If you’ve been to Punta Cana and have stayed only at resorts for a few days without venturing out, you should return to experience all that Punta Cana has to offer outside of the resorts. We recently spent two weeks there the “local way”. While the trip was mainly for vacation, we also arranged an appointment with a realtor, as we’re considering Punta Cana as our first early retirement living destination.
To explore Punta Cana properly, we felt the need to immerse ourselves in the the local atmosphere. We rented a car (yes we did, and we both drove Dominican style!), stayed in a few condos, visited many beaches, shopped at the local grocery stores and the large supermarkets, and checked out the nightlife. After exploring Punta Cana, we can now safely say that it’s a great option for us to start our early retirement in, as it has a lot to offer for a young married couple like us.
Punta Cana is a paradise at a very affordable price when you compare it to what you get in other beach destinations, like Miami or the Jersey Shore. It’s not as cheap as moving to a more undeveloped Latin American country, but you’re also not in the middle of nowhere. And yes, you might encounter a dog, a pedestrian with a child, or a motorbike trying to cross the highway as you drive at a high speed, but at least it’s a paved highway!
Once we retire, our needs will be very different from a traditional retiree for several reasons. One, we’ll still be pretty young and are looking for a spot where we can have fun, go dancing, spend early evenings walking by the shore, and still be able to get away from the crowds. Two, we’re planning on having children and although home-schooling might be the way for us to go, Punta Cana has great options for private international schools. Three, it’s a great place for our children to socialize, while learning about their Dominican heritage right in the motherland. Four, there’s a lot of diversity in the area due to the mixture of locals, as well as foreigners that have made DR their home, and it’s reflected across the board: schools, restaurants, entertainment, etc.
A little history on Punta Cana
Punta Cana is part of the Punta Cana-Bávaro-Veron-Macao municipal district, in the municipality of Higüey, in La Altagracia Province, the easternmost province of the Dominican Republic. The area has beaches which face both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and it has been a popular tourist destination since the 1970s. You can click here for more about its history.
Getting to Punta Cana
As early retirees, we plan to be traveling a lot more than now, so living in a key location close to at least one major international airport is a big plus. Punta Cana has one international airport and this airport is the best connected airport in the Caribbean. The living locations we are interested in are within a 25 min distance from this airport.
There’s also another international airport, in La Romana, that is about 45 mins away from the one in Punta Cana. If that’s not enough points of exit, you can drive for two and a half hour to the city of Santo Domingo and fly from there as well. Three airports give us more flexibility with flight departures and discounts.
For this trip we found a great deal for direct flights from Philadelphia with Frontier Airlines to Punta Cana. The seats on the Frontier plane are not very comfortable, but we’re always willing to make it work for the right price, and it’s only about a four-hour flight. After we arrived, we were greeted by the local airport band that plays merengue tipico, the traditional Dominican music. These folks can get you going!
We reserved a car with Alamo. We decided to rent it during our whole stay because 1) it would cost around $30 to get a ride to our condo one way alone, so it’s a sure way to avoid airport transportation cost, 2) we figured renting the car by the week was more economical, and 3) we were going to be out and about most of the days exploring the area.
We were happy to feel the warm temperature and headed straight to the rental area after we picked up our luggage. Unfortunately, the car wasn’t ready. They offered us an upgrade to a gas guzzler, a pick up truck with a double cabin, but we didn’t want the hassle of driving a huge truck around and waste resources unnecessarily. So, we waited an extra half hour to get the compact car we reserved.
Joselito, the customer service rep, was really nice and quoted us on the spot a cheaper price than we reserved. We’re not sure how they computed a lower price, but we weren’t going to get upset over that. We also asked them, in Dominican negotiating language, to waive the additional driver fee and they complied. The rental cost came out to $30 per day. By the time we got the car, we were starved, couldn’t wait to drop off the luggage at the first condo, and hit a local stand for a late lunch.
Tip: If you decide to visit Punta Cana and want to stay at a condo without having to drive a car, you can rent one that is close to all amenities in the Cortecito and Los Corales area. These are the closest areas to all beaches, restaurants and a supermarket. Even though we drove around, we felt relaxed and at home.
Our first DR meal during this trip!
After we dropped off our luggage, we headed out and hit up a local place. We wanted real Dominican food, so who do you ask for that kind of food? The locals! We ventured out and found the restaurant Delicias de Bavaro, located in Plaza Punta Cana. For $18.03 we got a serving of grilled chicken breasts with tostones (fried plaintains), a salad with avocados, yuca balls and two large ice cold Presidents, or novias (brides) as Dominicans call them, because they come dressed in a ice glaze that makes them look like they’re wearing a white dress. The flavorful meal totally hit the spot, we got nice and tipsy on the novias, and we were officially on island time from then on!
After finishing our meal and becoming human again, we started to appreciate our surroundings, walked around the area and even found some hot, sexy art.
