The most important port city on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic
, and home to an old Spanish fort
, some pretty Victorian-era houses in the centre and a rather impressive amber museum.
More background info:
San Felipe de Puerto Plata, to give it its full official name (but everybody refers to it simply as Puerto Plata), is currently the 9th largest city in the Dominican Republic
– and one of the oldest in the Americas, together with Santo Domingo
. Both were founded at the very beginning of Spanish colonialism following the “discovery” of the “New World” by Columbus.
In fact, the first settlement set up by Columbus on what is today Dominican territory (the very oldest was over in what today is Haiti), La Isabela, was located near Puerto Plata (but neither survived very long). The city was soon established as a major port and played an important role in early colonialism.
Later it was repeatedly destroyed, by the British and in the War of Restoration, but thrived again after that – thanks in large part to a considerable input by foreigners. From 1870 onwards, German, Italian and other Europeans set up businesses – and residence – here, which accounts for the distinctly European architecture you can still find in the old core of the city.
The city then enjoyed a phase of economic boom, largely due to the beginning of the highly profitable tobacco trade. Puerto Plata is still well known for its cigars (though they stink abominably just like other cigars, which I had the uncomfortable misfortune to encounter while there). Later the sugar trade gave Puerto Plata another boost.
During the reign of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961 (see under history of the Dominican Republic
!), Puerto Plata was made to suffer as it had been one of the main areas of resistance against this dictatorship. The tyrant had the railway pulled up and even filled in parts of the harbour to damage the local economy. With success. In addition he used the old Fortaleza San Felipe
as a prison to incarcerate dissidents – including the husbands of the Mirabal sisters (see also Mirabal House
and La Cumbre
When the beach holiday resort boom started, Puerto Plata narrowly missed out again – physically, geographically as well as figuratively. The big tourism enclaves were constructed just east of the city, mostly at Playa Dorada. Given the gated, closed off nature of these enterprises, guests never really interact with the regular local economy (or culture). And the fact that they are mostly owned by foreign corporations means that very little of their profits has trickled down to the local economy for the benefit of Puerto Plata. Even the jobs created in these complexes are either filled by foreigners or are so low-paid that they have hardly any positive effect on the region.
And then there is the reputation of Puerto Plata as a favourite refuge for international criminals, mainly of the financial sort (tax evasion, large-scale insurance fraud and the like) and it is alleged that this in turn attracts a disproportionate number of undercover agents, investigators and spies. But since most of that remains undercover, i.e. invisible, you won't notice much of this as a tourist. Yet my guidebook advises against asking any ex-pats in Puerto Plata where they are from ...
What there is to see: The most important concrete (or in this case rather: built of stone) reason for the dark tourist to make the detour to Puerto Plate is its ancient fort:
Just outside this old fortress, to the north of it overlooking the sea, stands a memorial stone from much more recent times, namely one that commemorates a 1996 plane crash
. The plane was headed for Germany
, hence most of the passengers on it were German. Shortly after take-off the pilots lost control of the aircraft and crashed into the sea. All on board perished.
What made the accident additionally tragic is the fact that only 68 out of 189 bodies could be retrieved – for the rest, the wreck deep down on the bottom of the sea became their final resting place, so that the relatives were left without any chance to give their loved ones a proper send-off and burial. The memorial stone has a short description of the disaster in Spanish and German and lists the names of all the victims.
Not so dark as such is another major attraction in Puerto Plata, namely the highly acclaimed Amber Museum. Here you can see plenty of those insects embedded in amber that were the inspiration for the blockbuster film “Jurassic Park” … and that connection can perhaps be seen as somewhat darkish. For the animals trapped in amber it was certainly dark, namely deadly.
Apart from various mosquitoes, flies, and spiders they even have a small lizard in amber (and this features in the museum's logo, which is otherwise almost identical to that of “Jurassic Park” … and that's not a coincidence, but down to a PR deal that was reached with the film producers). Be aware, though, that the museum also doubles up as an amber shop and the stall keepers won't just let you wander off without making every effort to get your attention.
Otherwise the only slightly dark appeal may emanate from the many derelict Victorian buildings. Some of these 'gingerbread' houses would only need a little TLC to bring them back to their former glory, others are probably beyond repair.
