Dominican Republic – City to the Beach

It was late November when we flew into Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. It is home to 3 out of the 10 million Dominicans living in the small country. The Dominican Republic borders on Haiti, together they share the island of La Hispaniola.

Once at the airport we paid our US$10 each before going through immigration. There were no clear signs stating the mandatory entry fee (so don’t make the mistake many others do by lining up in immigration only to be turned away and redirected to the fee line first). Believe me you don’t want to make this process any longer than it already is (it’s really slow).

After collecting our luggage we took out some Dominican Pesos (DOP) at the nearest ATM. At that time it worked out to be about US$1 for every 40 DOP. They use both currencies in the Dominican Republic but we found it good to generally use the Peso which is more commonly used by the locals. Unfortunately the taxi service is a complete ripoff and there is no way around it. It cost us US$40 to get into town.

The drive to town was interesting. It was a strange contrast because on one side of the highway were the stunning waters of the Caribbean with tall swaying palms and a brilliant sunset. Then on the other side were numerous run down iron gated homes and buildings and decrepit streets. We passed numerous cars not in the best shape and lots of packed Guaguas (urban buses). The layout of the roads had been poorly planned so the locals had taken it upon themselves to create rough shortcuts when needed.

As we entered the colonial part of town (where our hotel was) we noticed police and night watchmen on patrol on almost every corner. We heard that Santo Domingo could be somewhat unruly in some areas but this area was supposed to be the safest and most frequented by tourists.

The Palacio was a really nice quaint hotel and the reception very warm and welcoming. This place got great reviews on Tripadvisor so that was one of the main reasons we booked it. Our room was nicely decorated and roomy with tall vaulted ceilings. In the middle of the hotel was a nice big open leafy courtyard where we would be having our breakfasts every morning.

By the time we were settled in it was dinnertime. The lady at the front desk recommended a place for us to go to and gave us some safety tips before heading out. The Dominican Republic after all is a developing country and has an unemployment rate of almost 20%, so better to be safe than sorry.

She recommended not to wear gold or flashy jewelry and not to display cameras. Really just try not to attract unwanted attention and just use our common sense. So with suggestions noted we headed out into the dimly lit streets. The atmosphere was eerily quiet and people were sparse. That was until we got to their main pedestrian street located just a block away and then it turned into a different world. The street was nicely decorated with rustic looking Christmas decorations and lined with shops and restaurants filled with happy patrons.

We were headed to a restaurant called Pat e Palo which is located next to the Alcázar de Colon. There were a few other restaurants to choose from as well, all overlooking the Plaza de Espana. Candlelight lit up the area and patrons sat around having drinks and dinner in the tranquil atmosphere. They have some very creative chefs there and excellent seafood.

On the way home we heard some live music being played off in the distance so we followed the sound until we came upon a place called Ruinas de San Francisco. It was teeming with happy people listening to a local band belting out Spanish tunes. The backdrop looked amazing with old stone ruins. It was Sunday night and we hear that this live musical event occurs every Sunday night – how lucky were we! Unfortunately we didn’t stay too long (we still had some pretty bad jet lag) so we called it an early night.

The next morning after a lovely breakfast in the courtyard we headed out for our first sightsee. The day was warm with bright sunny skies. The streets seemed to transform in the daytime and became alive with activity. The El Conde pedestrian street shops were now all open and vendors were out and about selling local goods.

At the end of the street we came upon the Parque Independencia where there is a giant white marble mausoleum that houses the remains of the three founding fathers of the Dominican Republic. While we were there a local guide called Raphael Perez approached us and for US$20 he promised to show us the sights around Santo Domingo for the next hour. We thought this was a great way to learn the history of the place so we eagerly listened and followed.

Yes, Santo Domingo is rough around the edges but it has some very interesting history and some pretty magnificent spots. We saw beautiful old buildings dating back to the early 1500 including America’s first cathedral – the Catedral Santa Maria La Menor. We liked walking along the streets and looking at the numerous 17th century colonial style homes which were all painted in an array of charming colors.

Along the way Raphael took us to a jewelry shop and we got to see one of their semi-precious stones called Larimar. It is a beautiful bright pale blue stone which can only be found in the Dominican Republic. Afterwards we went to a different shop where we got to see them grind the stones down and make jewelry pieces. While there we got to try some of the Dominican’s brewed liquor called Mamajuana. It’s made with rum, red wine, tree bark and herbs. I really liked it and thought it tasted similar to a nice port. Although the shops were clearly set up for tourists, the shopkeepers were very polite and didn’t pressure us at all. That was a refreshing change!

Before parting ways with Raphael he showed us a great little café to go to for lunch called Mimosa. They served real Dominican fare and charged local prices. We had an excellent lunch of their staple rice and beans with a delicious tomato beef stew.