Prior to buying the flights, we already knew we wanted stay in condos to have a local experience. A few of our friends decided to join us for the first weekend, but they stayed at an all-inclusive. We thought about joining them at the resort for a few nights, but the prices at most Punta Cana resorts were outrageous during that time (Valentine’s Day Weekend). It would have cost us at least $300 a night for the two of us to stay with them. So we skipped it and joined them on a few activities outside of the resort. They stayed at the Paradisus and since they were only going to be there for four nights, we rented a condo nearby for the same timeframe, and then rented another cheaper one for the next 10 nights, 20 min southwest.
White Sands Residential (our first stay)
We first stayed in a condo in the Karibo Complex via Airbnb. This place was a 15-20-minute walk to the beach or a 5-minute drive. The jacuzzi on the porch was a plus. The complex is conveniently located between Cortecito and Arena Blanca beaches.
The apartment had some interesting art throughout. This one was Mrs. Enchumbao’s favorite.
After our four-night stay in the White Sandals Residentials, we drove southwest to Veron, where Serena Village is located. While the location is not ideal for beachgoers without a rental it worked out great for us. Most local beaches were 15-20 minutes away, there was a security guard at the gate, and while the furniture in this condo wasn’t as comfy, it was a great deal for $26 less per night than the first condo, closer to the beach.
We also got a chance to cook some awesome meals
Our slow travel pace allowed us to cook healthy meals. Groceries are very affordable in the DR, at least for people that get paid in dollars. Although we didn’t pay 2 cents per lime like Justin, from Root of Good, did in Mexico, we ended up paying about $6 for the groceries pictured below.
We also visited my parents in Santiago for a couple of days and brought back about 2 lbs of beans, from their farms, which required some fun manual labor. Have you peeled beans before? These are the moments that we enjoy during vacation down time. After peeling, we boil them for about two hours and then finish them with Dominican season (seasoning) and tomato paste.
And… the finished product!
This little detour to visit our family was entertaining and made us grateful to have survived the journey. Driving from Punta Cana to Santiago can get extremely exciting when you have to drive through Santo Domingo to get there. The crazy city drivers and the high traffic can make for a very stressful experience. We were told that there’s another way to avoid passing through the city and we’ll definitely try it next time. As I learned two weeks later though, the risk was totally worth seeing my mom again, which turned out to be the last time.
Since we’re considering Punta Cana for our first early retirement destination, we wanted to visit as many of the beaches as possible. Many of them boast clean white or golden yellow sands.
The following Punta Cana beaches’ descriptions go from north to south. As you head down, the sand tends to get whiter. Water temperatures reach a winter low in the upper 70s and go to a summer high in the upper 80s. It’s perfect beach weather all year round! We visited a total of seven beaches.
A very virgin beach, as there are no hotels along the water, about 20 minutes north driving from White Sands/Cortecito Beach. It’s known for local fresh-caught fish, which you get grilled or fried at two of the restaurants. You can pick the fish from a cooler, pay per pound, and it comes with a bunch of sides. We ate at El Morro, which is further away when you first arrive, because they gave us better price per pound and they offer more sides. The Mrs. Enchumbao-negotiated price: 400 DR pesos, which is under $10 per pound. The meal you see below cost us about $15 plus beer. However, you can bring your own cooler for drinks, as we learned. You can also rent the lounge chairs and umbrellas, but make sure you pay no more than 50% of the asking price.
Playa Arena Blanca
This was the closest beach to our condo in White Sands. It bleeds into the resort beach properties nearby and wasn’t anything special. We just went for a walk along the beach and went home.
For the record, this isn’t exactly a beach to lay out in. There is little dry sand, as the water comes up to nearby restaurants and shops, so it’s more of a walk-through beach, unless you go further south.
This is where you get more dry sand and can enjoy laying out longer. Many restaurants offer free lounge chairs or hammocks if you buy a drink/snack from them.
We spent some time at the Jellyfish restaurant and beach, where you get to chill on nice beach beds, as long as you order something. Could be a budget-friendly drink or two, no one will try to get you out. This is the DR way. 🙂
This ended up being our favorite beach. It’s gorgeous, has nice lounge chairs (no charge and they don’t make you even buy drinks/snacks), and is great for walking to nearby gorgeous beaches. It’s located inside the Punta Cana Resorts community, which means you have to stop by the information center at the entrance, provide your license plate and ID, and get a visitors pass for the day. This reduces the amount of traffic you get in this area, and the best part is that you won’t have any local vendors bugging you to buy goods or excursions. The restaurants that provides the seating arrangements has nice, but pricey food, so pack your snacks.
Similarly to Playa Blanca, this beach is inside a private community, in this case of Cap Cana. You’ll need to get a day pass, but everything else is free. Little John’s restaurant has complimentary lounge chairs for customers, and they had the best mojitos we tried all around, especially, the chinola one (passion fruit)!
Indulging and savoring
Restaurants we tried and really liked….
