Where I Went:
Hotel: Island Life Backpacker’s Hostel
Attractions: Faro Colon, National Aquarium, Los Tres Ojos, Parque Duarte, Parque Colon, Parque Indepencia, Puerte del Conde, Catedral Primada de América, Fortazela Ozama, Panteón de la Patria, Museo de las Casas Reales
Restaurants: Adrian Tropical, Paletas Bajo Cero, El Conuco
Why Santo Domingo?
The DR was not my first pick of places to visit over the holiday season, but an invitation to a cousin’s engagement party in Miami on December 28th had me brainstorming places to spend a week. I ended up settling on the DR because it was large enough to keep me occupied for at least a week and was had plenty of easy flights to Miami.
The original plan was to take a red eye to Miami and then arrive at noon on the 22nd. But at the gate I was offered $850 to instead fly in on an AM flight to Miami and arrive at 9:30PM. I would lose half a day but would gain enough funds to make the trip essentially free.
I took the offer and landed at 9:30pm on Saturday December 22, 2018.
Day 1: An Inspiring Chat
My hostel picked me up from the airport and I checked in before taking a quick stroll around the Zona Colonial. It is very similar to others in places like Panama City but this one is less pristine and “nice” but more historic.
I got beers in one of the plazas and a couple sat down next to me. We struck up a conversation and I heard their life stories. The guy was 23, from Haiti. He fled with his mom after the earthquake. Determined to make it, he got a job in various mechanic’s shops. He worked from 5am until 11pm every day. Eventually, he moved into HR and has been self-financing his university studies. He also managed to buy a car which is very rare in the DR because of poverty. He hopes to get a work visa and move to Canada (due to the French connection) with the girlfriend. The guy especially was very straight laced and did not drink or anything because he was focused on improving his situation.
The woman was from Venezuela. She was in her early 30’s and said she used to be a party girl, did a lot of drugs and went to raves. When the country’s economic system collapsed, she fled to the DR, which has historically been known for its welcoming immigration policy. She actually was the guy’s boss in HR.
They said they would like to travel one day but there are bigger priorities right now like moving in together after he graduates. She said that being from countries that have suffered must have brought them together. I was very much inspired by them and at times felt guilty for being there and talking about traveling because they are undeniably far more hardworking than me and have suffered so much.
At 1am we decided it was time to head home. The Zona Colonial was still hopping. For the Christmas/New Year’s season, the government of the DR eliminates all required bar closing times.
Day 2: A Ton of Sightseeing
The next morning I got a free breakfast at the hostel cooked by the owner’s mom from England. She made me a waffle with some tropical juices.
At 10, I was met by Luis, the brother of my family friend Carmen. He was going to drive me around Santo Domingo for the day. He didn’t speak any English, but were able to community using my broken Spanish and some help from Google Translate.
We first went to the Faro Colon (Columbus lighthouse). It looked like a large Soviet Bloc apartment.
The building is called a lighthouse because it has the ability to shine a very bright cross of light into the air at night. However, the cross almost never shines because creating the cross uses so much power that it causes blackouts in the nearby neighborhoods. The cross represents the dawn of Christianity in the New World. In the middle of the complex is the reported very ornate tomb of Columbus- although Spain also claims to have the tomb. The rest of the complex contained indigenous artifacts from other Latin American countries. The place was definitely strange.
Then we went to the aquarium. It was okay, but they did have manatees and sharks. It was also on the coast. Interestingly, despite its seaside location, Santo Domingo does not have any beaches; instead there are 10 foot cliffs. Most locals do not visit the coast and the city does not feel “coastal” in any way.
We then went to Los Tres Ojos, a tiny National Park in the middle of the city. The park contains three sinkhole lakes in caves surrounded by a jungle oasis and cliffs. Yes it’s as wild as it sounds.
The third lake is the most interesting. There, a self-proclaimed Tarzan will scale the walls and jump into the water for tips. You can take an underground boat ride to a fourth lake which is the prettiest one of all. The boat costs 50 c¢. The guy pulled a rope through the dark cave for about a minute. His arms must be ripped.
Then we got lunch at a restaurant called Adrian Tropical – one of two coastal restaurants in all of Santo Domingo. I ordered a mofongo which is a mashed plantains dish. I loved it. The restaurant also has amazing ocean views – like the best ocean views of any restaurant I’ve ever been to.
In the afternoon we wandered the Zona Colonial, the country’s sole UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were a couple museums including the Spanish governor’s office which had a bunch of cool weapons and armor and a whole floor on the Columbus expeditions. It was closed but Diego Columbus’s house can be toured. We also went to the National pantheon which houses war heroes.
