by Ana Maria Toro

I knew it was time for a vacation when I felt my face getting red after a client interrupted me at a meeting. If something so insignificant could turn my face the color of a raw steak, then I knew there was only thing to do: get away from it all. No more putting it off until after tax season, or the summer season, or the high-travel season. I wanted to go as far away as possible from clients, cubicles, and computers.

As I visited different travel websites, I let my imagination go wild and pictured myself next to the golden Buddhas of Thailand, brazenly wearing a Brazilian Bikini on some idyllic beach in Brazil, or swimming with the dolphins in the Red Sea. But when I saw the exorbitant prices of these packages to paradise, I inevitably came straight back down to the confines of my office. I needed to find a cheaper piece of vacation heaven—and that’s when all my Googling turned up the Dominican Republic.

After doing some research, vacationing in the Dominican Republic made perfect sense: it’s a short flight from New York (about three hours) and a place where I wouldn’t be stressed out by not knowing the language or the culture. I looked up the weather to avoid going during hurricane or rain season. Fortunately, April proved to be the perfect time to visit the Caribbean country: right after the departure of the masses who arrive for Holy Week festivities and right before the start of the rainy season in May.

I arrived at a small airport near Santo Domingo, and as soon as the plane’s doors opened I felt the humidity making my skin dewy and frizzing up my hair. Instead of powdering my nose and taming my hair into a ponytail, I let nature have her way with me. When I got to the hotel, I realized that for the first time in ages I did not have a list of places to see and things to do. For years I had booked vacations to bustling world capitals where I would leave the hotel at eight a.m. and return at midnight, each day spent trying to find a middle point between the beaten path and the road least traveled—running around to see every museum and landmark while also searching for street markets and local treasures. By the time I returned to the United States, I was exhausted: I’d seen many wonders but failed miserably at one of my priorities for getting away: relaxing.

During the first few days in the Dominican Republic, I slept until noon, had desert with every meal, and lounged by the pool for hours. Sometimes after lunch, I would walk to a nearby beach and mingle with the locals and merchants, who sold everything from coconuts to Haitian crafts. It was during one of these languid strolls that I met Freddy, a flirtatious, fast-talking, jive-spewing hunk of a man who convinced me that my island experience would not be complete without riding one of his horses. I pictured myself on a sandy beach riding a thoroughbred horse led by a shirtless and clearly smitten Freddy. In reality, I ended up with a group of rubicund German tourists, all of us clumsily holding on to undernourished mules galloping through deserted back roads, dodging tree branches and the occasional beehive.

I gave my butt a day to recover, then booked a day trip to Isla Catalina. We went by boat, stopping along the way at natural pools, where the ocean floor is quite shallow and the water is calm. I could not believe it: there was no land in sight, we were surrounded by miles and miles of water, and there I was, walking and doggie-paddling in the middle of the Caribbean sea.

When we arrived at Isla Catalina, I couldn’t help but think that this place is everything I imagine when the perennial “If you were stranded on a deserted island” question comes up: sandy, white beaches, palm trees swaying gently in the wind…. The island is an ecological area protected by the Dominican government, which has managed to preserve it by only allowing day visitors. Tour companies organize a delicious lunch and lively entertainment in the form of a makeshift dance floor, a DJ, drummers, and dancers in traditional garb. After boogying to the frenzied sounds of perico ripiao (“ripped parrot”), which sounds like merengue on speed, I took a hiking trail that went up to the edge of the island. From the top of a cliff, I could see the coral reef below and the ocean, with its overlapping patches of blue hues, stretching into the horizon. The coral reef presented the perfect opportunity to snorkel. I had never done it before, but I fell in love with it: the peacefulness of being totally immersed in an underwater metropolis of rocks and plants, my deep, measured breaths providing the only sound as my body flowed with the colorful ocean denizens.

I met other colorful denizens, too—students on their way to the local school, workers heading to their job sites—when I took la guagua to Santo Domingo and found myself on a bus decorated with frilly curtains, weaving in and out of small towns. Despite my olive skin and speaking the language, everyone on the bus could tell I was a tourist. The passengers were quite helpful in suggesting places to go and how to get there. But the drivers and their helpers saw in me a business opportunity and offered to take me to the tourist hot spots for a few hundred pesos. I decided to get off in downtown Santo Domingo and find my way around the city.

When I stepped off the bus, I experienced a sensory overload that stood in stark contrast to the nature-inspired bliss of the previous days. The streets were teeming with hurried citizens zipping by, the smell of car exhaust invaded the air, and the sounds of car horns, stereos, and street vendors mixed into an incessant racket. I decided to head straight to Ciudad Colonial and skip the hustle and bustle of the real Santo Domingo.

As I was approaching Ciudad Colonial, home to the first buildings and institutions of the New World, I stopped in front of the ruins of an old building to take a picture, when a very well-dressed man approached me. He started to tell me that the ruins in front of us were of Hospital de San Nicolas, which was built in the 1500s and was the first hospital in the Western Hemisphere. He introduced himself as Santiago and continued to tell me about the fascinating history of the city. After walking with me for a few blocks—and hooking me on his history lessons—he told me that he made a living as a tour guide since he lost his job as a cab driver. He offered his services for the day, which he renders for a donation of around twelve dollars, and I accepted. We walked on cobblestone streets, visited a museum dedicated to amber, the country’s national gem, said a quick prayer at the majestic Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, and haggled with vendors on the city’s main shopping strip, El Conde. Along the way, he told me about life in Santo Domingo: the struggles of regular citizens trying to get by in a very poor country, the high levels of government corruption, his dream of buying a cab and owning a home, the lure of going to the United States.

For me, however, going back to the United States was not all that alluring. I was leaving the next day and felt a little nostalgic about my departure. I didn’t want to leave the Dominican Republic, not yet. There were still many adventures to be had, many hours to spend walking around aimlessly or frolicking in the surf. On my way back to the hotel that night, I caught a glimpse of myself on the window of the bus. I looked different from my usual big-city self: no makeup, no furrowed brow, a healthy glow on my face. It was then that I realized that I had succeeded in leaving the stresses of my life behind, in pressing the pause button, and in having a great time. Now the next time I was rudely interrupted, I would let Mr. Bad Manners babble on while I mentally traveled back in time to my days of basking in the Dominican sun.

* * * *

Ana Maria Toro was born and raised in Medellin, Colombia, and came to the United States when she was a teenager. Ever since she left her motherland, she has taken every chance she gets to travel, be it going to Canada with her family, visiting friends teaching English in China, or moving to London to study (an experience that included more country-hopping that book-hitting). After living in San Francisco for four years, Ana Maria now resides in New York City.