The Dominican Republic’s bus companies provide an excellent, inexpensive service over much of the country. Lines at the stations move quickly, there’s plenty of room for luggage on the vehicles and – aside from the quality of the movies screened on cross-country rides – trips are relatively pleasant and hassle-free. Even more extensive and cheap is the informal network of guaguas, ranging from fairly decent minibuses to battered vans, that cover every inch of the DR; in most cases, you should be prepared for some discomfort – and you’ll have a hard time fitting in much luggage, as every square inch of space is packed with passengers. Within towns there’s usually a reliable formal 24-hour taxi service that you can call for pick-up as well, though they typically cost a bit more. Rates are typically set but there’s no meter; only rarely will anyone try to rip you off but it’s still good to set a price before you start.
Car rental affords a freedom you’ll greatly appreciate after a few days going from town to town on the guaguas, but the cost is generally high, due to petrol prices, import duties and high accident rates. Domestic airlines, on the other hand, are a reasonably economical option if you’re not exploring much beyond the main centres. Finally, a number of tour operators in Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata and the all-inclusive resorts organize individual itineraries and packages with transport included.
Santo Domingo and Santiago are the major hubs for bus travel and some companies do little more than shuttle between the two. You generally have to buy your ticket the day you travel, though Caribe Tours allows you to reserve online, provided you confirm two hours before departure. Caribe Tours (t 221-4422, w www.caribetours.com.do) boasts by far the most extensive network of bus lines – with connections to the Cibao, the Samaná Peninsula, the Barahona region, the entire Silver Coast and even Port-au-Prince, Haiti – while Metro (t 566-7126, w www.metroserviciosturisticos.com) can get you from the capital to the Cibao, Puerto Plata and the Samaná Peninsula. Both of these companies have comprehensive brochures available in their stations, listing destinations and departure times.
In addition to these two, you’ll find several regional bus companies that cover one particular part of the country, though vehicles and drivers tend to vary more in quality; negotiating the regional connections is detailed throughout the guide. Unless it’s a public holiday, you won’t need advance reservations, but you should arrive at least an hour before the bus leaves to be sure of getting a seat.
The bus companies strive to stay in competition with guaguas and so fares are extremely cheap. Even a cross-country trip from Santo Domingo to Sosúa will set you back no more than RD$350, while shorter trips fall in the RD$150 range. Make sure that the date and time are correct on your ticket; even if the mistake isn’t yours, you cannot normally change your ticket or get a refund. All Dominican buses have toilets in the back and on trips of more than two hours, a rest stop will be taken at a roadside restaurant or service station.
Guaguas, públicos and motoconchos
The Dominican Republic’s informal system of guaguas, an unregulated nationwide network of private operators, is a distinctive experience that you should try at least once. An instant bond of familiarity is formed as passengers – mostly locals – are crammed four and five to a seat in these half-wrecked vans that often seem held together with little more than packing tape and a strategically placed bit of rope: Amway salespeople pester fellow passengers, Pentecostals proselytize to heathens, a bottle of rum is passed around and – on night runs when the guaguas are less crowded – somebody pulls out a guitar and everyone breaks into song. Aside from the local colour they provide, they’re worth using for the cheap fares and comprehensive coverage to all parts of the country. Guaguas are operated by teams of two, the driver and the cobrador, who sticks his head out of the sliding side door (assuming it hasn’t been torn off) and drums up business. If you want to catch one, just stand by the side of the road and wave your arms at one as it passes.
You’ll find a higher volume of guagua traffic in the morning, but there’s a limited overnight service as well. Guaguas are incredibly cheap; in the southeast and other parts of the country not serviced by Caribe Tours and Metro, they’re your best option for public transport. That said, most guaguas are a bit cramped and you shouldn’t expect to hear much, if any, English spoken. Often the destination will be emblazoned on the side, but always ask before you hop aboard.
For longer trips, you’ll often have to change guaguas at major towns, but even the longest leg of the trip will cost no more than RD$100; more often, you’ll be paying RD$50–60. Be aware, though, that attempted rip-offs of tourists are not unheard of. You should ask around and find out how much a given guagua ride costs before flagging one down. Don’t ask the driver or you may be quoted a rate ten times higher than the norm; instead, clamber into the vehicle and hand over your money immediately without saying a word. If the cobrador won’t take the money, get out and wait for the next. Keep a careful eye on the road as you go; you’ll have to shout for the driver to pull over when you want to get out: even if you ask them to alert you at your stop, they sometimes forget.
