With all its images of beautiful beaches, adventure activities and five-star resorts, Punta Cana might seem like the ultimate vacation getaway. But behind all of the promotions and promises of a tropical paradise, is the not-so-great reality of life in the Dominican Republic.
We really wanted our trip to Punta Cana to be great, and there is incredible potential for this warm, sandy getaway. But after spending a month there, the net sum is that visitors should carefully consider their options when it comes to Caribbean resorts.
There are always good and bad sides to any travel destination, so we’ll try to break down our experience with the items that impacted us the most during our stay. Some visitors may have had better experiences or worse, but these are the things from our trip that we feel are important to share.
1. The Dominican and Haitian People
Despite the hardships native Dominicans and Haitains experience on this island, we found some of the most warm and friendly people in Punta Cana. Though most of the locals are struggling with low wages and slow job growth, people from both countries are very welcoming. Many of those we encountered were simply looking for opportunities to improve their lives by working on or around the resorts.
2. Services Are Improving
While service companies are still developing in the Dominican Republic, some local companies are moving ahead of the rest. Websites with automated booking for transfer services like Dominican Airport Transfers stand out among other providers in their category, many of whom have antiquated websites and mixed reviews from customers.
Punta Cana is also gaining a reputation as a healthcare destination. Individuals from countries like the United States looking for affordable health and dental options are choosing Punta Cana for their needs. Not only because it’s a short flight from the U.S., but because of health companies like Punta Cana Oral Health that are gaining a reputation for advanced medicine and quality patient care.
Whatever you’re looking for in the Dominican Republic, read the reviews or ask around. It’s not difficult to find companies who stand out for quality service, because there are many who don’t. Above all, avoid anyone pushing for a sale. Take your time and think twice.
3. Grocery Options
If you’re staying off-resort in a condo, there are reasonably good grocery stores in the area. We found a good selection of imported and local brands at the larger markets. Some resorts offer free shuttle service to shopping centers, however, we found shuttles to be crowded and the drivers don’t always speak (or understand) english.
4. Great International Connections
Wherever you are in the world, getting to Punta Cana isn’t difficult. The airport has major international connections with direct flights to Europe and North and South America. The airport terminal is one-of-a-kind in design. With an open air layout and tropical thatch roof, it instantly reminds visitors that vacation has officially begun.
5. Laid Back Vibe
Because Punta Cana is a budget destination, it’s not overwhelmed with trendy snobs and hardbodies. The area provides a more casual and welcoming atmosphere for everyone. A very refreshing thing.
1. Burning Trash
This was a total shock to us and a major issue on a health and environmental level. The resorts of Punta Cana are surrounded by extreme poverty, and just outside the beach areas locals burn their trash nightly. Some nights, when the wind is calm, the smoke and smell of toxic burning trash can be downright sickening. In a tropical beach area, where electricity is expensive, leaving the windows open is expected. However, each night we had to close the windows and turn on the fans or air conditioner to avoid the unhealthy air quality.
2. Mosquito Fogging
Yes, it’s the tropics, and yes, there are mosquitos. The resorts try to minimize this by fogging the areas at dusk. While the chemicals used in mosquito fogging is said to be safe, it’s difficult to believe that regularly pumping the air around an entire complex, where children are playing in the pool, with thick white (smelly) smoke is not hazardous on some level to those nearby. We’ve never seen anything like this quantity of chemicals in the air for mosquito control, and it was somewhat alarming and seemingly unregulated.
3. Motorcycle Taxis
Oh my gosh, the motorcycles! If you’re staying at an off-resort condo, don’t plan to sleep. There must be 100 motorcycles for every car in Punta Cana. Locals say it’s a form of taxi service, but it’s really nothing more than unregulated hooligans trying desperately to make money. The drivers constantly annoy anyone walking down the street, by whistling and trying to get their attention. We witnessed zero safety precautions with those brave enough to use them, some piling up to four people onto a motorcycle. Most of the motorcycles themselves are very old, with extremely loud exhausts, and the drivers seem to take pride in going full throttle through the streets at night.
4. Poorly Managed Airport and Scams
It’s hard to believe that an international airport could be so poorly managed, but this was our experience with almost all check-in staff, gate agents and security personnel. Staff are not always clearly identifiable, and there is a very real sense of a ‘who cares’ attitude. Of the four times we went through this airport, there always seemed to be total confusion and a lack of concern by anyone working there. Arrivals is nothing short of a zoo with the most uninterested customs agents we’ve ever experienced. I’m not sure they even looked at us before throwing a stamp on some random page in our passports.
