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Looking for Columbus

Colonial ruins tantalize a modern explorer in the Dominican Republic

February 11, 2001|MARSHALL S. BERDAN | Marshall S. Berdan is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — On the working principle that the first price quoted is at least double the going rate, I sneered and strode past the macho young motoconcho (motorbike taxi) driver reclining outside the corner bar in Luperon, an otherwise unspoiled fishing village on the Dominican Republic's spectacular northwest coast.

"Fifty pesos! It was only 50 pesos for the bus from Santo Domingo to Santiago," I scoffed in my best high-school Spanish. (The cities are 110 miles apart; pesos are 16 to the dollar.)

The locals, you see, have long since been spoiled by the gullible and free-spending tourists who venture out from their all-inclusive resorts.

A four-day veteran of the squeeze-the-tourist skirmish, I bargained another Pedro Fonda wannabe down to 40 pesos, and off we set on a positively exhilarating 10-mile ride through sun-drenched hillsides and bright pastel villages. Our destination: Parque Nacional La Isabela, the site of Christopher Columbus' first home in the New World.

Like many Dominican Republic visitors, I had come primarily for the sun, on a heavily discounted, one-week air fare-hotel package last October. My wife was content to sunbathe and take naps with our 9-month-old twin daughters at a modest beach resort on the south (Caribbean) coast about an hour's drive east of Santo Domingo. I had a different agenda.

I had chosen the D.R., as it is commonly known, because it had a lot to explore beyond the beach: an extensive and well-preserved 15th and 16th century colonial Spanish heritage.

I spent the first two days wandering the streets of the walled Zona Colonial, the oldest European city in the New World and the suitably regal first capital of Spain's overseas empire. After that, I was ready to venture to the north (Atlantic) coast. I wanted to see La Isabela, where the greatest of all explorers, the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," lived after his second voyage to the island that he christened Espanola ("Little Spain"). ("Espanola" became Hispaniola, the name for the island 700 miles southeast of Florida, which the D.R. shares with Haiti to its west.)

The park turned out to be closed, an eventuality that came as no surprise to my driver, who shrugged his shoulders when I asked for change from my 50-peso note and sped off.

"When will it reopen?" I asked the T-shirted "captain" of the four-person contingent of gate guards.

"Perhaps tomorrow . . . perhaps not," he said with a shrug.

My Spanish was not up to the explanation that followed, but I caught enough to know there was a disputa among higher-ups, with the result that the park would be cerrado until who-knows-when.

I proceeded to protest, not vehemently, but enough to bring a superior out of his office. I sensed he was open to conciliation. I was right.

For a small consideration of 100 pesos "for his time," he arranged for a groundskeeper to show me around, with strict instructions that I was to return in 10 minutes.

Fortunately, it doesn't take long to see what's left of La Isabela, the 1,200-man outpost that Columbus founded on Jan. 1, 1494, and named in honor of Spain's queen and his benefactress. Only sketchy foundations of a few structures remain, perched atop a 10-foot cliff overlooking a sparkling aquamarine sea. In the appropriately blood-red earth under a canopy of blooming royal poincianas, 56 white stone crosses and the unearthed bones of one Spanish soldier, his arms folded resignedly across his chest, delineate the environs of the church, site of the first Mass said indoors in the New World.

No one seemed to be counting the minutes, so I ducked inside the Museo La Isabela, two open-air cabanas with exhibits of life in Columbus' day and various artifacts recovered from the settlement. While my escort stayed discreetly behind me, feigning to share my interest in the displays, I contemplated just how confused the great discoverer had been. Till his dying day, Columbus remained convinced that he had discovered not a new world, but the back door of the Far East, hence his insistence upon calling the indigenous Tainos indios, a misnomer perpetuated to this day. In addition, the site of La Isabela had been chosen primarily because Columbus confused Cibao, the Tainos name for the place where a bit of gold had been found, with Cipangu, the name by which Japan was known among Europeans.

When my time was up, another motoconcho whisked me back to Luperon for 35 pesos. From there, a series of guaguas (stop-on-demand and loaded-to-the-rafters private minivans) delivered me 25 miles down the coast to Puerto Plata.

The Spanish built a fortified outpost there in 1540, but Puerto Plata's day in the sun wouldn't come until the late 19th century, when it was the commercial outlet for the island's rich tobacco trade. Rows of bright pastel gingerbread mansions, the former homes of German tobacco traders, still line the narrow streets of the Old City, offering shelter and sustenance to down-at-the-heels travelers.

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