There are two sides to the Dominican Republic. On one, tourists enjoy luxurious hotels along the beautiful coastline, sipping cocktails under palm trees and swimming in beautiful blue lagoons. On the other, they travel the destination's country roads, exploring coffee, cocoa bean and sugar cane fields where people labour in the sun and play dominoes outside tumbledown shacks. They will relish discovering the country's Spanish Colonial history, which goes all the way back to when America began.
The South Coast contains some of the country's bigger cities and national parks. The capital, Santo Domingo, was the first Spanish settlement in the Americas. Christopher Columbus initiated the first European New World settlement here in 1496.
His legacy is preserved in the bricks and mortar of Santo Domingo's historic old section. The northern Amber Coast region around Puerto Plata, the beautiful Samaná Peninsula, and the resort communities of the east coast are other tourist spots.
Essentially, east coast visitors will find all-inclusive resorts on of pristine stretches of tropical beach. Those who venture off the beaten track will encounter an unspoilt tropical paradise, and welcoming locals.
The Dominican Republic is renowned as an affordable beach destination, and brims with package tours and enticing all-inclusive resorts. It's also a captivating blend of culture, history, and stunning natural beauty. The main tourist magnets are the areas around Puerto Plata, Punta Cana, La Romana, and Samaná. However, the country's cultural jewel is the capital, Santo Domingo: a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to well-developed beach resorts and world-class golf courses, the Dominican Republic is home to vast coral reefs, waterfalls, jungles, secluded islands, pine forests, and the highest peaks in the Caribbean. Thanks to these diverse ecosystems, recreational opportunities abound. Adventure seekers head to the mountains to raft the white waters of the Yaque del Norte River. The rugged alpine terrain also lures hikers and bikers with its many mountain trails. Along the coast, water lovers can snorkel, dive, kayak, kite board, sail, and surf.
Many consider the small, laid-back seaside town, Cabarete, to be the kitesurfing and windsurfing capital of the Caribbean. The popular holiday destination has hosted international competitions since the 1980s, and is the perfect tropical setting, particularly for younger travellers seeking sun and adventure sports. Cabarete also has a buzzing beachside bar and restaurant scene. Tour operators offer plenty of other activities as well, such as hiking, surfing, canyoning, horse riding and mountain biking.
Inside the Colonial City stands the oldest cathedral in the western hemisphere. Consecrated in 1541, it is still used to this day. Its mix of late-Gothic and Renaissance elements provide a beautiful example of Spanish Renaissance architecture, with its golden coral facade and Gothic interior. Its walls have seen a great deal of history, including the coming of Sir Francis Drake, who captured Santo Domingo in 1586 and held the town for ransom. Interestingly, the remains of Christopher Columbus were once housed at the cathedral, before their final resting place in the Faro a Colon. The cathedral's treasury has an excellent art collection of ancient woodcarvings, furnishings, funerary monuments, silver, and jewellery, which visitors can explore.
Known as the Colonial City, the historic enclave of Santo Domingo covers only one square mile (3 sq km), but has dozens of historical sites and buildings behind its walls. Visitors will find parks, forts, churches, plazas, statues, palaces and monuments. A walking tour of these fascinating buildings takes at least three hours, and proceeds over cobbled streets where Christopher Columbus, Fernando Cortez and Francis Drake once walked. The city's main street, Calle de Las Damas, is the oldest street in the New World. Regarding sights, must-sees include the House of Cord, which is the oldest European building in the Americas, and the Alcazar Palace, where Christopher Columbus' son Diego once lived. It was built between 1510 and 1514.
The monument was built on the eastern shore of the Ozama River in the early 1990s, to commemorate both Santo Domingo's status as the oldest European city in the Americas, and the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. The building is 680 feet (210m) long, and built in the shape of a cross. It houses what are claimed to be the remains of Columbus himself, and is fitted with intense lights that project the image of the cross into the sky at night. The monument was designed by Scottish architect J.L. Gleave, who won an international competition with his plans for the lighthouse. The building is also the repository for numerous documents and artefacts associated with the early Spanish colonial times.
One of the better aquariums in the Caribbean lies about a mile east of the Columbus Lighthouse monument, and offers visitors guided glimpses of the region's diverse, colourful sea life. The open, airy National Aquarium is equipped with a clear-glass sea-tunnel that makes viewing the enclosed sea life an awesome experience. Visitors can see everything from angelfish to sharks. The attraction is just a short drive out of the city.
The vast green square in the heart of Santo Domingo serves as the city's cultural and artistic showcase. It's fronted by a cluster of four museums and houses the city's most important cultural venues, including the Teatro Nacional (National Theater). The square also boasts the likes of the Palacio Nacional, which houses the Presidency of the Dominican Republic; the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), a neoclassical building that is the permanent home of the country's National Symphony Orchestra; and the Boulevard 27 de Febrero, a pedestrian promenade located on the busy Avenida 27 de Febrero, which displays works of art from prominent Dominican artists and sculptors. The museums in the plaza are the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of History and Geography, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Dominican Man. The National Theatre runs a full programme of opera, ballet, music and drama productions year round, and visitors should certainly take in a show to round off their cultural experience in Santo Domingo.
