The capital city of the Dominican Republic
and the largest metropolis in the whole Caribbean. Its sprawling outer districts with featureless residential blocks and ramshackle slums can be less appealing, but the historic heart is a gem. And this is where 80% of what's of interest to tourists, including to dark tourists, is located.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Santo Domingo is the oldest colonial city in the Americas. It was here that Christopher Columbus took up base and started the conquest of the rest of the “New World”. And there are plenty of architectural vestiges of this earliest phase when Santo Domingo was the stepping stone and administrative centre for the exploitation of the Americas by the Spanish
The city was later looted and laid to ruin by successive attacks and take-overs by the British, French, Spanish and Haitians, and in general its importance gradually declined. But it regained its pivotal role, politically and economically, in the modern era.
Shortly after Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina rose to power, his megalomania also manifested itself in the renaming of the capital city as Ciudad Trujillo in 1936. Immediately following the dictator's assassination, however, the city promptly reverted to its old name.
Lots of development took place from the late 1960s and the 1970s onwards, including the cluster of modern museums at Plaza de la Cultura, elevated highways, the construction of huge hotels along the seafront and the metro. During this time the city also expanded into the vast, sprawling metropolis it is today with nearly 3 million inhabitants – the largest conurbation by far in the whole of the Caribbean.
This size and the concomitant strains on the infrastructure bring with it typical problems: visible stark inequality of wealth distribution, smog and pollution, and maniacal traffic conditions.
On the plus side, there is a very metropolitan vibe about the place – and all the big-city nasty sides are largely absent in the touristy parts, especially the old Colonial Zone, or “Zona Colonial”.
What there is to see:
For the dark tourist two sites are of special importance, one the main museum relating to the dark ages of the Trujillo era (see history
!) and the resistance fight against the dictatorship, the other the largest and weirdest edifice celebrating Santo Domingo's 500 years of historical importance for the Americas:
In addition, there are several smaller sights worth seeing that also relate to the Trujillo dictatorship and its end.
First of all, there is the monument marking the Trujillo-assassination site
, where the dictator finally met his fate on 30 May 1961, on the road between Santo Domingo and his home town of San Cristobal (cf. Casa Caoba
), where he was gunned down in his limo. The site is these days well within the capital city's limits (the sprawling growth of its conurbation now belying the once rural setting). The monument at the site is of a very distinctive, and many would say rather bizarre design (see the photos!). A plaque at the site laboriously explains (in Spanish) all the symbolism and significance of the various elements.
Also on the main road along the seafront – collectively known as the “Malecon” (though the official street names are different) – are two monuments worth a look, namely two obelisks. The one closer to the Zona Colonial is known as the “Obelisco Hembra” or 'female obelisk', as it consists of a two-pronged structure that the local macho mindset apparently finds reminiscent of a woman's parted legs. Originally, this was erected by Trujillo in 1941 to mark the occasion of the repayment of debts to the USA, and hence officially christened “Monumento a la Independencia Financiera”.
The other, much taller obelisk is known as the “Obelisco Macho”, 'male
obelisk', obviously enough for its classic single-column shape. It was originally erected (sic!) to mark the renaming of the capital as Ciudad Trujillo in 1936, but it has since been painted with colourful murals depicting the fabled Mirabal sisters, the country's main anti-Trujillo martyrs and national heroes (see Mirabal house
and La Cumbre
When driving (or being driven) along the Malecon between the Trujillo-assassination monument and the 'male obelisk' you may notice two abandoned hotel construction sites
. These grey empty hulks that have been crumbling away for years surely have quite a dramatic aura (they look a bit like the abandoned beach front hotels in Varosha, Cyprus
). Apparently, so my driver told us, the construction had to be halted because the foundations were faulty and beginning to tilt. It's no more than a drive-by dark attraction, but worth a look.
