Sex sells. Everywhere one turns the senses are assaulted by a barrage of sexually explicit images. Switch on the radio and seemingly innocent songs slyly describe sexual behavior. Tune into family programming and young actors are embroiled in sexually based dialogue. To the least conscious observers these trends are a reflection of new times where sex is natural and we can converse openly about sex. But if we dig a little deeper we will notice that for as much as we feel the topic of sex is out of the bag, it is still a dirty little secret we keep hidden. Nowhere is this contradiction between sex and conservatism more visible than in the cabanas littered around Santo Domingo and the rest of the Dominican Republic. In Santo Domingo and Santiago, for example, there are large areas that imitate the glitter and glam of the Las Vegas strip. These strips, complete with flashy and colorful lights and oversized signs, are home to the city’s cabanas; small drive-in motels that are used for midnight rendezvous or mid-afternoon encounters. The cabanas in the DR reveal deeper cultural values than some would care to admit, and easily reflect the ongoing ideological battle between sexual expression and freedom and moral and religious conservatism.
Exploring just what a cabana means can lead to a better understanding of this Caribbean nation. For some, cabanas are just air conditioned motels on the outskirts of the city where romancing couples can go have a few minutes alone, but the reality is that that they reflect deeper-rooted attitudes towards sex, regardless of what the outward opinion might be.
What is a Cabana?
In short a cabana is a small drive-in motel where rooms can be rented out for four or six hours as well as for overnight stays. Some cabanas are located on the outskirts of the cities and some are dotted along the highways linking the nation’s cities. Many drivers, instead of risking driving at night, will take a nap in a cabana and wake up early in the morning to continue the journey. But cabanas in the DR also have a different connotation. They are used for sexual rendezvous between partners who need some time alone and have no place to go. The accessibility of these small motels and their relatively low price make them the perfect place for young teens to develop budding love, for cheating spouses to have their flings, for prostitutes to make ends meet or for couples who need an hour away from the kids.
How are they used?
Cabanas are very easy to use. The driver drives up to the cabana and enters his vehicle into an empty garage indicated by an open door. The driver parks his vehicle and once out of the vehicle, hits the large red button on the door. Note that only one vehicle is allowed inside the “cabana” at a time. Also, though you can get around this, the number of people allowed inside a cabana at any one time is limited to four.
The red button you’ve just hit will close the metal door behind the car. This is an added measure of anonymity, as no one will know if that is your vehicle parked at the cabana. The parties then enter the cabana bedroom through the door. The amenities are simple depending on the quality of the cabanas. Rooms usually include a bed, a bathroom, a TV, a couch and other small details. There will also be a menu located either on the bed or on the nightstand. Parties can order food or other objects for their pleasure.
The cabanas also have a small hatch located near one of the walls. After you have settled in, someone will open the window. Don’t be alarmed as this is just the supervisor asking you to pay. Also, if you order food it will be delivered through this window. Note also that the quality of the cabana will vary depending on where you go and what you are willing to pay. There are so-called ‘Presidential’ and ‘Executive’ cabanas, offering nicer rooms, bigger beds, AC, bigger TVs and even Jacuzzis, as well as the usual amenities. These more “luxurious” cabanas also offer better food menus, better television services and even open-air rooms with plants and flowers.
An interesting thing about cabanas is that they are for short-term use, which can imply using a place for sexual rendezvous. Users will usually use the cabanas for four or six hours and if a party wishes to remain all night they can pay for overnight services. This service begins after midnight and will last until 6am and will be charged at a different rate than the four-hour stay.
It might sound odd to have “cabana etiquette,” but anyone who has never been to one needs to be aware of several things. Some might say that if it just for sex, so why bother? But even if you are not willing to notice the extra details, you need to understand that those details do exist. First of all, it is never done to take a girl directly to a cabana: have a bite to eat first, watch a movie and chat a bit and make sure you head to the bathroom beforehand. Many of the cabanas have see-through bathrooms and the sight of you on the john isn’t the best image to have before a nocturnal rendezvous. If you tend to get hungry make sure you bring a cooler with ice, drinks, alcohol and other goodies. Food at the cabanas is expensive. Also, bring condoms, towels and toiletries, as many women won’t use the ones provided in the cabanas. If you can, travel in a car with tinted windows, as it will reduce “embarrassment” for many females. Once in the cabana, don’t start right away, because in the coming moments the phone will ring asking if you would like something to eat. Also, carry big bill, as it doesn’t look proper to fumble around for change, and don’t ever pay with a credit card, as the statement will show up on your bill.
Where are they?
