The Dominican Republic is a country known to many for its all-inclusive beach resorts; a place where you can bask in sunshine and turquoise waters while indulging in food and drink and swaying to the sounds of Latin music.
Fewer people know the Dominican Republic as a country chock-full of incredible history: powerful resistance movements; passionate human rights protests. Did you know that the country was one of the first to open its borders to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany?
Just a few months ago, I traveled to the Caribbean Island not for a sunny beach vacation, but to understand some of the complex social issues the nation is facing in the present day. Based in Santo Domingo, the country’s largest and capital city, I was charged with the task of learning about the specific challenges faced by different minority groups. The goal: to return back to the United States with stories and anecdotes that would inform my advocacy work with an international development agency. In order to strengthen my voice on behalf of those in the country, it was important that I begin to see and understand, first-hand, what individuals’ needs are on the ground.
“Don’t we all travel to relax and to expand our understanding of the world?”
Although much of my time was spent meeting with fearless leaders and organizations working to create social change, I was also able to explore Santo Domingo quite a bit. What a charming city! It offers a wonderful glimpse into the country’s history and culture and boats some fabulous restaurants and shops. True, it does not necessarily accommodate the traveler looking to lie on white sand and catch some rays – but don’t we all travel to relax and to expand our understanding of the world?
Check out some of my recommendations below:
This is the main tourist hub of the city, and rightly so. Beautiful, old architecture lines the narrow streets; doors and windows are painted in bright, bold colors. The main drag is the Calle de Conde, a cobblestone street open only to pedestrians with lots of shops, restaurants, and food and art vendors lining its sides. There are plenty of hotel options, from budget-friendly to budget-busting. I stayed at the Hotel Mercure which had its own restaurant that served breakfast every morning, as well as a patio that spilled right onto the Conde – a great people-watching spot!
To Eat: Wander through the Plaza de España
Also in the Zona Colonial is the Plaza de España, a large open area where many tourists and locals come to unwind. There are lots of restaurants to choose from, most offering seating just adjacent to the plaza where you’ll have a front-row seat for any live music or entertainment taking place. A favorite that I kept returning to was Pura Tasca; they serve great tapas and delicious sangria. Desert was the most mouth-watering: ice cream drenched in nutella, served with lychees and pop-rocks candy.
“Getting to the Plaza de España will require you to walk along the Calle de Las Damas, the oldest paved street in the Americas, dating back to 1502.”
Another popular, albeit more expensive, dining option is Pat’e Palo. It boasts a European-Caribbean fusion menu with lots of delicious options to choose from. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is the restaurant’s décor: each room has a completely different feel, from a classic library, to a centuries-old dining room, to an exquisitely modern lounge.
Fun fact: Getting to the Plaza de España will require you to walk along the Calle de Las Damas, the oldest paved street in the Americas, dating back to 1502.
To Exercise: Run or walk along the Malecón
The Malecón is Santo Domingo’s oceanfront promenade, easily accessible from the Zona Colonial. It spans several miles from east to west and the farther west you head, the more “tourist-friendly” it becomes, with hotels, bars, restaurants, and frozen yogurt shops lining the street.
The Malecón is a very popular running and exercise spot for locals, too; there are even outdoor gyms set up with body and hand weight machines available for use. Although quieter in the mornings, it always felt safe and I never sensed that I was out of place.
Note: the term “oceanfront” can be deceiving. Santo Domingo’s beaches, particularly near the Zona Colonial, are not ideal for swimming. It is fun to walk or run alongside the water to get a glimpse of how the resource is used by the public, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be taking a dip once you’ve completed your exercise routine.
To Learn: Museums galore!
There are many museums to explore in Santo Domingo, including the anthropological museum, the Columbus Alcazar (the oldest “palace” in the Americas, built by Christopher Columbus’ son), and the Ozama Fort (a 16th century castle erected by the Spanish). On a side street parallel to the Calle de Conde is the Museum of the Resistance, which details the history of the movement against former President Rafael Trujillo and the atrocities committed under his rule. It has been estimated that Trujillo’s tyrannical rule was responsible for the death of over 50,000 people; the story is well-told in the book “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez.
To Unwind: A visit to Tres Ojas
Tres Ojas is located about 15 minutes outside of Santo Domingo and is reminiscent of Mexico’s cenotes: a series of underground lakes and caves surrounded by limestone cliffs. Although you cannot swim in the lakes (as you can in the cenotes), there is an opportunity to ride on a small boat from one to the other. Spending time at Tres Ojas can be a nice way to break up a day; you won’t need more than a couple of hours there.
So… what’s holding you back?
The world awaits.