I live in New York City in a neighborhood where many Dominicans live and have businesses. On a daily basis, I have friendly encounters with folks from there and wonder what their country is like. Finally, we had six days free in December of 2018 and decided to go. Though we knew it was going to be tropical, we discovered a rich and vibrant culture. As shown here in these series of photos, we saw school children having fun…
a five-hundred-year-old cathedral…
numerous places on the coast to relax…
and we realized if you want to party, this is the home of Merengue music and the place to go.
Where’s the Dominican Republic and How To Get There?
The Dominican Republic (DR for short) is a nation in the West Indies that occupies the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. By Caribbean standards, it’s large, about the size of Denmark. It shares a land border with Haiti which occupies the rest of the island to the west. The 80-mi / 130-km Mona Passage separates it from Puerto Rico. Hispaniola is the second biggest island in the Caribbean, after Cuba.
There are several flights from a number of U.S. cities and other Caribbean Islands to the DR. The country has many international airports and you can even arrive in one and depart from another.
How to Travel around the Dominican Republic
My wife Khadija and I spent four full days in the DR. We spent a couple of days in the capital Santo Domingo, one in Santiago De Los Caballeros, and one in OcoaBay.
In Santo Domingo, we mostly walked around and occasionally took taxis. We rode the entire Blue Line of the modern and clean metro (the Red Line is the only other one).
As this line is partially above ground, it’s a good way to get an overview of the city. However, during rush hour, be prepared as passengers barge in when they enter, regardless of who’s in front of them.
At Mamá Tingó, the last stop, we checked out the many street vendors and saw the motorcycle taxis. We didn’t use them, but they looked like they’d be quite an experience.
We didn’t try the city buses, as they were too complicated to understand if you didn’t speak Spanish. However, we took a cross-country bus to Santiago and it was efficient and comfortable.
We had friends drive us to OcoaBay. However, if we wanted to follow the coast (almost 900 mi / 1450 km) or go to remote areas, we would have rented a car.
Where to Stay and Eat in the Dominican Republic
We stayed in Santo Domingo at the castle-like Mauad Hotel Boutique.
The interior is filled with colorful paintings, which suits the friendly service the family provides to their guests. They were always available to provide directions, make reservations and even find medicine for you (which I needed one night for an upset stomach). It’s next to the Malecón (official name is George Washington Boulevard), the city’s seafront boulevard. It’s only a short taxi ride to the Colonial Zone and walking distance to the metro.
Facing the Alcazar de Colon, Pat’e Palo Restaurant is a European brasserie, which was opened in 1505 by a Dutch Pirate, Pata de Hierro. It became a favorite hangout of buccaneers during that time. The inside has brick walls and pirate décor. The outdoor area is a great place to watch people stroll through the plaza. Both tourists and locals love this restaurant.
Some consider Laurel Food & Wine to be the #1 restaurant in Santo Domingo, with its extensive food and wine menu. While we were here, we realized that Dominicans like to dress up when they go out on the weekend.
While I like good restaurants as well as the next guy, I’m more on the lookout for specialty coffee places to get my caffeine fix. We found one in Ostería del Cappuccino, which has been serving excellent Italian food for three decades.
A fun place to eat in Santiago is Kukaramacara Country Restaurant & Bar, across from the Monumento de Santiago.
The steak and seafood are good and plentiful, but the real treat is eating under a photo of John Wayne and watching 1950’s black & white cowboy movies.
Is the Dominican Republic Safe?
The DR, much like many other Caribbean nations, is a great tropical getaway. The locals are also one of the friendliest in the world. If you stick to busy streets and use common sense and precaution, you should have no problems. The country is known for the use and trade of illicit drugs, but we saw nothing suspicious anywhere we went and we didn’t restrict ourselves. Also, I’ve read about credit card theft and misuse, so be sure to read what you sign.
Ciudad Colonial of Santo Domingo
Ciudad Colonial (Colonial City) is the historic old town of Santo Domingo, also called Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone). It’s the oldest permanent European settlement of the Americas (established 1496) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This walled town with picturesque architecture is worth at least a day to explore.
Parque de Colon
The central square is one of the liveliest parks of Ciudad Colonial. Within the park is a prominent sculpture of Christopher Columbus pointing north with the Taino Indian heroine Anacaona at his feet, looking up at the explorer.
Catedral Santa María La Menor
The Catedral Santa María La Menor is the oldest cathedral (completed 1541) in the Americas and the very first Catholic diocese established in the New World. The building is made of coral limestone with dramatic Gothic arches.
It has magnificent displays of woodcarvings and other historical artifacts.
Fun fact: Christopher Columbus’ tomb was once kept inside the main entrance.
The white-towered Palacio Consistorial is a small contemporary museum featuring the town’s colorful history through photographs.
This small museum was an unexpected treat. The Larimar Museum features displays of jewels crafted by Dominican artisans who work on larimar stone, a light-blue mineral found exclusively in the southwestern mountains of the DR. I love the little statues on free-standing columns showing how various minerals are extracted by hand.
