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Dominican Republic

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About Dominican Republic

Americans may be surprised to learn that the Dominican Republic is the second-most-visited destination in the Caribbean. Europeans and Canadians, however, have been arriving in droves to play at the island’s luxurious all-inclusive resorts and beautiful white-sand beaches—all at lower prices than they’d find elsewhere in the Caribbean.
They are, perhaps, less concerned with the manana attitude of many service personnel. Although the level of service is improving, travelers interested in a hassle-free beach experience may prefer the smaller, better-established Caribbean resort destinations.

In the past 10 years, the Dominican Republic has slowly emerged from being an isolated, politically unstable developing country to one with a considerable tourism-supported economy. Roads around the country have been widened and paved, and historic areas in the major cities have been renovated. Construction of new hotels, golf courses and other tourist facilities continues at a rapid pace. This investment is paying off handsomely, and because the country is so large, there’s no immediate danger that it will be overrun by tourists or spoiled by development. People considering a visit to the Dominican Republic should also bear in mind that their vacation is likely to include exposure to poverty that is impossible to ignore: More than two-thirds of the island’s population lives in substandard conditions, in shantytowns and rural shacks that are visible just beyond the security gates of the resorts.

Located on the eastern portion of Hispaniola (the Caribbean’s second-largest island, which it shares with Haiti), the country was originally inhabited by the Taino Indians. Then, after Columbus, the colonizers arrived: The French, Spanish, British and Haitians battled for control until 1844, when independence was declared by Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the country’s founding fathers. The government remained in turmoil until the dictator Rafael Trujillo took over in 1930—he ruled himself or through surrogates until he was assassinated in 1961. The government is now a representative democracy, but bouts of political instability—usually related to the economy—continue.

Traveler’s Advisory: Since March 1995, the political situation has been tense in Santo Domingo and other big cities. There have been strikes, power blackouts and street demonstrations, some violent. Protesters have demanded that the government set higher wages or lower the prices of public services, such as bus fares. So far, however, tourism appears to be unaffected by these internal affairs.

The U.S. Embassy advises travelers to avoid the poor parts of Santo Domingo (in the north and east), to avoid the national university area and to stay away from large gatherings. Because of crime, avoid unpatrolled beaches after dark. There is a higher than usual rate of passport thefts from foreigners. In summer 1995 there was a border dispute with Haiti over customs duties. The border may be closed to land traffic.

When to Go

Our favorite time is November-March, when days are in the 80s F/28-32 C and nights in the 60s F/15-22 C. The rainiest time of the year is May-October, although it generally isn’t bad enough to rule out a visit unless a hurricane is predicted. (Hurricanes are possible August-October.) The hillier western area is considerably cooler, requiring a sweater or jacket during the evening. Constant breezes keep the temperature and humidity fairly tolerable.
Do's and Don'ts
Do consider staying in small towns instead of resorts. If you never leave the resort areas, you’ll meet few residents and miss out on fascinating cultural exchanges
...Do expect to encounter people on the beaches anxious to sell you something. A polite “no thank you” and a firm attitude, however, will put an end to any pestering
...Do ask for a discount when shopping, no matter how upscale the establishment appears
...Do sample Dominicana gasolina, as the locally produced rum is called
...Do take a boat tour of Laguna Gri-Gri, an exotically beautiful swamp that’s home to hundreds of tropical and migrant birds
...Don’t expect a great sense of urgency from Dominicans—they tend to be relaxed in all things
...Do watch out for armies of incompetent motor-scooter riders
...Don’t change much more money than you plan to spend. Only 30 percent of Dominican currency exchanged by visitors can be reexchanged into dollars upon departure (save currency exchange receipts). Avoid changing money on the black market. Absolutely no more than US$5,000 may be taken out of the country when you leave. Arrests have been made for even small currency-law violations
...Don’t expect the whole island to be lush and tropical (it is that way in and around the mountains, however)
...Don’t wear beach attire in town—it’s considered rude
...Do dance the merengue
...Do keep a flashlight handy. Power failures are common, except at hotels and restaurants that have their own generators. Keep a flashlight handy
...Do expect a 5 percent room service charge and a possible energy charge on top of the 8 percent hotel sales tax.... Tipping: A 10% service charge is normally included in the bill, though an additional tip may be given if the service is very special. Tipping of taxi drivers is not customary.

