I’m back, Fellow Travelers! I’ve got gallons and gallons of info to share about my Fathom cruise to the Dominican Republic. There’s too much for one blog post, so this one just covers the aspects of the cruise I mentioned in my pre-cruise expectations. (Haven’t seen my pre-cruise expectations? Check them out here.)
I know some of you are hardcore skimmers, so I don’t want you to miss this: I LOVED IT! It’s still a new company with some kinks to work out, but overall this cruise was more fantastic and more life-changing than I had hoped. Just like last time though, I’m going to start with the not-as-good so when you finish the blog post you don’t feel put-off.
The Off-Board Activities
I had had mediocre expectations for my off-board activities. I thought the shore excursions didn’t sound great (too many cabanas), and I was concerned the impact activities (the volunteering we did onshore), while they might be fun, wouldn’t quite have the impact they promised. I’ll talk about my shore excursion here and go into my impact activities later on in the post because I have so much to say!
I only did one shore excursion: “The Top Ten of Puerto Plata.” Here’s a description of part of the tour found on Fathom’s website: “On the panoramic bus tour you’ll see the Cable Cars at Mount Isabel, Jose Briseno Baseball Stadium and the Gregorio Luperon Museum.” Travel agent tip: “see/view” does not mean “visit”—it literally means you will see it as you press your crestfallen face up against the window of your tour bus driving away.
Riding the cable cars was the only reason I went on this tour, and as far as I could tell, we didn’t even drive by the Gregorio Luperon Museum. However, we did get to visit a rum distillery and the amber museum. Visiting the main square was nice, but overall the tour was not as advertised, and frankly, I was pretty disappointed.
I would not recommend doing this tour—I paid $40. If you want to take a better tour of Puerto Plata (for example: go on the Cable Cars and visit the waterfalls and go to the beach) you can hire a taxi for a flat fee of $50, and they’ll stay with you the entire day you’re in Puerto Plata. (The $50 is per taxi, not per person, so you could get it even cheaper than the price of a tour if you split the cost among friends!)
(This is just a friendly reminder that I did, in fact, love the cruise—just not that tour.)
Amber Cove—the port—is not exclusively used by Fathom, so it wasn’t exactly fair of me to expect the port to be more “authentic” than other Caribbean ports. In fact, the Carnival Conquest visited for a few hours while we were docked. Since other ships use it, it’s a typical, Disney-esque port, but it is shiny, new, and clean, so there’s not much else you can ask out of it. Basically a compound, security is very tight getting in and out, but as long as you carry your cruise card, it won’t be a problem for you.
Not all parts of the port were saccharine facades of Caribbean life. One of my favorite parts was Fathom’s Impact Center. I attended a workshop about local artisans who were turning higueros, useless, smelly tree fruits, into beautiful pieces of art. You can watch a video (only in Spanish, sorry) below.
All right, we’ve gotten through “the bad”—onto the good (also known as, “Reasons You Should Drop Everything and Go On A Fathom Cruise”)!!
The Impact Activities
I participated in three impact activities: the chocolate co-op, the recycled paper co-op, & reforestation.
The chocolate co-op (Chocal) was fabulous and a great introduction to Fathom’s impact activities! We boarded a bus (very well air-conditioned) that took us to Altamira, where Chocal is located. I was tired, and had planned on resting my eyes for the duration of the trip to Chocal, but the landscape was too stunning! I saw all sorts of tropical foliage—we even stopped to get pictures of cacao trees.
A striking bit of our journey involved seeing all of the poverty around us. We saw houses—much, much smaller than we’re used to—falling apart, chickens and dogs wandering down the roads, very few cars. But despite what we Americans would consider substandard living conditions, you could tell people took great pride in their houses, for they were painted all shades of bright reds, yellows, and greens.
The highlight of this cruise was the Dominican people. During our cohort meeting (groups of 20-30 where we learn about Fathom and the Dominican Republic), we were constantly told how warm and friendly the people of the Dominican Republic would be. I remember rolling my eyes to myself—everyone claims their people are warm and friendly. Well, maybe everyone does claim that, but it’s certainly true in this case. Working with the women in the co-op was a warm, yet humbling experience.
The women who work at Chocal don’t speak English, but we had facilitators on site who would translate for us. We were divided into four rotating groups and given our tasks: sorting cacao beans, picking cacao shells out of nibs, molding the chocolate, and packing the chocolate. I was not great at the sorting or picking out cacao shells. But I nailed the chocolate molds! And while I was packing chocolate, I had an opportunity to practice my Spanish and ask the teenage boy next to me which chocolate was his favorite. (It was milk chocolate!)
My second impact activity was at the recycled paper co-op named RePapel. (Papel means paper in Spanish; I bet you could have figured that out.) The journey to RePapel was another eye-opening drive through the poverty of Puerto Plata. RePapel is based in an old house in a neighborhood of Puerto Plata. (While we were there we experienced two brownouts; they’re typical we were told.)
