The tourist trade is the bread and butter of Punta Cana’s economy in the Dominican, and the vacation landscape in this region is changing.
Two luxury resorts, where I stayed, are the Paradisus Palma Real, a boutique-style hotel with a Royal Service upgrade, and the newly renovated Paradisus Punta Cana, described as a resort within a garden. Both are owned by Spain-based Melia Hotels International and both offer an up-scale service and food experience only recently associated with the Dominican Republic, once the playground for economical all-inclusive party holidays.
The Palma Real’s Royal Service, for example, includes access to adult-only lounges, pools, beach section, a butler accessible by hotel-provided cell phone, and gourmet restaurants in addition to the traditional all-day buffets.
These resorts, however, are fantasy playgrounds for visitors, and far from the realities of the rest of the country. To experience some authenticity, you have to leave the gates of the resort. What better way than via horseback?
Finding a riding stable that cares well for the horses is important to most travelers, especially equine enthusiasts. Horses in the rural Dominican are functional and often necessary for transportation (some people’s only source) and farm work.
At HorsePlay Punta Cana horses get hay, grain and vet care, unlike many of their neighbours, and a salt lick. The property is owned by Jose Castillo, a former jockey who spent years living in Mississauga, Ontario working at Woodbine Racetrack.
Jose returned home to turn the family property into a cattle farm and trail riding businesses servicing the growing tourist population along the Punta Cana coast. He points to where the houses of his father, grandmother and uncle once stood, now forest and horse pasture. His backyard gardens produce coffee beans, chocolate and cinnamon that are part of some tours here. Pigs and chickens roam freely and for tourist fun, they’ve added a zip line over the river that flows through the property and a picnic area where authentic Dominican lunches are served after the ride.
Canadian investors Kathy and Tony Buttigieg joined Jose three years ago when the duo were looking for an investment which would take them to warmer climates during the winter months. For 15 years, Kathy and Tony have owned HorsePlay Niagara, near Welland, Ontario, a riding stable of about 40 horses specializing in saddling-up western-style and taking visitors through parts of the Niagara Escarpment.
Once they invested in Castillo’s business, and rebranded it ‘HorsePlay Punta Cana,’ the number of horses at the Dominican barn increased from eight to 30. They stocked their herd with horse from the surrounding countryside, and work the animals in cycles.
The horses used are Higueyano, a special breed of ‘country horse’ that’s evolved to tolerate the climate and hard working conditions.
“All mammals that live closer to the equator tend to be smaller to dispense heat,” says Kathy Butigieg, the day I interviewed her about both HorsePlay experiences, “and these horses have no extra body fat, narrow chests and protruding hips.”
So they look underfed compared to North American pets, and that’s something to consider when judging the farms from the roadside.
These horse do spend their days under saddle, grazing under trees, and drinking out of the river when the take tourists – most with no idea what they’re in for – along the same route, about three or four times a day. If you do only one excursion while in Punta Cana, save half a day for this one because it’s unlike anything you’ll experience on the resort.