Livin’ it up in Tubagua

by John Oughton

I’ve been staying at this wonderful place in the Dominican Republic for several days now.  My main purpose  was to get away from February in Toronto, experience some wonderful weather and scenery, and a new culture, and make progress on two writing projects: finishing my PhD thesis proposal, and completing my suspense novel.

So, up to now, I’ve been conserving my writing energy for those tasks, other than short emails and comments on Facebook.  However, some of my pals have expressed interest in knowing more about where I’m staying. My good friend Rachel Larabee,  has taught, volunteered, and led college student international learning expeditions here, and is mostly responsible for my knowing about the Eco Village.  She asked if I would be blogging about it.  I owe her at least one.  So I’ll do my best to describe it, and evoke its atmosphere a little…  before I log my designated hours of thesis-proposal work.

The Eco Village is along a somewhat challenging twisty road about 20 km up the hills from Puerto Plata, and has been in operation about four years now.  It is the creation of Tim Hall,  Honorary Canadian consul for this part of the island.  This makes him a great person to stay with, because if you get thrown in jail, you just call your host for help. Tim, a generous and far-thinking Montreal native  permanently attached  to Dominican cigars, had a few goals in mind for this place.  One is that it fit the “sustainable tourism” model.  This means that the Lodge and its various rooms and cabin/suites are built, as much as possible, by people who live in the village of Tubagua, and constructed with local, replaceable materials — lumber from the native trees, palm-thatched roofs, etc. Energy use is minimal — it has wireless Internet, lights, but no heavy electricity demands  It also offers tourists who are bored with typical resorts and prefer some contact with the local people and countryside an alternative place to stay, or use as home base for excursions around here.

There’s no air-conditioning; in fact, there’s no glass in windows, but you’re on top of a sizable hill, almost a mountain, and at this time of the year, it’s never too hot in the shade.  The shower has a small on-demand hot water heater, and rather than needing a full enclosure and ventilation fan,  has one open side facing down the hills and out to the ocean — with an empty picture frame hung there to compose the scenery.  So you can shower while looking out on a wonderful view, knowing that it would take very powerful optics (at least a military satellite’s)  for anyone  to view your dangly bits. You wake up each morning hearing a chorus of birds, distant roosters and dogs, and a little 125 cc motorcycle or two straining its way up the hill, often with three people, no helmets, and some produce on the bike — not the sound of elevators or canned music.

There’s a Haitian guy down the hill who works as a labourer but is an excellent singer, and sometimes his voice drifts up here as the sun rises.

You can pay for a meal plan or not, depending on your needs, and the food is local and wonderful, put together by Jacquie, a village woman that Tim has helped train, using experience from running a restaurant. Another of Tim’s goals is creating decent jobs in suzhou for local people, so several villagers work here, including a serious boy from an orphanage who is the dishwasher and busboy. Here’s an example of how this is sustainable tourism: in a beach resort in Puerto Plata you’d be eating food that is at best trucked in from the countryside, and possibly imported from other countries.  In Tubagua, the bananas you eat (small and sweet)  grow on the trees right outside your room.

It’s not a place for those who think that travel to exotic locales requires luxury touches like big-screen cable TV and hot tubs, or who make their major occupation complaining about the quality of the food,  service, etc.   But if you want to plan your own trips around the DR, Tim and others will help with advice about where to say and eat, what to see, the roads to take or avoid, and so on. It has services you won’t get in a big hotel, like tropical flowers everywhere, and hummingbirds who fly into the dining room. For me, it’s a great writer’s retreat because most visitors head out during the daytime, and it’s just me, the dogs, cats (and a black rooster who appeared from somewhere).

You actually can stay here without a car, as I am doing, renting a bicycle from Jacquie to ride a couple of K’s to the village and stock up on beer and snack foods, and cadging rides or sharing taxis to Puerto Plata or the beach from other visitors or Tim when he goes to the city on consulate business.

Which brings us to the question — what kind of tourist stays in an eco-lodge? First of all, it’s a bargain compared with all-inclusive resorts, because you’re provided with a minimum of facilities for a comfortable stay, and you just need to have a sense of adventure and be a little adaptable to enjoy them.  If you’re  thinking it’s all sober-faced vegans who try to score points about living more sustainably than everyone else, think again.  Last night we had a 40th birthday for the charming Anna, who’s here to do some relaxing and whale-watching with her husband Rene, a Dutch naval officer stationed in Curacao on Coast Guard training duties.  Arthur, a head greens-keeper and very practical guy from a golf course in the Okanagan, and an old friend of Tim’s who’s been coming to the DR for 15 years, and his nephew Jason who’s a carpenter on oil sands projects, bought steak, lobsters and a birthday cake and treated everyone … they were also in the kitchen helping Jacquie put the meal together.  There was plentiful wine, beer, and laughter.  Most people come here with a rental car so they can make day-trips (or longer ones) and then come back for a few more nights.  If you think having little lizards and butterflies co-existing with you is a good thing, by all means come here.

