In the past few weeks I have written several articles about the daily madness on the Dominican streets. If you want to get around in Dominican road traffic, you really have to expect everything at all times. Sometimes a horde of wild cows skulks along the road, then the streets flood in no time after half an hour of rain and in other scenarios a tipsy biking ghost driver rattles through the area with a bottle of hard liquor in his hand. Action is always guaranteed in the Dominican Republic.
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Now, not all travelers want to take on have these risks while on vacation. It is much more convenient to let others drive. But is it really safer? Cheaper? More quickly? More reliable? In this article I would like to describe how a traveler can best move around the Dominican Republic without having to drive. And what strange peculiarities Dominican road traffic has to offer.
Major cities in the Dominican Republic lure travelers with many historical and cultural sights as well as with culinary specialties. Since the interesting city centers are usually within walking distance, you don’t need a rental car for these days and can explore the cities in other ways.
Because the country has become famous for mass tourism, there are many national travel destinations outside of the hermetically sealed all-inclusive resorts in Punta Cana that are less known and seldom traveled. All of these exciting places are scattered across the island and are worth a visit. If you want to see the most beautiful areas with the most exciting travel destinations, then you should spend around 10-18 days for the whole experience. But that is hardly possible without a ride.
The safest option: A private chauffeur
The safest option would of course be a private chauffeur takes over the nerve-wracking task. So you would be fine yourself and can relax comfortably on the back seat. You don’t have to worry about anything and let yourself be driven through the Caribbean. The driver has local knowledge or even knows the entire route – and if not, the navigation system often helps with the winding architectural masterpieces in the Dominican Republic.
However, most of the drivers of these driving services lack language skills. If you don’t speak Spanish (and Dominican Spanish is the purest gibberish among Latin American dialects), the driver will usually not be able to offer you any understandable English. The job as a driver in the Dominican Republic does not require any foreign language skills and you have a very rudimentary command of English.
A private driver has many advantages and is of course only really possible with a few holiday budgets and at some point it is quite expensive.
The tourist option: Inner-city rental companies
Or simply experience ‘Slow Tourism’ live and in color and check out everything. Most cities in the Dominican Republic have some private ‘Rent-A’ agencies where bicycles, scooters or other means of transport can be rented cheaply per hour. For a small surcharge, you can of course take a guided tour to learn as much as possible about the sights.
For ecologically conscious travelers it should be said that the most modern electronic means of transport are already available in many cities. Of course, it looks a bit stupid with the helmet on if on the other hand not even any motorcyclist with the requirement to wear a helmet. But better safe than sorry.
Like that you’ll experience a lot more of the daily happenings on the Dominican streets and see things with different eyes. And some city centers, like the one in Puerto Plata in the pictures above, are definitely worth a visit!
The most rumbly option: Guaguas in the Dominican Republic
As in many other Latin American countries, there is also the possibility of a bus transport. In the Dominican Republic they are called ‘Guaguas’. These are Dominican bus operators who offer short and long transport routes.
Imagine some kind of shared taxis that are similar to a regular bus service that cover the same routes day in and day out. Mostly equipped with a loud roaring brute on the sliding door to recruit new passengers. These minibuses have up to eight seats on board. But don’t be surprised if twice the number of passengers squeeze in there. Those who cannot find a seat stand or kneel while driving.
Every bus in the Dominican Republic is a Guagua. Both urban and long distance buses. I also used the Guaguas a few times to get around the cities of the Dominican Republic. For these purposes, the buses are of course larger than the rocking tin cans on the urban asphalt.
However, the service around these bus trips is a disaster, information about routes, prices and timetables are difficult to understand or not transparent at all and a lot of time is lost on the creeping journey. I would only recommend traveling by Guaguas for long distances in the Dominican Republic to all those individual tourists who have a limited budget and still want to experience an authentic adventure.
Why are the Dominican buses called Guagua in Spanish?
