The spirit and charm of the Dominican Republic is captured in its music, food and national pastimes. Known for its professional winter baseball, handcrafted cigars and annual music festivals, the culture is never boring - it's always colorful ! The island of "Hispaniola", as Columbus named it, was discovered on his first voyage to the New World. He described it in his journal as "a beautiful island paradise with high forested mountains and large river valleys."
Columbus discovered the island of Hispaniola (which he called La Espaniola) in 1492 and established it as his main base for the further exploration of the region. Today, the Dominican Republic shares the island with Haiti, a former French colony. Most tourists who come to the island are initially attracted by the magnificent golden sand beaches along its 1,400km (870-mile) coastline. The island’s northern, Atlantic side contains the majority of tourist attractions, hotels and resorts, particularly in the 64km (40-mile) zone between Puerto Plata and Cabarete.
Western influence can be seen in the numerous colonial buildings of the capital Santo Domingo while the African heritage, introduced by African slaves brought to the island by the Spanish, is reflected in its music. The popular song and dance, the merengue, blends both heritages and is celebrated in several festivals which draw large numbers of national and international musicians.
The Dominican Republic shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti and constitutes the eastern two-thirds of land. The landscape is forested and mountainous, with valleys, plains and plateau. The soil is fertile with excellent beaches on the north, southeast and east coasts, rising up to the mountains.
Santo Domingo, in the south, features the very first monuments of the American continent: the first cathedral, the first hospital, the first chapel and the first university. In the center of the country, the three main mountain ranges run roughly parallel to each other in an easterly/westerly direction. The Cordillera Central is the highest mountain range on the island. It includes Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean at a height of 3,098m (over 10,000ft). The colonial part has been carefully restored to retain its original charm, and is home to the first university, cathedral and hospital built in the New World. The modern city of Santo Domingo, by contrast, is a thriving port city, equipped with discos, gambling casinos, shops and the Cultural Plaza, which houses the Gallery of Modern Art and the National Theater. Just a few miles east of the city is a remarkable cave complex, Los Tres Ojos de Agua (The Three Eyes of Water), so-called because it contains three turquoise lagoons on three different levels, each fed by an underground river and surrounded by countless stalactites, stalagmites and lush tropical vegetation.
To the west of Santo Domingo is San Cristóbal, where the first constitution was signed on 6 November 1844. It is probably the most visited city, particularly by those wishing to get a closer look at the historical sites linked to the life of Trujillo, the dictator who governed the country with an iron fist from 1930-61. In the church and Caves of Santa Maria, the patron saint’s day is celebrated with drums and dance rituals. One hour 45 minutes east of Santo Domingo is the city of La Romana, home to the understated elegance and graceful charm of the 7000-acre Casa de Campo resort, designed by Oscar de la Renta. Nestled within the resort is Altos de Chavón, a reconstructed 15th-century Mediterranean-style village of culture and art which is perched high on a cliff overlooking the tropical Chavón River and the Caribbean Sea. Altos de Chavón hosts major events in a 5000-seat Greek amphitheater, built in the traditional design of Epidaurus. Near Punta Cana, is Manatí Park, a theme park which includes a zoo, gardens, a recreated Taino village and a variety of exotic animals, visitors have the opportunity to swim with dolphins. The popular destination of Barahona is a humid area with beautiful beaches of white sand. Cabritos Island, a national park in the center of Lake Enriquillo, is the greatest preserve of the wild American Crocodile, large populations of flamingos and two species of iguana. Azúa de Compostela was founded in 1504 by Diego Velázquez, who later conquered Cuba. In particular, the ruins of the colonial city in Pueblo Viejo are well worth a visit.
The Northern, or Amber Coast, is so-named because some of the most beautiful amber in the world is mined here. The Amber Museum houses a good display of amber pieces found in this area. Puerto Plata (the Silver Port) has some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean Islands. It was founded in 1504 and boasts colonial architecture. The Fort San Felipe was built in the 1600s by the Spanish to protect the settlement from pirates. The Atlantic coast of the country is renowned for its miles of unspoilt beaches that surround Puerto Plata, the most popular being Sosúa. Just 3km (2 miles) from the town is the Playa Dorada resort complex. Just outside, in Puerto Plata, is the Costambar Beach Resort, with 5km (3 miles) of beach. Mount Isabel de Torres features a cable car which climbs over 760m (2500ft) above sea level. The breathtaking view of the Atlantic and the port of Puerto Plata is well worth the seven-minute ride up to the top of the mountain. 10 sq km (4 sq miles) of botanical gardens can be explored here. Río San Juan is still an undeveloped area awaiting the adventurer to discover Playa Grande (with a few resorts under construction), the beautiful Playa El Caletón and the Gri-Gri lagoon.
