From the beaches of Puerto Plata to the ancient architecture of Santo Domingo, here are five places you absolutely have to visit in the Dominican Republic.
1. Zona Colonial
The Zona Colonial is the historic heart of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. This square mile of pretty streets and shady squares contains some of the oldest colonial buildings in the Western Hemisphere, including the cathedral. To walk along the Calle de las Damas is to retrace the steps of the first Spanish conquistadors, who used Santo Domingo as a base for the conquest of Latin America. Yet this district is no museum piece. It’s dotted with shops, restaurants and cafes, many housed in colonial-era buildings. It is also a real neighbourhood, where families sit outside their homes enjoying the cool of the evening.
2. Costa del Coco
The “Coconut Coast”, with its reef-protected white beaches and placid waters, is the country’s undisputed tourist mecca. Some 40 miles (64 km) of uninterrupted beach sweeps up the southeastern tip of the country, the endless vistas of sea, sand and coconut trees broken only by clusters of low-level hotels and villas. Since the 1980s a bonanza of construction has seen huge self-contained tourist cities rise up along the water’s edge, their varied attractions and facilities cut off from the rest of the world. It is possible, should you wish, to escape the luxury of the hotel enclave and to explore the dramatic beaches – some calm, others wild – that stretch as far as the eye can see.
3. Santo Domingo
Beyond the Zona Colonial is a fast-moving metropolis of over two million people, where upmarket suburbs rub shoulders with bleak-looking shantytowns and where quiet parks and museums provide a respite from the capital’s frenetic traffic. The city radiates inland from the river and coastline, moving from compact 19th-century barrios to the spread-out commercial districts of the modern uptown. Spanish and Caribbean influences, expressed in wrought iron balconies and ornate gingerbread-style woodcarving, give way to functional concrete office blocks and suburbs.
4. Constanza & “The Dominican Alps”
The cool uplands of the country’s interior are a world apart, barely 80-km away from the tropical heat of Santo Domingo. Dominated by the towering Cordillera Central, the mountain range that forms the island’s spine, the central region is a nature-lover’s paradise of protected national parks, streams and valleys. The gentle climate encourages crops such as strawberries, and at high-altitudes frosts are not uncommon. The green meadows and pine forests are far from the usual image of the Caribbean, and Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean, dominates the scene.
Santiago de los Caballeros (Santiago of the Gentlemen) is the Dominican Republic’s second-largest city. From its founding in 1495 by the 30 Spanish noblemen (caballeros), this busy metropolis has considered itself wealthier and harder-working than the capital. Set in the fertile Cibao Valley, Santiago has historically been the hub of the country’s agricultural riches, and its millionaire families largely owe their fortunes to the sugar and tobacco grown nearby. The city is calmer than Santo Domingo, but lively enough in Calle del Sol and around the landmark Monument to the Heroes.