We’d rented one moped for the two of us, and I clung to both the seat itself and my boyfriend as he navigated the puddly dirt road. We’d made it away from the condos and resorts lining the sea, away from the restaurant proprietors shoving menus in front of us, away from manicured lawns that made me think of Hilton Head. We were now passing resorts in various states of abandoned half-construction, relics of a pre-2008 time when consensus held that there was no limit to the moneyed traveler’s appetite for the Caribbean vacation. This was the northern shore of the Dominican Republic, near the town of Cabarete, a worldwide hub for windsurfing. The same winds that beckon watersports enthusiasts generally keep the sunbathers who might have filled those would-be resorts away; they stick to the tried and true beaches around Punta Canta further south.
The half-buildings soon ceded to empty shoreline, bumpy and perfect, and we slowed to ask a man sitting under a tree if we were on the right path to La Boca Grill. Keep left, he told us.
Eventually we came to a clearing overlooking a river. A couple years ago, the restaurant we were looking for sat on the near bank of the Río Yásica. But when we rolled up, nothing was there. Instead, the owner of the restaurant ambled over, confirmed we were here in search of his place, then got his boat ready to take us to the opposite bank, where he’d recently reopened. Russians had bought up the land, he said, and he had to move. Of the 200,000 or so Russians who visit the Dominican Republic every year—at least one real estate firm there has launched a Russian language version of its website—a few are of the variety that needs to park large sums of money, often in real estate, in this case in the form of large swaths of empty waterfront property. At any rate, the restaurant is merely a shack, so reconstruction could not have seemed impossible.
We were the first customers to take the boat over that day, giving us our choice of long wooden tables in the shade. We endured the self-consciousness one always feels upon entering an open but empty restaurant, suspecting it would pass, and it did. When the chef presented us with an uncooked plate of freshly caught seafood, I told him “todo.” (I am a vegetarian and a human of many contradictions.) They made us piña coladas that we drank out of the pineapples they were made from. More people arrived, all locals. A pair of couples came with their own bottle of rum and a high comfort level with public displays of affection. Another large party arrived, celebrating some milestone or other. Our food came, and it looked like a Disney feast. It tasted like something cooked for 16th century royalty; like bottomless decadence.
Just yards away, the river opened up into the sea and beyond that, mountains loomed in the flat, grey way of large things that are far away. We shared our meal with the lopsided dogs who seemed to live onsite. We cleared our plates. As we sat in a post-gorge stupor, the owner convinced us to take a boat ride up the river, where we would see the natural beauty of the place, plus a local zoo. If memory serves, we paid $20 for the 45 minutes or so.
A bit upriver, the water forked, became marshy and then less so, and then not at all. The occasional well-guarded mansion confirmed that we had not exited civilization, as did the very low bridges that required skillful ducking on our parts. The “zoo” turned out to be little more than a smattering of cages, each containing a lizard or snake or bird. When the zookeeper picked up an iguana to give us a closer look, he did so by the lizard’s tail, which promptly fell off. The zookeeper promised it would grow back. We walked away from that tail as it continued to thrash on the ground. On the way back to our scooter, we looked up and there above the river, perched in trees, were two young boys, expert climbers already. They looked at us like we were exotic the caged creatures, and perhaps we were.
La Boca Grill (Seafood)
near Cabarete, The Dominican Republic
Located at the mouth of the Rio Yásica, 4.5 miles southwest of Cabarete. After turning left off Route 5, the unpaved road become very bumpy. Best way to get there is to stop and ask the way as you proceed.
The nearest airport is in Puerto Plata, 24 miles west of Cabarete.
-by Sarah Stodola