On the outskirts of the colonial zone is the Parque Indepencia (Independence Park) which houses a mausoleum containing the remains of the 3 founders of the country. Next to it is the Puerta del Conde gate containing the spot where the Dominican flag was raised for the first time. The gate on the back of the 100 peso bill.
The final stop was Plaza Colon. This is the main plaza and contains a large statue of Columbus pointing off into the distance above a native trying to climb the pedestal.
I found the statue’s prominent placement quite interesting. Every year I hear how Columbus Day is falling out of favor in the US due to the consequences of his discoveries and his treatment of the natives. But here in Hispaniola, which he visited on each of his 4 voyages, the narrative appears to be quite different. Here, he is treated as a hero with statues, squares and boulevards named in his honor. Not only did his brother found the town, but his son ruled it for 12 years. Columbus himself spent time here in Santo Domingo and the town would not exist without his influence.
I think the “right” answer – if there can be one – of Columbus’s legacy lies somewhere in the middle. Certainly if Columbus were to do what he did today, he would be tried as a war criminal. But is it possible to judge a 15th Century man by 21st Century morals? Hard to say. Interestingly, Francis Drake, the English captain who is generally celebrated as a hero in North America is considered an “evil pirate and murderer” in Santo Domingo.
Back in the square, a military band performed a mix of marches and Christmas hits much to the amusement of the crowd but not the amusement of the pigeons.
On the south side of the plaza is the Primera Cathedral, the oldest church in the Americas. The first stone was laid in 1512. The inside was stunning although it apparently was more stunning before Francis Drake pillaged all the treasures when he briefly captured the city in 1586.
It was now about 4:30 pm and all the museums had closed for the day. Luis then took me on a quick driving tour of the city. The driving here is chaotic to say the least. Luis is a crazy driver but no more crazy than anyone else. Traffic lights are just a guide. My favorite moment was when we were stuck waiting for a left turn arrow. Luis legally took a sip of his beer then illegally cut in front of everyone and turned left even though the light was red. I found the spectacle very funny, although I would probably find it less funny if I actually lived here.
We stopped by the President’s house and the main baseball stadium. We also took a quick drive through the downtown which has two malls sandwiching an IKEA and tons of tall buildings. The traffic was heavy there.
That evening I met up with my friend Rita for dinner. Rita is not Dominican and has lived many places around the world. Here in Santo Domingo, she works in HR for an American company.
Rita gave me insights into Dominican culture from an outsider’s perspective. She talked about the strong connections that rich Dominicans have with Europe. Even if they are third or fourth generation Dominican, parents will send their children to special schools to learn the European country’s language and culture. There are also numerous European clubs such as a French and Spanish country club. As a result of these clubs, ethnic communities are apparently more tight knit and cliquey than you would expect in a multi-cultural society like the DR.
One interesting tidbit Rita mentioned was that Dominicans love resorts. Staying in nice accommodations is a mark of Dominican pride, so families will splurge on resorts even if they don’t really have the money for it. Maybe that was why my hostel was nearly empty despite its being 1/5 the price of the next cheapest room in the neighborhood in what is supposedly the busiest season.
At the end of the night, Rita took me to a liquor store to see the scene even though she does not drink. Due to open container laws, the liquor store street fronts are packed with people most nights. It was quite the scene. While people watching outside, a group of three Venezuelan girls came up selling tickets to a raffle for a resort stay in Punta Cana. Rita said that Venezuelans are now having trouble finding work and this is a way for them to get money without a work visa. I have noticed that the beggars and salespeople here give a very long and intricate story before asking for money.
It was now 11pm and I was getting tired so I took and Uber home and prepared for the next day.
Even though my trip was cut short by a half-day due to the flights, I was able to see most of the main sights in Santo Domingo. I got a little taste of normal city life too, but probably could have spent another half-day wandering the western part of the city. Santo Domingo has a reputation for being dangerous- at least compared to the rest of the country. I am here to say that that is unwarranted. Not once did I feel unsafe walking around – especially in the Zona Colonial where most tourists stay. Obviously you need to be cautious, but I would not take any more precautions than I would for a typical Latin American city.
In short, I would recommend visiting Santo Domingo. The history alone is worth the trip, but there is also a lot of modern culture to be seen in the Caribbean’s largest city. Santo Domingo is also a great jumping off spot to visit the rest of the country. Virtually everywhere is within a 4 hour bus ride of the capital.