The Dominican Republic is the greater half of the island that it shares with Haiti, the whole island being the historic island of Hispaniola that the Spanish first settled on in 1493, following the voyage of discovery of Christopher Columbus who had landed here in 1492.
The Capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo was founded here in 1498, making it the oldest Capital City in the New World.
Unlike most of the islands in the Caribbean that are just above sea level, the Dominican Republic is on an island with a chain of great mountains, the highest being Pico Duarte, which rises to over 10,000 feet (3000 metres) named in honour of Juan Pablo Duarte (1813-1876), one of the leaders in the independence movement that resulted in the founding of the Dominican Republic.
At the top of the mountain, after a 14 miles hike from the small town of La Ciénaga, near Jarabacoa (see Mountains below), you will have great views and stand next to cross and a small bust statue of Juan Pablo Duarte. It is said to be a 3 day hike to get to the top.
The Spanish ruled over the island from 1493 onwards and although the English Privateer, Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) laid siege to the town for about 4 weeks in 1586 ransacking the town, destroying a number of buildings and demanding a ransom before sailing on, the Spanish remained in control of the whole of Hispaniola until 1697.
At this time a treaty was signed with the French, whereby the Spanish retained control over the Santo Dominican part of Hispaniola, but relinquished their control over the rest of the island to the French, this end of the island becoming known as Haiti. Spanish was and still is today the official language in the Dominican Republic, whereas in Haiti the language is a French Creole mix of French and Taino and local language words and expressions.
When the Haitian Revolution took place and Haiti gained its independence from the French in 1804, the Haitians also sought to take over Santo Dominican part of the island too, and this led to war between the two halves of the island, the Haitians taking control over Santo Domingo until an uprising took place leading to the Dominican Republic being formed in 1844. Juan Pablo Duarte was one of the leaders of the independence movement, but following the declaration of Independence, he was later forced into exile.
From 1916 until 1924, the United States occupied the Dominican Republic, and then in 1930 the Republic came under the control of President Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961) who remained in power as a dictator from the time of his election until he was assassinated in 1961. Since that time, the Dominican Republic has become more of a democratic country, with a President elected every 4 years.
Santo Domingo is the country's biggest city and it is located on the southern coastal side of the island. It has a population of around 3 million people and in the old part of the city, between the Rio Ozama River and coastline you will find cobbled streets, the old Fort (Fortaleza Ozama) built between 1502 and 1505 as well as the magnificent Cathedral de Maria Ménor (Cathedral of St Mary) that dates back to 1514 when the foundation stone was laid. When Sir Francis Drake laid siege to the city, he located himself here and there are parts of the old city and Cathedral that still bear the scars of his siege. The Cathedral is located between Calle Arzobispo Merino and Isabel a Católica and has 12 chapels, three separate aisles and cross vaulted ceilings. This is the oldest Cathedral in the New World.
Here in the old city (Zona Colonial) declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, there are many stone buildings, hotels, restaurants, a number of museums, plazas, monuments, galleries and statues to see and it is very easy to just walk and enjoy the feel of this old part of the city. Probably the most impressive of all the buildings is the Palacio Nacional with its grand stairway entranceway, classic columns and dome cupola roofline, much like the Capitol building in Washington DC. It was built in 1947 as the Presidential Palace for the then President, Rafael Trujillo.
There is a Chu-Chu tourist train that will take you around some of the old town too.
Some of the places you should look to see here are –
- Plaza de España – a large square near the River on Calle Las Damas (the oldest paved street in the New World with lots of fashion shops now too). You will also find restaurants and also the Palace home/museum of Diego Colón (1479-1526) the son of Christopher Columbus. The Palace (Museo Alcázar de Colón) was built in coral stone in 1511 and inside you will be able to see paintings, furnishings, antiques, antiquities and many other relics many that date back to the 1500's. Also here on the Calle Las Damas is the Panteón de la Patria church, built in 1743 and the natural science museum Museo Infantil Trampolin.
- The Museo de las Casas Reales and Fortaleza Ozama (the old Fort) - on the corner of Calle Las Damas and Calle Mercedes. Here in the museum you can see relics from the early days of Spanish exploration in the New World, with a large sundial (that dates back to 1753), suits of armour, weapons and other relics from the early days while the Fort built in 1502 has the old cannons, towers and stone walls to see.
- Statue in honour of Christopher Columbus – this is located in the middle of the Parque Colón near the Information Centre off Calle Isabel La Católica. The Catedral Primada de América is here too and the Museo de Larimar (the blue semi-precious stone unique to the Dominican Republic used in Jewellery ), and Parque Duarte, Iglesia y Convento de los Padres Dominicos, all within walking distance of each other. For those people wanting to see and hear more about the Dominican Republic's fight for democracy in the years of Trujillo, there is also the Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana at 219 Calle Arzobispo Nouel. This whole Colonial Zone area with many of the building being hundreds of years old is interesting just to wander and take in the atmosphere and ambience of the old part of the city.
- Altar de la Patria – the three heroes who established the Dominican Republic in 1844 – Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sanchez and Ramón Marias Mella have been honoured with statues of them in the Altar de la Patria, located in the Parque Independencia. The Parque is located closer to the Palazio Nacional. If you walk in the direction away from the River on Calle Arzobispo Nouel, you will come to it. The Galleria de Arte Candido Bidó (1936-2011) known for his vibrant coloured paintings is not far away either.
- Parque Independencia moats/culverts – what you see here are the original sewers built in 1502, the oldest sewer system in the America's. These moats link to a series of sewer tunnels that run under the old Colonial Zone.