Located on the east bank of the Ozama River, the 'Three Eyes' park is a surreal experience for visitors. The attraction is actually a series of huge natural caves that contain fresh-water lagoons. One is a sulphuric lake rumoured to be bottomless. A volcanic crater contains it. The caves are also festooned with stalactites and stalagmites. History lovers should note that the pre-Columbian Taino Indians used the caves for religious ceremonies. The site is currently one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the country. The caves are open from 8.30am to 5.30pm, and are illuminated at night by many coloured lights.
The small seaside town of Boca Chica lies just east of Santo Domingo on the Avenida de las Americas, and is a popular escape from city life. Its calm, crystal-clear waters make for superb swimming conditions, and its golf and seafood scenes are highly recommended. Visitors may also enjoy the destination's yacht clubs. Along with its azure waters and pristine white sands, Boca Chica's short distance from the island's capital city makes it the most popular beach in the Dominican Republic, especially on weekends and holidays. Boating visitors can anchor off Boca Chica's two islets, La Piedra and La Matica.
An attractive Victorian building in the centre of Puerto Plata on Duarte Street houses the Amber Museum, which showcases a unique collection of valuable Dominican amber. According to experts, the amber found in this region is the most transparent, and therefore the most valued, in the world. Classified as a semi-precious stone, the substance is actually tree resin that has hardened across millennia, often enclosing fossils of plant and insect life. The museum offers guided tours in several languages, and has a shop where a full selection of Dominican amber jewellery can be purchased.
Towering over the city of Puerto Plata is the 2,600 feet (792m) Mount Isabel de Torres, which is a popular tourist attraction in its own right. Visitors can take a spectacular seven-minute cable car ride up the mountainside to explore the summit. The botanical garden at the top boasts an amazing array of flora and fauna, as well as a cruciform statue of Jesus Christ. The statue replicates Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer. There is also a restaurant, from which diners can enjoy breathtaking views of the city and coastline.
The only remnant of Puerto Plata's Spanish Colonial past is a small fort. Built in the mid-16th century to protect the bay against pirates, it features a moat, and a collection of historical artefacts in a small museum. The fort never saw great battle, though, and was mostly used as a prison. An ocean-side road known as the Malecon lies to the east of the fort, and has many cafes and roadside vendors. It is a popular promenade for walks beside the beach.
To the east of Puerto Plata is the holiday destination of Sosua, a small village with a cosmopolitan character. Visitors will find a superb crescent-shaped beach and numerous cafés, bars and restaurants. The town was developed by a group of approximately 600 Jewish refugees from Europe who settled here in 1940, and founded the now-thriving dairy industry for which the village is noted. The original synagogue built by this expatriate community is still standing, and features a museum dedicated to the history of the community.
Jutting into the Atlantic like a finger, the beautiful Samaná Peninsula lies in the east of the island and is a remote area with deserted white-sand beaches, palm forests and clear, calm waters. Hidden towns and fishing villages, brightly painted Dominican homes, and a Mediterranean-influenced atmosphere characterise its communities. Mountain passes with winding roads dominate the interior. Visitors will enjoy their cool waterfalls, lush vegetation and magnificent views. The Samaná Peninsula is also known for the migration of humpback whales. This happens between January and March every year, when whales enter the sheltered warm waters along its coast.
Capital to a province of the same name, Puerto Plata sits on the country's north coast and is the gateway to the many holiday towns and resorts found adjacent to the shore. The coastline itself is blessed with beautiful stretches of pristine beach and lush green valleys, and has the majestic Mount Isabel de Torres in the background. Christopher Columbus described the spot as 'the fairest land under heaven' when he arrived there in 1492, and modern-day tourists tend to agree with him. The city sports a romantic air of days gone by, enhanced by its Victorian architecture. Indeed, filigree-lace wood and ironwork, as well as 'gingerbread' motifs characterise most of the historic homesteads and public buildings. That said, the town has a buzzing atmosphere, with many restaurants and clubs pumping the sultry beats of merengue and salsa into the tropical night air.
The Dominican Republic is hot and tropical, with little seasonal variation in temperatures, which average about 77°F (25°C). Seasons can, however, be determined by rainfall, with October to April being the rainy season on the north coast, while May to November is the wettest month in the south of the country. The driest area is the west. Cooler temperatures and less humidity are generally experienced between November and April, while the mountainous interior is always cooler than the rest of the country.
Hurricanes occur on average once every two years on the island, most striking the south of the country and most happening in August and September. The busiest time of year to visit the Dominican Republic is between December and April, when North Americans take a tropical break from their winters, and from June to September, which coincides with European summer holidays.
The currency is the Dominican Republic Peso (DOP), which is divided into 100 centavos. Many of the hotels and restaurants in the main tourist destinations display their prices in US dollars as well as in Dominican Pesos, as US dollars are widely accepted. Some places will also accept Euros.
The peso cannot be exchanged outside of the Dominican Republic, though major currencies can be converted into pesos at Central Bank approved bureaux. Only a small percentage of the pesos bought can be reconverted, and only if the original receipts are produced. So, it's best if travellers avoid buying more pesos than they're likely to need.