We were divided into two different groups: crafts & paper. I thought the crafts were a little silly but only because they bruised my craft ego (I was crap at them), but if you like crafting, you would have definitely liked the craft stations! Maybe something like: My favorite craft station was making jewelry out of local beans and seeds from the DR, such as coffee beans. After a tasty snack of fruit and crackers, our group moved to the paper stations.
The three paper stations were awesome! We hand-shredded paper, made pulp that got pressed into the paper, and smoothed out dried paper to get the bumps out. I got to practice my Spanish listening skills, and the women were incredibly warm and patient! They are extremely adept at making paper and we were…slow learners. They clearly had a fun time teaching us how to make paper and occasionally—good-naturedly—lording their paper wisdom over us. (I remember some eyebrow raises when I was sifting pulp into the screens to form paper for the third time, and I still couldn’t remember how many times to move the screen back and forth.) They also clearly knew how to have fun at work, because sometimes we’d break and dance La Bamba. When we left, they wrapped us up in full, loving hugs—I was sad to leave, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d feel that on this trip.
My last impact activity was reforestation. This one made me honestly think that a chunk of the appeal of these impact activities are the bus rides, because the hills, palm trees, bright orange flowers, clouds—EVERYTHING—swirled together to make jaw-dropping, slightly alien vistas. Even the land we reforested had stunning views: we walked about a mile up a gravel road with trees bending over to give us shade and mama hens leading babies everywhere we turned. It was stunning, but let me warn you: you need to be at least somewhat in shape to reforest.
Our group of 20-something people planted over 300 trees, and it was exhausting. But I got to see a part of the Dominican Republic I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and I got to be outside. I’m an unabashed nature-lover, but I tend to enjoy the great out of doors by strolling through it. Reforestation gave me an unexpected connection to the land of the Dominican Republic and the people with which I had worked.
Yes I had a phenomenal time, but are the impact activities actually impactful?
For the people in the Dominican Republic, the activities are certainly impactful. To dispel any skepticism you might have about these activities, I want to let you know they weren’t dreamed up by Fathom to attract tourists to their cruise. All of the impact activities offered by Fathom were projects that local non-profits (IDDI and Entrena) had already been cultivating and supporting. We’re simply there to add more volunteers.
So for example, Chocal does not have the resources to hire more workers. We cruisers allow them to pay off their loan faster by increasing their profit without increasing costs. At RePapel we help them increase their production. And at both places we are key consumers (and yes, of course I bought chocolate and paper!). Reforestation is coordinated with the Dominican Republic’s government, and allows them to put in these natural safeguards (trees) against hurricanes and soil erosion at no cost to them, as well as eventually provide a sustainable forest where the trees can be harvested.
In our cohort groups we were told that while our intentions might have been to come to the Dominican Republic and kind of “save” it from poverty, deforestation, whatever, the biggest impact these activities would have would be on us. And I have to agree. I gained new perspective. As Americans who can afford to travel, I think we all kind of carry a soft, well-intentioned arrogance with us. We sometimes interpret our good fortune to have food, shelter, and leisure to mean our life is better. And I’ll tell you, while I know it’s important to have steady work, reliable water, and a place to live, I certainly don’t think my life is objectively “better” than those women I met in the Dominican Republic. In fact I envy some things about them: their sense of community, their warmth for strangers. In that sense they definitely have the better life.
So were the impact activities actually impactful? In more ways and more deeply than I could have possibly imagined.
HOLY CRAP! Yes, the food on the ship was amazing; yes, the desserts were amazing. “Kelsey, why didn’t you take any pictures of the food?” Because I was too busy savoring it, silly! But here’s a picture of a delicious pineapple, chipotle margarita I got for free because our team won at trivia:
The Onboard Activities
If you look at my previous blog post you’ll see all the onboard activities I was excited about. But… I didn’t do the scavenger hunt; I didn’t do the dance classes; I didn’t do yoga (because I couldn’t get up at 6:45 every morning to go do yoga). However the activities I did do were fantastic! I’d like to go in depth about them because they are integral to what makes Fathom a singular travel experience, but I know I can only hold your attention for so long before you wander off. (I’ll save the in depth look for another blog post.) So I’ll say this: I participated in several activities I loved, but I still had time to just chill by the pool and read. Life was superbly balanced on the ship.
I don’t even know where to begin (probably another blog post?). I was a solo traveler on this trip, so I was very nervous about interacting with the people. Everyone on this trip was so kind and lovely to be around. All of the staff, all of the impact guides, all of the locals, all of the travelers—everyone! This trip was comprised mostly of travel agents (like me!) and people who had stumbled upon the trip without knowing what the point of Fathom was. So I didn’t meet many like-minded people, but it was amazing to watch these hordes of skeptical travelers become changed by their experiences in the Dominican Republic. One man in my cohort group helped with concrete floors, and the elderly man who was receiving the floor tried to thank him, but couldn’t because he was crying too hard. That’s enough to melt any skeptic’s heart!
So was this trip life-changing?
Even more than I could have possibly imagined.
I left part of my heart in Puerto Plata, but brought a sliver of the island back to share with you. If you are looking for a trip that gives you and your family more than the usual experiences, contact me to plan your Fathom cruise to the Dominican Republic!
Now get out there and go!