Occupying the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is the most visited tourist destination in the Caribbean. And the country’s image as a sun-blessed playground is merited – you can happily spend your days on sandy beaches framed by crystal-clear waters and lofty palm trees, and fill your nights with merengue and dark rum.
But there’s a lot more to the DR, as it’s commonly known. Set on the most geographically diverse Caribbean island, it boasts alpine wilderness, tropical rainforests and mangrove swamps, cultivated savannahs, vast desert expanses and everything in between. The opportunities for ecotourism and adventure travel are staggering: if you were so inclined, in a single week you could scale a 150m waterfall on a rope, mountain bike along remote dirt tracks, ride the best windsurfing waves in the hemisphere, trek to the top of a 3000m mountain and head out in a fishing boat to marvel at the humpback whales crashing about in the bay of Samaná.
As Dominicans are quick to point out, their land was the setting for Christopher Columbus’s first colony, La Isabela, and Spain’s first New World city, Santo Domingo. The events that took place during this brief heyday did much to define the Americas as we know them, and examples of period architecture – both preserved and in ruins – remain in the colonial heart of Santo Domingo. As for Dominican culture today, locals take great pride in the sophisticated and intoxicating rhythms of merengue and bachata – the national musical forms – and in the exploits of homegrown baseball players who become stars in the North American leagues.
Religion, too, is an integral part of life. The roots of syncretic religion are complicated and nuanced but its theatrical side can be experienced firsthand at one of the dozens of vibrant fiestas patronales. Held in every town across the country, the celebrations in the name of a patron saint are usually music-driven, round-the-clock processions and street parties that can last several days, and offering visitors another chance to see the DR in full, passionate swing.