I also asked myself where this extraordinary and infantile name came from. Of course, this strange word doesn’t have its origin in the Dominican Republic, but is one of the many misinterpretations by Latinos. In this example, ‘Guagua’ is said to have originated in Cuba as a new word.
The former transporting vehicles were simply called ‘wagon’ in antique English. Unfortunately, the Cubans could not pronounce this word correctly and so ‘Guagón’ was interpreted for this ancient means of transport. Cuba is not far away and a neighboring island in the Caribbean. Of course, at some point the term spilled over to the Dominican Republic.
A few generations later, all you heard was ‘guagua’. I’m curious to see how the bus as a means of transport will develop phonetically in the future. And from the perspective of passenger safety.
Here is a quote about the public buses in Santo Domingo:
“Urban public transport in Greater Santo Domingo is one of the worst in Latin America and can only be compared to some of the poorest countries in Africa. Chaos predominates in the streets and logjams in avenues because of the large number of private cars; Public transport is mostly carried out on buses and cars in unsuitable conditions.”Public Transport and Urban Mobility in Greater Santo Domingo: Challenges of a Social Policy for Inclusion and Equity (2017)
If you want to escape these uncomfortable conditions, you can try private chauffeur services. For short trips within cities, there have also been transport services such as UBER in the Dominican Republic already for a couple of years.
UBER in the Dominican Republic
For day trips I would not recommend renting a car from a local provider. Round trips with rental cars are only worthwhile from a cost perspective after several days of rental. And who wants to sign a tricky contract in twisted technical Spanish while on vacation?
For this purpose it makes a lot more sense to either join a guided group tour or hire a private driver for a day. And online intermediaries such as Uber and Cabify are also expanding their services in many Dominican cities and regions and are simplifying this idea.
However, I had already had some strange experiences in Santo Domingo with UBER:
I can assure you that I have not manipulated these screenshots with Photoshop. The UBER driver drove these zigzag courses through the streets with me on board. Please do not ask any questions about how something like this can even be possible. Unfortunately I have no answer to that.
However, one of the clear advantages is the price per ride for the city trip. You can also pay electronically before you start your journey and you won’t be ripped off by a windy taxi driver. In contrast to trips with UBER in Europe or the United States, the prices in the Dominican Republic are much lower thanks to the higher availabilities of the driving services.
These passenger transport services (like all other delivery services) in cities are a big disadvantage for the entire traffic flow. Anyone can register to these apps as a supplier or chauffeur and as a traveler you contribute of course to the urban congestion of the streets. Not to forget air pollution, noise, etc. But these driving services are much more suitable for day trips in the cities anyway.
The most uncomfortable option: Carro Público
In a previous article I described motorcyclists in the Dominican Republic as ‘ticking time bombs’ on the road, but there is another mode of transport that has a similar bang.
In addition to motorcyclists, the ‘Carros Públicos’ are one of the worst and most criminal species that roam on Dominican streets day in and day out.
What does the word Carro Público mean?
This time it’s a little easier to translate. A Latino has not misheard or misinterpreted an English term, nor has a term been defaced beyond recognition.
A Carro Público means “public car” in English. The term is less about the provider, it is not financed from public funds. Much more, the services of a Carro Público are offered to the public.
That, in turn, can be taken literally. The load on these cars is so strained that almost the entire public is accommodated in them. But it’s not a taxi either. You don’t call Carros Públicos, these vehicles drive the same route up and down the whole day in search of passengers. Of course, this always happens on the side of the sidewalk, where passengers can be better forklifted. It is not uncommon for this to create a bitter competition and dangerous traffic scenarios at the expense of other road users.
They stop everywhere and let people get on and off where it seems to be best. This creates a dangerous domino effect to the rear if all other participants in traffic also have to brake or swerve abruptly. Not for the faint of heart – Use of such transportation for travelers is at your own risk. And only recommended for adrenaline junkies who really have nothing to lose!
