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.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dominican Republic.
Pitch-perfect Playa Rincón, with soft, nearly white sand and multihued water good for swimming, stretches an uninterrupted 3km – enough for every day-tripper to claim their own piece of real estate. There's a small stream at the far western end, which is great for a quick freshwater dip at the end of your visit, and a backdrop of thick palm forest. Several restaurants serve seafood dishes and rent beach chairs, making this a great place to spend the entire day.
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).
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.
Tucked away in surprisingly rough landscape, surrounded by peaks covered in lush greenery, is the 52m-high El Limón waterfall. A beautiful swimming hole at the bottom can be a perfect spot to wash off the sweat and mud from the trip here, though it’s often too deep and cold for a dip. The departure point is the small town of El Limón, only half an hour from Las Terrenas.
Visiting this reserve is like reading a history book written in stone. There are 57 limestone caves in the area 10km north of San Cristóbal, five of which (containing almost 600 paintings) are open to the public – though note that they're frequently closed for renovations. The caves contain thousands of drawings and carvings that constitute the most extensive example of prehistoric art yet discovered in the Caribbean, including works by Igneri and Caribs as well as the Taínos.
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.
There’s a reason why boatloads of tourists descend upon this island every day. The powdery, white-sand beach doesn’t seem real from afar, and a dip in the aquamarine surf is a gentle restorative, while palm trees provide a natural awning from the intense sun.
Though development may eventually cover every inch of the Dominican coastline, for now there are still large areas of pristine coastal plains and mangrove forests. About 500m south of (and part of) the Puntacana Resort & Club, this ecological park covers over 6 sq km of protected coastal and inland habitat and is home to some 100 bird species (27 of which are indigenous species native only to the DR), 160 insect species and 500 plant species.
From the outside, this basilica is a strange mixture of the sacred and the profane. A utilitarian concrete facade, not far removed from a military bunker, is topped by an elongated arch reaching high into the sky. But it’s one of the most famous cathedrals in the country because of the glass-encased image of the Virgin of Altagracia housed inside amid a trippy kaleidoscopic altar of stained-glass glow.
The art gallery you can swim around
The best of Caribbean islands
Introducing the Dominican Republic