Welcome to the Dominican Republic, home of palm-fringed beaches, colonial history and laid-back locals. This piece of paradise is a prime tourist destination for Europeans and North Americans alike in search of crystalline waters and sugary sand beaches nothing short of spectacular. For those that want to bask in the sun, there is a wealth of beach spots peppering the expansive coast of this Caribbean country. Resort town such as Boca Chica, Punta Cana and Puerto Plata are loaded with all-inclusive resorts for those with a desire to be pampered. Diving enthusiasts are drawn to Bayahibe for its amazing wealth of submarine life. For more active souls, the northern coast is the place to be. Cabarete, popular for its world class surfing and wind surfing caters to a younger, more adventurous crowd. Perhaps the most stunning natural beauty in the country is found on the Samaná Peninsula, in the country's northeast corner. Lined with remote beaches and hidden bays, this remote region was for years the Dominican Republic's undiscovered gem. Though tourism is now booming, there still exists a laid-back feel to this verdant green peninsula and plenty of undiscovered beaches to explore. On the southern coast, the capitol city of Santo Domingo was once the center of the Spanish empire in all of the Americas. As a result, its streets are full of history dating back more than 500 years. The old quarter, known as the Zona Colonial, preserves the remains of Columbus' first city. The narrow streets and public plazas whisk visitors back in time and the Spanish forts, colonial churches and antiquated palaces stand as testimony to the glory of centuries past. Strolling through the streets, one can only imagine the Santo Domingo of old, when it was an outpost for the New World. Today though, el capital, as it is called, is a pulsating mix of old and new. For those in tune with nightlife, Santo Domingo has a pretty cosmopolitan vibe, as there are plenty of upscale restaurants, trendy bars and rowdy night clubs to choose from. With merengue pumping incessantly, the action often continues until dawn.
Located on the eastern coast of the island, there was a time when Punta Cana was nothing more than vast sugar plantations. But when an American developer flew overhead and saw the white sands and turquoise waters below, that soon changed. Today, Punta Cana has become the premiere destination for all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, each one trying to out do the other in style, amenities and activities. For those looking for a time-out from life's daily struggles, a week of all-inclusive service on these immaculate, palm-fringed beaches will surely cure what ails the weary soul.
Jutting into the Atlantic is this beach-fringed jewel, located off the northeast corner of the Dominican Republic. With its desolate playas and laid-back vibe, Samaná is ideal for those that crave some solitude. Between the amazing snorkeling and scuba diving, the plethora of undiscovered beaches and the variety of intimate European-owned inns and restaurants, the Samaná Peninsula is a great get-away for a true island explorer.
Colonial Zone, Santo Domingo
When Santo Domingo was first settled, the 1500s were still referred to as "the near future." Christopher Columbus arrived here in 1492, but the city was actually founded by his brother Bartholomew four years later. Santo Domingo became the capitol of the Spanish colonies and as a result was loaded with forts, churches and mansions, many of which still stand. Strolling the cobblestone streets of this colonial zone and touring sixteenth century palaces, convents and cathedrals, it's easy to lose track of time—centuries, that is.
Nightlife in on the Northern Coast
Nighthawks will love the nocturnal action in Sosúa and Puerto Plata, two of the liveliest spots in the Dominican Republic. Located about half an hour apart, these two towns feature some of the rowdiest bars, beach discos and nightclubs in all of the Caribbean. Happy hour starts at 5 and the action continues until dawn, so grab a cuba libre and let the fun begin.
Who can resist the intoxicating merengue beat? Certainly not the Dominicans. As any visitor will notice, these people always seem to be dancing. One doesn't have to go far to find merengue—just walk in a supermarket or jump in a taxi. But for a real cultural immersion, check out some of the merengue clubs in Santo Domingo and get ready to shake that tail.
Windsurfing in Cabarete
For world champions and beginners alike, this beach on the northern coast is a super spot for wind-related sports. The waters are ideal for windsurfing and kitesurfing and the laid-back vibe of the beach, coupled with a thumping nightlife, makes Cabarete the perfect destination for the energetic soul.
With plenty of coral reefs and a vast array of underwater life, the Dominican Republic is a sensational spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. The east coast near Punta Cana has some wonderful dive sites, as does the more remote Samaná Peninsula, but the best spot may be the fishing village of Bayahibe on the eastern coast. Also known as Playa Dominicus, this stretch of coast is an underwater lover's delight.
People and Culture
The Dominicans are an extremely friendly lot, eager to share their fun with foreign visitors. A glimpse into daily life will reveal the passions of these people but more than anything else, life here is dictated by the rhythm of merengue, the musical craze that conquered this Caribbean nation and spread throughout the world. There is no need to search out the music—merengue has a constant presence, as everyone seems to be dancing. Guaguas (as the busses here are called) vibrate from the blaring melody and seemingly every commercial establishment—from tire shop to fruit stall—is a prisoner to the merengue beat. Taxi drivers sing along, six year-old girls shake their hips in perfect cadence and a peek into any kitchen will reveal dancing chefs, which may explain the long wait involved in food preparation.
