Dominican Driving: Scarier than a Guagua
If you think driving in Boston is bad, you should see the roads in the Dominican Republic! There aren’t a lot of rules followed by drivers.
Basically, people just follow their own rules. They pass on either side, drive in the oncoming lane if the right is too slow, and go through red lights if they’re in a rush. It feels pretty wild from an American perspective.
Most Dominicans don’t own cars anyway, so they have to be creative about getting around town. It’s pretty common to own motorcycles, which weave in between traffic, and cram lots of people onto a single seat. Everywhere we went, we got offered “moto taxis,” which basically means “hop on behind me.” I never said yes.
One cheap way of getting around town is riding a guagua. They are mini-vans that act like public buses. People stand on the side of the road and wave them down. For less than 50 cents, you can hop on and get off in the next town. They are super convenient, though not always so speedy, because of all the stops.
The other interesting thing about the guaguas is the number of people. They squeeze up to 30 people in a van that’s probably meant to seat 15. One time they shoved me into a space between two seats and then stuck a board under me, making a temporary seat so that four or five could fit across. There’s always two people working the guaguas — the driver and the money collector. The money collector usually hangs out the open door and helps pull or push people in as needed. Usually the guagua starts moving before he even gets back in fully. It’s quite a scene to see these guys hanging out the doors of the moving vehicle. Here’s a little video tape of me in a guagua, though it was nighttime so it’s a little hard to see the full experience:
If you think the guagua sounds unsafe, you’re mostly wrong. We heard stories of bad things happening when people got in them alone, but as long as there are lots of people around, and the guagua is moving pretty slowly, it always felt pretty safe to me. Maybe not the most comfortable, but entertaining!
Being in a taxi was much scarier than a guagua. The roads are dangerous, even for walking. Here I am walking through an open construction zone! We needed to pass through to get where we were going, and there were no barricades.
On Saturday, we decided to pay extra to take a taxi back to Santo Domingo from the Northern Coast. It cost a lot, but we wanted to see some of the mountain area. Gas is expensive here! It cost $4.45 per gallon, which is about twice what it costs in the U.S. right now! When we saw that, we felt that the price we were charged seemed pretty fair.
Our driver ended up being a very nice man who had a different idea for the afternoon than we did. He decided to use the trip as a chance to give his 19 year old son a driving lesson. Despite the fact that we had barely seen any mosquitoes for the entire trip, this car was also filled with mosquitoes. So, before getting on the road, our “driver” picked up some Raid spray, covered the inside of the car with chemicals, picked up his son, and then stopped at a local bar for a few minutes (not totally clear what happened there). But then we were on our way, with the son behind the wheel.
We never totally figured out if the son had a license. We did get pulled over by national police with machine guns as part of what seemed like a routine check point. My Spanish abilities weren’t quite strong enough to figure out what was going on, but we do know that dad said his son would be a great taxi driver “in three years.” No ticket was given, and eventually the police officer seemed distracted by a fellow officer who pulled up, and he waved us on.
We had a lovely stop at a ranch in the highlands before asking the father to drive the rest of the way back.
It could have been worse. We arrived in Santo Domingo safely, and our driver only had one beer before the second leg of the trip. The scenery in the mountains was lovely, and then we saw some interesting sights in the city. Like Ikea!
All in all, I would have probably preferred the bus back, but that taxi ride was an adventure. And the views are always interesting, whether in the city, or in the countryside.
So, yes, I’d go back to the Dominican Republic in a heartbeat. Even if it meant spending some time on their roads.