Most CIEE HSSA programs have a 1-2 day overnight trip, and this past weekend, we had ours. In addition to being a nurturing, relaxing, and relationship-building experience, every activity that we had was related to the theme of our specific program: Eco-Solutions to Empower Communities. It was also a trip of many firsts, for both CIEE participants and the program leaders. Here are a few highlights.
We left Santiago de los Caballeros for Punta Rusia on Friday with a bus full of snacks, tents, and overstuffed backpacks. Punta Rusia is a village Northeast of Santiago where the eco-tourism industry thrives, and where many people, Dominican and foreigners alike, make their living catering to local and international tourists who want to appreciate the Dominican Republic’s natural landscapes with limited impact on the environment. We arrived at the Manatee Bay Hotel and Campsite around 6pm and headed to the small beach area where we started setting up our tents.
Getting the tents up was definitely an experience, partly because the wind decided to pick up right when we started, and partly because it was the first time some of the folks in our group would be camping, and thus the first time they put together a tent. The initial struggle was worth it though, and forced us to be patient, rely on each other and enabled those in the group with prior experience to step up. After a well-deserved meal and dance party, Carlos and the campsite staff made a huge bonfire on the beach. Some students ran after the ashes trying to catch them before they hit the ground, others sat in the sand, singing along to the music playing from the speaker. The near full moon and starry sky complimented the light emanating from the bonfire; the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the isolation of the campsite encapsulated us in a safe and serene bubble for the night.
We woke up bright and early the next day and headed to the Cayo Arena beach, a small natural sandbar located a thirty-minute boat ride away from shore. As we made our way there, we could see the ocean water change colors from deep blue to turquoise in areas where the water was shallower. In the distance, we saw what looked like rocks or houses floating in the middle of the ocean, but were in reality the small bodega-like structure on Cayo Arena where tourists could put their belongings and pick at some fruit.
The structures sat on a sort of sand mound, which dipped downwards to make way for a small and beautiful reef. One of the best parts of this whole experience was going snorkeling and being able to explore the reef without disturbing the coral or the fish. There were hundreds of fish of different shapes, sizes, and colors, swimming just feet away from the humans hanging out on the sand bar.
When it was time to leave, our captain (of the very small motorboat) made a detour so we could visit the mangrove tree forest which grows in the saltwater. Mangrove trees are a protected species indigenous to the Dominican Republic and are rich habitat for many types of birds, fish, and other animals. Our captain deftly navigated the sharp twists and turns of the mangrove forest, before we finally headed back to shore.