Besides their music (which in addition to merengue also includes the more folk-oriented bachata), baseball is another national pastime. The Dominican league has been capturing drawing crowds for decades, and today many Dominican players dominate the major leagues. Baseball success is a major source of pride for the country—people talk about Pedro, Sammy, Manny and A-Rod as if they were national liberators. Many erroneously assume the Americans brought baseball to the island when their military took over the country, but this is not quite true. In fact, baseball's arrival to the Caribbean dates back to 1866 when American sailors loading sugar in Cuba passed the game to the locals. When a civil war broke out years later, many Cubans migrated to the Dominican Republic, bringing beisbol with them.
The Dominican Republic has a fascinating, though bloody history, dating back to the island's original inhabitants, the Taíno Indians. Long before European arrival, this tribe of Arawaks had established complex chiefdoms, with head chiefs receiving tribute in the form of donated food supplies from their subjects. Today though, all that is left to remember this proud culture are scattered cave paintings and a few Taíno words such as hurricane and tobacco. Sadly, Indian culture on Quisqueya, as they named the island, was destroyed with the arrival of the Europeans. Columbus landed in 1492 and handed the island over to his son Diego, who established himself as viceroy. Santo Domingo was founded four years later, which stands as the oldest European settlement in the Americas. Over the years to come, the Indians would meet a tragic fate as the inevitable clash with the Europeans led to the rapid extermination of the Taíno people.
Political stability was never a mainstay on the island. The colony was ceded to France in 1795 and six years later the French were ousted by a rebellion of former slaves, led by Haitian leader Toussaint L'Ouverture. The action continued as a popular revolt ousted the Haitians and established a republic in 1808. Not to be outdone, the Spanish returned to power six years later but were overthrown seven years after that, only to see the Haitians reconquer in 1822. It wasn't until 1844 that the Haitians were ousted for good and the Dominican Republic was officially created. But independence did not last long; in order to protect the country from Haitian attacks, Santana invited the Spanish back, and the D.R. became a Spanish province once again. Years later, the country regained independence but was nearly annexed by the United States. When the dictatorship Ulíses Heureaux sunk the country into chaos, the U.S. Marines invaded, occupying the country from 1916 until 1934 to "restore order."
One of the sergeants the US trained was Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, who in 1930 led a coup d'etat, establishing himself as President. In the thirty one years that followed, Trujillo consolidated his power, taking complete control of the country's politics and economy. In the process, he controlled the press, forbade dissent and cracked down on popular freedoms. Meanwhile, his special police imprisoned, tortured and killed anyone suspected of opposing his iron-fisted rule. His assassination in 1961 shocked the world, leaving a considerable power vacuum to fill.
Soon thereafter Juan Bosch of the leftist Dominican Revolutionary Party was elected President, but the following year another military coup ousted installed a more right-wing leader in his place. The leftists rebelled, which prompted the US under President Johnson to intervene. When the Americans sent troops, the left-wingers were forced to compromise and a year later, the rightist candidate Joaquin Balaguer won the free election, prompting the US to withdraw. Over the next two decades, the Balaguer and various left-wing leaders from the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party would serve as President. The economy was overhauled when Leonel Fernández won the election in 1996 and initiated the privatization process, selling off industries that had been taken over by the state during Trujillo's rule. His economic action ended decades of isolationism, but was criticized by the poverty-stricken. After losing the next election, Fernández returned to power in 2004 and has since led a push to save his country from the brink of economic ruin. Crime continues to be a major problem in the country's major cities, but the recent acquisition of an IMF loan was an encouraging step towards economic regularization.
Though most visitors come here to bask in the 850 miles of coastline, the Dominican Republic is home to a stunning natural landscape. Being the second largest country in the Caribbean, the D.R. possesses an incredibly diverse geography, including 27 different climatic zones. The most common ecosystem is the subtropical forest, both verdant and exotic, and characterized by coconut palms, cedar, mahogany and royal palms. In addition, mangrove forests can be found nestled amongst the coast. In the higher regions lie the mountain forests, interesting because of the presence of palms, pines and ferns in the same zone. Blessed with five mountain ranges, roughly 80% of the country is mountainous. Luckily, most of these mountains are still covered with forest (unlike the other half of Hispaniola in Haiti, which has been completely deforested). The largest range in the West Indies is the Cordillera Central, which runs through the center of the island from Massif du Nord in Haiti all the way to the Caribbean coast of the D.R. This range is home to some of the highest mountains in the West Indies; in fact, Pico Duarte, at 10,128 feet (3,087 m) is the highest peak in all of the Caribbean. The ranges south of the Cordillera Central are dominated by an arid, rocky landscape as opposed to the fertile mountains of the north. Being crisscrossed by so many ranges, the Dominican Republic is home to several highland valleys, the most well-known being the super-fertile Cibao Valley, described by Columbus as "paradise." At the other extreme is the desert-like Enriquillo Basin, the small southern valley that is actually below sea level and home to cacti.