The local people are friendly, and cheerfully put up with my very developmental Spanish.  Staying here can also shift one’s assumptions about people from the countryside in the Caribbean.  There’s an elderly carpenter here … in excellent phsyical shape (Tim’s wife  told me, I think — it was in Spanish — that the carpenter still has a really nice butt for a guy of about 70!)  although a little short of teeth — who’s building an attached shower for the “honeymoon suite.”  Yes, he does it largely with a machete, but as he walked past, a melody went off, and he pulled out his cell phone to talk to a friend.

If all this sounds like your kind of vacation — and, for most of my friends, I think it would — check it out on Google or on Facebook.  Just enter Tubagua Plantation Eco Village — and talk to Tim about coming down here.  I don’t think you’ll regret visiting here … it’s got the best view and freshest air of anywhere I’ve stayed in the Caribbean, and you can feel good about your food and lodging money going to local people and a good cause rather than some faceless corporation or wealthy local puller of strings.

The Tourist Highway Project

The Tourist Highway Project is driving sustainable development and ecotourism along a 30-kilometer panoramic highway that links the popular beaches of the north coast with the scenic mountains and fertile valleys of the Dominican Republic’s interior.

This multi-faceted effort coincides with a regional competitiveness campaign supported by USAID, to re-start Puerto Plata’s economy —virtually exclusively based on tourism— after an alarming ten-year decline, and to re-brand the destination Puerto Plata in keeping with growing traveler demands for cultural and natural tourism attractions other than just sun and sand.

Along this country highway—at once a beautiful scenic mountain drive and an important link between the cities of Santiago and Puerto Plata—travelers can visit amber mines, an organic coffee-growing region and sugarcane plantations; purchase handicrafts and naturally grown produce, pasture-fed meats and dairy products from local farmers at their roadside stands, participate in community festivals; enjoy mountain hiking, cycling trails, river and waterfall trekking, cave exploring, horseback riding and zipline adventures.

The strategic location of this activity-rich scenic highway, at one end beginning just a few miles from Puerto Plata’s beach resorts— the other leading into the country’s second-largest city, Santiago, makes this a highly viable addition to the Dominican Republic’s tourism and travel menu.

Historically the only route linking Santiago and Puerto Plata cities, a new, faster highway was built in the 1970’s. This hilly, secondary road was forgotten until the mid-1990’s when it was rebuilt and branded “La Carretera Turística” by presidential decree and given protected status by the Ministry of Environment. With the opening of Santiago International Airport in the early 2000’s, it was again neglected and fell into disrepair.

In 2009, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) convened with the DR government to conduct a four-year industrial development project to develop rural tourism through private-public participation in Puerto Plata province (TURISOPP). During analysis, La Carretera Turistica was fingered as one of the key regional attractions in the nbsp;province. In 2011, a community-based organization was formed under TURISOPP’s guidance to function as a legally mandated interface between private and public stakeholders.

NGO participants, which are variably involved in initiatives addressing the issues of education, environment, health, governability and social enterprise, are united by the goal to stimulate local economy through helping highway communities develop and promote the many ecotourism features that lie along this route.

Projects –

  • Highway repair and preservation
  • The Eco Tourist Highway – self-guided route, signage and publication
  • Handicraft training and co-op stores
  • Highway photo stops
  • Regional zipline co-op
  • Caribbean Center for Ecotourism – training eco-guides and teachers
  • Sonador and other community aqueducts
  • Organic produce co-ops
  • School makeovers – improving the physical condition of rural schools
  • Coffee Reforestation in Pedro Garcia
  • Moringa Reforestation and education
  • Village beautification – preparing for tourism in rural villages / orientation and example-setting for community members
  • Educational support through day camps and after school programs
  • Eco-trail building
  • Fortification of community based organizations and private<>public sector participation

Participants & Stakeholders


  • Yasica City Council
  • Pedro Garcia City Council
  • Montellano City Council
  • Puerto Plata

Local GO’s & NGO’s

  • The Puerto Plata Tourism Cluster
  • Tubagua Residents Association
  • UMPC-MYP (Cultural Heritage Committee for Montellano, Yasica & Pedro Garcia)
  • INFOTEP (Professional Formation, Adult Education)
  • Ministry of Environment
  • Ministry of Tourism
  • Forestry Ministry
  • Ministry of Education

International GO’s & NGO’s

  • Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)
  • United States Peace Corps

