The Dominican Republic has sometimes been referred to as the “poor man’s Puerto Rico”. This stems mainly from the exaggerated reputation the country has for crime and poverty. But while crime such as muggings, pickpocketing, and theft does exist, it is not as widespread and pervasive as reported. And if this is a legitimate negative of the Dominican Republic, it is more than outweighed by the paradise-like vacation it offers – uncrowded golden beaches, near-perfect weather, friendly and hospitable people, tropical drinks, and the beat of merengue and latin music. The best part about the Dominican Republic is that it is not as over-commercialized as Puerto Rico, not as swarmed and crowded by tourists, and a lot cheaper.
But there is also more to this country. Sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Dominican Republic is one of the largest countries in the Caribbean, second only to Cuba. The interior is mountainous, a stark contrast with the plains of the coast. The country is surrounded by the Caribbean to the south and the Atlantic to the north. Many of the island’s beaches are alive with colorful tropical fish and well protected by coral reefs.
The people of the Dominican Republic are friendly, warm, and always eager to help. They love to chat with visitors at any opportunity. Most of them speak Spanish, but they do try to communicate in English and are always looking to improve. Customer service at the hotels and restaurants is generally excellent, especially in the resort areas. These resorts provide visitors with the comfort of modern amenities, while only being minutes away from the heart of Dominican life.
Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the rich and poor in the Dominican. Unemployment is a big problem. Labor is also cheap, made worse by Haitians coming across the border. Most people live in huts in shanty towns and are extremely poor. Water and electricity are considered luxuries and the government has a clear policy of providing more infrastructural services to the tourist areas at the expense of the local people. Locals, however, don’t seem to mind, realizing that their jobs depend on tourism. Resort areas are heavily guarded by armed security men and barbed wire fences. But this does not mean the country isn’t safe for tourists. Guns are a way of life in the Dominican Republic, thanks to 20 years of a harsh dictatorship that still feels threatened by its Haitian neighbors. There are also many police road blocks that visitors will encounter when traveling around the country. Tourists in hired cars, however, are normally waved through.
There is a good mix of shanty towns and wealthy areas in the Dominican Republic. The high mountainous towns are where the affluent reside. The large ranches and the well-cared-for-land belong obviously to the wealthy. In the towns, more and more expensive-looking shopping districts are being developed while the old centers are being restored. The island has hosted numerous film shoots, including the movie “Havana” starring Robert Redford.
Overall, the country offers tourists a little of everything typically desired of a holiday – a little bit of culture, history, good food, and beautiful beaches. Most areas are still relatively undiscovered. Most tourists stay in the resort areas and miss out on the rest of the country. The island is definitely best enjoyed by those who are adventurous.
The Dominican Republic was originally inhabited by the peaceful Taino Indians before Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola on his first trip to the Americas in 1492. Today, the Dominicans claim that the explorer’s remains are buried in the Cathedral in Santo Domingo. The Spaniards quickly colonized the island and ushered in a turbulent period in history. The north coast was the first region to be colonized. Columbus’ brother, Bartolome, was left in charge of the island. He soon found out that the north coast was fever ridden and uprooted the settlement, moving it to the south in 1496 and establishing Santo Domingo. The native Indians, unfortunately, were used as slaves and were wiped out entirely within two decades.
In 1508, King Ferdinand of Spain named the entire island Santo Domingo. While the Spanish initially controlled the whole island, their claim soon came under attack from other European powers, who saw the potential for using the site as an administrative center for the region. Sir Francis Drake conquered Santo Domingo for a few days in 1586 but was quickly forced out by the Spanish. During the battle for the city, Drake launched a cannonball that landed on the city’s cathedral roof, which is where it still remains today. The French, however, were more successful in their attempts. In 1697, the took over the western third of the island. Under the Treaty of Ryswick, this western Third was formally ceded to France and named Saint Domingue. Today, this portion of the island is known as Haiti.
Over the years, the Dominicans have been invaded numerous times by the Haitians, who at times have controlled the entire island for as long as twenty years at a time. The constant fighting has instilled a fear of invasion in the Dominicans, a fear that awakens every time Haiti becomes politically unstable. In 1809, Spain briefly re-captured Haiti with the help of the British Navy. However, while renaming the colony the Independent State of Spanish Haiti in 1821, they showed little interest in it. A year later, the French Haitians took over once again and assumed control of the entire island until the Dominican Republic was granted independence in 1844.
Even the Americans have controlled the island at one time. In 1916, the U.S. took over and occupied the island until 1924 when it gave it back to Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, who headed the army. He started a vicious dictatorship in 1930 that lasted 31 years.
