The Independent Traveller’s Guide to the Dominican Republic

The Independent Traveller’s Guide to the Dominican Republic

The Independent Traveller’s Guide to the Dominican Republic.

This is not a country where most people backpack. But I’ve done it, spending over a month travelling around this country – and fell in love with the Dominican Republic. In all, I’ve been the the DR (as I call it) a total of 6 times. Friendly people, great beaches, rum, cigars, lively music (I’m a big merengue fan), and some (surprisingly) impressive historical buildings and monuments. The Dominican Republic is also a great spot for sports activities: water sports, canyoning, hiking, horse riding. Whether you stay in an all-inclusive resort (as most do) or backpack, you’ll find the information provided below of interest.

 

 

Top Places to see

Santo Domingo

The Zona Colonial (colonial district) has some incredible historical sites (it is a UNESCO World Heritage site) that are a must to anyone visiting the Dominican Republic. The Alcázar de Colón (Colón being Spanish for Columbus and nothing to do with your digestive track) was a palace built under the orders of Diego Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus, in 1510. Today it is a museum that houses the Caribbean’s most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art. The Fortaleza Ozama, completed in 1505, is the oldest formal military construction of European origin in America. An impressive architectural structure of medieval style and design, the Tower of Homage (Spanish: Torre del Homenaje) stands in the center of the grounds. The castle was designed to guard the entrance to the port of Santo Domingo and defend the city from seaborne enemies. The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor is the oldest cathedral in the Americas, begun in 1512 and completed in 1540. There are many other attractions including Casa de Bastidas, which now houses a children’s museum; the French Embassy, in a building said to have been the house of Hernán Cortés ; the Casa de Ovando, the former residence of Governor Nicolás de Ovando (now a luxury hotel); the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic; and the Museo de las Casas Reales, in the former governors’ palace. Walk the Calle del Conde (a pedestrian only street) – it leads from Parque Colón to the Puerta del Conde and Parque Independencia. Walk the malecon (seawall) for views of the Caribbean and, as you stray further from the Zona Colonial, of the large and fancy hotels lining this part of the coast. Santo Domingo deserves two days.

Accommodation recommendations: My favorite place is the Hotel Palacio. Another recommended place is Hotel Villa Colonial.

Tour: If not travelling to the DR independently, you can still see Santo Domingo. It’s really worth it. This full day tour from Punta Cana is recommended.

Santo Domingo, The Independent Traveller’s Guide to the Dominican Republic
Boca Chica

The best beach in the vicinity of Santo Domingo (45 minutes). A small town of (mostly) cheap hotels, it is the center of sun and sin (ie. lots of prostitutes). If that’s what you’re looking for, you can book your private transfer from Santo Domingo here.
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Samana Peninsula

The most glorious part of the country in my opinion. This narrow strip of land, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, has lush green hills, spectacular beaches with powdery white sand, swaying coconut and palm trees, and a transparent green-blue sea. There are some impressive waterfalls – the best known being the El Limon waterfall (only accessible by hiking or horseback riding). The geography is glorious and one of my highlights in the DR was riding a motorcycle from Sanchez (the industrial town that is the access point to the peninsula) over the mountains to Las Terrenas and all the way to the end of the peninsula at Las Galeras). I recommend Las Terrenas as a base to the area. Samana bay is a popular whale spotting area in January to March when humpback whales migrate to this area.

Accommodation recommendations in Las Terrenas: Hotel La Turtuga is a comfortable, affordable choice. Prices in the area have gone up considerably in the last few years and you’ll find a lot of upmarket choices along the beach. Hotel Villas Las Palmas al Mar is one of the better ones and prices are not extravagant.

Below: beach in Las Galeras

beach in las galeras, Dominican Republic Guide

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Cabarete

This small town, about 30 minutes from Puerto Plata, is the windsurfing and kiteboarding mecca of the Dominican Republic. The beaches are good (though not on par with some of the other beaches of the DR) but they are not the principle attraction; Cabarete is known as the “Adventure Capital of the Caribbean” with many water/land activities in the area. It has some good restaurants, an active nightlife, happening bars, and some affordable hotels. For all the above reasons, it is probably the most popular spot for backpackers in the Dominican Republic.