Major credit cards are accepted everywhere, but a commission is usually charged. Also, it's recommended that travellers use their credit cards at their hotels, as fraud incidents have been reported. The best exchange rates are paid on US dollars in cash, and are best exchanged at exchange bureaux (casas/agente de cambio).
Banking hours are Monday to Friday, 8.30am-4.30pm. Some banks also open on Saturdays. ATMs are widespread.
Spanish is the official language, but English is spoken in the main tourist centres.
Electrical current is between 110 and 120 volts, 60Hz. American-style two-pin flat blade plugs are standard.
US citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for touristic stays.
British citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for holders of British passports endorsed 'British Citizen' or 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' travelling as tourists. Visitors are required to obtain a Tourist Card on arrival; these are generally valid for 30 days, but can be extended. Holders of passports with any other endorsement should contact the relevant embassy to confirm entry requirements.
Canadian citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for tourist stays.
Australian citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for those travelling as tourists.
South African citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for those travelling as tourists.
Irish citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for those travelling as tourists.
US citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for touristic stays.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport valid for period of intended stay in the Dominican Republic. A visa is not required for those travelling as tourists.
In lieu of visas, Tourist Cards can be issued on-arrival to certain nationals, at a cost of USD 10 for a stay of 30 days. Extensions are possible. A return or onward ticket is required by all visitors, as well as the travel documentation needed for their next destination. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers going between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA, a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities.
It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months validity remaining after their intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No vaccination certificates are required but precautions are recommended against Hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies and polio for those who plan to spend time outside the main tourist resort areas. There is a malaria risk throughout the year. Between May and September there is a risk of dengue fever, which is contracted from mosquitoes that bite during the day. It is advisable to use mosquito repellent. Travellers should be aware of the high prevalence of the HIV/AIDS virus in the Dominican Republic and take the relevant precautions. Water should be regarded as being potentially contaminated in undeveloped areas; bottled water is available. Some species of fish, including tropical reef fish, may be poisonous to eat even when well cooked. There are good hospitals and other private medical facilities located in Puerto Plata, Santiago and Santo Domingo but, outside of these cities, facilities are limited and staff are unlikely to understand English. Most resorts have doctors that can treat minor medical complaints. Health insurance, including provision for medical evacuation, is recommended.
Hotels and restaurants generally include a 10 percent service charge as well as tax, but additional tips should be given for good service as often the charge does not go to the staff who provided the service. Waiters usually receive 10 percent extra for good service. For other services including taxi drivers, tipping is discretionary depending on the service provided.
The Dominican Republic is generally friendly and welcoming, with the vast majority of visits proceeding as trouble-free experiences. That said, travellers should not ignore the country's crime rate. Incidences of violent crime are infrequent; visitors should take normal precautions against petty crime. The risk of terrorism is low.
Tensions sometimes flare up along the Haitian border, so travellers should check the situation before crossing or visiting the region. The Dominican Republic is vulnerable to hurricanes from June to November.
Being polite to others and having respect for elders is integral and is expected from visitors. If taking a photograph of a local, tourists should ask permission first and then offer a gift afterwards. Dominicans take care in their appearance and form judgements based on what people wear; they are likely to look down on tourists that are unkempt or wear clothes that are too revealing.
Santo Domingo is the centre of business in the Dominican Republic. Good working relationships are vital and trust is an integral part of doing business in the Dominican Republic; knowing the right people is half the battle won. Appearances are considered important and therefore dressing smartly is advised. Meetings are initially rather formal and a polite greeting accompanied by a handshake is common; expect small talk. Business cards are usually exchanged on introduction. Punctuality is important. Although English is widely spoken and understood, it is still useful to have all business material printed in English and Spanish. It is important to be polite and courteous at all times. Business hours are usually 8am to 12pm and 2pm to 6pm Monday to Friday.
The international access code for the Dominican Republic is +1, as with the US, Canada and most of the Caribbean, followed by 809 or 829. The outgoing code is 011 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 01144 for the UK) but this is not required for calling North America. Wifi is generally available in most cafes, hotels and restaurants.
Travellers to the Dominican Republic over 16 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 1 box cigars; 1 bottle of alcohol, unopened and maximum of 2 litres; and up to 2 bottles of perfume for personal use. All animal products are prohibited.
Ministry of Tourism: www.godominicanrepublic.com
Embassy of the Dominican Republic, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 332 7670.
Embassy of the Dominican Republic, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7262 6856.
Embassy of the Dominican Republic, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 569 9893
Embassy of the Dominican Republic, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 362 2463
Consulate-General of the Dominican Republic, Sydney, Australia: +61 2 4620 3247
United States Embassy, Santo Domingo: +1 809 567 7775
British Embassy, Santo Domingo: +1 809 472 7111
Canadian Embassy, Santo Domingo: +1 809 262 3100.
South African Embassy, Havana, Cuba (also responsible for Dominican Republic): +53 7204 9671
Australian High Commission, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for Dominican Republic): +1 868 822 5450