Impact travel with teens: What to expect on a Fathom cruise

What to expect while docked at Amber Cove:

Amber Cove is a new cruise port comprised entirely of a ‘fake’ town that replicates the center square in Puerto Plata. Do yourself a favor and go to the actual square, which is decidedly more grimy but also 100% genuine, instead. You can also find a touristy restaurant in Amber Cove, a big pool with waterslides (included in cruise cost) and plenty of water toy rentals.

Expect the WiFi connection on the ship to become painfully slow while in port. However, free WiFi is available in Amber Cove. The strongest signal is by the hammocks behind the pool.


The best thing to do in Amber Cove is to grab WiFi, pick up bottled water, hit the ATM, and then get outside of the port and into the actual Dominican Republic. Book a tour with Marysol or Iguana Mama, or take a cab…plenty of them wait outside the ‘second gate’, which is as close to the cove as they are permitted to come.


See excursion recommendations for the Puerto Plata area.

What to expect from Impact Activities:

Fathom cruisers have multiple ‘impact’ activities to choose from, which range from teaching English in schools to planting trees. We took part in two activities, RePapel, in which we helped a women’s co-operative with their paper recycling business, and Chocal, in which we helped a co-op cocoa bean business in the mountains by Alta Mira. Before participating, I anticipated that the best part of the impact activity experience would be the interaction I’d get to have with the local women, and I was right. Far and away, the cultural exchange was the most valuable aspect of our Fathom trip.


Was I actually helpful, in a tangible sense? Yes, and no. Yes, because I was an extra set of hands, increasing production for that day. (At both co-ops, they don’t have enough of a labor force, so I was not taking a job away from a Dominican.) But I was unskilled labor, and it took some time to get used to the tasks I needed to do. In other words, instead of bringing a skill to the women of the co-ops, I was an untrained person they needed to train.


During both impact activities, we were brought to the co-ops and guided along our way by workers for the community support program Iddi. Iddi employs bilingual Dominicans who bridge the gap between the local business and the Fathom travelers. Iddi employees proved to be educated, enthusiastic young people who were a great source of information for me, as well as translators during our activities. Iddi is crucial to Fathom impact activities, as it facilitates the cultural exchanges that are so meaningful. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the Dominican Iddi employees.


I also spoke with several local who were not directly employed by Iddi or Fathom to get a feel for the good Fathom is doing in these impact activities. When I asked my local driver how he felt about Fathom and the building of Amber Cove port, he enthused that it was a very good thing, as it is bringing jobs to the community. An American former Peace Corps worker who now works full time for Iddi was optimistic that Fathom can do good in the community, explaining that the ground team had already nixed a few of the activities after seeing that cruisers really were not able to be helpful, adding new ones that might work better. So, in this way, it’s a work in progress at this point.


In the barrio of Javillar, where RePapel is located, the locals seemed curious about us coming in to work, but ambivalent. A few parents lined up with their kids to see us come and go, but no one asked for money or tried to sell goods. One very small child threw a mango at us, but it was hard to tell whether this was in anger, on a dare, or just for fun. In Alta Mira, where the cocoa production facility is located, locals along the street waved enthusiastically at our busses and smiled and waved when we arrived. One told me in broken English that the Fathom travelers increase their revenue from their (isolated) chocolate shop. Indeed, after our morning there, our Iddi leaders let us know we’d spent $370 US in the chocolate shop we visited after assisting with the bean sorting and chocolate bar wrapping. Fathom travelers visited that shop three times in the week we were in port, which is valuable income for the women of the co-op. (They also export the chocolate nibs they harvest and produce in addition to producing a smaller amount of chocolate bars for the shop.)


By far, my favorite part of the impact activities we did was meeting the women and learning the bigger picture of what they did to provide for their families. The paper making process was interesting, and my Spanish improved in the two hours I spoke with the women. Most of the women did not speak much English, so we learned back and forth, and each group of workers had one Iddi employee who could translate. The cocoa production was educational, and while the women there were shy, the Iddi workers and locals were forthcoming. The women were all very friendly and welcoming. There was no awkwardness or resentment; they seemed to genuinely be glad we were there, and certainly we were glad to be there. Certainly, Fathom’s investment into their businesses have legitimized the co-ops in the eyes of the Dominicans, which helps the women even further.


Do I feel my presence in the Dominican Republic with Fathom tangibly helped the community? Well, we were given the numbers at the end of our cruise, and Fathom passengers to date have packaged 25,008 packages of chocolate and created 3851 sheets of paper. Is this significant? Maybe, or maybe not, but at the end of the trip, I decided that was ok. What I’d gained AND given was a cultural exchange and a helping hand, which is far more than you’d get on most vacations, and priceless for both parties. As our world gets smaller and global issues get bigger, we need cultural understanding and empathy more than ever.

Bottom line:

If you want to change the lives of the people of an underserved community (and yourself), move somewhere and live there and devote your life to it. If you, like most of us, cannot or will not do this, travel in a meaningful, impactful way. Step outside your hotel and get to know the people who make your beds and serve you drinks on vacation. Talk to locals at a bar or a shop or a community event. Make a friend, lend a hand, or spend time studying the history of a place and its people. You can do these things in many ways. Taking a Fathom cruise is one such way, and darn good way at that. It’s fun, it’s designed for the whole family, and it’s a ready-made way to travel deliberately, deeply, and with cultural impact.

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Disclosure: We experienced our cruise as guests of Fathom, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.

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