Recommended accommodationTropical Casa Laguna.

cabarete, Dominican Republic

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In the Mountains

There are two towns in the Cordillera Central mountain range (called the Cibao) that hold interest for travelers looking to do hiking and adventure sports in the highest mountain ranges in the Caribbean. Jarabacoa, is well set up for tourism with some good hotels and restaurants as well as plenty of adventure-tour outfits offering everything from whitewater rafting, kayaking and cascading to 3-day treks up bald-headed Pico Duarte (the highest peak in the Caribbean at over 3000 m). Even higher up is the town of Constanza, located in a green, fertile valley. The same hike up Pico Duarte can be done from here (an even more grueling 5 day hike). It also has other hiking trails and waterfalls in the near vicinity.  Whichever town you go to, dress warmly; the altitudes are high (they call this the ‘Dominican Alps’) and it can get cold and wet.

Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic

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Puerto Plata

When you see all-inclusive tour packages to “Puerto Plata” the place you will actually be staying at is the resort area of Playa Dorada  – 3 km from Puerto Plata, it is a gated tourist complex of about 15 resorts (and a whole other world than the actual town of Puerto Plata). Playa Dorada is where the all-inclusive tourists go and it has the cheapest packages in the Caribbean (competing with Varadero in Cuba). There is a reason for this – the beaches and location are nowhere as nice as some of the DR’s other resort areas.  You’ll see a big price spread between “Puerto Plata” and Punta Cana when looking for that all-inclusive package. Be warned.

Puerto plata, Dominican Republic Guide

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The actual town of Puerto Plata has a few attractions though none (in my opinion) worth spending the night for. I’d stay in Cabarete and make Puerto Plata a day trip. Main attractions: the Fortaleza San Felipe (nice views of the harbour) and the funicular (teleferico) to the top of Mount Isabel for great views of the city and the sea.

note: Canyoning at the Damajagua Falls near Puerto Plata is a popular activity and something that I enjoyed and will never forget. However it can be very dangerous, especially in rainy season. There’s been broken bones and cuts. Lonely Planet even recommends as a top 10 activity for anyone visiting the DR. Do it if you make sure you are a good swimmer and in good physical condition (I do hear though that they insist on you wearing helmets now. None of that when I went). Tour here.

There’s also a fun zip line where you get to meet monkeys. Tour here. Recommended.


Punta Cana

The premier all-inclusive tourist resort area in the Dominican Republic. Some really nice resorts on what are probably the best beaches in the country. But really just a place for sun, sand, and water activities – there is no “real town” in this area and the geography (inland) is the least impressive in the whole country. Punta Cana has become very popular in recent years. But just remember that all life centers on the resorts here, it is not the real DR. And remember to go to the airport early for the flight out – Punta Cana airport has a hard time handling all the traffic coming through here now!

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic Guide

 

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Some Fun Tours in Punta Cana

 

Costs

Lodging:  Most tourists stay in 5 star resorts. The backpacker can find great deals though – a no-frills (but comfortable and clean) room can cost anywhere from $25-$35. I’ve stayed in Dominican hotels in Cabarete, Las Terrenas, Bayahibe, Puerto Plata, and Santo Domingo and all were pleasant and inexpensive. A special treat is the Hotel  Palacio in Santo Domingo (you can get a room starting at about 80 USD) – but again, you can find hotels in the $30 range if you go there and have a look around.

Food: You can eat relatively cheaply in the Dominican Republic by sticking to local restaurants. Rice, beans, chicken and seafood are staples and local beer (El Presidente) and rum (Brugal) are inexpensive. Average meal, for one, in inexpensive/mid-range restaurant $6 – $10, a local beer less than $2.

Transportation: Caribe Tours covers the whole country and has comfortable and inexpensive buses. . The Dominican Republic also has a system of “guaguas”, private operators using vans or small buses, that go everywhere. Even cheaper than Caribe Tours but they can be cramped and as a tourist you won’t know where to take it. Ask a local.

 

Scams and Dangers

Contrary to popular belief, the Dominican Republic is very safe except for some spots in Santo Domingo.  The thing most tourists get scammed on however is on the sale of fake cigars on the beach. Women should also watch out for the very charming Dominican men – they’re the stereotypical Latin lovers.

