A road trip through the Dominican Republic with stops at Santo Domingo, Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, and Santiago on the trip Grand Caribbean: Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti
The second largest country of the Caribbean shares Hispaniola island with Haiti. The Dominican Republic is also where Columbus landed and created the first permanent settlement in Santo Domingo. The indigenous inhabitants thought to be “indians” are the Taino.
The country was ruled by Spain, Haiti and even the United States. It has been independent since 1924.
The most visited country in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic had a lot to offer and with only a couple of days to explore my friends and I decided to rent a car to be able to quickly dart from one city to the next.
We entered the country by bus from Haiti and spent our first night at the Crowne Plaza Santo Domingo. The next day Bill and I picked up our friend Avi from the airport and the rental. I’ll spare the details of the incredibly frustrating rental experience at Avis Santo Domingo which took over two hours.
The day was mostly wasted at the airport, so we checked into a boutique hotel Villa Colonial which was right in the old city in a beautiful historic building with an outdoor pool.
That evening started with a great meal with some friends at the fancy Mitre Restaurant & Wine Bar which had excellent steaks.
After that we went bar and club hopping. The party scene in Santo Domingo was surprisingly packed with plenty of young partygoers.
The following morning we explored all the main sights of Ciudad Colonial which is the oldest European settlement and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Alcázar de Colón
The oldest settlement residence in America that dates back to 1510 was constructed and lived in by Diego Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus.
The building now houses the Museo Alcázar de Diego Colón, which has an impressive collection of artworks and room recreations.
Cathedral of Santa María la Menor
The oldest cathedral in the Americas was built in 1512 – 1540 and is dedicated to St. Mary. Unfortunately there was some event when we visited so we could only peak in.
Museo de las Casas Reales
This museum is housed in a building dating back to the 1500s used as the colony’s administrative offices. The exhibits contained all kinds of artifacts from armor to model ships. In the courtyard we found a shy peacock.
In the afternoon we drove to the resort capital of the country.
The most eastern point of the island has been a popular tourist destination for decades and is known for the beautiful sandy beaches and all inclusive resorts.
We checked into the Sanctuary Cap Cana and used the remaining sunlight of the day to relax on the fine pink sands beach.
After a disappointing dinner at the Wok, we got in the car and drove north forty minutes to check out the nightlife.
The club, Imagine, didn’t open until 11 p.m. so we waited over a few beers at the nearby Pollo Bucharas. When we got in, we found it to be really unique as it is set up inside a real cave. There were three caverns that were converted into techno, latin/hip-hop and pop stages. There were even bats flying around as you entered the club.
We hung out mostly in the techno room where there were live dancers performed and eventually a guy on stilts covered in LED lights paraded around riling up the crowd. Leaving around 4 a.m. we definitely enjoyed the night.
The next day with much effort, we got up early and headed northwest to make it to the mountains.
This natural formation of waterfalls running between the Northern Corridor mountain range has become a popular tourist site even though it was only opened in 1994.
To participate we had to go with a guide. As we would be in and out of the water, we changed into swim trunks and rented water shoes. Our guide supplied us with helmets and vests before we started a hike up the mountain.
The trek up is along a well trodden path next to the running water. It was a moderate hike but with the high temperatures and humidity, we were dripping in sweat.
From the top of the falls you make your way down through series of jumps and natural water slides. Jumping from the high falls, over 20 feet, was quite exhilarating.
The guide also provided a history of the area and some insights to the local culture, for example how people utilize the different parts of the palm tree.
Our next stop was the small coastal city known for its beaches and history. This city was also the place that Sir John Hawkins started the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade when he brought 400 slaves from Sierra Leon to be bartered for local commodities.
Fortaleza San Felipe
Built between 1564 – 1577, the fortress also known as El Morro de San Felipe served as the city’s defense from pirates in the 1500s.
Today it has been converted into a museum exhibiting the history and displaying military artifacts. The museum just closed when we arrived, but the guard let us in to take a few pictures.
A man in the parking lot proposed us to take us to the top of a tower behind a barbed wire fence. We passed on his kind and extremely dubious offer.
After a brief stop to see the coast, we went into the center of town to the small square and church.
There wasn’t too much to see so we left and drove south to the biggest city of the North. Thanks to google maps, we took a tiny road through the mountains which probably took five times longer than the highway, but it was very scenic and offered a glimpse into the life of the villages.
Santiago de los Caballeros
This provincial capital founded in 1495 has over 1 million inhabitants making it the second largest city of the country.
It was basically sunset when we arrived and checked into Hodelpa Centro Plaza Hotel. The city’s number one rated hotel was decent with a comfortable room and a view over the city.
For dinner we opted for Restaurant Pez Dorado, a fancy seafood restaurant set next to Parque Colón.
Our long day concluded with us losing at blackjack in our hotel casino and downing a couple of drinks at the bar.
The next morning we explored the city by car.
In the city center is Parque Duarte where you can find government buildings and the Catedral de Santiago Apóstol. Built in 1868 – 1895, this cathedral contains the tomb of the dictator Ulises Heureaux,
Fortaleza San Luis
This fort was used by the military until the 70s, when it was changed to a prison. Today it houses a small museum.
Monumento a Los Héroes de la Restauración
Perched on the top of a hill is this monument overlooking the city. It was built by and for Trujillo. After his assassination, it was dedicated to Dominican soldiers.
This museum has displays of the local culture and history as well as a cigar factory. We also tried to visit, but it was closed!
When we were finished with Santiago, we headed south to Santo Domingo. We had a couple of hours left before our flight so we stopped at another attraction.
Los Tres Ojos.
“The three eyes” represent the lakes connected by an underground river. It is one of the most visited sights of the country. The park was deceivingly wonderful. From the parking lot there doesn’t look like much, but once you walk down these steps, an huge cavern appears leading to several pools of crystal clear turquoise water.
At one of the pools a man ferries passengers across by pulling the boat along fixed ropes. The other side leads to a beautiful large open lagoon surrounded by stalactites.
Mesmerized by the scene, I stood back and spoke to an old man who seemed to work there. He told of how crocodiles were found in the pool and the joys of swimming in the lagoon.
I didn’t know we could swim! Though I didn’t have swim trunks, I was excited to take a dip in the pool. Stripping down to my underwear I was just about to jump in when a guide came running and shouting to stop me.
I pointed toward the guide, who mysteriously vanished and explained that he confirmed that we could go swimming. The man said there was never a time that tourists could go swimming and someone must have been joking with us.
Wow. Seriously trolled!
That concluded the four day, four night tour of the Dominican Republic. Overall, the country seems to be modern and well developed with infrastructure. People are very friendly and the latin culture seems more prevalent than the Caribbean. With varied landscapes, cities, history and luxury resorts the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer!
Next stop Cuba to round off the trip!