We spent about 30-minutes in the exhibitions before checking out the jewelry store on the first floor.
Calle las Damas
Calle las Damas (Street of the Ladies) was the first-ever paved street in the Americas created in 1502. The name reflects the important ladies strolling on it, including Khadija.
The street is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sun Dial Plaza
The Sun Dial Plaza is a pedestrian-only plaza located in front of the Museum of the Royal Houses and the home of one of the oldest sundials in the Americas, the Reloj de Sol (Watch of the Sun), erected in 1753. Here I am with Tom, a local man who was our guide for a few hours.
The sundial sits on top of a square pillar of rock. It has no moving parts, made only of metal, mortar, and rock.
Spanish Plaza / Alcázar de Colón
After Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colón, became Governor of the Indies and built a palace for his new residence. This project required the labor of up to 1,500 Taino indigenous people. Completed in 1514, the 55-room elaborate residence became the very first fortified palace of the New World. Its design is an impressive mixture of Spanish, Italian Renaissance, Gothic, and Mudejar inspirations.
This lavish home became a venue for various meetings between conquistadors, where they planned their colonization of other territories. In 1586, the pirate Francis Drake invaded the city and sacked the palace. Over time, the building was left to deteriorate but would later become a national monument in 1870. In the 20th century, the palace underwent various restorations and now is a historical museum with displays of its original and reproduced furnishings.
The National Pantheon is a mausoleum, where important figures of the Dominican Republic rest. It was originally a Jesuit church, then a tobacco factory and then a theater. In 1956, the dictator Rafael Trujillo restored the building in order to house the remains of the nation’s heroes, both civilians and soldiers.
Each one has a solemn but imposing tomb.
A soldier in a colorful uniform guards the entrance to the monument.
Other Attractions in Santo Domingo
There are other destinations that are definitely worth seeing, but we couldn’t because they were either closed or we didn’t have enough time.
Plaza de la Cultura
Plaza de la Cultura is a park area with fountains and sculptures. It’s home to some of the most important museums in the DR, including Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo del Hombre Dominicano. The Teatro Nacional is a great place to see a play or music performance, usually in Spanish. The Plaza is a public space but there are admission fees for all the museums, which are closed on Mondays. To get here, ride the metro to Estación Casandra Damiró.
Los Tres Ojos Park
The Los Tres Ojos Park or the Three Eyes National Park is an open-air limestone cave system. Inside, there are colorful pools, some were filmed in movies such as Tarzan and Jurassic Park.
Santiago De Los Caballeros
Santiago De Los Caballeros (Santiago of the Horses), also called Santiago, is the second-largest city in the DR and the fourth-largest city in the Caribbean. Some historians believe that the city was founded by Christopher Columbus in 1494 or his brother Bartholomew in 1495. It’s in a valley, surrounded by mountains and farms of tobacco, rice, coffee and cocoa.
Centro Leon Museum
Established in 2003, Centro Leon is a non-profit museum that promotes DR culture and arts. The museum’s exhibits range from historical artifacts to contemporary artworks and music.
A favorite exhibit of mine was the collection of baseball cards of DR players.
DR has produced more Major League Baseball players than any foreign country, over 700. A milestone was hit in 2019 with 102 Dominican players on the rosters. Famous DR players include Albert Pujols, Pedro Martínez, David Ortiz, Juan Marichal and Sammy Sosa.
Monumento de Santiago
Monumento de Los Héroes de la Restauración (Monumento de Santiago) was built under the order of former dictator Rafael Trujillo, unabashedly in his honor. After his fall, it was re-dedicated to the Dominican Restoration War fought from 1863 to 1865 against the Spanish overlords. The 70-meter / 230 ft marble-covered monument with bronze statues is situated on a hill and surrounded by a park.
:It’s worth going up inside the Column (by elevator, thankfully) to see the beautiful views of the city and the mountains.
Calle del Sol
Calle del Sol is Santiago’s main shopping district and it’s fun to walk around and engage in the rhythm of the city.
OcoaBay, a two-hour drive west from Santo Domingo, is DR’s first major vineyard and winery. Grapes for wine need the right amount of dryness, sunshine, and cooling, which are not generally found in the Caribbean. However, OcoaBay’s microclimate between the mountains and the sea is unusually wine-friendly.
Our friends Manuel and Maria, whom we met while traveling in India, have a weekend house nearby and are friends with the estate’s physician founders, Maria Claudia Mallarino and Guillermo Villalona. All of us are pictured below.
Maria and Guillermo came upon the property in 2005, during their first vacation to this part of the DR. The couple fell in love with the land and envisioned building a hotel and restaurant where everything is produced and harvested on the property. Today, they have accomplished their dream with a self-sustaining local ecosystem.
In four-full days, you can only touch the surface of the DR. However, it was a great trip, hanging out with our friends…
observing the active street life…
walking by colonial buildings at night…
and of course, listening to the local music.