We really liked Santo Domingo, it was different to most places we’ve been to and we especially liked our hotel. Unfortunately our stay there was short but only because we had booked ourselves into another spot down the coast at the Dreams La Romana Resort.

The next morning we got a driver to pick us up and we drove 2 hours down the coast just past La Romana to an area called La Bayahibe, that’s where our resort was located. That trip cost us US$100 (and that was cheap compared to other fares advertised).

Along the way we drove through small towns with buildings that were unfortunately in the same derelict shape with dusty roads, refuge on the streets and mangy dogs hanging about. Out of town we passed massive sugar can fields, lush green jungle and locals with homemade fruit stands selling mounds of fresh coconuts, plantain and bananas.

Thankfully the highway proved to be in good shape (for the most part) and not too congested. Just passed La Romana we passed some armed police stopping cars for road checks. According to our driver these poorly paid soldiers are seeking bribes as well. Luckily we were waved through.

This was our second time at an all-inclusive resort and since our first was a nightmare we were really hoping this stay would change our minds. Before booking this one we made sure to do our homework. We had read numerous reviews about the resort and found that the best place to stay was in the preferred club section. Luckily for us it was low season so it didn’t break the bank. An all-inclusive for two people cost US$250 a night in their preferred club, we thought was a pretty good deal.

As soon as we arrived we were given some champagne and our bags were immediately put on a trolley. Then we were led to a different part of the resort for check-in. We were grateful for even this little perk because just as we arrived a busload of tourists had arrived so the foyer was teeming with people and luggage.

After checking in we were given special cards to identify ourselves and then we were shown to our room. They gave us a beautiful room overlooking the pool and garden area. We were excited to check out the place so we quickly put on our swimmers and headed out.

The resort was massive! It had 3 giant pools and 7 restaurants to choose from. Being an all-inclusive we thought this was a great idea and put some variety into it all. The beach area was enormous and was filled with a sea of blue beach chairs. The sand was silky soft and the water a beautiful blue and warm as bath water.

We had our own private section on the beach to sit at. This was good but we found that people liked to reserve their seats with towels at the crack of dawn. This was a bit of a shame. If you got to the pool area after say 8am there were slim pickings.

Our days consisted of taking full advantage of the relaxing atmosphere. The drinks were great, the food good and the service excellent. We also enjoyed the snorkeling out front. The water wasn’t exactly teeming with life but it still had some good little critters to look at. Besides that, just swimming in the warm water was lovely especially during sunset when an array of intense fiery colors would light up the sky.

For dinner we particularly liked going to the Dominican restaurant since they served some delicious local dishes. The dining area was situated outdoors amongst the jungle and was beautifully lit. The temperature at night was nice and balmy adding to the ambience.

One night while walking to the restaurant along dimly lit paths my wife abruptly froze and was staring intensely at something on the ground on my side of the path. I looked down and to my shock and horror there was a massive tarantula the size of a bread plate (no lie!) on the path. My wife screamed bloody murder since she has a pretty bad case of arachnophobia and did a 20yard sprint in about 3 seconds into the arms of a waitress. That was the biggest spider I have ever seen in my life!!! The waitress was just as shocked and couldn’t believe the size of it. Other night goers were walking up the path and we had to warn them so they wouldn’t accidentally step on it.

Let’s just say a few vinos went down that night my friends. Looking back it was pretty cool to see such a creature. The hotel staff kindly removed the spider and put it back in the jungle where it belonged.

One perk to staying in the preferred section of the resort was that we weren’t constantly harassed by people trying to sell us a Vacation Club membership. We had heard numerous horror stories of people looking to come there for a nice relaxing vacation but instead ended up being constantly hassled and tricked into buying into their Vacation Club.

Unfortunately too good to be true proves too much for some and they fall into the dreaded Vacation Club trap. Some people may say they don’t regret buying into these but they obviously haven’t read the fine print and may not be financially savvy enough to really understand what a scam it truly is. There are way too many horror stories out there to prove otherwise. And who in their right mind would sign a binding document out of their own country without legal advice … dangerous! We saw many people being approached at the lobby as they arrived. They were offered the standard gifts (massages etc) in return for attending a 3 hour presentation / tour.

We enjoyed our resort experience although I have to say that we still preferred to have our own independent stay in Santo Domingo. Overall our experience in both places was well worth the trip. We found the people friendly and the beaches really nice. One thing we would recommend though is to have some Spanish up your sleeve. Not only is it polite to know a few words but also because English isn’t spoken at all in some places.

Rob Gower’s Dominican Republic Photo Gallery

This travel diary has been written by Rob Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!

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