Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, November 2016

My previous experience of the Domincan Republic had been a week in an all inclusive hotel in the north with very average food and drinks of a dubious provenance served in plastic cups.This time, I booked a flight to Punta Cana with British Airways and a room in an apartment in Bavaro with booking.com. The taxi from the airport cost US$30, which seemed a little on the high side.

The beach there is probably one of the best in the Caribbean if not the world. There are miles and miles of white sand. Unfortunately, there are also miles and miles of all inclusive hotels and access to the beach is very limited. Unless you're prepared to walk through a hotel which you're probably not allowed to do, but can probably get away with as a tourist, there are only about 5 public access points in something like 5 miles of beach. Fortunately, my room was near one of them and also near Plaza Turquesa where there are about 10 bar/restaurants, a couple of supermarkets and a souvenir shop. What was missing was an ATM. The nearest ones were at the Palma Real mall where there were two banks but this is about a 25 minute walk. The one time I tried the ATMs there, they didn't work either, for me or any of the tourists standing around. If you go in the bank, you can withdraw money from a person in retro fashion but you'll need your passport with you. The other ATM was at Scotia bank which was even further away, but this did at least work. Fortunately most of the bars and supermarkets accepted credit cards with no surcharge. Sadly the same couldn't be said of the dive shops.

On the beach itself, there aren't many beach bars, because of the all inclusive hotels, but there is the Soles Chill Out Bar, or some bars, restaurants and shops a bit further up the beach in Calle Pedro Mir.

I didn't think the prices were that cheap. A bottle of beer was about $130, and a main course at a restaurant started at $350-$400. Sometimes this included all taxes, sometimes it didn't.

I booked my first diving day with Sea Pro Divers to Catalina Island. I picked them scientifically. Their shop was about 50 yards from my room. The price was US$175, though they charged an extra US$6.50 to pay with credit card. Bavaro is on the Atlantic coast whereas Catalina is in the Caribbean, so there first was about an hour transfer to La Romana, which is the main reason why it's so expensive. Transfers and taxis seem expensive in the Dominican Republic.

Although I'd booked with Sea Pro, the trip was actually with another dive centre who owned the boat. The boat was large and quite full with a load of snorkellers on it, though they made them sit upstairs out of the way of the dive deck. The plan had been to do the imaginatively named site, The Wall, but on arrival, a guide checked the viz and came back out saying the the viz was inches. The unseasonal rain had finally washed silt out of the river. I had my doubts it was as bad as described, but we, and every other dive boat, went around the corner to the Aquarium and the water was undeniably a much better colour. We dropped the snorkellers off on the island and got in for the first dive.

They did make an effort to let the more experienced divers dive with each other and we got in first before anyone else could kicked up anything and ruin the viz. The site itself was about 14m deep and was healthy looking coral with patches of white sand. There didn't seem to be a great deal of fish though we did see and eagle ray on the first dive. One of the guys in the group set off after it with its camera. Obviously it swam away from him but headed right towards me so I got a good close up view. Apart from that, there was nothing else of note. The viz was good though. The second dive was much the same, then we went onto the island where lunch was provided. It was a BBQ with chicken, fish and what could be generously described as "well done" pork. There were also some alcoholic drinks in the form of beer and rum.

Then it was back onto the boat, back to La Romana and then the hour long drive back to Bavaro. It wasn't a bad day out and the diving was OK if unexceptional. However, it really wasn't worth US$175. That sort of money will get you better diving in other parts of the Caribbean and more of it.

I'd also booked some cave diving with VIP Divers. It cost me US$200 a day which got me transport, tanks and a dive guide. The first day we went down near Bayahibe and the national park there. The first dive was called El Chicho. The entrance was quite easy though we had a couple of locals to carry our kit down to the water for us. It's quite a shallow dive, my maximum depth was 15.4m. There is a large dry cave 15 minutes in. The air pocket is open to the outside somewhere as there are bats in it, so it's safe to breathe. After this, we jumped a gap and then carried on. There's one spot where there's a flat rock about a metre wide in about 50cm of water that you have to wriggle across. It's impossible to do this in backmounts whilst still looking cool. Then there's a bit of a restriction which isn't that tight but it's at a slightly difficult angle, but is still perfectly passable on backmounts. My total dive time was 1:15 and it was a nice, gentle start to the cave diving. As you can see from the profile, it's very up and down.

