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.
Port of Santo Domingo
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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.
Top Santo Domingo Itineraries
Star Legend7 Night Caribbean CruiseColon , Cartagena , Santo Domingo, Cairo , San JuanNow
Star Pride7 Night Caribbean CruiseSan Juan, Cairo , Santo Domingo, Cartagena , ColonNow
Seabourn Sojourn25-day Grand Cuban HolidayMiami, Havana, Havana, Isla de La Juventud, Cienfuegos, Grand Cayman, Santiago de Cuba, Santiago de Cuba, San Juan, St. Barts, Antigua, St. Kitts, Santo Domingo, Santiago de Cuba, Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Havana, MiamiNow
Seabourn Odyssey21-day Holiday Caribbean OdysseySt. Maarten, St. Barts, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Mayreau, Barbados, St. Vincent, Martinique, Antigua, Santo Domingo, Santo Domingo, Cartagena , Aruba, Aruba, Bonaire, BarbadosNow
Volendam77-day Grand South America & Antarctica VoyageFort Lauderdale , Grand Cayman, Fuerte Amador, Fuerte Amador, Lima, Lima, Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Stanley, Punta del Este, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Santos , Ilhabela, Buzios, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Santarem, Manaus, Manaus, Barbados, St. Vincent, Santo Domingo, Fort LauderdaleNow
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.
Good to Know
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.
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).
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.
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?).
Food and Drink
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)
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.
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.)