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.
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.
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.
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
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.