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Santo Domingo Overview
Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, takes up two-thirds of the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola; the rest of the island is shared with Haiti. Altogether, the D.R. is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, and it's rumored to be home to Christopher Columbus' tomb. The nation also is home to lots of Taino Indian history, among other things.
Located on the southern coast of the country, Santo Domingo is full of culture and, unfortunately, poverty, thanks to the decline in the production of sugar, one of the country's main exports. This region of the country probably isn't a place you'll want to navigate on your own. When you hear about violence, robberies and the like, this is one of the areas of the D.R. where they most often occur. Locals will bombard you with solicitations for everything from jewelry to windshield wipers, but you're likely to encounter plenty of nice and helpful folks, too. It's hot there, and the main streets in tourist areas are clean, but if you venture to other areas of the city, you might find it a bit ... unkempt, albeit colorful.
Ships dock at the Sansouci pier, about a five-minute drive to the Zona Colonial or Colonial City, which dates to 1498, when it was founded by Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher Columbus' brother. It's also a 10-minute drive to the lighthouse and tomb of Christopher Columbus; a 15-minute drive to Mirador del Este, a park that houses the limestone cave of Los Tres Ojos (the three eyes); a 30-minute drive to Boca Chica, a beach town that's a great place to interact with locals and sample their cuisine; and a 90-minute drive to Casa de Campo, a tourist resort in La Romana, where you'll find the famous Teeth of the Dog golf course and various other shore excursion options.
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Other Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Banana Coast (Trujillo) • Dominica • Falmouth • Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades) • Havana • Labadee • Manzanillo • Miami • Ocho Rios • Orlando (Port Canaveral) • Port Canaveral • Port of Palm Beach • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • Santo Domingo • St. Maarten
While you're in town, be sure to try some Mama Juana. Made by combining red wine, rum and honey with the fermented roots of the Mama Juana tree, it gives off a strong red wine taste with a spicy cinnamon finish. If you're not a wine drinker, try the Barcelo or Brugal local rum with Coca-Cola, or Presidente beer, which is super refreshing when the weather gets unbearably hot. (You'll also want to pick up some sugar cane juice, which is locally made and owns a reputation as a great hangover remedy.)
The Dominican Republic is known for Larimar, a cloudy, pale-blue stone that is only mined on the island of Hispaniola. It's difficult to fake, so chances are good that you'll be snagging the real thing, but don't be afraid to bargain; sellers are used to it, and they often jack up prices with the expectation that haggling will occur. Amber and black coral are also popular, but they're easier to fabricate.
If jewelry isn't your thing, consider Dominican-made cigars and items made from coconut, and natural cocoa or chocolate, but avoid purchasing woven palm hats. They're considered live plants, and they'll be confiscated when you return to your ship.
Dominicans speak Spanish as their primary language. Some, particularly those who work in tourism areas, speak English. That said, communication can be a problem, so either carry a pocket dictionary or bone up on basic phrases like hola (hello), buenos dias (good day), por favor (please), gracias (thank you), cuanto cuesta? (how much does it cost?) and donde esta el bano? (where is the bathroom?).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Dominican Republic Peso (check www.xe.com for current exchange rates), but it is rarely a problem to use American dollars. ATM's are available near the cruise terminal and throughout the city; they dispense money in pesos.
Where You're Docked
You'll be docked at the Sansouci pier, the city's main cruise terminal. Plans are in the works to turn another terminal -- Don Diego, about five minutes from Sansouci pier -- into a facility that can accommodate cruise vessels, but there is no word yet on when that will be completed.
Minor amenities (bathrooms, duty-free stores and Internet access) are located inside the cruise terminal, but there is nothing of interest in the immediate vicinity outside the terminal. The closest attractions are the Colonial City and Christopher Columbus' lighthouse tomb. They're all within walking distance, but hoofing it isn't recommended. Your best bet is to arrange a tour ahead of time, or hire a taxi. The latter won't set you back more than a few pesos. Note that tour operators and taxis are required to wait outside the port gates, which are guarded by tourist police.
On Foot: It's possible to walk, but it's not recommended, particularly if you don't know where you're going and don't speak Spanish. There is a lot of crime in Santo Domingo, and it's much safer to take other means of transportation.
By Taxi: This is the most economical option if you're staying within a half hour of the port. Be warned, however, that local drivers might not speak English, and it's best to agree on a roundtrip price before going anywhere. If you happen to snag an English-speaking cabbie, he or she can be a great resource if you'd like a tour of the area, information about its history or recommendations for sights that are worth seeing. Be aware that some taxis, known as "carros publicos" carry multiple passengers, and they usually aren't air-conditioned.