Activities
About a 30-minute drive east of Santo Domingo is Boca Chica, a beautiful bay and resort area with a gleaming white beach that is becoming, to our taste, overdeveloped. The beach is often crowded, especially on weekends, and pulsing with the sounds of merengue from portable radios.
About 10/16 km east is Juan Dolio, a smaller but quieter beach that has also become crowded (with hotels, restaurants, bars, a casino and two golf courses nearby). The Arawak Indian caves can easily be seen on a day trip from Boca Chica. 16 mi/26 km east of Santo Domingo.

Near the town of La Romana (east of Santo Domingo), Casa de Campo is an impressive golf and tennis resort with good, though expensive, food. While there, be sure to visit nearby Altos de Chavon (a replica of a 16th-century Italian village), which offers handicraft shops, restaurants. The Altos de Chavon Archaeological Museum is the most important museum outside the capital and includes fascinating exhibits about the native tribes of the country. Also visit nearby Catalina Island (a place to rest and snorkel) and Minitas Beach (to go windsurfing). Those so inclined can play polo or tennis, go deep-sea fishing or just relax. Golfers will enjoy at least a four-night stay, particularly those wishing to test their skills on three beautiful courses designed by Pete Dye. They’re reputed to be among the most challenging in the world. One is known as the Teeth of the Dog.

65 mi/105 km east of Santo Domingo.
These ruins of an early North American colony of Spain, founded by Columbus in 1493 and named for Queen Isabella of Spain, are of interest mostly to archaeologists. They can be seen on a leisurely day trip from Puerto Plata. A modern church consecrated in 1994 commemorates the first mass in the country celebrated by the priest who accompanied Columbus.116 mi/187 km northwest of Santo Domingo.

There are 14 national parks and 7 reserves in the country. Among the most interesting are Bermudez National Park at Duarte Peak (the strenuous hike up and down Duarte—the highest mountain in the Caribbean at 10,417 ft/3,175 m—takes at least two days); Los Haitises National Park on Samana Bay south of Samana, known for its mangrove and swamp areas and caves with Indian rock paintings; and the National Park of the East (southeast of La Romana), which will interest those who want to explore prehistoric caves, some of which have pre-Columbian petroglyphs, and beautiful beaches. Not far offshore from the park is Isla Saona, which also has hiking trails.

Puerto Plata (pop. 60,000) is a relaxing town and resort area on the north coast, about a four-hour drive from Santo Domingo. One could easily stay there three or four days, enjoying the beaches with their dramatic mountain backdrop, looking at the gingerbread architecture, deep-sea fishing, diving the excellent reefs or golfing.
Be sure to take a break from the beach and visit Fort San Felipe (the oldest European fort in the New World, with a moat and battlements) and take the cable car to the top of Isabel de Torres Mountain, where a massive sculpture of Christ looks out over the world. (The wait to get on the cable cars can be long it’s best to get there early or late in the day.) Spend some time at the new Museum of Taino Art and the Amber Museum. (The region, often called the Amber Coast, is the world’s largest source of clear amber, with many pieces containing interesting examples of prehistoric plant and insect life.) Moviegoers may recognize the area as the setting for Jurassic Park.
Nearby is the resort area of Playa Dorada, a seaside complex with 13 first-class hotels centered around a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones. Several of the hotels have casinos and discos. Other excursions from Puerto Plata include Sosua and La Isabela.
Annual events in Puerto Plata include the Merengue Festival (second week in October) and the Cultural Festival (late January-early February). 101 mi/163 km northwest of Santo Domingo.
About a half-dozen self-contained resorts have appeared along this beautiful 20-mi/32- km stretch of white-sand beach lined with coconut palms on the eastern end of the country. The largest complex, with more than 1,500 rooms, has its own casino, two discos and an 18-hole golf course. Several new resorts are in the works along the beach. Isolated and sparsely populated, the area will most interest those who have no desire to wander outside the perimeter fence of their hotel. 100 mi/161 km east of Santo Domingo.

SAMANA

A cultural oddity in a country usually associated with Columbus and Spanish domination, Samana was founded by English-speaking U.S. slaves in the 1820s. Descendants of the original settlers are still called Americanos, and some of them speak English as their first language. Just recently developed as a tourist destination (the first road to the town was built only 25 years ago), Samana is low key, with mostly quiet budget-type accommodations. It’s a popular spot with Europeans and those interested in watching humpback whales (December-March). If you want to avoid the road trip, Samana is also served by air (five-passenger airplanes) from Santo Domingo. Las Terrenas, on the north side of the peninsula, is a small resort area with basic facilities, a handful of hotels and idyllic palm-fringed sandy beaches. 71 mi/115 km northeast of Santo Domingo.

