I took a short trip to the Dominican Republic (DR) with a friend a few years ago — and while I had a great time, I quickly realized how much more remains to be discovered! This trip wasn’t about checking sights off a list, but kicking back and enjoying the atmosphere of Hispaniola. After exploring the fun, vibrant capital of Santo Domingo, we rented a car and took a road trip out west– it was an adventure!
I wasn’t really sure what to expect in Santa Domingo, but it was much larger and more exciting than I’d imagined! We stayed at the Intercontinental, which was centrally located and a good base for exploring the city. North of the city has plenty of parks and botanical gardens, while the downtown area has a few public beaches along the waterfront.
There are several impressive sites in the colonial area, such as the Fortaleza Ozama, a medieval fort from the 1500s. Don’t miss the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, which is the oldest cathedral in the Americas, dating back to 1541! It is built from a light coral limestone and features a double-headed eagle. In the area surrounding Columbus Park, there are plenty of museums, cafes, and restaurants.
Another spot worth visiting is the Alcázar de Colón, the governor’s palace, which was apparently built by Christopher Columbus’ son. The Alcazar sits on the Plaza de la Hispanidad, which has plenty of cafes and is a nice spot to spend an afternoon.
Also, just near the waterway is the Pantheon of the Fatherland— originally a Jesuit church that became a monument to famous citizens– featuring an honor guard and an eternal flame.
Food / Drink: While seafood is the first thing that came to mind when I was in the DR, I was impressed by the wide variety of meat and vegetable dishes on offer. Anyone going to DR should try mofongo at least once — it’s mashed fried plantains (with spices and broth) in a large cup, with shredded pork or beef on top. It’s quite tasty, but I recommend having hot sauce handy for once you get past the meat and still have to tackle the large pile of plantain underneath : ) Driving through the countryside, we saw several people selling wooden mortal & pestle sets to mash mofongo.
The local liquor is called mamajuana, created from a mix of red wine, rum, and honey — soaked with tree bark. The taste varies, but I generally found homemade versions to be a bit richer and tastier than the commercially-available versions. Try both and decide for yourself!
The nightlife was great in Santo Domingo! While there were plenty of nightclubs, we had the most fun on the Malecon – the long walking area on the waterfront. Large crowds of people filled the strip, where you can enjoy the pleasant evening weather and fresh sea air, while grabbing snacks and drinks to go from a local bar. The evening was not without drama, however, as a scuffle broke out between two groups of people on the Malecon. The scuffle intensified as crowds gathered around to watch. My buddy and I backed away (towards the beach) and seconds later we heard a couple gunshots report, followed by a flood of people rushing away and taking cover in various structures along the beach walk. Shortly afterwards, people regrouped in different areas of the Malecon to keep the party going.
We also went to Guacara Taina — a nightclub in a massive underground cave– complete with colorful lights, beats, stalactites AND stalagmites– but no people! Strangely enough, while I had heard rave reviews about this place, it was completely empty (on a weekend). Anyhow– it now shows that it’s permanently closed, but a cool, massive cave like that probably won’t stay unused for long, so watch this space!
We also had a lot of fun at the Bodegas — small corner shops that also serve as the communal gathering spot. We would periodically pop into local bodegas for a quick snack during the day — and at nighttime we would stay longer for music and dancing!
In addition, there’s a great street food scene in the city, ranging from fancy food trucks to small street stands on the sidewalk. Either way, the food was delicious — especially the chicken, plantains, and hot sauce! The local beer, “Presidente” is passable on a hot day.
Barahona is a pleasant seaside town in southern DR, which has some good restaurants and beaches. After having mofongo at a local cafe, we went to the coast and found some nearby beaches. Heading further up the coast, we noticed some people who lived nearby collecting stones — upon closer inspection, they were picking up Larimar — an aqua blue colored stone that is only found in the DR. There are plenty of shops on the island that sell polished / finished pieces as well as Larimar jewelry– but it was fun to find it straight from the source!
Lago Enriquillo / Duverge / Jimani
Heading West from Santo Domingo, the city eventually gives way to lush green rolling hills dotted with small villages along the way. We stopped for a snack at the village of Duverge, famous for its statue of a giant iguana, before heading onward.
As we entered more rustic areas, most of the buildings were small, brightly-colored wooden panel structures (which reminded me of the Chattel houses on Barbados).
We made our way to Lago Enriquillo, a huge inland lake that seems to be growing and overtaking the surrounding land. While the area is very scenic, it’s also a bit spooky, with husks of dead trees sticking out of water– and even the road itself was nearly swallow up by the lake.
Note— watch out for wild cactus while hiking around this area. While walking around the lake, a two-inch cactus spike on the ground went right through the sole of my shoe and into my foot! I didn’t know cacti could be that strong!
We eventually ended up at Jimani, a small town on the border with Haiti. We considered crossing into Haiti, but it became clear we would’ve needed more advance planning to make it work. Since we couldn’t drive our rental car across the border, we parked it on the side of the road and proceed to the border crossing on foot. In some areas, the narrow dirt road was completely covered by the lake, so we splashed through and kept going, eventually hitching a ride with two motorbikers that were heading to the border. The crossing point itself was chaotic maze of cargo trucks, containers, and people, with very little cross-border movement going on. We jostled our way to the border fence, but it wasn’t clear that we could get onward transportation or what the customs process at the Mallepasse border point would entail on the other side. So we eventually eventually backtracked to Jimani and stayed on the DR side.
Something for Next Time: Next visit, I’d like to spend more time visiting remote beaches and doing some nature hikes further afield. In particular, Mrs. Yakpacker and I would like to explore the Jaragua National Park — especially the beaches of Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas. Up north, I’d like to try out kite surfing at the beach town of Cabarete, while hiking around Las Galeras and lounging on the beach at Las Terrenas. Oh … and one of these days, we’ll head to the famous resorts at Punta Cana : )