By Motochoncho: Say what? Enterprising locals with motorbikes will offer rides to anyone in need of transportation for very reasonable prices. However, this can be exceedingly dangerous because of their tendency to weave among larger vehicles and the aggressive habits of other drivers. It's also not the best method in inclement weather, and it's likely that you won't be provided with a helmet.
Via Public Transportation: Bus transportation is available, but, although inexpensive, local buses are often overcrowded, hot (no air-conditioning) and slow. An underground Metro system is also in place, and it's easy to use for first-timers, but there's only one line at this point, and you should really know where you're headed before using this option.
Renting a Car: We strongly discourage this. Driving conditions in Santo Domingo are horrendous. Motorbikes dart between cars incessantly, and the few traffic signals are generally ignored. Street signs are not in English, and it's extremely easy to get lost in the wrong part of town, where gang members will attempt to sell you kites and windshield wiper blades. (No, we're not kidding.) If you know where you're going and how to drive defensively and still want to give it a go, you can take a cab to Avis (517 Avenida George Washington, 809-535-7191), National (Avenida Independencia Esq, 809-221-0805) or Budget (Avenida John F. Kennedy, 809-566-6666).
Watch Out For
Crime, violence and gang activity are prevalent in Santo Domingo. Always be aware of your surroundings, stay in groups, and don't venture to unfamiliar parts of the city when not on an organized tour or with a reputable guide. As a general rule, leave all jewelry and valuables onboard in your cabin safe, and carry only as much cash as you think you'll need. We recommend a money belt to keep valuables safe while you're ashore.
Also, be sure to pack bug spray; you won't have much of a problem outdoors, but you might use some restroom facilities that don't have air-conditioning, making them perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes -- and they're vicious.
Zona Colonial (Colonial City): Dating to 1498, this area of Santo Domingo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It houses the Americas' first cathedral, hospital and fort, as well as the palace of Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus' son, who originally governed the Spanish colony there. You'll also find dining options that range from tiny cafes to the Hard Rock Cafe, as well as an array of shops on El Conde, the area's main retail street. It's within walking distance of the cruise port, but it's much easier (and safer) to take a shuttle or taxi.
El Faro a Colon (Christopher Columbus Lighthouse and Tomb): The remains of Christopher Columbus are said to be housed about a five minutes' drive from the cruise dock. (Seville, Spain, also claims to have possession of the explorer's remains. The debate rages on.) The tomb, which is marked by an impressive monument and lighthouse, also served as the site of Pope John Paul II's visit during the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. His "Popemobile" is still on display there. Both attractions can be reached on foot by ambitious cruisers, but it's not recommended. Instead, grab a taxi or shuttle if you haven't booked a city highlights tour. There is a nominal fee to enter. (Avenida Ana, Sansouci District; open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes): In Mirador del Este Park, you'll find Los Tres Ojos cave. Made of limestone, the cave contains three main clear pools or lakes -- the "eyes" for which the cavern is named. It's just a 15-minute drive from port, and it's very inexpensive to enter. You will, however, have to pay extra to take a trip to the cave's fourth pool, which does exist, despite the cave's name. (809-788-7056)
Local Overview Tours: You'll save money if you take a tour with a local guide like Prospero Guillermo Rodriguez ("call me Chino"), who offers private excursions in Santo Domingo and La Romana (Casa de Campo) for reasonable prices. In addition to English, he also speaks his native Spanish, as well as Italian and French. Call 809-518-1309 (p) or 809-973-0272 (c) to make arrangements. We took a tour with him and were able to book him for more than three hours and tailor the trip to the highlights we wanted to see.
Been There, Done That
The Malecon: This oceanside promenade, located along Avenida George Washington (George Washington Avenue), is a pleasant place to explore restaurants and casinos. If you catch a taxi or shuttle from port, keep an eye out for the Male Obelisk (designed to look like the wings of a pigeon, the symbol of the free world) and Female Obelisk (erected in memory of Santo Domingo) along the way. It's a great place to visit if you'd like a leisurely day ashore, but be sure to leave jewelry and unnecessary valuables in your cabin.
Boca Chica: The town of Boca Chica is about 30 minutes from your ship by taxi, and it's a nice place to spend a day shopping or getting to know the locals on the beach of the same name. You'll find both upscale restaurants and stalls selling traditional Dominican fare. You'll have to take a taxi to get there if you're not on a prearranged tour that includes a stop.