A vegan restaurant was a pleasant surprise, since DR is big on meat and fish. The ambience, drinks and service were phenomenal. The food lacked a bit of flavor for our taste buds and the portions were extremely small considering the high price, but overall, we still had an enjoyable experience. Just be sure to bring cash, so you can save on the tax. We literally paid the price for not having enough cash that night.
We tried some appetizers and drinks and were happy all around. They weren’t cheap, but since they don’t charge for beach beds at this place, we felt the overall experience was worth it.
A nice neighborhood gem we stumbled upon when leaving Corales beach. We got some breakfast burritos there. Reasonable prices and very flavorful food.
This is an outside shack at Macao Beach that I mentioned earlier. If you haven’t had a fried fish meal from Macao Beach, you haven’t been to Punta Cana, period.
Mrs. Enchumbao got me into Indian food when we met, so this was a pleasant surprise. The drinks, food and service were amazing, and we can’t wait to go back to DR for Indian food. Who would have thought!
Zen Restaurant & Lounge
A nice asian fusion option in Punta Cana village, which is a essentially a plaza with restaurants, bars and shops near a private community. The food and house sangria were yum!
Dancing the night away
We love dancing, and were so glad to find so many amazing entertaiment options in Punta Cana.
Located in Punta Cana Downtown (essentially, a big plaza for fun stuff), this place is in a category of its own: Vegas show meets club, meets your bachelor/bachelorette party. Bottom line: a damn good time.
Imagine Night Club
Ever been inside a cave to party? Here is a way to do this without the bats. Imagine is a cool venue that resembles a cave on the inside. The cover is steep ($20 USD to enter, $30 USD for open bar), however, it was worth checking it out. You also get a complementary drink with the $20 cover charge.
Jewel Night Club
The ambience of this nightclub is very chic. The entrance is $10 USD, which isn’t bad, and it’s located in a shopping mall, so parking is free. We were the first ones to show up so we got in for free! I should mentioned that all of the clubs we’ve been too have free parking – a nice plus.
Other places to visit
Cap Cana is where the wealthiest of Punta Cana reside. We made it there on our last night, so we didn’t get a chance to explore all it has to offer. We were told that there’s a great spot there for concerts, so we’ve made a mental note for next time.
Punta Cana Village
Punta Cana Village is like the suburbs of the DR. The community consists of expensive homes, mostly one-family homes that start around $300,000. It’s not cheap. The entire area is in a gated community, but you can freely walk around after parking in the shopping plaza.
Overall, Punta Cana was very safe when compared to the rest of DR. You see foreigners walking around late at night. That being said, you should always use your judgment. Don’t flash your newest phone around or fancy jewelry. We felt safe through out the trip, but we never carry what we aren’t willing to give up either.
Our 2 week vacation cost
When we travel abroad, we try to pay with either one of our credit cards that charges no transaction fees or with the local currency from that country to negotiate a better local rate. Of course, after we return we tally up our cash transactions and enter them in Mint. Buying in another currency is not an excuse for us not to track our spending, so no matter where we go, we always track our spending. The spending chart below captures our costs for transportation, lodging, dining and entertainment during the two-week trip.
|Flights||$650||Two roundtrip direct flights from Philadelphia to Punta . We only checked in one bag since Frontier charges for each checked-in bag or carry on.|
|Visa||$10||DR visa for Mrs. Enchumbao.|
|Groceries||$78||We don’t count groceries as a travel cost since we have to eat no matter where we are, but we like to show it to easily compare with U.S. costs.|
|Restaurants||$410||We ate out at least once a day on average to try as many local places as possible. This cost doesn’t include alcohol.|
(White Sands Residential)
|$307||Cost included wifi. Average cost per night: $77|
|Electricity||$20||Cost for apartment 1. Many condos charge for electricity separately, since it’s very pricey. This encourages tenants to be mindful.|
|Apartment 2||$515||We rented the 2nd condo for the last 10 nights in Veron, which was about a 20-minute drive from the beaches. Cost included wifi and electricity. Average cost per night: $52|
|Car rental||$420||Cost per day: $30. We didn’t buy full coverage insurance, since our credit card provided it.|
|Entertainment||$152||Includes entrances to two night clubs and one visit to Coco Bongo for two.|
|Total||$2,562||One definitely can’t get two weeks at the Jersey shore for that price including all of the above! Vacation rentals at the Jersey shore run for $2,000 a week and obviously, there’s no comparison between the cloudy Jersey beaches and the Caribbean beaches.|
So, we had a blast, confirmed that we could totally live in DR, and tried some of the best food and entertainment that the DR has to offer. Of course, there are other factors that we’ve been researching as well as far as the economical situation of the country, political stability, cost of living, taxes and health care. We’ll talk about those in future posts. For now, we can’t wait to go back and visit again “local style”. Now that we have discovered this way of traveling to the DR, we doubt we’d go back to the resort scene, unless we get a heck of a deal.