Local Enterprise

  • Tubagua Plantation Eco Village
  • Yasika Zipline Adventures
  • Jasmine Spa
  • Aramis Yogurt

Voluntourism & Student Group Planners

  • Power Trips Inc.
  • International Student Volunteers
  • Por Amor

Universities & Education

  • Miami U (Ohio)
  • Centennial College (Toronto)
  • University of Maine








Rod & Sabine’s wedding / April 2011

Click here for the pictures

Nancy Illman’s picture show

Travel World features Tubagua


Fashionable South Coast Plaza shoots catalogue at Tubagua

South Coast Plaza, a designer mall in California, last year used Tubagua and the sugarcane plantation town of Montellano as a backdrop for their Spring catalogue. Back in California, it turns out that some socially sensitive Mercedes owners gave the mall some flack about flashing so much bling in front of poor people. But quite the opposite, the locals seemed to enjoy the pretty girls, the pretty clothes and SC Plaza’s ready generosity… Click here for pictures

Tubagua becomes a movie set for feature film ‘The Good Heart’

Veteran actor Brian Cox prepares for a scene in The Good Heart

Veteran actor Brian Cox prepares for a scene in ‘The Good Heart’

Last April, a feature film production chose Tubagua to shoot several Caribbean coffee plantation scenes. The crew, from Iceland, stayed at the ecolodge and turned the next door neighbors’ home into a movie set. Both the director, Dagur Kari and renowned actor Brian Cox immediately took our neighbor, Leida, an elegant yet shy woman with indigenous Taino Indian traits, who ended up replacing what the script called for, “a jolly Bahama Mama”, and courageously acted out a number of scenes. The screenplay won a Sundance Film Festival award in 2007 and premiered in 2009 at Toronto Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. Click here for pictures

Tubagua embraces National Geographic’s geotourism charter

In addition to adhering to the values of this international charter, Tubagua is lobbying Dominican Republic officials to become the first Caribbean country to  get on board

Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.

Geotourism incorporates the concept of sustainable tourism—that destinations should remain unspoiled for future generations—while allowing for ways to protect a place’s character. Geotourism also takes a principle from its ecotourism cousin,—that tourism revenue should promote conservation—and extends it to culture and history as well, that is, all distinctive assets of a place.

The Geotourism Charter: Governments and allied organizations that sign this statement of principles take a first step in adopting a geotourism strategy. Download the Geotourism Charter (PDF). After committing to a geotourism strategy, signatories then work with local communities to determine their geotourism goals.

What Is Sustainable Tourism?

Sustainable tourism, like a doctor’s code of ethics, means “First, do no harm.” It is the foundation for destination stewardship.

Sustainable tourism protects its product-the destination. It avoids the “loved to death” syndrome by anticipating development pressures and applying limits and management techniques that preserve natural habitats, heritage sites, scenic appeal, and local culture.

It conserves resources. Environmentally aware travelers patronize businesses that reduce pollution, waste, energy consumption, water usage, landscaping chemicals, and excessive nighttime lighting.

It respects local culture and tradition. Foreign visitors learn local etiquette, including at least a few courtesy words in the local language. Residents learn how to deal with foreign expectations that may differ from their own.

It aims for quality, not quantity. Destinations measure tourism success not just by numbers of visitors, but by length of stay, how they spend their money, and the quality of their experience.

What Is Geotourism?

Geotourism adds to sustainability principles by building on a destination’s geographical character, its “sense of place,” to emphasize the distinctiveness of its locale and benefit visitor and resident alike.

Geotourism is synergistic: All the elements of geographical character work together to create a tourist experience that is richer than the sum of its parts, appealing to visitors with diverse interests.

It involves the community. Local businesses and civic groups join to provide a distinctive, authentic visitor experience.

It informs both visitors and hosts. Residents discover their own heritage by learning that things they take for granted may be interesting to outsiders. As local people develop pride and skill in showing off their locale, tourists get more out of their visit.

It benefits residents economically. Travel businesses hire local workers, and use local services, products, and supplies. When community members understand the benefits of geotourism, they take responsibility for destination stewardship.

It supports integrity of place. Destination-savvy travelers seek out businesses that emphasize the character of the locale. In return, local stakeholders who receive economic benefits appreciate and protect the value of those assets.

It means great trips. Enthusiastic visitors bring home new knowledge. Their stories encourage friends and relatives to experience the same thing, which brings continuing business for the destination.

Visit the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations web site

See a summary of resources and programs for countries/destinations to work with

Popular web travel reporter visits

Voluntourism: Canadian kids do ‘extreme makeovers’ at Dominican Republic schools

There’s something about the Dominican Republic that’s hooked Judy Warrington.