Overall, Puerto Plata can hardly be considered a must-see dark tourism destination, but it might be worth a look around when in the north of the Dominican Republic
roughly in the middle of the north coast of Hispaniola, in the north-western region of the Dominican Republic
, ca. 160 miles (250 km) by road from the capital Santo Domingo
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: somewhat off the most trodden tourist paths, but not too difficult to reach; not expensive.
Puerto Plata has one of the Dominican Republic
's busiest international airports (Aeropuerto Gregorio Luperon), and though this mainly serves the beach resorts of Playa Dorada, there's nothing to stop you using it as point of entry for other types of travel. Getting into town from the airport requires either an expensive taxi ride, or a bit of effort (and preferably good Spanish skills) to do it the local way, i.e. either by guagua (public minibus services) or even motorbike taxi.
By road, the city is reasonably well connected to the capital Santo Domingo in the south and the second city Santiago. Most of the road is a dual-carriage highway in good condition (Autopista Duarte). The roads east and west are less easy to drive, but the coastal route towards Samana is doable (though demanding in places, as well as potholed, and hence stressy).
Overland coach connections also connect Puerto Plata with Santo Domingo, via Santiago, with several departures daily.
Within Puerto Plata, getting around is either on foot, motorbike taxi (cheap but not very safe) or regular taxi (expensive). The points of interest outlined above are within walking distance of each other.
Accommodation outside the big beach holiday resorts of Playa Dorada, are a bit more limited, but can be quite affordable. In fact the budget end is better served than the more upmarket niche, at least within the city. I actually stayed on the south-eastern edge of the town (literally at the end of the road), in a suburb, namely in a lovable B&B run by an Italian family (fitting for immigrant-influenced Puerto Plata) called Villa Princesa Sofia. (You can book direct online or by phoning +18493427217). To get there you will need a car (and preferably GPS navigation), but at least they also have secure parking on site at no extra cost.
Since I decided to stick with self-catering during my short stay in Puerta Plata I can't say anything about its eating out options.
Time required: To see just the places outlined in this chapter, you only need a couple of hours. So you may not even need to stay overnight (though it is a convenient stopover point if required).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
If you are making the journey to La Cumbre
for the Mirabal sisters murder site memorial, then Puerto Plata makes a convenient stopover either before or after. You can in fact also do the Mirabal House
en route if you allow enough time when coming all the way from Santo Domingo
, as I did. But I did not find the time to also pop by the big monument in Santiago or the Camp David Hotel – see under Dominican Republic
. For that I would probably have needed another stopover, since traffic can be slow once off the highway, and you are strongly advised to avoid driving after dusk.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The pretty parts of Puerto Plata that “normal” tourists may want to see are mostly concentrated in the compact old town, especially around Parque Central. The Amber Museum is just a block or two away. Other than that, you may want to see the seaside, the Malecon, just north of the city core. Another option is taking the cable car up to the city's very own mountain Mount Isabela de Torres, where there is also great hiking.
However, almost all of the region's mainstream tourism is concentrated on the big all-inclusive beach resorts in Playa Dorada and beyond. But at least some of their clients make the effort of going on an excursion into town. Most will probably stay in their enclaves and see nothing of the country.
Those more adventurous and willing to test their nerves on the challenging rural roads of the Dominican Republic, can head out of town, e.g. towards Samana (reachable in ca. 4 hours) with its famous bay (famous for whale watching in particular between mid January and mid March) as well as the fabulous Los Haitises National Park.
- Puerto Plata 01 - harbourfront and hinterland
- Puerto Plata 02 - coast
- Puerto Plata 03 - German plane crash memorial stone
- Puerto Plata 04 - Luperon monument
- Puerto Plata 05 - old lighthouse and new amphitheatre
- Puerto Plata 06 - Parque Central with gazebo
- Puerto Plata 07 - cathedral
- Puerto Plata 08 - Victorian-era gingerbread houses
- Puerto Plata 09 - this one is in need of some TLC
- Puerto Plata 10 - amber museum
- Puerto Plata 11 - iconic piece
- Puerto Plata 12 - Jurassic
- Puerto Plata 13 - on the outskirts of town