Also worth a look – but no more than that – is the Museo Nacional de Historia y Geografía
that is part of the cluster of museums on Plaza de la Cultura. In contrast to its better known neighbours (see below
), however, this history museum is currently closed to the public, has been closed for a while and is unlikely to reopen any time soon. The star exhibit can still be seen, though, if only by glancing through the windows into the foyer: it is a car used in the assassination of Trujillo
It is an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, owned by the conspirator Antonio de la Maza. You can spot a couple of bullet holes on the left side – these are from Trujillo shooting back at his assassins. After he was shot dead he was stuffed into the car's trunk and taken away from the scene. The car is NOT, however, the car Trujillo was shot in (a Chevrolet Bel Air), as some sources claim. The whereabouts of that car seem to be unknown. My guide suggested it might be in Santiago – possibly one of the cars on display at the Camp David Ranch Hotel (a former Trujillo mansion near Santiago), but when he phoned them to ask, they wouldn't confirm this. If anybody knows where the bullet-ridden Trujillo Chevy ended up, I'd be keen to hear about it (contact me
Normally you can only peek into the closed foyer, but when I was there my guide had managed to get the local security guard to grant us access to the inside of the foyer for a few moments, so I was able to get up closer. The rusty hulk of this 1950s car is not that spectacular in itself, and there is only a small sign to commodify this exhibit (saying it was Maza's and that it was used in the “ajusticiamiento”, or 'execution' of Trujillo on 30 May 1961), and another saying “do not touch”.
It is a shame the museum is closed (and the guard said all its other contents are packed up in boxes, so there would literally be nothing else to see in there at the moment). Apparently it once also displayed various other Trujillo memorabilia, including some of his outlandishly over-elaborate uniforms and medals, as well as a bust and various paintings of the man (going by photos I found on the latinamericanstudies.org website under dominican-republic/trujillo-museum). It seems, though, that the Dominicans do not have much interest in recent/modern history and so there is little hope for the museum ever to reopen.
Not closed to the public as such, but hard to get admission to (my guide said the waiting list was full for months ahead) is the Palacio Nacional, the presidential palace. This grand, domed, neoclassical pile is said to be of a decadently lavish interior design too – fitting for a megalomaniacal leader such as Trujillo (it was built under the dictator's auspices and inaugurated in 1947). Visits are by guided tour only, and apparently you have to organize this well ahead of time.
Before the construction of the palace, Trujillo had his office in the Casa Reales on Plaza de Espana in the heart of the Colonial Zone. It had long been the seat of power for the Spanish colonial government as well as a courthouse. It now functions as a museum which mostly has older objects from the pre-Columbian era and Spanish colonial times, but also an armoury collection that once was Trujillo's. Some sources say parts of his old office are also on display here. I was not able to ascertain this myself, as unfortunately I did not find the time to check this museum out during my short stay in the city (and other sights just had to take priority).
If you keep your eyes open, you can still spot manhole covers in the streets labelled “C. Trujillo” (so presumably from when the city was renamed Ciudad Trujillo by the megalomaniacal dictator – see above
and under history
). Imagine coming across an Adolf-Hitler
-Str. Sign in Germany
! (But cf. the Mussolini
obelisk at the Foro Italico
!) One such manhole cover that I know of is to be found on Calle Las Damas in front of the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando hotel.
Moving away from Trujillo and dictatorships for a moment, there are also a couple of other things with dark undertones that are worth seeing in Santo Domingo. For example there are the ruins of the former Hospital San Nicolas de Bari. Constructed in 1503, it is amongst the city's oldest buildings. In 1911, however, it was destroyed in a hurricane. More, similar-looking ruins can be found at the site of the former Monasterio San Francisco a bit further north.
Much more modern in appeal is the spectacular socialist-realist-like mural inside the Banco de Reservas
on Calle Isabel La Catolica. Well worth popping in (or just peeking in). I wasn't able to surreptitiously snap a picture, unfortunately.
Just round the corner is the Panteon Nacional
, a former convent on Las Damas, that was turned into a mausoleum for an assortment of mainly 19th century bad boys of the Dominican Republic
's turbulent history
. The main baddies of its 20th century history are not to be found here … But the massive central chandelier was a gift donated by Spain
's dictator Franco during the Trujillo era!
almost in the centre of the south coast of the Dominican Republic
, some 120 miles (195 km) from the Haitian border to the west and roughly 100 miles (165 km) from the country's easternmost point at Punta Cana.
