Skip Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Head to Santo Domingo Instead.
What do you do when there's a long weekend coming up? If you're like me, you look up flights just to see what you find. Then, you book that $175 bargain flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
People will ask you why Santo Domingo. After all, the Dominican capital is not exactly a tourism hub. Not when the gorgeous beaches and all-inclusive resorts in Punta Cana and Puerto Plata beacon. But that, it turns out, is exactly what makes the city so alluring.
Though my first impressions were somewhat tepid, by the end of the trip, I was completely won over. So much so, that I'd say Santo Domingo should be a high priority on your Caribbean travel list.
The First City in the Americas?
The main draw of the Dominican capital is its well-preserved and very large colonial center. Santo Domingo claims to be the first city in the Americas.
This, of course, isn't exactly accurate. There were already multiple large, complex and advanced cities in the Americas well before the Spanish arrived. Cortez famously called Mexico's Technotitlan a "great city" and compared its size to that of Sevilla or Cordoba in Spain.
However, Santa Domingo was the first city the Spanish founded after colonizing the continent. And — while colonial architecture can have a painful historical connotation — there is no denying that it's beautiful.
While there are many colonial centers around Latin America, Santo Domingo's might be the most impressive. Plan at least a day of just walking around the neighborhood, passing by colorful houses decorated with flowers dropping down from balconies. Many of these historic homes have been converted to cafes, restaurants or hotels. Some double up as museums.
The heart of the center is Parque Colon, once the main town square. Everything in the neighborhood stems from it, so it's a perfect place to gather forces. The square is lined with restaurants and cafes from where you can comfortably people watch. Or if you rather do it for free, sit on a bench in front of the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, another must-see landmark.
Make sure to also make time to see Calle de las Damas (the oldest street in the city), the Museum of the Royal Houses and the Colombus Alcazar.
While this is the main tourism hub in Santo Domingo, you'll be surprised to look around and notice that the tourist to local ratio still tips heavily to the latter.
This would be a recurring theme of my time in the city, where I more often than not found myself being one of few tourists. And, in some places, the only tourist.
OK, But What About the Beach?
I hear you. People go to the Caribbean so they can splash in the Caribbean. In all honesty, Santo Domingo itself does not have nice beaches.
It's interesting that a city right on the ocean lacks good places to go for a swim, but the beaches I saw were filled with trash to the point that getting in the water was not allowed. But this is the Dominican Republic, and a nice beach is never far away.
Most people go to Boca Chica Beach. Once a quiet seaside village, it is now known for its all-inclusive resorts. Every Dominican that I spoke with — both before and during the trip — told me to skip it, so I'll relay their wisdom to you.
Juan Dolio is another favored beach that at least one person described as one of the most beautiful beaches they've ever seen. Though popular with tourists, it's a bit farther away than Boca Chica, so it isn't as crowded.
Because this was a vacation and I wanted to be on a quiet beach, drinking beer and eating fried fish, I opted for neither. Instead, I went to a small part of Playa Guayacanes, which is in between the other two.
Since it was a Sunday, the beach was busy, but I didn't see any other tourists around. Instead, it was mostly extended families enjoying a weekend by the sea. Facilities were more limited, but there was space on the sand and fresh fried fish. And that's all I really needed.
A National Park Within the City
If you need more time near (though not in) the water, visit Three Eyes National Park.
Set within the city limits, this small urban park was created to protect a pristine underground river, divided by three main caves (hence the name). Although the Taíno people were well aware of its existence, this magical place remained a secret to the western world until 1912.
It then became a popular place for bathing. The park is marked by a giant collapsed cave ceiling, which creates an entrance into the river and the smaller caves. With the sun, the azure water sparkles and becomes see-through. In the Dominican heat, the allure of the water becomes almost impossible to resist.
Sadly (OK, thankfully), bathing and swimming were banned in the 1970s, so you're forced to stand there and fantasize about splashing into the cool, still river.
In one of the caves, you can board a small boat, pulled by hand. At the risk of giving away the surprise, I'll tell you that this is the best part of the visit. As you float to the belly of the cave, you think you'll meet a wall. When you get off on the other side, ready to enjoy its cool darkness, you're flooded by unexpected light.
You climb a few steps to inspect where it's coming from and are greeted by a secret cave, straight out of the Garden of Eden. A large round hole replaces the ceiling, letting light in. Plants grow around the water and extend their hands up to the skies. Birds fly into the cave, filling it with the echo of their sweet songs.
It's a sight so mesmerizing, that it's worth visiting the park just for it.
(A note: This was probably the only place I went to that had many tourists. Get there early to beat the rush — and the heat.)
Everyone Is Welcome to Party in the Streets
Street parties are the best parties. Santo Domingo knows this very well.
Sunday evenings, everyone in the city is welcome to free — yes, free — merengue concerts by the local band Grupo Bonyé. Held right in front of the crumbling ruins of the Saint Francis Convent, the setting couldn't be more perfect. (New York would kill to get close to this level of cool.)
Though a stage is set up for dancers, the party is so big that it spills over all the way to the bottom of the hilly street. Not that it matters, everyone is pretty happy to dance on the sloped cobblestones, or the asphalt sidewalks that during the day probably never imagined they would moonlight as a dancefloor.
We're not exaggerating when we say everyone is welcome. This is Latin America and going out to dance is not the exclusive privilege of people in their 20s. You'll see (and, if you want, dance with) people of all ages, even octogenarians, who may have lost their teeth, but not their rhythm.
Escaping to the Garden of Eden for a Culinary Adventure
Despite being the capital and a fairly busy city, Santo Domingo manages to maintain a laid-back vibe. But sometimes your soul still needs a respite from the honks of cars and the sound of traffic.
Looking for a getaway within my getaway, I booked an Airbnb experience to the Garden of Eden. This locally owned eco-tourism project invites people to escape the city while staying in the skirts of Santo Domingo Este. Jenny and Hector, the owners, have worked to green up their land as much as possible. Fruit trees cover up much of it, providing shade as well as delicious snacks.
The experience focuses on learning about Dominican food in an outdoor woodfire kitchen. We prepared chocolate from the seed, yuca pizza and goat stew. I take no credit when I say the goat stew was the best I've ever had.
But the true highlight of the Garden of Eden was getting to fulfill the fantasy of swimming in an underground cave. The property has its own little natural pool, which you reach by climbing down a winding staircase.
After cooking with a woodfire in the sweltering heat, we didn't hesitate to jump straight in.
Is Santo Domingo Worth Visiting?
If you want a resort vacation where you'll do nothing but lounge in the pool or the beach, Santo Domingo won't provide that. Sometimes this is exactly what you need. In that case, book a trip to Punta Cana.
But I will say that all the travelers I ended up befriending had been to Punta Cana before coming to the capital. And all of them said Santo Domingo was better — even without immediate access to the beach.
It's increasingly difficult to find a destination that doesn't feel like it's made to cater to you. Tourism is not the only way people in the city make money (though in general, it is the biggest industry in the country). So landmarks like Columbus Square are filled with many locals and a few travelers. This was true even at a rooftop bar with beautiful views over the cathedral, a place you'd expect to be packed with tourists.
But it was Dominicans who got to enjoy the views, the beaches and the fancy restaurants.
Ironically, that makes Santo Domingo exactly the kind of place tourists want to visit.