 

 

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SEE OUR COMPLETE LIST OF DESTINATION GUIDES 
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16 Comments

  1. As an American living in the Dominican Republic and working in the tourism industry I really like your post. I especially like how you talked about Punta Cana being very nice but still not much more to the area then many resorts -it’s not the true Dominican Republic. To add your great post I would also suggest to people before they head out to the one of the many wonderful beaches in the country that they may want to spend a night in the Colonial Zone. With its rich history, beautiful buildings, many museums, cafes, restaurants and it being the first city in the New World; it really is a place that far too many tourist skip. I understand the desire to get to the beach but this Unesco World Heritage Site should be a must see.

    1. Great comment Ken and totally agree. On my first independent visit I was in Cabarete and got bored — took the bus to Santo Domingo and had a blast for 5 days. My next trip I started in Santo Domingo and then took the bus to the Semana peninsula. But in both cases loved the Zona Colonial.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    2. Hi, we just got back from the DR and only stayed in Punta Cana because we were told it was too dangerous to rent a car and go exploring. We loved it so much we are going back next year, but really want to explore. WE like off the beaten path, but we also love white sandy beaches. Are we safe to just go on day road trips around the country?

      1. Hi Tanya,
        Yes, it’s safe. I’d just be careful in certain areas of Santo Domingo at night (but if you can DO go to Santo Domingo, it’s worth seeing)
        The problem with Punta Cana is that there’s not much in the area. I’d suggest flying into Puerto Plata and renting a car there, going to Cabarete, then to the Samana peninsula. Lots of beauty.

  2. This is a great, informative article! The Dominican Republic has so much more to offer than “just” beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resort.

    If you are looking for more tips, check out the list of the 5 most beautiful waterfalls in the Dominican Republic 🙂

    1. Really?! But are you talking dorms, private rooms with shared bathrooms, or private rooms with private bathroom? Are you talking about private lodging at someones’s home? I’m talking about a decent place, with private bathroom, in a place where tourists would go. Most of the places I went independently (Puerto Plata, Cabarete, Las Terrenas, Bayahibe for example) you would not be able to find anything decent under $25(I said $25-$35 range, so you’re quoting the top of my range).

      I don’t mind being corrected if I’m wrong but I’d like to know we’re comparing apples to apples…because I don’t think we are talking about the same category of accommodation.

  3. Awesome! Bookmarking for future reference! I can’t wait to explore DR in greater depth! I will add one thing about being scammed, though. We ran out of pesos and were taking the new(ish) tourist road Juan Pablo (also Rt. 7 I think?) from Santo Domingo to Las Terrenas. I had (up until that point) been able to use USD everywhere, so I took it for granted that we needed pesos. The gate guards said they would exchange $ for us- at the rate of basically half of that it was (20 pesos per dollar- total rip off), but they didn’t tell us this until after we gave them $20 USD. They supposedly gave us back just enough pesos to cover the rest of the tolls (3 more after 1st) to Las Terrenas and kept the rest for themselves. We didn’t have many options. There was nothing around, and we were at their mercy. They kept changing the exchange rates on us (at first it was 30, then 20). It was very discouraging and frustrating. Total corruption, but I blame myself for not being prepared with pesos. By the time we got to the final toll, we didn’t have enough pesos, so we had to go to the airport and take out some more money from the ATM. Lesson learned, always have local currency- even if they seem to always accept USD!

    1. Thanks Lindsay for the comment. I would just say that this could happen anywhere – I can understand that a resort would take USD but once you actually get in the real world outside the resorts you can’t assume that. How would Americans react if I wanted to pay for something in New York with my Canadian dollars? Assuming they didn’t tell me to get lost, they’d probably give me 50c to the dollar. As you say, you learned from your lesson. If I seem a bit grumpy with this response I’m sorry, its not aimed at you – I’ve just seen it too many times when tourists assume that locals have to adjust for their language or their currency.

  4. I lived there for three years and we are moving back as soon as we can. Very good information…especially the part about the safety…no more dangerous than anyplace else and in many ways….safer! Everyone should go to the DR!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment Nancy! I know some expats make the DR home, met a few in Las Terrenas. If you ever have information that you think could help readers of this blog please feel free to write again – always like feedback from people who live there.

  5. Waited a long time for your DR guide – but it was well worth the wait Frank ! Great stuff – and a really different informative and concise approach of what to see and visit and enjoy – and what not to ! Maybe just maybe the DR will get onto the bucket list after all …

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