Individual Google maps locators:
Access and costs: varying widely, from easy to stressy and from cheap to expensive.
Details: You can fly (almost) directly to Santo Domingo – its international airport “Las Americas” is some 15 miles (25 km) east of the city centre. To get from there to the centre you will need a taxi (ca. 40 USD) or brave the public transport alternatives.
Coming from other parts of the country, you can use the overland bus services, mostly provided by Caribe Tours, and from Punta Cana by Barvaro Express. Both have terminals in the centre of the business district as well as on Parque Enriquillo north of the Colonial Zone.
Driving into Santo Domingo is only for those with nerves of steel (or no nerves at all), and can hardly be recommended to most foreign tourists. The Malecon, ring road and central elevated highway may be relatively easy, but in the thick of the urban traffic, things get very chaotic.
Getting around within the city is easiest on foot and by taxi for longer distances. Santo Domingo has a safe and efficient metro system too, but its stations lie mostly way out of the areas of particular interest to (dark) tourists, except perhaps Estacion Casandra Damiron (linea 1), which is the closest metro stop to the museum complex on Plaza de la Cultura. Using city buses or guaguas (minibus services) is only for the advanced (Spanish skills required). Taxis are the much more convenient alternative.
Most tourists rarely venture out of the Zona Colonial, and within this area everything is perfectly walkable. To get to the Faro a Colon and the Tres Ojos, taxis are definitely recommended (I attempted to walk back to the centre but was stopped by the tourist police who insisted that I take a taxi – for safety reasons).
are also available. I even read about a specialist three-hour tour called “Ruta del Chivo” ('Route of the Goat') which – using veteran cars from the 1950s and 60s – follows a Trujillo theme and involves the Resistance Museum
, Palacio Nacional and the site of the assassination of its namesake (see history
). The introduction of such a tour was publicised on the Dominican Today website, and reported elsewhere too, but all later references to it that I was able to find appeared to be verbatim quotes (cut-and-paste jobs to you and me) of the original report. When I planned my trip to the city I could not find any current information on any such tours. So I cannot say if they are even still running at all (I suspect they are not).
Instead I hired a specialist guide
myself for a tailor-made
all-day tour that also included San Cristobal (for the Casa Caoba
and Castillo de Cerro
) as well as the Pomier Caves
(but not the resistance museum, which you can easily do independently anyway). This was an American guy called Richard Weber who runs the specialist operator Tours, Trips, Treks & Travel Dominican Republic, or 4tdomrep (dot com) for short. This outfit is normally more geared towards organizing special-interest cultural, educational and adventure group tours (and also wedding planning!), so hiring him for just two people wasn't cheap. We also hired a specialist for the Pomier Caves
, which came with a sizeable price tag too. So it was quite an investment overall for just a single day tour, but the quality of the outcome was superb.
But back to Santo Domingo itself:
There is an incredibly wide range of choices for accommodation
in Santo Domingo. And a few places have some remarkable historical
connections. This includes for example the Hotel Palacio, a mansion dating back to the mid-17th century that was once the home of Buenaventura Báez, a wealthy businessman who in the 19th century was involved in the movement to end the Haitian occupation and later served as the DR's president.
Even older historical connections are part of the attraction of the luxurious Hostal de Nicolas Ovando – former home of the early 16th century Spanish conquistador of the same name who was instrumental in establishing the colony and organizing the enslavement of the native Taino population. The present-day hotel is at the upper end of the price range.
A place with more modern historical connections is the Hotel El Embajador – another one of the city's top hotels (though with more affordable entry rates). Allegedly Trujillo had a penthouse suite here and the hotel was used by the USA
as their HQ during their Second Occupation of the Dom Rep
in 1965. Well appointed and with beautiful gardens, the downside of this hotel is its location far from the centre.
