The Dominican Republic is one of the Caribbean's most geographically diverse countries, with stunning mountain scenery, desert scrublands, evocative colonial architecture and beaches galore.
Hundreds of kilometers of coastline define the Dominican Republic (DR) – some of it white-sand beaches shaded by rows of palm trees, other parts lined dramatically with rocky cliffs, wind-swept dunes or serene mangrove lagoons. Whether it’s fishing villages with boats moored along the shores, or indulgent tourist playgrounds with aquamarine waters, the sea is the common denominator. Some of the bays and coves where pirates once roamed are the temporary home of thousands of migrating humpback whales, and form part of an extensive network of parks and preserves safeguarding the country’s natural heritage.
Peaks & Valleys
Beyond the capital, much of the DR is distinctly rural: driving through the vast fertile interior, you’ll see cows and horses grazing alongside the roads, and trucks and burros loaded down with fresh produce. Further inland you’ll encounter vistas reminiscent of the European Alps, rivers carving their way through lush jungle and stunning waterfalls. Four of the five highest peaks in the Caribbean rise above the fertile lowlands surrounding Santiago, and remote deserts stretch through the southwest, giving the DR a physical and cultural complexity not found on other islands.
Past & Present
The country’s roller-coaster past is writ large in the physical design of its towns and cities. Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial exudes romance with its beautifully restored monasteries and cobblestone streets along which conquistadors once roamed. The crumbling gingerbread homes of Puerto Plata and Santiago remain from more prosperous eras, and scars from decades of misrule are marked by monuments where today people gather to celebrate. New communities have arisen only a few kilometers from the ruins where Christopher Columbus strode and where the indigenous Taíno people left traces of their presence carved onto rock walls.
People & Culture
The social glue of the DR is the all-night merengue that blasts from colmados (combined corner stores and bars), and this is true everywhere from the capital Santo Domingo to crumbling San Pedro de Macorís to Puerto Plata, where waves crash over the Malecón. Dominicans greatly appreciate their down time and really know how to party, as can be seen at Carnival celebrations held throughout the country and at each town's own distinctive fiesta. These events are windows into the culture, so take the chance to join the fun and elaborate feasts.
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This dramatic mountaintop viewpoint has been discovered by the Instagram generation – Dominicanos flock here on weekends to take photos swinging in sky-high swing sets, hammocks and teeter-totters, or flying on broomsticks. The 360-degree mountain and sea views are jaw-dropping, among the DR's most cinematic. Transport from the parking lot is RD$700, but you can group together and pay RD$100 each. The bumpy, steep ride up is as wild as a roller coaster (some folks walk the 2.1km). Once up, it feels as though you could see Haiti on a clear enough day. There is a small shop, restaurant (mains RD$250 to RD$375) and a professional photo company. You can even paraglide right off it as well (Dominicans pay RD$2500, foreigners anywhere between US$60 to US$80, for a 15-minute ride). The entrance is 6.5km west of the Playa Limón turnoff on the highway to Sabana de la Mar.
A long, broad, tawny beach with aquamarine water on one side and a thick fringe of palm trees on the other. Stark white cliffs jut out into the ocean in the distance. A surf school here offers lessons.
The first stone of this cathedral, the oldest standing in the Western hemisphere, was set in 1514 by Diego Columbus, son of the great explorer (the ashes of father and son supposedly once resided in the chapel's crypt). Construction, however, didn’t begin until the arrival of the first bishop, Alejandro Geraldini, in 1521. From then until 1540, numerous architects worked on the church and adjoining buildings, which is why the vault is Gothic, the arches Romanesque and the ornamentation baroque. It’s anyone’s guess what the planned bell tower would have looked like: a shortage of funds curtailed construction, and the steeple, which undoubtedly would have offered a commanding view of the city, was never built. The cathedral's current interior is a far cry from the original – thanks to Drake and his crew of pirates, who used the basilica as their headquarters during their 1586 assault on the city. They stole everything of value that they could carry away and extensively vandalized the church before departing. Among the cathedral’s more impressive features are its awesome vaulted ceiling and its 14 interior chapels. Bare shoulders and legs are prohibited, but shawls are provided for those who need to cover up. Although Santo Domingo residents like to say their cathedral was the first in the Western hemisphere, in fact one was built in Mexico City between 1524 and 1532; it stood for four decades, until it was knocked down in 1573 and replaced by the imposing Catedral Metropolitano. Tickets, purchased at the entrance in the southeastern corner of the site, include an audioguide available in a variety of languages (RD$50 without audioguide). Daily mass is at 5pm Monday to Saturday and noon and 5pm Sundays.