With so many tourists pouring through, a culture of scams is visibly apparent. This becomes even more evident when exiting the terminal. All passengers leaving the secure area pass a very long line of taxi drivers, tour operators, money exchangers and a variety of other characters literally screaming to get the attention of an unwitting tourist. So much for the allure of the tropics. It’s easy to conclude that management is actively allowing an environment for these things to take place.
As a note of caution, beware of second gate agents prior to boarding who might be requesting your passport and boarding pass for a second time. We’ve heard of these scammers claiming to need payment for some last minute baggage or ticket issue, and I was personally stopped by one when boarding a flight to Miami. This supposed agent, who was dressed like a baggage handler, wandered over from some other part of the airport and mumbled something in Spanish about my bag after requesting my boarding pass. I managed to get past him by playing firm and unflinching, but it was an obvious attempt to see if I was potential prey.
As a visitor to Punta Cana, you’re a target for scams, and you can feel the crosshairs of profiteers wherever you are.
5. Seaweed and Trashy Beaches
Don’t believe the promises of miles of pure priceless beaches to lose yourself on. Beaches are very crowded, due to the resorts filling every inch of beachfront with chairs or structures. Sometimes you may have to walk around trees or landscaping, or avoid uneven terrain or retaining walls just to meander down the beach. Not to mention continually being approached by a local trying to coerce you into some sale, sometimes to the point of being very uncomfortable. Everything has the sense of tourist trap, and there are even structures designed to force beach traffic through a gift shop before continuing down the shore.
Seaweed can be terrible, to the point of needing shoes in some places. Resort workers (low-wage Haitians primarily) are often raking the seaweed by hand, only making the sand look and feel like dirt. In addition, if there is little breeze the beach can be sweltering, even on cloudy days.
6. Don’t Drink The Water
Period. The water in Punta Cana is not treated and should never be used to drink. Most places, including condos, sell 5 gallon bottles for drinking. However, we found that sometimes they may not be available with deliveries unpredictable.
An island made of a poor country bordering an extremely poor country doesn’t create the world class resort experience promised on all the websites. Outside the front door of the resorts, run-down roads, poorly constructed buildings, and a general sketchy feel is the norm. It’s important to remember, and quite obvious when you’re there, that the resorts of Punta Cana are hosted by the world’s 22nd most corrupt country. Extra safety and common sense when visiting should always be practiced.
We witnessed occasional security personnel, but no police visibility whatsoever the entire month of our stay. There is no feeling of proper management in any of the resort areas. Every worker we encountered seemed to be pretending to be qualified for their jobs.
In reality, most of the local staff in any resort establishment are likely very poor and from rural areas of the country, having little training or ability to solve real problems. Calling someone a manager doesn’t make them capable of management, and there is a very real sense that you’re on your own if anything happens. Not a good feeling considering you’re on an island, where the primary way in or out is by air.
8. Horrible Drivers
There are many places that can claim status of world’s worst drivers, but Dominican Republic is high on the list. Rules of the road seem to be totally optional. Both taxis and car services, in addition to locals, drive fast and dangerously. Drivers seem agitated and impatient. It’s the norm to pass in overcrowded residential streets, drive in two lanes at once, avoid road signs, text and drive, and generally do whatever has to be done to get somewhere.
9. No Uber
Yet another country that isn’t Uber friendly. Prepare to pay expensive taxi fares for pretty much everywhere you go. If you’re staying off-resort, some places might be walkable, but major shopping centers are nowhere near most resorts and neighborhoods. When hiring a taxi, be sure to agree on the price up front, as drivers Punta Cana have a reputation as scammers.
10. Drugs and Prostitution
The sad reality of drug deals and prostitution could be seen right from our balcony. It’s not uncommon to witness older men hanging out at the pool with their barely legal prostitutes, but it’s routine in Punta Cana and one of the country’s main selling points for this type of visitor. Prostitution is legal in Punta Cana and it’s estimated that 60,000 – 100,000 women work as prostitutes from neighboring Haiti.
Health and public safety should always be at the top of any government’s priorities list, and these are the two things that heavily influenced our experience. The Dominican government must work to end the illegal burning of trash, and place a stronger emphasis on the proper infrastructure and professional training necessary when hosting millions of tourists every year.
Punta Cana is usually high on the list as a budget destination, but remember there is always a trade off for low-cost. So if you’re planning to visit, don’t believe the all of the promotional hype and try to stay in the primary tourist zones.
Have you been to Punta Cana or planning to visit? Post your questions or comments below and let us know about your experiences.