As for the coastline, the beaches along the northern shore are set on the Atlantic Ocean, which is where the more active travelers are drawn, while the southern and eastern coasts set along the Caribbean Sea are renowned for their turquoise waters and white sands. There are also a number of beautiful offshore islands, such as the spectacular Isla Saona, Isla Beata and the even-smaller Isla Catalina.
Due to its geographical range, the Dominican Republic is home to a fascinating array of flora and fauna. The country's well established national parks and protected areas are the best places to witness the grandeur first hand. Turtles are a popular draw, especially the world's largest species, the leatherback, which is just one of four species found along these coasts. Reptile-lovers will also enjoy the rhinoceros iguana, an endangered species endemic to the island that can be seen during the day in arid, rocky areas. The American crocodile population here is one of the largest in the world, especially along Lago Enriquillo. Another big natural draw is the wide variety of birds, both endemic and non-endemic. There are plethoras of species native to the island, such as the Hispaniolan parakeet, parrot, woodpecker and trogon. In keeping with the tourist theme, the Dominican Republic attracts a lot of visitors from the North American mainland, and migrating birds are no exception. Along the coasts, a number of beautiful shorebirds can be seen, such as flamingos, egrets, blue herons, ducks and pelicans. In the interior, a number of rare hummingbirds and butterfly species keep even the keenest birdwatchers on their toes.
But no discussion of natural attractions in the Dominican Republic would be complete without a voyage into the submarine realm. Snorkeling and scuba diving are very popular here and though some of the coral reefs have been badly damaged, there are still amazing sites to be explored. Some of the best are Punta Cana, Saona Island, Bayahibe and Catalina Island. Not to be outdone, marine mammals are a common sight in these waters; the endangered West Indian manatee is frequently spotted in Samaná Bay. The northern coast is also a prime breeding spot for the humpback whales; during the winter months, thousands of whales flock from the North Atlantic to take advantage of the warm protected waters. They don't eat here, choosing to live off the fat they have amassed during their feeding season in the northern Atlantic. Instead, they come here to reproduce. Samaná Bay is the best place for whale-watching from January to March. The humpbacks—measuring up to 45 feet in length and weighing upwards of 60 tons—are hard to miss.
The Dominican Republic has over forty national parks and protected areas; highlights include the caves, rock paintings and swamps of Parque de los Haitises and also Parque Nacional del Este, ideal for birdwatching. Other points to check out are Barahona in the less-traveled south for its nearby network of hidden caves, Las Galeras on the Samaná Peninsula, home to excellent rock climbing and Bayahibe on the eastern coast, which is home to some of the best scuba sites in the country. Though the country experiences environmental degradation such as deforestation and damage to coral reefs, the natural draw of the Dominican Republic is just starting to be realized.
Climate and Weather
Sun-lovers rejoice! The Dominican Republic is home to beautiful tropical weather all year round, with an average annual temperature around 77°F (25°C). Most visitors to the D.R. head towards the beaches along the coast, where the two "seasons" see little variation in the overall climate. In fact, during the cool season (November to April), highs still hover around 83°F (28°C) though the nights do get a little cooler, with lows around 68°F (20°C). The lower humidity during these months makes the Dominican Republic a wonderful getaway during those harsh Northern Hemisphere winters. In general, the summer months (May to October) are hotter, with higher humidity and day-time highs around 87°F (31°C) and nights dipping to 72°F (22°C). August is the island's hottest month as the humidity can get a bit stifling, though it's always cooler up in the mountains.
For those worried about rain, the highest precipitation falls along the northern coast between November and January. The southern half of the country receives its heavier rain between May and November, but most of these rains consist of sudden downpours, followed by plenty of sunshine. In fact, with an average precipitation of only 70 inches (150 cm), getting "rained out" is quite unusual here in the Dominican Republic. Being in the Caribbean, the island is occasionally hit by tropical cyclones and hurricanes; "high season" for tropical storms is August and September, though most of the harm is limited to property damage. The majority of these storms strike the southern coast of the island, though the Samaná Peninsula is hit hard from time to time as well.
The climate in the mountainous interior is cooler, with occasional frost on the country's tallest peaks. Those headed to popular tourist spots such as Jarabacoa and Constanza along the Cordillera Central should be aware highs top off at 61°F (16°C). Meanwhile, the country's southwest is particularly arid. Though this desert region is not as popular with tourists, travelers should expect highs around 104°F (40°C)—yeah, serious heat. For those in search of a bit of endless summer, the Dominican Republic fits the bill. Most visitors to the coastal regions will be greeted by bright sunny skies interrupted by the occasional torrential outburst—a true tropical cocktail.
Map and Location
Location: Caribbean, eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, bordering Haiti to the east.
Geographic coordinates: 19 00 N, 70 40 W
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4
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