Santiago De Los Caballeros (known colloquially as Santiago) is the second largest city in the Dominican Republic and 6th largest city in the Caribbean with approximately 1 million residents. It is also one of the oldest cities in the New World; it was founded in 1495 just 3 years after Columbus first discovered the New World. Despite its size and history, the city receives almost no tourists – most likely due to its inland location on an island nation.
I pulled into Santiago from Puerto Plata and Damajagua with my college friend David and his girlfriend around 3pm on December 27th. The traffic getting into town was horrible- we had to suffer on a 4 lane road plagued by parked cars, ballsy left hand turns and insanely aggressive drivers. Eventually we reached the surprisingly nice W Hostal in the downtown area of the city.
The staff spoke only rapid Spanish so the check-in was not easy but I ended up in an air-conditioned room (a first for me in this country). Surprisingly the 6-bed dorm was completely full.
My bunk mate was a Peace Corps volunteer who came into the city to purchase supplies and to enjoy the air conditioning. I consider staying in a hostel with a Peace Corps volunteer to be a fantastic sign. Not only does this mean that I am off the beaten path, but it also means that I picked the best budget accommodations in the city.
My bunk mate recommended I walk to a street full of murals a few blocks away. So we did.
The murals were beautiful and all appeared to have been painted in 2017.
A few blocks away was the imposing landmark of the city: the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. It was closed for the evening but lots of people were hanging out outside to work out and enjoy the views from the highest point in town.
All along he south and west sides of the Monument are the hottest restaurants and bars in the city. We picked a pan-Latin place with dishes from all over Latin America. I ordered a Cuban dish.
We then headed over to a cowboy themed bar that was possibly a homageto city’s full name. Because it was a Thursday, it was nearly empty. We tried to find another busy bar and stumbled on a merengue place. We danced to the tunes of the band until late into the night before heading back to the hostel.
The entire experience that night felt so normal to me. Perhaps that was the interesting and refreshing part of Santiago. I could see myself having a nearly identical night in Los Angeles in terms of both activities and atmosphere.
My friends left early the next morning and I was on my own to sightsee before my flight that afternoon. I went back to the Monument and this time was able to go inside. I was a little disappointed because you couldn’t go all the way to the top- only 5 stories up. Still the view was good.
I then caught and Uber to the Centro Leon. On the way, I had an awesome chat with my Uber driver in what I would consider my very first legit conversation in Spanish. We chatted about his female friend (not a girlfriend) and her lack of drive.
The Centro Leon was a beautiful art and anthropology museum. The museum had a really interesting exhibit with artifacts from the Pre-Colombian civilization that ultimately was completely destroyed by the Spanish.
I was shocked that the museum was so nice for a town as seemingly random as Santiago. It turns out that the tobacco money built the museum- Santiago is the largest tobacco-exporting city in the world which explains a lot.
After the museum, I didn’t quite have enough time to go on a cigar factory tour so I walked around the nearby upper-middle class neighborhood. Most of the houses had small gates and all had cars. I got caught in a rainstorm and hid under a tree. There I ran into two wild dogs having sex.
With this strange backdrop, I reflected on the trip. I had managed to spend an entire week on an island country without visiting a single beach…and had a blast. I found it very interesting that the DR is the 4th most visited country for Americans. Despite this, I saw exactly one other American tourist besides my friends and Dominican expats returning home.
As weird as it sounds, the DR is actually a great spot for an authentic off-the-grid experience. I would highly recommend the Dominican Republic as a backpacker and for a traveler looking for a safe off the beaten path experience.