Things to Do in Santo Domingo
||The average temperature is 77°F, with August being the warmest month and January the coolest. Summer temperatures range from 89-95°F, winter from 75-90°F. The main rainy season is between June and October, when it is hottest.
The white-sand beaches, impressive mountain ranges veined with spectacular rivers and waterfalls, and saltwater lakes teeming with exotic wildlife are just part of the Dominican Republic's appeal. Whether you're looking to party, relax or explore, the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer.
Steer a small boat through endless mangrove forests in search of gentle manatees. Spy on lovesick humpback whales in the Bahía de Samaná. And once you've had your fill of this exquisite island's natural wonder, get back to civilization and prepare to party.
The locals throw festivals, parties and carnivals like there's no tomorrow. Folks in the Americas' first European city, Santo Domingo, don't just spend their time admiring the fine colonial architecture gracing their home. Nope, this town has not one, but two complete Carnivals, complete with parades, elaborate floats, lots of live music and plenty of dancing in the streets. Pre-Lent Carnivals are celebrated in Santiago, Cabral, Monte Cristi and La Vega as well. If that's not enough, check out the country's two major merengue festivals, the annual Latin Music Festival and the national surfing and windsurfing championships.
The Dominican Republic has a primarily tropical climate, with more local variations in temperature than seasonal ones. August is muggy and hot, January a bit less so. There are two rainy seasons, October to May along the northern coast and May to October in the south; bring an umbrella if you plan to travel the entire country. Dominican rain isn't your garden-variety 'just-enough-to-cool-things-off' precipitation native to Hawaii or Central America - this stuff drenches waterfall-style and could easily last half a day.
The June-to-September hurricane season might be worth missing; though the chances of one blowing through are miniscule, remember that one little hurricane can wreck your whole holiday.
One Carnival isn't enough for fun-loving Santo Domingo. Nope, the pre-Lent celebration, which is echoed throughout the country, always begins two or three days before February 27 (Independence Day) and ends a few days later. It's a monster party combining Catholic decompression with African spirituality, not to mention great costumes, spectacular floats and all the rum you can drink. The second Carnival begins August 15, to coincide with Restoration Day (when the DR declared war on Spain); August festivities may be marginally more sedate, but they're still the perfect place to wear that sequined-and-feathered number.
The Dominican Republic throws another wild party during the last week of July and first week of August, a merengue festival that is the epicenter of the art form, attracting the world's top talent to Santo Domingo for a festival that engulfs the city and surrounding suburbs in music and dance. Another merengue festival goes off in Puerto Plata during the first week of October. If you'd like a little variety while you dance, however, don't miss the three-day Latin Music Festival in the capital, when everyone from Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin get down with Tito Rojas and Fernando Villalona.
Other can't-miss festivities worth crossing the Caribbean for include Puerto Plata's week-long Cultural Festival in June, with jazz, blues, merengue and folk concerts throughout town; Cabarete Alegría, in which the country dedicates the entire month of February to fun, with weekend events like mountain-bike races, kite-flying competitions and sand-castle building contests; and the Encuentro Classic, an internationally known windsurfing spectacular that pits the sport's stars against the hurricane season.
Of course, the best time to hit the restaurant- and bar-packed town of Sosúais is during the few days before Easter Sunday, Holy Week. Dominicans from all over the country flock to the bayside city to compete in volleyball contests, drink themselves silly, soak up the sun and dance the night away. Hell, yeah.
It's the capital of the Dominican Republic and the first European city in the 'New World'. It's also a vibrant, exciting, polluted, sometimes dangerous (leave the Rolex at home) and always interesting Caribbean city with more to do and see than you'll manage no matter how long you stay. There are more colonial sites in Santo Domingo than you'll ever be able to see in one visit. Do check out the Zona Colonial, ground zero of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the point of disembarkation for settlers, businesspeople and conquistedores, and an administrative centre helmed by Christopher Columbus' son, Diego. The city also boasts the oldest extant cathedral in the Americas, Catedral Primada de América. The nearby Parque Colón not only features a statue of the eponymous admiral, but is also the meeting place for area residents and always buzzes with activity.
There are also dozens of museums concerned with everything from indigenous and colonial history to amber, one of the country's most important products. Gardens, zoos and parks keep the city green. And, once you've gotten your fill of that culture stuff, there are plenty of discos and nightclubs that are sure to keep you up all night. Add to this a fairly good restaurant scene, and you've got a recipe for a fantastic visit.
The northern coast of the Dominican Republic gets its name from the world's richest deposits of amber, found in the hills near here. Its reputation is squarely based on the 120km (75mi) string of beautiful beaches stretching east of Puerto Plata. It's the most developed stretch of the island, much of it unfortunately geared toward the desires of European package tourists. There are, however, several small towns where the laid-back atmosphere of palm-thatched restaurants and local guesthouses still prevails over the concrete box architecture of the resorts.