In April, Warrington returned from her 18th trip to the impoverished Caribbean nation, which shares its island landmass with Haiti.

Dominican Republic may be a great spot for a vacation, but that hasn’t been its draw for Warrington.

“Despite the challenges of the rains, roads, lack of infrastructure, lack of hydro, running water, access to medical care, high costs, devaluing peso, they [the people there] still have a joy about them, a spirit about them, and a love of life. A happiness that really extends the warmest welcome to visitors,” she said glowingly.

“We teach our children not to speak to strangers. In the Dominican Republic, it’s the opposite.”

Warrington has always been interested in the service of others, which is why she founded Power Trips, a volunteer-run organization devoted to Dominican Republic’s development. She left her home in Oakville on Good Friday and stayed in the Dominican Republic for more than a month to lead two 14-day trips. The first one consisted of 80 people – 63 of which were students, and the rest, mostly teachers. The second trip attracted 30 participants from Strathscona-Tweedsmuir School in Calgary and Collingwood School in Vancouver.

It was the way the students preferred to spend their March Break.

“I considered coming on this project because I wanted to experience a challenge and make a change. I also felt like it was time to do something useful during my March Break instead of being a tourist in some country,” wrote student Andy Doyle in his assessment of the trip.

It’s a win-win situation.

When Warrington isn’t on the island, she is sending as much as she can in the way of school supplies and medical equipment. With the help of local schools, she’s sent two 40-foot containers. Nothing is too big (or too small)- Warrington will even accept teacher’s desks.

Warrington was introduced to international service opportunities at Appleby College, a member school of the Round Square. Round Square is an organization that leads students on the path to self discovery in ways that extend beyond the walls of the classroom. Warrington went on to lead students on trips to Hungary, Kenya, South Africa and Costa Rica.

In 2004, she created Power Trips as a legal entity. She says she chose Dominican Republic because of its closeness, and “the fact that it has as much poverty in some areas as I know there is in Africa.”

“What differentiates us from many other organizations is our interest in empowerment. We don’t want to create dependency on us,” she said.

“We do service that is smart, sensible, and sensible to the local community and its needs, that is going to lead to self-sustainability.”

Warrington is partnered with the Rotary Club of Oakville, as well as local organizations.

“They act as our guides, friends, direct line.”

During her last visit, the teams worked on four extreme school makeovers, including a women’s training centre, which entailed purchasing material locally, renovations, installing security bars and roofs, fixing “banyos” (bathrooms), making blackboards, shelving, painting, decorating, and hiring people to pour concrete floors. Sounds tiring, yes, but for Warrington, a retired teacher, it’s a typical day in the life.

With classes still running in March in the Dominican Republic, she and her volunteers ran tutorials for the children, and created safe children’s play areas – mud playgrounds was all they had.

She also partnered with two leading childcare health providers – The Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI) and The National Council for Children and Adolescents (CONANI) – to run health clinics. Dominicans were given free medicine, and thousands of toothbrushes and toothpaste were handed out. There was HIV testing, and workshops on the environment, garbage (a problem there) and sexual disease. An eye clinic was set up to identify children with clinical needs, and eyeglasses were distributed.

Dominicans were also given thousands of used soccer balls and uniforms.

Warrington was a teacher for 35 years, mostly in Halton and Peel. She’s taught at elementary school, secondary school, and a commercial re-training program at Sheridan College.

She’s been married for 43 years, and says she’s always been comfortable and privileged.

Her husband, an accountant with his own business, is also involved in her pursuits. He participated in the August project. Her daughter-in-law teaches at the University of Calgary and is hoping to develop a professional education program in the Dominican Republic, in conjunction with the University of Calgary.

Her projects have been a success with students, who accompany her on the trips. They visited a cigar factory, hospital, seniors’ centre, deaf children’s school, clinic and Mirabal Museum, and walked with a refreshed outlook on life.

Warrington no longer stays in hotels with her volunteers. The students weren’t comfortable in the kind of accommodation hotels provide.

“It didn’t fit,” said Warrington. Instead, they stayed at a retreat centre with basic and rustic lodgings. The views, however, were incredible – it’s located on the top of a mountain between Puerto Plata and Sosua.

Local cooks prepared Dominican cuisine during the trip.

“We are very careful about what we eat,” said Warrington.

Perhaps the only complaint the students really had in their evaluations was there weren’t enough vegetables.

Besides that, they walked away with a refreshed outlook on life.

“After this trip, I have a much greater appreciation for how much a small action can affect someone so much. I will also be much more willing to live in the moment and “go with the flow.” I have a feeling that these lessons will stay with me forever,” wrote Elizabeth Watt from St. Clement’s School.


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