This large, modern museum, built with the tobacco wealth of the León Jimenez family, is a world-class institution with an impressive collection of paintings that trace the evolution of Dominican art in the 20th century. There are three exhibition rooms in the main building: one focuses on the island’s biodiversity, Taíno history and cultural diversity; a second displays a permanent collection of Dominican art; and an upstairs room houses temporary art exhibits. The aviary and photography exhibition are out the back. An excellent gift shop sells books on Dominican history, art, culture and food, and there’s an appealing cafeteria serving sandwiches and drinks. During the evenings, the center offers an ever-changing schedule of art-appreciation classes, art-house cinema and live music. The Centro León is a few kilometers east of downtown. A taxi there will cost around RD$150, or pick up a Ruta A concho (private car that follows a set route; RD$20) along Calle del Sol – not all Ruta A conchos go as far as the Centro León, though, so be sure to ask.
Designed in the Gothic-Mudéjar transitional style, this was the early-16th-century residence of Columbus’ son, Diego, and his wife, Doña María de Toledo. The magnificent edifice underwent three historically authentic restorations in 1957, 1971 and 1992, and the building itself, along with the household pieces on display (said to have belonged to the Columbus family), are worth a look. Recalled to Spain in 1523, Diego and Doña Maria left the home to relatives who occupied the handsome building for the next hundred years. It was subsequently allowed to deteriorate, then was used as a prison and a warehouse, before it was finally abandoned. By 1775 it was a vandalized shell of its former self and served as the unofficial city dump. Less than a hundred years later, only two of its walls remained at right angles.
So picturesque are these falls that an opening scene of the movie Jurassic Park was filmed here. Of the three waterfalls near Jarabacoa, it’s the prettiest – a 60m cascade pouring from a gaping hole in an otherwise solid rock cliff. There’s a sandy beach and an appealing swimming hole, but the water is icy cold and potentially dangerous; if you do swim, stay far away from the swirling currents. The trailhead to the waterfall is 7km from the Total gas station in Jarabacoa along the road to Constanza. Look for the small shed housing the ‘office’ for this community project. The steep path down is slippery after rain and sweat-inducing at all other times (expect each way to take around half an hour). You'll be grateful that admission includes a bottle of water.
The second you step out of your vehicle into the aroma bubble of Sendero del Cacao you'll feel transported to a tropical, outdoor Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Jolly employees know they're lucky to work here; they run super fun, informative two-hour tours (in Spanish, English and French) of this picturesque working plantation, including demonstrations of the entire process. Tours end with a large lunch. With your own vehicle, it’s only a 15-minute drive from San Francisco de Macoris. The gift shop is a must-visit, for the traditional bolas de cacao (crude chocolate balls used to make hot chocolate), as well as more refined bar chocolate of various strength.
For those interested in the details of one of the darkest periods of Dominican history, this austere memorial honors Dominicans who fought against the brutal regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo. 'El Chivo' (the goat) ruled with an iron fist from 1930 until 1961, touting his own greatness and wiping out some 50,000 political dissenters. The museum features torture-center replicas and 160,000 photographs, films and other objects belonging to resistance fighters. Admission includes an audio guide (English or Spanish).
The life and times of native-born son and independence leader Gregorio Luperón are impressively fleshed out inside this beautifully restored, pale-green, Victorian-era building. Photographs and period artifacts trace Luperón's life, from humble beginnings to his role as provisional president during the 'Restoration,' as well as the story of Puerto Plata during the late 19th century. Staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Dominicans and Spanish speakers are charged only adult/child RD$100/50.
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