Puerto Plata, the main hub of the coast, has its share of local streetlife, gingerbread architecture and tree-lined plazas, but it also has a bounty of ship-'em-in, ship-'em-out resorts that have overwhelmed its personality. Away from its over-trafficked beaches, you'll have fun promenading the Malecón or taking the funicular to the 780m (2600ft) peak of Mt Isabel de Torres, which towers over the town.
This is the serious vacationer's destination. It's got an enormous, beautiful bay, considered one of the best in the world for windsurfing. The lovely, white-sand beaches are postcard perfect and proud of it. And, if you need a suite with a hot tub where room service will deliver a lobster dinner and bottle of champagne, stat, Cabarete is your town. And don't miss the bars and discos where live music is served fresh nightly to hundreds of well-dressed party people.
Even if the thought of scantily clad European 20-somethings enjoying sand and surf isn't your cup of tea, you'll have to admit that the ocean view is spectacular. The windsurfing attracts people from all over the world. You can rent all the equipment you'll need, and even sign up for a few lessons from any of several operators right on the beach. If a bare board is more your speed, some of the DR's best waves for surfing break just to the west of Cabarete, over coral reefs worth exploring in their own right. You can rent surfboards and boogie boards in town.
In many ways, Samaná is just another tranquil, tropical town with jellybean-coloured houses clinging to the verdant hillsides and swaying coconut trees. There are a couple of places to have a drink and admire the bay, once considered so strategically important that the USA occupied it for eight years. There are a few tourist compounds to the north, but that's not the reason to come (you'd do better in Cabarete with that sort of thing, anyhow). No, Mother Nature has blessed this area with special care, making Samaná the perfect base for exploring the Dominican Republic's finest treasures.
To the south, idyllic Cayo Levantado has dense forests and three spectacular beaches that are usually deserted, until the busloads of tourists fill them up around midday. Hiking trails and lovely views are among the island's other charms. To the west, Parque Nacional Los Haïtises offers scores of jungle-covered islands and thick mangrove forests, perfect for exploring by boat. The greatest show of all, however, takes place right in the bay, during January and February. Perhaps 80% of the world's humpback whales mate and bear young in the waters off the Dominican Republic, and you can see them at their lovesick best. To show off for the ladies, male humpbacks hurl their 40-ton bodies into the air, breaching with a big splash. (The gals do this, too, but refrain from flying quite as high, so as to protect the males' fragile egos.) Area captains will take you out into the bay for a fee.
The Dominican Republic's second city officially goes by the grandiose name of Santiago de los Caballeros (Santiago of the Gentlemen). And, Santiago is indeed an aristocratic, if somewhat provincial, city. It is the commercial hub of the Valle del Cibao, the nation's breadbasket, and factories here process raw sugar and tobacco into fine rum and cigars. Santiago boasts a thriving industrial sector and one of the finest universities in the country.
Santiago's leisurely, refined tempo is a pleasant surprise to the few travellers who make their way here. It doesn't offer much in the way of impressive monuments or an exciting nightlife, but there are some nice restaurants and museums to while away a relaxing day. Possibly the most popular activity in town is taking a stroll on Calle del Sol, Santiago's main street and a pleasant shopping district. The residents of the city have a rather regal air, and many spend their Sundays surveying the central park from horse-drawn carriages. It's a nice tribute to tradition in a rapidly changing city.
Sosúa is more than just another perfect beach town, still in the early stages of development yet impossibly rich in wide sandy shores and coconut trees. Sure, there are scores of sunbathers there, taking advantage of the pleasant restaurant scene and lively nightlife, but many of them don't know this community's interesting history.
The entire area was owned by United Fruit until the late 1920s, when dictator Rafael Trujillo bought the land up cheaply and sold it at a profit to Jewish organizations in the USA. These groups were trying to secure land for Jews fleeing an increasingly anti-Semitic central Europe. In 1940, some 350 Jewish families moved onto the land, and tried for several years to develop an agricultural product that could thrive in the tropical climate and survive long overland treks to Santo Domingo. They raised livestock for milk, cheese, sausages and other products, then used the profit to build a successful distribution system. Everything ran smoothly until the 1960s, when peasants began squatting on the farmland, rendering it useless for grazing. The police refused to help the Jewish community, and most eventually emigrated to the USA or Israel. Though only a few Jewish families remain today, the Jewish Community Museum offers a peek at their fascinating history. Why not drop by, before or after sunning your hangover away next to the clear, sparkling waters (where there are some fantastic diving opportunities, by the way).