But if you are looking for something more affordable and can live without such historical connections, the city also offers plenty of options at the other, more budget-friendly end of the price range, even right in the Zona Colonial. It's worth spending some time shopping around
As for food & drink
, there is no shortage of restaurants and bars in this capital city, both in the Zona Colonial and especially in the more upmarket residential area of Gazcue. Places serving traditional Dominican fare are surprisingly few, but foreign cuisines are well represented.
Music- and drinks-fuelled nightlife hotspots are to be found especially along the Malecon (seafront) and at Parque Duarte in the Colonial Zone.
Time required: You'll need at least two days/three nights to see all the sights mentioned above, longer if you also want to do more of the mainstream sightseeing and/or want to use Santo Domingo as a base for excursions further away.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The capital city also makes for a useful base for day trips into some parts of the rest of the Dominican Republic
. I went on a day tour that included San Cristobal (for Castillo de Cerro
and Casa Caoba
) and the Pomier Caves
(see under access & costs above
). Some operators even offer day return tours to places as far away as Lago Enriquillo (though that would mean spending a good part of the day in a car). Cities such as Santiago or Puerto Plata
are also within fairly easy reach even by public transport (bus).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The old Zona Colonial in the centre is chock-full of early-colonial-era historical buildings, many older than anything to be found elsewhere in the Americas. There are too many to list them here, but amongst the places to check out are the Alcazar de Colon, the first home of the Columbuses in the New World, the Fortaleza Ozama, the first fortress, and Parque Colon with the cathedral and a striking Columbus statue, hand stretched out to point the way (probably towards lands for the Conquistadors to go and loot next).
Amongst the many museums noteworthy examples are the Amber Museum in the Colonial Zone and those around Plaza de la Cultura in Gazcue which (unlike the history museum – see above) are not closed. These include, most notably, the Modern Art Museum and the Museo del Hombre Dominicano (with an emphasis on the pre-Columbian Taino culture).
A bit out of the centre towards the east you can find an unexpected gem of natural beauty, the so-called Tres Ojos, a system of three underground cave lakes (shimmering a deep blue when the sunlight filters through at a suitable angle) and one further sinkhole-like lake. Given the stunning scenery so close to a major city, it is perhaps not too surprising that the place has been used as a film set on several occasions, including no less than six Tarzan movies.
- SD 01 - Alcazar de Colon
- SD 02 - Plaza de Espania
- SD 03 - National Pantheon
- SD 04 - Parque Colon
- SD 05 - cathedral by night
- SD 06 - Parque Duarte
- SD 07 - posh part of the Zona Colonial
- SD 08 - posh courtyard
- SD 09 - pretty
- SD 10 - grand
- SD 11 - this could be in Paris
- SD 12 - art nouveau architecture
- SD 13 - colourful
- SD 14 - less well maintained building
- SD 15 - ruins of the San Francisco monastery
- SD 16 - ruins of the Hospital San Nicolas de Bari
- SD 17 - nativity scene in rusty metal
- SD 18 - vintage car
- SD 19 - tourist train
- SD 20 - in the amber museum
- SD 21 - Christmas tree fashioned out of old plastic bottles
- SD 22 - cables and cars
- SD 23 - grain silo and ferry to Puerto Rico
- SD 24 - abandoned hotel construction sites on the Malecon
- SD 25 - concrete ruin
- SD 26 - 1960s architecture
- SD 27 - closed history museum
- SD 28 - trunk in which the assassinated Trujillo was taken away in
- SD 29 - peeking into the assassination car
- SD 30 - former Trujillo obelisk
- SD 31 - now adorned with Mirabal murals
- SD 32 - Female obelisk
- SD 33 - monument at the Trujillo assassination site
- SD 34 - strange design
- SD 35 - yet another monument
- SD 36 - military presence
- SD 37 - industrial outskirts
- SD 38 - the first of the Tres Ojos
- SD 39 - ferry to the fourth cavern and lake
- SD 40 - scenery worthy of a Tarzan movie or six