The Samaná Peninsula is located on the northern portion of the island, approximately two hours from Puerto Plata’s international airport. Samaná, with its transparent blue waters, miles of unspoilt beaches, and dozens of caves, is a romantic paradise. Other resorts include The Gran Bahía Beach Resort, Cayo Levantado and El Portillo Beach Club.
FOOD & DINNING
Native Dominican cooking combines Spanish influences with local produce. There is plenty of fresh fish and seafood, island-grown tomatoes, lettuce, papaya, mangoes and passion fruit and all citrus fruits are delicious.
Things to know: Beef is expensive (Dominicans raise fine cattle, but most is exported) and local favorites are pork and goat meat. Locally produced beer and rums are cheaper than imported alcohol which tends to be expensive.
• La bandera (meaning ‘the flag’, comprising white rice, red beans, stewed meat,
salad and fried plaintain).
• Chicharrones (crisp pork rind).
• Chicharrones de pollo (small pieces of fried chicken).
• Sopa criolla dominicana (native soup of meat and vegetables).
• Pastelón (baked vegetable cake).
• Presidente (Dominican beer) is very good.
• Rum drinks such as the local Brugal or Bermudez.
• Rum añejo (old, dark rum) with ice makes a good after-dinner drink.
• Native coffee is excellent and very strong.
Tipping: Hotel and restaurant bills automatically include a 10% service charge (on top of a 12% charge for tax purposes) but an additional tip may be given as an appreciation of good service.
The opportunities for watersports in the Dominican Republic are excellent. Although some shores are rough and rocky, there are magnificent stretches of beach suitable for swimming. For scuba-diving and snorkeling enthusiasts, there is reef diving, good visibility, warm waters, wrecks, caverns and a rich marine life. Good dive sites include Sosúa (near Puerto Plata); Cabrera (freshwater cave diving with an underground lake); Las Terrenas; the Samaná peninsula; Punta Rucia (good for coral diving); La Caleta National Underwater Park (accessible by boat from Boca Chica); Catalina and Saona islands (accessible by boat from La Romana); and Barahona (an area currently being developed for ecotourism). Experienced divers can also join the North Caribbean Research Group and participate in a government-funded project to recover and remove artifacts from sunken ships, some dating back to the 16th century. Snorkeling and diving equipment can be borrowed or hired from dive operators and resort hotels. Small sailing craft are available through hotels in Santo Domingo and most other resorts in the country. Boat trips to the marine caves of the Gri Gri Lagoon near Sosúa are a popular tourist attraction. Hotels also organize charter boats for offshore fishing for marlin, sailfish, dorado, benittos and other game fish. River fishing in flat-bottomed boats with guides can be arranged at La Romana, Boca de Yuma and on the north coast. Windsurfing is particularly good at Sosuá, which also hosts the Professional Windsurfing Association World Cup.
The Dominican Republic was quick to jump onto the adventure sports bandwagon and, hence, has well-developed facilities for the usual range of adrenalin-generating sports. Whitewater rafting is available on the Río Yaque del Norte in Jarabacoa. The best places for tubing, in which participants individually float down the rapids in oversized rubber tubes, are on the Río Jamao del Norte, the Río Yaque del Norte and the Río Isabela in Santo Domingo. Cascading involves climbing up to the top of a waterfall and rapelling down the cascade tied to a rope; the best places to do this are Cascada del Limón, Cascada Ojo de Agua, El Salto de Baiguate and El Salto de Jimenoa. Canyoning, which is cascading minus the rope (meaning that practitioners climb up a river gorge and then jump into the river below), is popular at La Madajagua in Imbert and the Jarabacoa area.
Trekking and hiking
The best places for trekking are Jarabacoa, the Constanza Valley, and the Nuevo Valley. Hiking and climbing enthusiasts may join the locals’ annual pilgrimage to the Caribbean’s highest mountain, the Pico Duarte (3210m/10,700ft), which they can conquer either on foot or by riding a mule. Similar tours can also be made at El Mogote, Mount Isabel de Torres, Pico Yaque and, in the southwest, the Sierra de Bahoruco.
Dominicans love horseriding and their country offers some of the best riding in the Caribbean. Regular polo games are held at Sierra Prieta in Santo Domingo and at Casa de Campo near La Romana, where guests can join in the twice-weekly competitions.
There are a number of golf clubs and golf courses on the island, many of which are bordered by the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. Following on from the 42nd Caribbean Golf Championships, which were held in the Dominican Republic in 1998, the country continues to actively promote itself as a major international golf destination. Some of the best courses can be found at Casa de Campo, Dientes de Perro (Teeth of the Dog), Gran Diablo Links (the planned location for the country’s first Golf Academy) Playa Dorada (designed by Robert Trent Jones), La Romana Country Club, and Santo Domingo Country Club. For more information, contact the Federation of Dominican Golf (FEDOGOLF), Aut. Duarte KM 201, Santo Domingo (tel: 231 4719 or 4720; website: www.golfdominicano.com).