Though vans are the most prevalent type of guagua, there are other manifestations as well, such as pick-up trucks; routes leading from Santo Domingo to the southeast and the Barahona region are often served by far more comfortable, air-conditioned minibuses.
Along the Silver Coast, the vans are augmented by private cars called públicos, which charge around RD$40–50 and only go to the next nearest town and wait to fill up before heading off. Públicos also make up part of the city transport system in Santo Domingo and dominate it in Santiago. City routes rarely cost more than RD$20, though you’ll have to put up with blaring music and some daredevil driving manoeuvres. In Puerto Plata and other, smaller, towns, city transport is instead in the form of motoconchos, inexpensive, small-engine motorbikes that ferry you from place to place; they’re faster than the públicos but can be dangerous.
Car rental is expensive in the DR, though you can cut your costs a bit – and avoid a lot of hassle – by booking in advance with one of the international operators listed on; Dollar and National are generally the best value and both offer decent 4WDs. Recognized international firms, along with reputable Dominican agency Nelly, are preferable as they’re no more expensive, have branches at the airport and are far less likely to rip you off; if you don’t have a credit card, though, you’ll be stuck with the local companies, who accept passports in lieu of a security deposit. Take extra care in documenting any pre-existing damage to the car at the outset.
Rates start at around US$60 per day, with unlimited mileage but no discount for longer rental periods; you should also get full collision insurance. Even with collision, though, you’re contractually responsible for any damage up to RD$25,000. You should therefore take special care to note all dents, scratches and missing parts before signing off; nor should you sign the contract if a total price, including all hidden charges, taxes and fees, is not filled out. Anticipate high petrol costs, which float around RD$200 per gallon. Most petrol stations close around 8pm – and there are none whatsoever in the most remote regions – so keep a careful eye on your tank. If all else fails, look for one of the many roadside tables that sell individual litres of petrol for around RD$100.
Rental firms here charge exorbitant rates for repairs; if your car is dented you’re far better off going to one of the local mechanics, who will charge at most RD$300 (as opposed to as much as RD$25,000). Because of the poor quality of many roads, flat tyres are a common occurrence; fortunately, every town has at least one gomero, independent tyre shops that work miracles for as little as RD$50.
Car rental is the most convenient travel option if you’re going from town to town across the island, but driving through the congested, unregulated streets of Dominican cities is often more trouble than it’s worth. If you want to explore the beautiful coastal and mountain back-roads – which give access to the DR’s finest scenery – you’re best off renting a good four-wheel-drive, which costs from US$100 per day. Rental firms may try to entice you into choosing the cheaper Suzukis, which are the same price as standard cars, but these aren’t really intended for rough mountain travel and after the first bone-wrenching hour along a Dominican dirt road, you’ll curse yourself for not spending more.
Motorcycles can also be rented at many local firms, for around US$40 per day. Be warned, though: motorbike thefts are extremely common, especially in resort areas, so you’ll have to keep it locked up when you’re not riding it. A motorcycle helmet law was enacted several years ago, but it’s rarely adhered to and laughable local attempts to comply generally utilize baseball batting helmets or plastic toy American football gear intended for children. That doesn’t mean that you should follow suit; insist that a proper helmet comes with your bike.
Dominicans drive on the right-hand side of the road, often at a breakneck pace. You’ll have to keep a careful eye out along the highways, as large commercial buses and cargo trucks constantly veer into the opposite lane to pass slower vehicles. An array of signals using the car horns and lights are used by local motorists, though most of the time their meaning is obscure; a driver about to pass you will often blink the headlights, while one coming towards you doing this is signalling that he or she is in your lane.
You’ll also find a bewildering variety of obstacles in your path, including turtle-paced ice-cream trucks, motoconchos with comical cargoes of piled chicken coops or construction equipment (which the driver holds down with one arm) and children running back and forth along the freeway. As you approach towns, watch out for the nasty speed bumps, originally intended to prevent accidents but now used by local police to slow passing cars enough that RD$5 bribes can be exacted from them.
Bribe-taking is the primary concern of law enforcement officers posted along the roads, who don’t have enough money for police cars; if they don’t actually jump out in front of your car, you should do as the Dominicans do and drive past them without slowing down. Otherwise, pretend to speak no Spanish and keep repeating the word “tourist” and they’ll usually let you go.
Top image: Dominican Republic. The beach musician plays the drum © aleksandr paraev/Shutterstock