Carros Públicos are the ancient precursors of privatized buses in road transport – only as a car. However, same level of density and discomfort.
These ‘Carros Públicos’ aim for maximum yield with the least possible comfort and safety for the passenger. It can happen that up to 10 passengers squeeze into a single car because they all want to drive in the same direction and want to spend the least fare possible.
The only reason why this outdated form of transport still wobbles through the Dominican streets is the long tradition of the Carros Públicos. They have a very strong and influential union and they have literally been there forever. Before there was a similar service with even larger vehicles for transportation, these cars were already rolling through the streets of Santo Domingo.
It is therefore a very complicated undertaking to be able to simply cut away this traditional profession for the common good and road safety. As soon as there is any effort to reduce the radius of these rolling hearses by politics and government, there are protests and blockades. And the drivers of the Carros Públicos react just as indignantly and roughly outside their cockpit as they do while driving.
The most life-threatening variant: Motoconchos
Motorcyclists also transport passengers through the streets. If you are not afraid of anything, you can take a ride in a so-called ‘Motoconcho’ in a busy city. You will sit in the back seat of the motorcycle and be driven around for a ridiculous low price.
In my last article I wrote that motorcyclists are responsible for 67% of all road accidents in the Dominican Republic. Motoconchos play their part and behave just as ruthlessly and aggressively as all other motorcyclists on the island.
However, they are real devils. Motoconchos are often hired for very ordinary transport purposes. Whenever any item for the household needs to be transported, motoconchos are the cheaper choice compared to other providers.
Overtaking on the right, pushing other road users aside and constantly coercing and using even the smallest gap at a red light for your own benefit… Motoconchos do pretty much anything that is not allowed on the road. But who cares about the traffic rules in the Dominican Republic?
And why this extraordinary name? Why do the Dominicans call their two-wheeled vehicles ‘motoconchos’?
What means Motoconcho in English
Similar to the ‘Guagua’ before, the ‘Motoconcho’ is a term that does not appear in all Spanish vocabularies. In this case it is exclusively Dominican slang.
Translated from Spanish, ‘concho’ means shell. A word that we all associate with a very robust and protective body. What an irony, especially this means of transport is oftenly patched together and the first to crash in an accident. A ‘Motoconcho’ has nothing in common with that.
But where does this word come from? There are two different etymologies for this term.
Motoconcho is a portmanteau
According to the first explanation of this word, it is again a kind of misunderstanding, or interrogator from another language.
Rather, Motoconcho is a portmanteau. Moto – con – cho was originally a ‘Moto con Chauffeur’ – in other words, nothing more than a motorcycle with a chauffeur. Just shortened in order to highlight the offered service more briefly and clearly.
And because the French employment as a chauffeur has its origins with locomotives, a chauffeur is nothing more than a stoker who shovels the coals into the fire to accelerate the locomotive. In the best tradition, the motoconchos still heat up the streets of the Dominican Republic today and produce as much smoke from their exhausts as an antique locomotive.
Motoconcho has a historical background
The word Motoconcho has its roots in an old illustration of the ‘Concho Primo‘, which first appeared in 1844. A figure was invented for military propaganda purposes that was used in the Dominican Restoration War between 1863 and 1865 to create politics against the Spaniards.
A century later, the figure of Concho Primo was used for advertising purposes. The first Chevrolets were imported from the USA and fixed routes were planned for the first time. The ‘Concho Primo’ represented the typical Dominican who likes to drive such a car. Later all vehicles for urban transport were called “concho” and the verb “conchar” was Dominicanized.
The Dominican road traffic has many peculiarities and crude systems to offer that seem completely alien and impossible in other cultures. Everywhere there is rumbling and honking and squeaking and clinking on the Dominican streets. Having seen it with your own eyes is one thing. A completely different thing, however, is to participate in road traffic yourself. These peculiarities in Dominican road traffic also reflect the somewhat chaotic culture of the Dominican Republic somewhere. But you get used sooner or later.