During a month-long trip to Grenada and the Dominican Republic, focused on learning about cacao and the agricultural sector, I spent an absolutely wonderful week in at Casa de las Anas in Moncion. (photos!)
Moncion is a small municipality two hours west of Santiago. Nestled at 1,200 ft elevation in a rural area, it offers stunning mountain views, and lakes, rivers and mountain trails for recreation. Cattle and yuca (a starchy tuber) are its main agricultural products, and it’s a center for casaba production (yuca flour bread). Very few residents speak English, but they’re quite friendly, so it’s a perfect place to practice Spanish. It’s tranquil – a great place to relax and rejuvenate.
Initially, I planned to stay in Santiago as a base for visiting northern cacao regions. However, lodging there wasn’t appealing. Thankfully, I came across Casa de las Anas, a small guesthouse with meals included at a budget-friendly price (read rave reivews). After perusing the website, my heart was set on staying there and I was thrilled it was available.
Given the distance to Santiago, which is a few hours from the northern cacao regions, I didn’t foresee more than one cacao-related trip. However I was excited to experience everyday Dominican life, see another part of the country and improve my Spanish. Additionally, I wanted to maximize the economic impact of my trip on the local economy by patronizing locally owned businesses. (The nation’s high-end, all-inclusive resorts are generally foreign owned and funnel most of their profits to headquarters while maintaining very low-wage local jobs.)
Casa de las Anas, located in a home, is an ‘all-inclusive’ getaway for those who want to experience everyday life in the Dominican Republic. It’s owned by an American couple who lived there for many years, then hired Ana Julia, a welcoming wonder woman and native Dominican, to run it. Ana Julia and her wonderful daughter, Ana Maria, live in one bedroom and the others are kept for guests (very comfortable beds with excellent mosquito nets).
The home has several sustainability features dictated by necessity—such as a catchment tank for non-potable water (purified water is provided for drinking and cooking), and a lovely garden with fruit trees, guandole and other plants. Traditional hand-woven chairs and art provide a strong sense of the culture.
Staying at Casa de las Anas is like being a family guest, though Ana Julia and Ana Maria are not obtrusive and if you want to relax alone and do your own thing, no problem. Of course it’s enriching and enjoyable to spend time with them, and their extended family and friends. Guests can opt to add activities with Ana Julia such as a trip to Santiago, lunch at a nearby lake—featuring a traditional stew cooked over an open fire, a hike in the mountains or a visit to a casaba producers; and rent motorcycles and kayaks.
Ana Julia and Ana Maria don’t speak English, so one should really know Spanish beyond a tourist phrase book. It’s an ideal venue to improve your Spanish, no matter what your level. Julia is very patient, encouraging, respectful and good at non-verbal communication, and Ana Maria is terrific to chat with. Neighbors, Julia’s family and locals are also very friendly. My vocabulary and facility with verbs improved markedly.
The meals were absolutely wonderful, leading me to photograph them to remember and share—much to Ana Julia’s amusement. Watching her cook was fascinating. She makes truly delicious food in a small kitchen with a basic four-burner gas stove. Casa de las Anas’ website provides a menu listing options for each meal. Guests can request dishes or let Ana Julia surprise them, the latter generally my choice. I eat a mostly vegan diet and had communicated that in advance. Ana Julia kept me satisfied and delighted every day.
Favorite foods included sautéed onions (cooked in a oil and vinegar, a simple yet richly flavored condiment), tostones, eggplant, guandoles (pigeon peas, often cooked like split pea soup) and habicheulas (often pinto), cabbage-based salads and ultra-local fresh fruit for breakfast. Ana Julia is a master of the Dominican rice cooking technique, which involves frying a bit of rice at the bottom of the pot before adding the rest of the rice and boiling it to cook, in order to add texture and flavor. It’s a lucky treat to get rice from the bottom.
Yuca proved to be a yummy alternative to rice, and mongu—mashed boiled plantains—with sautéed onions, always hit the spot. Her fried cheese and fried eggs were also quite delicious, perfectly cooked to yield a light crispness without oily heaviness. (I ate eggs and dairy, as they’re from small, local farms where animals graze freely and aren’t given chemicals.)
During the week I relaxed, explored the area, studied and practice Spanish, read up on the country, region and agricultural issues, and enjoyed getting to know Ana Julia, her friends and family. Morning runs in various directions took me to long mountain views, cattle fields, other agricultural operations, various casaba operations and a large lake created by a dam that provides electricity for Moncion.
In the afternoons, I often walked around town, checking out stores, homes, gardens, schools, casaba operations (a warehouse, supply store and USAID REDDOM Casaba cluster facility) and the park; chatted with friendly locals and tried new foods from neighborhood supermercados and colmados (tiny grocery stores where you get things at a counter), such as casaba with guava jelly and Malta Morena, a sweet non-alcoholic malt beverage that tastes like beer and is marketed heavily toward youth.
In the evenings, I enjoyed dinner and conversation with Ana Julia and Ana Maria. One highlight was watching the Dominican Republic win a tight game in the Caribbean baseball series, with family and neighbors gathered. Each time the DR scored cheers resounded across town. The Dominican Republic is fanatic about baseball, and a fertile source of talent for U.S teams. Being election season, presidential candidates were advertising extensively via announcements during the game and commercials—at a much higher level than one would find in the U.S.
Julia also babysits a toddler, in addition to preparing meals and maintaining the home. Her industriousness is truly admirable, and reminded me how hard many Dominicans must work to advance their lives. Ana Maria also works while attending college to pursue medicine, with classes that last into the evening and require an hour commute on a guagua each way.
During a day trip to Santiago, I explored a local park, an extended market featuring a precious metals (bought and sold), CDs, clothing and souvenirs; and the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. The latter is a towering building with sculptures of revolutionary leaders and quotes/statements from them, a diorama depicting the revolutionary history, an interesting collection of Carnival costumes, and a fantastic 360-degree view of Santiago and beyond from the top. (Note to self: go to the DR during Carnival!)
On my last night in Moncion, we enjoyed dulces for dessert and went to the local bar, which had a dance floor and played bachata and merengue over a speaker system. Not inclined to trip around the floor, I enjoyed watching Julia and her companions, and the other dancers. It was particularly interesting to see variations across the couples.
Departure was bittersweet moment, as I’d miss Julia and the wonderful experience she offers guests, yet was excited to spend a week in a homestay in Los Botados, a community of CONACADO producers. Something tells me I will return, as Julia, her delicious cooking, and the beautiful environs are not content to remain simple memories.