Dominican Republic

A Caribbean country occupying the eastern two-thirds of the Greater Antilles island of Hispaniola (the western third is Haiti). To most people, the Dominican Republic, or “Dom Rep” for short”, is only known as a typical mass-tourism tropical beach holiday destination. 
And indeed the vast majority of tourism in this country takes the form of big all-inclusive beach resorts owned by international corporations. As usual, these do precious little for the host nation (all profits go straight abroad) and the guests at these resorts get next to zero impression of what the country is really like. But the Dom Rep does offer a lot beyond those beach tourism enclaves, including fantastic national parks, the highest mountains and the largest metropolis in the Caribbean (Santo Domingo), and much more. 
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For the dark tourist, the Dominican Republic is of particular interest due to its incredibly dark history in the 20th century that was dominated for decades by a most brutal dictatorship imaginable – the reign of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. There are several sites associated with that history, and also a few other places that are of interest for different reasons:
What today is the Dominican Republic has had the longest colonial history in the Americas and arguably one of the very darkest overall – see the separate chapter summarizing this history here.
Apart from the places listed above there may be a few further sites, mostly also related to the Trujillo era, that may be worth checking out as well – but for which I, unfortunately, did not have the time during my short eight-day trip to the country in January 2016.
One is the large monument towering on a hill above the city of Santiago which originally was a Trujillo-worshipping monument, featuring a 230 feet (70m) tall tower and a statue of Trujillo on horseback in front. It was quite a statement, given that this was an area relatively critical of the dictator at the time. So in 1944 he gave them the middle finger in this form, drastic, impossible to overlook, in your face, made of stone. After the end of the Trujillo dictatorship, his statue was removed and the whole monument rededicated to the “Heroes of the Restoration” (referring to the time when the Spanish gave up control of the island – see under history).
In addition to the two mentioned above, Casa Caoba and Castillo de Cerro, there are further ex-Trujillo mansions that might be worth a look. One is near Santiago on a hill to the north-east and is called Camp David, and was converted into a hotel in 1989. My guide in San Cristobal and Santo Domingo told me that they have a collection of Trujillo's cars on display there (and this may or – more likely – may not include the one he was assassinated in). Yet another former Trujillo mansion can be seen in El Cumbre.
Of a totally different nature is Haina, until recently one of the world's most polluted places, thanks to a local car battery smelter that gave the surrounding land and the population of Haina exceedingly high levels of lead poisoning. Once referred to as the “Chernobyl of the Caribbean”, the site has meanwhile undergone a clean-up. But you can still see plenty of other pollution in the country, and in particular in and around industrial centres like Haina … where smokestacks still keep belching out ominous-looking dark plumes of smoke … 
Finally, if you consider a below-sea-level salt lake full of crocodiles and a colony of rhinoceros iguanas something with a darkish appeal, then Lago Enriquillo in the country's south-west should be on your list too. I nearly went on an trip there, but then time was too short. Well, I have several reasons for a return visit to the Dom Rep, I guess …
Furthermore, the country also offers plenty of non-dark attractions – and not just beaches. Inland you can find cloud forests and peaks over 10,000 feet (3000m) high, and there are several national parks and nature reserves. 
One of the most spectacular is Los Haitises on the southern coast of Samana Bay, an impenetrable wilderness of mangroves and karst caves that is home to incredible bird life. 
In season, between mid-January and mid-March, the waters of Samana Bay are one of the best places on Earth for watching humpback whales, who come here to both mate and give birth. It's said to be quite spectacular … but I was unlucky, since I had to leave just a few days before the beginning of the whale-watching season. 
Getting into the Dominican Republic is cheapest and easiest by joining one of the beach-resort-holiday shuttle flights, mostly run by charter airlines but also operated by a few regular scheduled flights, especially by US companies. From Europe you're better off looking into the classic holiday shuttles (such as Thomas Cook). The only alternative to flying in is going by boat – but that would mean either the ferry from Puerto Rico (hardly of much use for most tourists) or a cruise ship. The latter have increasingly been appearing in Dominican waters in recent years, but are hardly the mode of transport of choice for the dark tourist.