Thousands of people were killed under Trujillo’s harsh rule. Haitian immigrants were particularly targeted. Horror stories of that era abound. Numerous shrines have been built to honor the victims. Some stories tell of entire families being wiped out because Trujillo took a fancy to a daughter who refused to marry him. Political enemies were often shot. One story tells of how political prisoners would be lined up after church on Sunday and Trujillo would shoot a few before going home for lunch.
In 1961, the cruel dictator was finally assassinated, but that did not end the troubles. Various governments assumed control, often with the aid of the military, before getting ousted. The last few decades, however, peace and stability has gradually been restored, though there are still strikes and riots on rare occasions.
Today, the country is run by a bicameral Congress, a 120-seat Chamber of Deputies and a 27-seat Senate. The President along with the rest of the Government is elected every four years. Regional governors are selected by the President while the Senate chooses the judiciary.
The roads in the Dominican Republic can be a bit dangerous, so be careful if you are planning to rent a car or bike. Driving can be fun and is definitely the best way to get to areas off the tourist locales.
Renting a car in the country can be a headache. Reservations and bookings are not always honored. Also, because the roads are bad, many checks have to be done when a car is returned. If you have booked a car, you might have to wait several hours or even days to get it while the company inspects the car for damage. The best approach is to check daily and be insistent of your immediate need for a car. Because of the rough roads, it’s a good idea to buy insurance to cover damages and accidents or else you could be facing a repair bill. Make sure you book a car with air conditioning, as it can get quite hot on the road. Be sure to fill up while you’re in a major town before heading off to the mountains or along the remote coastal routes.
Driving in the Dominican Republic is done on the right side of the road. Watch out for the scooters, which can be a major hazard. As many as six people can hang onto a bike as it weaves in and out of traffic.
Night driving can be hazardous as well. Few cars have rear lights and even fewer drivers bother to dip their headlights when cars approach. If you have to drive at night, bring someone along to help look out for pedestrians and other vehicles. Many drivers will also ignore traffic lights at night. On the other hand, traffic can be slow because of the rough roads and numerous potholes. You’ll be lucky if the speed is up to 55 kilometers per hour (35 miles per hour).
In the towns, the roads are much better. The official speed limit is typically 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) on the highways, 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour) in the suburbs, and 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour) in the cities.
Public transportation in the Dominican Republic for tourists is limited to taxis. There are minibuses that run along a set route with a set fare. They pick up passengers and let them out anywhere along the route. There are also publicos, which pick passengers up until the vehicles are full.
Taxis are the best way to go for tourists. The driving is more reliable. The cars are usually older American cars that can fit as many as six people. Plenty of them hang around the hotels. They are cheap and reliable. You can recognized them by the tax disc on display on the roof. It is advisable to negotiate the fare before you hop on. The taxi rates are usually advertised at the hotels for set destinations, but other routes can be negotiated. Tipping is not required, but is recommended if the driver also gives you a tour of the local town or sights.
As expected, the food in the Dominican Republic incorporates many Spanish flavors, but it blends these flavors with tropical ingredients such as locally grown fruit and vegetables. Seafood, being readily available, is popularly served in the beach towns and resorts.
The resort areas are home to a diverse range of restaurants, offering everything from gourmet cuisines to everyday hamburgers. Chinese as well as local restaurants are also part of the mix. There are also many beach and swim-up pool bars as well as barbecue pits. All the eateries have a high standard of customer service, but deliver it slowly in the usual, laid-back Caribbean style.
Good local food can only be found outside of the resort areas around the nearby towns. The tucked-away narrows roads are typically lined with a mass of restaurants and bars. These joints are a lot cheaper than the resort restaurants, although some of the town restaurants do get tourist visits and sometimes adjust their prices accordingly.
Of course, some of the best food is sometimes found in the most unlikely-looking of places. In some smaller villages, local restaurants are sometimes located on the beach where fresh fish is caught straight out of the boat and sent to the kitchen. If you want fresh fruit, you can also pay small boys to run up the nearest coconut tree and fetch you the goods. They’ll charge you and serve it to you with a smile. The local people are generally friendly. They love to chat with you about their family and village problems and most of them have a good deal of humor.
In the towns, there are myriad supermarkets, small shops, and fresh food markets where you can buy supplies for self-catering or for picnics. The prices are among the lowest in the Caribbean. Even in the resort areas, the food is cheaper than in Europe or the U.S. Alcohol, however, can e quite expensive. Wines are typically six times more expensive than what you would pay in the U.S. or Europe. Many wine lists contain more European than American or local Caribbean wines. Cocktails are slightly cheaper. Outside of the resorts, prices are about a third of what they are within the resort areas.
Booth, Elizabeth. Jamaica and the Greater Antilles. Swindon: Crowood Press, Ltd, 1991. ISBN: 1852234628.
“Introduction to Dominican Republic.” < http://www.frommers.com/destinations/dominicanrepublic/0179010001.html>
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