- Columbus Lighthouse – Faro a Colon – This is located in the East section of Santo Domingo, (other side of the Rio Ozama) designed in 1931 as a tribute to Christopher Columbus and finally finished being built in 1992. The building is constructed in concrete in the shape of a Christian Cross and stands some 70 metres high. This is a mausoleum where the remains of Christopher Columbus are said to be entombed.
- Acuario Nacional – (National Aquarium) – this is also in East Santo Domingo beside the coast on Avenue España. Here you can walk under the water through a glass tunnel to see the underwater world of fish and other sea creatures.
- National Botanical Gardens – A. Republica de Argentina. These tropical gardens and lake areas cover around 200 acres of grounds, making these gardens one the best in the Caribbean. There is a small train that can take you around the gardens too.
BEACHES – Most people coming to the Dominican Republic will be heading to the beaches and resorts and there are many of them spread out around the coastline – east and west, north and south. Closest to Santo Domingo are the beaches of Boca Chica and Juan Dolio, while on the far-east coast there is Punto Cana on the Costa del Coco – where there is Marina and also a Club Med resort among others. It is not just the palm trees, endless sunshine and clear waters, but also the night life in the bigger resort hotels that attract countless visitors on holiday and enjoy Rum, cigars, bars, cocktails and shots of the local drink, Mamajuana.
DIVING – there are lots of places to go diving in the Dominican Republic and most of the bigger resort hotels will be able to connect you to a local dive operation or tours that take groups to snorkel or dive. It is worth checking to see how many people will be with the group, as sometimes the groups can be bigger than what you expected. Also check to see what equipment is provided.
In Punta Cana – on the south east of the island you can dive and see caverns under the ocean as well as see nurse sharks, many fish and also stingrays. You can also dive to see the wreck of the Monica that sank in the early 1900's off the coast. There are many resort hotels here too, as well as golf courses.
In Boca Chica – there is also wreck diving to see the Limon and Hickory on the reefs offshore with lots of fish in and around the reefs. This is a National Marine Park – the Parque Nacional Submarino La Caleta.
Peninsula de Samaná – this is a small peninsula in the north east of the island with beaches and resorts on both sides of the peninsula. Between December and April there is humpback whale watching, while inland there is rainforest and activities like horse riding and a great Zipline tour. The El Salto de Limón waterfall drops around 50 metres and people also go climbing up the side of the waterfall too.
Catalina Island – this is just offshore from La Romana on the south east coast. There are two main dive sites here – the Aquarium and the Wall. La Romana itself is surrounded by sugar plantations and is a port city. Cigars are also made here too. Just outside the city is the Altos de Chavón, a recreation of a 16th century Mediterranean village, complete with an amphitheatre. The most famous beaches here are Playa Bayahibe and Playa Dominicus, which are close to the Parque Nacional del Este.
North Coast – Puerto Plata – on the north coast of the island. Here there are a number of dive sites with different levels of depth and experience needed. Some of the sites here have names like the Caves, the Airport Wall, The Garden, Luperon Caves, the Canyon and the Rocks – so lots of different dive locations to enjoy. There are a number of resort hotels along the coastline here and also the Ocean World Adventure Park (www.oceanworld.net) is located near here too, where you can see live shows and swim with sharks. Puerto Plata is also quite interesting and has a history dating back to 1502 when it was first settled. There is colonial architecture, a cable car that runs to the top of the Puerto Plata and a number of hotels and restaurants. You will be able to buy some of the special locally made Amber jewellery here too.
Not far away too are the beach resort towns of Cabarete and Sosua. Cabarete is famous for kite surfing and wind surfing.
AIRPORTS – the main airport in Santo Domingo is Las Americas International Airport, but there are also airports near La Romana, Punta Cana and at Puerto Plata.
NATIONAL PARKS – there are a number of National Parks on the island with diverse landscapes and terrains. One of these is the Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco – which is most famous for its diversity of birds.
MOUNTAINS – while most people coming to the Dominican Republic for a holiday will mostly head to a resort hotel, of which there are many, other people also look to enjoy a beach holiday, golf, fishing, water sports and one in the mountains. In the mountains (depending on where you go) there are activities like hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, horse riding, white water rafting, seeing waterfalls and sightseeing to see the countryside, smaller towns and villages.
Jarabacoa is a small city in the mountains north west of Santo Domingo, near the highest peak, Pico Duarte. The city is 529 metres above sea level, and is called "The City of everlasting spring". Here they grow strawberries, coffee, pimento, pepper and flowers, and the city has also become a centre for tourists to trek/hike, bike, climb Pico Duarte, do canyoning, see waterfalls and go white water rafting on the Rio del Norte.
Tourism plays a big part in the Dominican Republic economy and there are hundreds of hotels and resorts to choose from all along the coastline. A number of hotels in the bigger centres also are casinos too. If you speak Spanish you will find it easy to ask people for directions and advice, and in the bigger tourist centres and hotels English will be widely spoken. The further away from the big centres, the harder it will be to find people speaking English, but this can also add to the travel experience. From Santo Domingo to Punta Cana (South East) is around 200 kilometres, a 2 ½ to 3 hour journey, while from Santo Domingo to Puerto Plata (North West) is 230 kilometres, a 3 hour plus journey across the mountains.
If you are planning your holiday in the Dominican Republic, do a search on the Hotels section of this website and see what is available in Santo Domingo itself, in Punta Cana and Puerto Plata – the three most popular tourist areas and plan your holiday from there. There are so many choices with the most popular months to visit the island being between November and April – the cooler months, meaning not so hot. In the mountains though it can get cold at night, but on the coast it is warm to hot pretty much year round.
Have a great holiday.