful country. There's green, first and foremost. But the tin-roofed houses are painted lime, pink, red, lavender, purple, blue, and mustard. Even the political parties and candidates -- a presidential election is days away -- are color-coded: Are you a card-carrying member of the white party? A lifelong red? Have you always voted purple? After a roadside breakfast of eggs, plantains, squash, and coffee, Junior briefs us on the rules of the road and we're off.
The trip down, just over twenty miles equally divided between paved road and off-road, takes about three hours. The countryside is breathtaking, with valleys and conical hills covered in palm and caoba (mahogany) trees; it looks a bit like southeast Asia. We stop now and then, especially on the easy-riding sections, and Junior tells us about the vegetation. Schoolkids, in powder-blue and beige uniforms, do indeed line up to high-five us, but gently -- there's no funny business.
Off-road is wild: rutted dirt roads pocked with pot holes and ditches, and mined with loose stones. It's 90 minutes of shake, rattle, y roll. I have to learn quickly just how much to rise up off my seat -- enough to avoid some terrible jolts but not so much that I end up swinging in the lower branches of a mango tree.
After one steep and treacherous downhill stretch, I arrive, vibrating but relieved, at the bottom of a hill just in time to hear Junior announce, "So now we cross the river" -- whereupon he turns his bike into the underbrush and, pedaling, disappears. We follow him, riding, somehow, along a narrow winding footpath, headed for "the river," until August's chain breaks. Junior repairs it, and in a short while we're wading across a stream, carrying our bikes over the slippery stones. Five minutes later, with little evidence of civilization anywhere nearby, we hear the loud and unmistakable sound of merengue. In an open valley, at a wider spot in the river, a midday party is in progress. Couples dance in the shade, children splash in the shallow water, men and women are grilling food. (The only discordant note is the unsightly litter of dozens of discarded paper plates.) This time we ride our bikes through the river, across a yard-wide, damlike wall with water rushing over the top. We're careful to keep our steering true: There's a small waterfall on our immediate right, and anyway the wall's surface is almost as pitted with holes as some of the roads we'd been on. We make it across. Our bike trip -- which I found challenging off-road, but easy on -- is over.
Back in Cabarete, Junior takes me on his scooter to a roadside shack and arranges for a lunch of crabmeat stew and fried bananas. That evening I go to the other extreme, dining with Tricia at Otra Cosa, a fine French place -- there's always a fine French place -- on the beach in Cabarete. Halfway through the seviche appetizer, the power goes out. For my entrée I have shrimp. They appear to be the size of lobsters, although it is quite dark. Suriel tells me that Iguana Mama, which also offers hiking, cascading, and rafting, and is perhaps best known for its weeklong mule trek in Bermudez National Park, has been operating for eight years.
"When we started, Cabarete was really small -- a surf shop, basically," she says. "There were no Americans." Even now, although 80 percent of Iguana Mama's clients are American, most travelers to the Dominican Republic (and in the Caribbean the D.R. ranks second to the Bahamas in tourism) are European. Many head for the resorts in Playa D'orado, and Iguana Mama draws some day-tripping clients from there. Suriel's main problem is keeping a staff. "Within eighteen months, I lost six amazing guys -- the bulk of my Dominican staff -- to foreign women," she says, laughing. Lately, she's been trying to hire married guys.