For getting around within the country, there are basically two approaches. Either you do as most of the locals do and use public transport, i.e. the overland bus networks (esp. Caribe Tours) or, where these do not go, the plentiful minibus services called “guaguas” and even motorbike taxis for short rides. Sometimes even hiring a proper taxi, i.e. a car with driver, for a particular journey can be an option (though expensive), especially if you have more than hand luggage or a backpack. For using public transport, on the other hand, you need time, you need to be flexible and preferably have a decent command of Spanish.
The only alternative to public transport is getting behind the wheel of a rental car yourself. That is more convenient and time-effective and gives you maximal flexibility of where to go, including places that are otherwise difficult or impossible to reach. But it is also relatively costly. 
Moreover, driving in the Dominican Republic is a challenge, to put it mildly. Traffic, especially in cities and other more densely populated areas can be mad. Motorbikes, the most ubiquitous mode of transport in such areas, can come at you from all sides, left, right, from behind and even from ahead, against the flow of traffic, straddling the curb on the right. Many car drivers aren't much better. At times it seems that there are no rules at all. One informal rule that clearly holds, though, is that priority is determined by the size of the vehicle. Buses and trucks are not to be messed with. 
On the other hand, it is the small motorbikes that require the most attention as they display the most erratic driving style. In addition you often encounter stray dogs as well as children suddenly dashing into the road … livestock too. You have to be aware of all your surroundings all the time.
Road conditions are quite variable too – and do vary abruptly without warning. A perfectly smooth, newly tarmacked road can, from one second to the next, turn into a row of deep potholes. Some potholes are in fact so deep and wide that not avoiding them could mean the end of your vehicle. In addition to potholes, you also have to be on the lookout for speed bumps (“sleeping policemen”), especially as you enter and exit villages. Many are not very visible, let alone marked by signs, and they tend to be steep and high, so hitting them at speed can do some real damage (unless you're in a truck, bus or heavy-duty off-road jeep). 
On a particular stretch of road on the north coast I found driving made especially difficult due to the harsh shadows of trees on the road in the bright midday sunshine. They make it very hard to see potholes until you are just metres away. So you just have to slow down. The most hilarious “obstacle” I encountered, however, was a man sitting in the shade of a roadside tree with his legs stretched out into the road – my wife joked that the guy was probably suffering from body dysmorphia. I narrowly avoided him, though.
Given all these conditions, many advise tourists against getting behind the wheel themselves. But I risked it and overall managed fine. Fortunately, I am generally a rather observant driver; and that is certainly a prerequisite. You do indeed have to be fully alert at all times, never take your eyes off the road and expect the unexpected at any moment. Drive as defensively as possible whenever traffic gets thick. On the motorways, in contrast, you may find yourself forced into adapting to the rather “unusual” driving habits of overtaking on the outside lane at high speed, or else you'll get stuck behind slow trucks hugging the inside lane at all times. 
One essential tip everybody will give you is: NEVER drive after dark. It is at night that the Dominican Republic accumulates its appalling road accident statistics (currently the second worst country in the world for road accident fatalities). Many motorbikes do not have any lights – others simply don't bother using them, while big cars never dip their headlights, routinely blinding all oncoming traffic. Needless to say, stray dogs and goats are at their least visible at night as well. So make sure you set off early enough and get to your destination well before dusk. 
All in all: driving is without doubt highly challenging, but if you can muster the required mindset and observant care, it can be done. Not everybody will want to risk it, but those with a bit of experience in driving in developing nations, will find that at least during the day it isn't so much worse in the Dom Rep … But ultimately, it's everybody's own decision.
Accommodation for tourists may statistically be dominated by those all-inclusive mega resorts clustered on the coast, especially in Punta Cana and Playa Dorada (east of Puerto Plata), but you can also find a wide range of options elsewhere, not just in the capital Santo Domingo, also even in rural areas, ranging from basic budget hostels to astonishingly swish luxury retreats. Some ecotourism options kind-of combine the two, such as the tree houses village that I stayed at for a few nights near Samana. 