The cabanas in Santo Domingo are usually located on the outskirts of the city, with some operating more discreetly in the city center. In Santo Domingo three places, Manresa, the 30 de Mayo and San Isidro highways, are known as areas with cabanas. Couples looking for a few minutes alone can hop on to the Malecon or the San Isidro highway and drive until they see the Las Vegas-type lights and that’s when you have arrived at the cabanas. Several small motels are also located in Villa Mella, at the entrance of Manoguayabo or at the 13th kilometer of the Duarte highway. It is impossible to list exactly where all the cabanas in the city are, but the one thing they all have in common is that most are located on the outskirts of the city, providing an extra layer of anonymity for the parties involved.
Who uses them?
Cabanas are used by a wide range of people who need some privacy. There is no particular person who does or doesn’t use them. Teenage couples who can’t get time alone sneak away to these small motels after school while married couples or cheating spouses use their lunch breaks to meet at for some quick time alone. What’s most fascinating about cabanas is that they provide a certain level of anonymity for users. Instead of sneaking down the street and parking the car in front of a lover’s house or sneaking home while mom and dad are at work, the cabanas provide privacy.
But the issue of cabanas and their social relevance is important to consider. An estimated 90% of Dominican Republic’s population describes itself as Roman Catholic and the Catholic Church wields a tremendous amount of influence over the citizenry. For this reason, Dominicans are still relatively conservative when it comes to issues of sex and sexual relations. Although things have changed in recent years, the level of conservatism, in direct relation to the nation’s religious values, has had an interesting effect on the general population and its views on sex.
Discussing sex in the DR is still relatively new and few have ventured down that road with the cabana reflecting that odd dichotomy between sex and conservatism. It also reflects the double standard when speaking about sex. On the one hand there are these large motels that are specifically used and known for “quickies,” yet they are tucked on the outskirts of the city and are very anonymous in nature implying that it is ok to have the cabanas, but not ok to have sex. The cabana and the culture that surrounds them are almost secretive, and though it is the big pink elephant in the room, they reflect the distortions in how Dominicans view sex.
For men who wish to have a sexual encounter with a prostitute or a woman from a lower class, the cabana provides the perfect place to escape.
What do people think?
A male perspective:
A recent interview with two young Dominicans revealed some current opinions about cabanas and their place within Dominican society. According to Willie, a recent college graduate, it is common for women to deny that they’ve been to a cabana because it denotes they have had sex, while a man is cheered on for going to them. He speaks of that double standard and says that this scenario, with the cabanas, demonstrates that our society hasn’t accepted that women are having sex. At least not in the way it does for men. Willie continues by explaining that cabanas are a good thing because at the end of the day people will have sex regardless, so best have it in a place that provides some type of security. As for the clash with conservatism, Willie explains that it is definitely there. “Our society is still very conservative, though each day it opens more and more. But cabanas have become part of our culture, in the same way as beer, or baseball.” As for how a woman perceives a man who frequents a cabana, Willie estimates that although a woman might not admit it, she prefers a man who has been to a cabana, because it could mean that he has experience. Though once again reflecting the complex dichotomy of sexual roles, he explains that he would be wary of a woman who would frequent a cabana, or has had many experiences in one.
A female perspective:
Searching for a female perspective on cabanas and their use for this article was particularly difficult. Speaking in general terms, many of the females who were asked for an opinion refused to comment, fearing that even their comment on a cabana would reflect negatively on them. Even though those females admitted to frequenting cabanas with boyfriends or male counterparts, they were concerned about how they would be viewed after the interview. The mere fact that this occurred provided a glimpse into the mindset and conservatism with regards to sex in the DR and also underlined the double standard which exists where males could speak freely while women were more guarded.
However, one woman, Madelyn, explained that Dominicans, especially women, are closed-minded and this is why cabanas are necessary. According to her, it is because of so many taboos and sexual restrictions that women go to these cabanas to hide something so natural. The thought of a neighbor thinking that a boyfriend is over and partaking in sexual activity should remain hidden. It’s about secrets and “honor.” Most females who go to these places must remain anonymous. Unfortunately, says this young woman, if a woman has various sexual partners she is considered a whore and because of that she goes to a cabana while a man goes as an extension of machismo, so he can tell his friends he went with “so and so” and had sex at a cabana, a “forbidden” place. “To all of that is BS because a woman just like a man should enjoy sex and their sexuality as they see fit and where they want”.
To an outsider the cabana is just a motel, but a deeper look tells us it means more than that. It is the place were sexual freedom clashes with sexual conservatism. Where this society’s gender roles are defined. Where the double standard is engrained. Where couples go for a little time to themselves.