The country’s second-largest city (pop. 315,000), Santiago is pleasant with its wide streets, museums and cathedral, but it is not a popular tourist destination. Santiago is just north of La Vega in the heart of the cigar-producing region. Dominating the landscape is the Monument to the Restoration Heroes. Visit the university campus, the Folk Art Museum and the Tobacco Museum. There is a large market that is well worth a visit. A theater with an enormous stage and said to have perfect acoustics opened in 1995; it hosts theatrical and musical performances. 85 mi/136 km south of Puerto Plata.

Santo Domingo (pop. 2,200,000) has the most exciting nightclubs, restaurants, shopping and historic sites on the island. The oldest city in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it can claim the Americas’ oldest street, oldest cathedral and oldest university. Santo Domingo received a much needed sprucing up in preparation for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World in 1992. Streets were repaired, historic buildings restored and new hotels built.
But the most impressive addition to this bustling waterfront city, which is also the country’s capital, is the Columbus Lighthouse (Faro o Colon). This big, cross-shaped slab was designed to be a symbol of the city and is a source of great civic pride. It houses several museums and exhibits that recount the history of the country and serves as the resting place for Columbus’ remains (an honor claimed by at least one other city). The monument projects light beams in the shape of a cross onto the night sky—but it is only turned on during weekends because of electricity shortages.
Other attractions in Santo Domingo include the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas (while worth seeing, it does not compare with the grandeur of Spain’s great cathedrals or with cathedrals built later in the cities of Central and South America), and the open-air National Aquarium, which contains a shark tank and the re-creation of a wrecked galleon. Don’t miss the University of Santo Tomas de Aquino (built in 1538, it’s the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere), Calle Las Damas (the New World’s oldest street), the Royal Houses Museum (models of pirate galleons), the Church of San Nicolas de Bari (first Spanish-built stone church in the New World), the National Botanical Gardens, the Alcazar of Columbus (the small palace where Columbus’ son Diego lived—now a museum with artifacts depicting life during the 1600s) and the National Museum (pre-Columbian artifacts—worth an hour’s visit). Take time also to see the National Zoo (including iguanas and parrots), the Casa del Cordon (House of the Cord), the Mercado Modelo (furniture, handicrafts, etc.), the Casa Tostado Museum (19th-century furniture), the Museum of Dominican Man (Taino Indian displays) and the Museum of Fine Arts (locally produced art).
Founded by Bartholomew Columbus (brother of Christopher) in 1496, Santo Domingo has a lovely Colonial City on the banks of the Ozama River that is gradually being restored. You’ll want to traverse its oceanside boulevard—known locally as the malecon—which is several miles long and lined with many good restaurants and lively clubs. We were intrigued by Guacara Taina: A multilevel cultural center/disco set in a large underground cave, it offers folkloric dance performances as well as live music. The city is home to the National Symphony and host to dozens of international musical and theater performances every year.
Annual events in Santo Domingo include the Carnival, held on 27 Feb (around Independence Day, irrespective of the timing of Lent), and the Merengue Festival, a musical celebration held the last week in July-first week in August.
It’s fun to drive around the island and visit its small towns. We especially enjoyed La Vega (a coffee and cacao town, in the center of the island); Jarabacoa (about 70 mi/110 km north of Santo Domingo—cooler and mountainous, it has a new golf course); Constanza, northwest of Santo Domingo—it’s known for its forests, rivers and waterfalls; and Bani, a sugarcane and coffee town west of Santo Domingo that’s a good base for visiting the Las Salinas coastal area (increasingly popular for water sports, especially windsurfing).
This pleasant town is popular with travelers from Canada, Europe and the U.S. because of its lovely beaches and dive sites. Located near Puerto Plata Airport, it was founded by German Jewish refugees after World War II (dictator Rafael Trujillo, hoping to gain favor with the U.S., let them in), who started up sausage production and a dairy. Today the town, which has lively nightlife and an arts community, has become a center for immigrants from North America and Europe. A 10-minute drive east of Sosua is Cabarete, one of the world’s top windsurfing spots17 mi/28 km east of Puerto Plata.

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