As far as food & drink are concerned, the Dominican Republic is also a very mixed bag. Traditional, typically Dominican dishes can be surprisingly difficult to find, at least for the culinarily more advanced palates. Simple rice and beans with some sort of grilled fish, chicken or vegetables, is omnipresent, but more elaborate dishes are not. I only managed to get decidedly Dominican meals on three occasions, and none of them were overly remarkable.
In the cities, fast food is king, and especially in the capital, foreign cuisines are very popular too, especially Italian and Spanish. This also helps vegetarians to get along more or less OK. Proper, purely vegetarian/vegan speciality restaurants, on the other hand, are extremely thin on the ground (there is one in Santo Domingo). Perhaps tellingly, the best meal I had in the Dominican Republic was at a Peruvian restaurant in the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo.  
The national alcoholic tipple is rum, unsurprisingly for the Caribbean. And three big brands dominate the Dominican Republic (all beginning with B, for some inexplicable reason). These are cheap and the more fully matured varieties, available at only a restrained mark-up, can be quite good. Rum is mostly used with mixers, though, both the standard sugary international soft drinks, as well as the more naturally available fruit juices. Beer is also made, but unremarkable, usually served as icy cold as can be, so close to freezing that you don't notice its tastelessness too much. Everything else, such as wines and spirits other than rum, are imported and markedly more expensive. 
The Dominican Republic prides itself on producing some of the best coffee in the world and coffee experts will have plenty of opportunity to test this claim. Typically, coffee will be served with lots of sugar and milk or cream, though, so if you want it black, you have to ask for it. On the cold soft-drinks front, local fruit juices seem to be under-represented. Instead the usual US/international brands dominate.
The climate in the Dom Rep is rightly renowned for being pleasant and tropical year round, slightly hotter and more stifling in summer, somewhat more tolerably warm in winter, but never cold (except in the high-altitude mountain regions in the interior). The country does occasionally get pummelled by hurricanes, though. 
  • DomRep 01 - mountainous interiorDomRep 01 - mountainous interior
  • DomRep 02 - fertile central valleyDomRep 02 - fertile central valley
  • DomRep 03 - palm trees on beach clicheDomRep 03 - palm trees on beach cliche
  • DomRep 04 - resort industryDomRep 04 - resort industry
  • DomRep 05 - for many this is paradise, for me it is hell on EarthDomRep 05 - for many this is paradise, for me it is hell on Earth
  • DomRep 06 - SamanaDomRep 06 - Samana
  • DomRep 07 - Samana bayDomRep 07 - Samana bay
  • DomRep 08 - Bridge to NowhereDomRep 08 - Bridge to Nowhere
  • DomRep 09 - this is what Nowhere looks likeDomRep 09 - this is what Nowhere looks like
  • DomRep 10 - abandoned resort ruinsDomRep 10 - abandoned resort ruins
  • DomRep 11 - Los Haitises National ParkDomRep 11 - Los Haitises National Park
  • DomRep 12 - mangrovesDomRep 12 - mangroves
  • DomRep 13 - mangrovesDomRep 13 - mangroves
  • DomRep 14 - inaccessible wildernessDomRep 14 - inaccessible wilderness
  • DomRep 15 - birds on stiltsDomRep 15 - birds on stilts
  • DomRep 16 - pelicanDomRep 16 - pelican
  • DomRep 17 - karst cavesDomRep 17 - karst caves
  • DomRep 18 - glimmer of the sea inside a caveDomRep 18 - glimmer of the sea inside a cave
  • DomRep 19 - petroglyphDomRep 19 - petroglyph
  • DomRep 20 - sculpture-like stalagmitesDomRep 20 - sculpture-like stalagmites
  • DomRep 21 - turkey vultures circlingDomRep 21 - turkey vultures circling
  • DomRep 22 - jungleDomRep 22 - jungle
  • DomRep 22 - tree housesDomRep 22 - tree houses
  • DomRep 23 - Punta Cana villageDomRep 23 - Punta Cana village
  • DomRep 24 - road trafficDomRep 24 - road traffic
  • DomRep 25 - old truck belching out black fumesDomRep 25 - old truck belching out black fumes

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2016