The second dive was just down the track and called Padre Nuestra. This is a very pretty cave with lots of decorations. It's just a shame it isn't bigger, but it made a good second dive using the gas left over from the first one.I did 33 minutes with a maximum depth on 12.4m.

The following day, we went to the suburbs of Santo Domingo which is a fair drive. We pulled up at some gates in the suburb and the cave entrance was on private land inside what was basically someone's large garden. We were again the only people there, though they did have a toilet and the guy in charge of the gate made us a coffee when we finished. He also carried our tanks down and up the spiral staircase. The cave is called Cueva Taina and it's a deeper than the previous caves. We did two dives up two different passages. The first, deeper dive, had a maximum depth of 30m, the second was 22m. Dive times were 50 and 43 minutes, so a good length of dive. There's a halocline there. It's been a while since I experienced that though I don't think I'll ever get used to it completely. It's so counter intuitive to ascend from the salt water into the fresh water and become less buoyant as you ascend. Adding air to my BCD on descent just feels very strange. It was a nice pair of dives. The caves aren't that decorated but the viz was very good as you'd expect. It's not a huge system. We reached the end of the line on both dives.

The last dive was also in the Santo Domingo area. This time we drove to an unfinished housing estate, picked up a couple of sherpas and then drove into the bush. The recent rain meant that the vegetation on the tracks had got quite high. The locals were invaluable finding the site, which is called Jardin Oriental. They also carried our tanks down and of course looked after the truck whilst we were under. There's a fair bit of dry cave, so we more or less kitted up in the dark, but it wasn't a difficult access if a bit slippery after the recent rains. There's a fair bit of junk that has unfortunately been thrown in the water at the entrance including, somewhat inexplicably, a fridge. Why anyone carried a fridge down there is beyond me.

After you enter the water and go into the darkness, you leave the junk behind and have a pristine cave environment. This cave is deeper, at 33m, so we took along a stage in addition to twinsets. The line itself is a bit complicated with several T-junctions and we explored a couple of the side passages. Total dive time was 1:16 including about 10 minutes of stops which I did next to the fridge. I've never done deco next to a fridge before.

I enjoyed the cave dives. I'd previously dived El Dudu in the north on another trip but most of my cave diving experience is in Mexico. The caves I saw weren't as highly decorated and they're certainly smaller than the huge Mexican systems but it was very enjoyable. I could get very used to someone carrying my kit for me, though I probably shouldn't.

I also arranged to do a day's wreck diving with VIP Divers. They picked me up in a minibus and we drove down to Bayahibe. We were diving on another shop's boat but we had our own equipment and guide. I was using a twinset purely because I didn't want to swap my hoses over from the previous diving. I used the same set for both dives.

The first dive was the St George which is a freighter in 35+m of water. I didn't go deeper than the main deck and got 33m. It's quite open and you can swim through the holds. Apparently you can also swim down the funnel though I didn't get a chance to do this. There wasn't that much life on the wreck but it was a good dive. It would have been nice to do a longer dive and maybe some deco, but the others were on singles, so dive time was 33 minutes and we were close to the NDL. That said, the surface interval for the next dive was only 41 minutes, so going into too much deco might have caused problems.

The second dive was also a wreck, the Atlantic Queen. It's sunk next to a reef, and there was more life on it. It's much shallower at 13m, so we had a respectable 50 minute dive.

After the dive, we went back into Bayahibe which seemed like a nice place, with far fewer all inclusive hotels than Bavaro. I thought I might have been better off staying there next time as there were bars and restaurants and it seemed to have more of a centre. Lunch at a restaurant was included in the day. The total cost was US$180, again not cheap, but again it's all transport costs. The dive shop in the town charged US$50 a dive, which is about normal, but then there's the cost of getting there. The official taxi rate for Bayahibe from the airport, which isn't as far as Bavaro, is US$80 one way.

The highlight of my trip was the cave diving and I'd like to go to Bayahibe again some time. They had a number of dive sites there. Catalina was disappointing and I never got to try the local diving at Bavaro. They do dive there, though it looked quite rough some days and it didn't look like anyone was going out. The lack of nitrox was a bit of a pain, though a few of the other dive centres do have it. Having to pay cash for the diving was also inconvenient given the ATM situation.

The Dominican Republic Speleological Society's website has some photos, maps and details of the caves I dived.