Museo Naval de las Atarazanas (Marine Museum): If you're a history lover, check out this marine museum, which houses artifacts recovered from ships that sank in the 1500's and 1600's. You can also learn all about the history of such shipwrecks, as well as the D.R.'s efforts to recover and preserve them. There is a nominal fee to enter, but children and students are free. (4 Calle Colon, Colonial Zone; open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., closed Wednesdays)
Casa de Campo: At this tourist haven resort in La Romana, you can golf at the world-famous Teeth of the Dog course, laze on the beach, take part in one of several water sports, go horseback riding or play tennis. You'll also find a beautiful marina, as well as plenty of shops and places to grab a bite to eat. You'll need a full day in port for this one, though; the ride from the Santo Domingo cruise pier is 90 minutes each way. If you're not on a prearranged excursion, you'll have to pay an entry fee, which doesn't include activities at the resort. (Carretera La Romana, Higuey; 855-877-3643; open seven days a week)
Boca Chica: Located in the town of Boca Chica, about a 30-minute drive from Santo Domingo, this beach is great for swimming, grabbing a bite to eat and mingling with locals. There are food stalls, upscale restaurants and shaded tables for dining. Water sports equipment is available for rent. Be careful with your valuables while you're swimming, however.
Juan Dolio: About an hour's drive from Santo Domingo, Juan Dolio is a simple beach that's great if you'd like a bit more peace and quiet than what Boca Chica has to offer. Within walking distance of Juan Dolio is Playa Guayacanes, which offers a similar ambience.
Authentic Dominican food is generally locally grown and produced. You'll find there's an emphasis on chicken and freshly caught fish, rice and beans, and fruits like coconuts and plantains. Many residents operate stands that offer homemade items like bread and empanadas. Drinks native to the area include fresh fruit juices, Dominican coffee and hot chocolate, Kola Real soda and -- for those looking for a bit of an alcoholic kick -- Mama Juana, Presidente beer and local rum. There also seems to be a surplus of Italian fare in the DR.
Pat'e Palo: A self-described European brasserie, Pat'e Palo serves a wide range of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Start with crispy apple slices in parmesan fondue, French onion soup or a churrasco grilled salad. Follow it with yucca gnocchi, a hamburger or fresh sea bass. End with a cheese plate, tiramisu or mango sorbet. Menus are available in English. (25 Atarazana, Zona Colonial; 809-687-8089; open Sunday to Thursday noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday noon to 1 a.m.)
Adrian Tropical: At this place, you'll get amazing local fare and views of the waves, thanks to its oceanside location. We highly recommend the tostones (fried plantains), arroz con frijoles rojas (rice and red beans) and bistec con cebolla (steak with onions). For some refreshment, try sorbet in mangola (mango) or chinola (passion fruit), or order a pina colada, but be warned that the alcoholic versions can be a bit strong. Menus are in Spanish only, and your waiter might not speak English. (2 Avenida George Washington; 809-221-1764)
Vesuvio Malecon: If you're not into traditional Dominican cuisine, you'll do well at Vesuvio Malecon, which serves Italian fare. You can't go wrong with fresh oysters or prosciutto with avocado for starters. Then, try the Mediterranean-style Caribbean lobster or the risotto with shrimp and squid, and finish up with German chocolate cake for dessert. (521 Avenida George Washington; 809-221-1954; open daily noon to 1 a.m.)
El Conuco: With seven different dining rooms to fit your tastes, El Conuco offers a large menu that centers on traditional Dominican Creole fare. Try appetizers like fried codfish or yucca; soups like chickpea stew; entrees like goat with oregano and tomato sauce, or yellow rice with shrimp and Spanish sausage; and an assortment of desserts. (152 Casimiro de Mora, Gazcue; 809-686-0129)
Sol y Sombra: You'll find Sol y Sombra on the fifth floor of the Hilton Santo Domingo hotel. You don't have to book a room to enjoy dishes like shrimp Caesar salad, smoked salmon wraps, penne pesto, Cajun tempura grouper, rice and beans with fried plantains, a selection of steaks and desserts that feature ice cream and chocolate mousse. Menu items are listed in both Spanish and English. (500 Avenida George Washington; 809-685-0000; lunch served from noon to 3:30 p.m. daily)
Staying in Touch
In Colonial City, you'll find several cafes, hotels and restaurants offering free Wi-Fi. For a list, please visit www.colonialzone-dr.com.
Best for a Local Overview: City highlights excursions are offered by most ships. These tours last about 3.5 hours and include stops at places like the Colonial City, the Christopher Columbus Lighthouse and Tomb, museums and churches, and Los Tres Ojos cave. Visits to beaches, jewelry shops and cigar factories may also be included.
Best for Beach Bums: Take a trip to either Boca Chica Beach (a 30-minute ride) or the resort town of Casa de Campo (a 90-minute ride), where you can lounge in the sun and grab a bite to eat. These tours generally run for a minimum of five hours but can be as long as a full day.
For More Information
On the Web:
Official Tourism Web site of the Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo Tourism Web site
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Dominican Republic
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--by Ashley Kosciolek, Associate Editor