Six college students leave the beach and explore DR's capital, whose history and beauty all ages can enjoy.
The Dominican Republic is a popular destination for vacationers from around the globe. With its beautiful beaches, clear, blue water, and the friendly Dominican people, it may be hard to leave your beach chair and piÃ±a colada. But if six college students can do it, then anyone can!
While visiting the Dominican Republic for spring break of our senior year in college, five friends and I traveled to Santo Domingo. From the resort hotel, it cost only $10 a person, about 330 Dominican pesos, for six of us on a personal guided tour through Santo Domingo for four to five hours. Though our driver spoke some English, it was very helpful to know Spanish, not only for the tour but also for our entire trip in the Dominican Republic.
Those in the tourism business will know some English, to be sure, but a little knowledge of Spanish is welcomed, even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect. On our way to the city, we were very grateful that we had our own local guide, Chico.
Our Tour of Santo Domingo
Driving on the streets of the Dominic Republic is not for the faint-hearted. Weaving through people, motorcycles, taxis and trucks, our driver sped down the highways and side streets. If you get the nerve to look out the window, check out the colorful buildings and crowded streets filled with Dominicans.
We finally reached Santo Domingo, the oldest European city in the New World, and a place filled with earlier Caribbean history. Founded by Christopher Columbus’ brother Bartholomew Columbus, this city is the second most populated city in the Caribbean (Havana, Cuba is first).
Our first stop was to a market in the Zona Colonial, also known as La Zona or The Zone, a walled in area situated in Santo Domingo. We opted for this market because it was laid back, less crowded and there wasn’t as much pressure to buy from the vendors, unlike the Mercado Modelo, which has a reputation for pickpockets and overeager vendors, making it a definite tourist trap.
In other parts of the city, many stands and shops sold basically the same variety of items as all the others, from paintings to jewelry to clothing. The vendors are up front, however, about their negotiable prices, so don’t accept their first offer without haggling a bit. Credit cards are accepted, though there is a charge for using them, and Euros, dollars and of course Dominican pesos are welcome as well.
After visiting the market, we headed to Calle El Conde, a street known for selling jewelry, especially amber, the country’s national stone. Popular with both Dominicans and tourists, this pretty, shaded street is closed off to traffic and is a great starting place to explore other areas of the Zona Colonial.
One place you might like to visit is the Plaza de EspaÃ±a. AlcÃ¡zar de ColÃ³n, a palace built for Christopher Columbus’ son Diego de ColÃ³n and his family in the early 16th century, is one of the oldest buildings in the Dominican Republic, and is located at the plaza. With its beautiful architecture and refurbished interior, it is well worth a look.
The Plaza de EspaÃ±a is a great place to relax and people watch. Outdoor cafes, concerts and shows are also popular at the plaza. Across the Ozama River at the edge of the square you can see the cross-shaped building where Christopher Columbus is buried, el Faro a Colon. On the edge of the square you can stop by the Museo de Jamon for a quick bite. In English it would be called the Museum of Ham. Salt cured pork hangs from the ceiling in this great restaurant, and it’s a fun stop during your trip. If meat dÃ©cor isn’t your thing, there are a wide variety of restaurants on the plaza and around the city with both international and local menus.
If you do choose to take a tour rather than exploring on your own, many guides will take you to the National Aquarium on the west side of the city, near the Faro de Colon on the opposite side of the Ozama River. A great stop for the whole family, kids will enjoy the hands-on experience of the exhibits. Walking through the underwater tunnel is particularly fun as you watch sharks, sea turtles and fish swim around you. The water in the aquarium is directly from the Caribbean Sea, which is located right next to the museum. With beautiful views and gardens, a shark pool, manatees and more, kids of all ages will love this stop.
Santo Domingo is filled with history and Dominican culture. A glimpse of its recent past can still be seen while walking down the streets of the city, formerly known as Ciudad Trujillo. Looking at the grates on the street, the name of former dictator Rafael LeÃ³nidas Trujillo is a visible reminder of his controversial rule from 1930 to 1961.
Walking east down Calle El Conde, you reach Calle Las Damas. From here, make your way to the Panteon Nacional, a building with ties to Trujillo. Originally a Jesuit structure, Trujillo wanted to be buried here, but his downfall and assassination kept this from happening. Now, national Dominican heroes are laid to rest in the church. A copper chandelier, a gift from Francisco Franco, a Spanish dictator, to Trujillo, hangs at the center of the building. Avoid the tour guides outside – it is free to enter, but their tours are not, and they won’t give you a price until after the tour is finished.
With amazing rifle movements and exact military precision, the changing of the guard outside the National Pantheon is a wonderful ceremony to watch. The service is performed every two hours as the guards watch over the Eternal Flame.
I have just a few tips to share. You don’t need a guided tour of Santo Domingo to enjoy its beauty and culture, but it can be a huge help, especially if you’re only in town for a few hours. If you are comfortable walking around on your own, just buy a guidebook from a vendor on the streets. You can pick up a free map from any of the shops in town and explore the vibrant and historical streets, museums and buildings.
The capital is safe, but like any city, you must be cautious of your belongings. Santo Domingo has a thriving nightlife, but this is the time to be even more careful of your wallet. As long as you use good sense and stay aware of your surroundings everyone in the family will be sure to have a fun time.
We were on a Spring Breakers’ budget and stayed at the Barcelo Capella (800/BARCELO) resort in Juan Dolio, on the south shore, about 40 minutes away from the capital city. An all-inclusive resort with visitors from many different countries, there are activities for kids and adults, great dining, and beautiful white beaches. It was a great place to unwind after we’d done our sightseeing.
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