SANTO DOMINGO is the biggest and most interesting city in the country, with impressive historic and cultural sites that make an arresting counterpoint to the beaches. Most visitors therefore make a beeline for the Zona Colonial, the city’s substantial colonial district, with dozens of wonderful old buildings and a dramatic setting right on the Río Ozama. In fact, many never bother to venture outside this neighbourhood, but while it obviously merits the most attention there’s plenty more to see and do. As you might expect, the capital also has the country’s best restaurants and nightlife and serves as its cultural centre, with two wonderful museums, the Museo del Hombre Dominicano and Museo Prehispánico, dedicated to preserving the artefacts of the Taino civilization that thrived here before Columbus; the Museo de Arte Moderno’s display of contemporary Dominican visual art; and a thriving music scene that focuses on the down-and-dirty merengue, bachata and son played in the clubs.
Santo Domingo’s night activity is centred on its Malecón – a breezy, palm-lined promenade that runs parallel with the Caribbean Sea – and there are plenty more places to party further inland. Modern Santo Domingo also hides some open spaces offering relief from the gridlock, including the expansive botanical gardens, the wooded sports complex Centro Olímpico and a set of tropical cave lagoons called Los Tres Ojos. If visiting in winter, check out the spirited professional baseball games of Santo Domingo’s two teams, Licey and Escogido, at Estadio Quisqueya.
The Río Haina, which borders Santo Domingo to the west, was once the site of a Taino village discovered by Spaniard Miguel Díaz, who fled Columbus’s first settlement, La Isabela, after stabbing a fellow colonist in a drunken brawl. Locals gave him a gold nugget found near the river, which he brought back to the Spanish outpost where Christopher’s brother Bartolomé Columbus was in charge while his brother was in Spain. The La Isabela outpost had been a complete disaster and most colonists who hadn’t already died of yellow fever had mutinied and abandoned the town. Spurred on, however, by dreams of gold, Bartolomé set sail with his remaining men in 1496 to establish a colony on the eastern bank of the Ozama. When Columbus returned in 1498, he took command of the new town, but had trouble controlling the colonists and was recalled by Spain two years later. His replacement, Nicolás de Ovando, moved the city to the western bank and began the monumental stone construction that remains to this day, work that was continued by Columbus’s son Diego when he took over in 1509. During their rule the city was a satellite capital of Spanish possessions, from which conquistadors set out to colonize and rule the rest of the Caribbean and the American mainland.
Once Spain found greater wealth in the silver mines of Mexico and Peru, Santo Domingo’s power and influence quickly eroded. An earthquake in 1562 destroyed much of the town and in 1586 Sir Francis Drake captured Santo Domingo, looted it and burned it down. Once rebuilt, the city failed to regain its strategic relevance and instead became subject to more attacks by the British and French over the next century until finally, in 1801, Haitian Touissant L’Ouverture took it without a fight. A succession of short-lived occupations followed, including the French in 1802, the British in 1803, the French again in 1804, the British again in 1809 and the Spaniards in the same year. By the time this spate of invasions was over, the city was economically devastated.
A much longer occupation was to follow – the Haitian domination from 1822 to 1843. They quickly alienated the Dominicans by implementing a land reform programme that robbed the Church and many wealthy white colonists of most of their land. As a result, Spanish merchants in the capital joined with the Catholic hierarchy to form the Trinitarian movement – named for its three leaders, the “Trinity” of Duarte, Mella and Sánchez – that led to independence after a long partisan war. But self-determination immediately devolved into internal strife as the city was besieged and captured again and again by competing Dominican caudillos, a cycle that ended only with the brutal regime of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who renamed the capital Ciudad Trujillo in 1936 (though it was changed back immediately on his death in 1961) and transformed it from a mere administrative capital to the national centre of shipping and industry. A military coup and American invasion in 1965 were the last major battles to take place here, during which the Americans cordoned off the city along avenidas Mella and Independencia; the pro-democracy demonstrators were kept in check within it, while the Dominican military controlled the territory outside it and butchered hundreds of their enemies. Since then, industrialization and urban migration have forced the city outwards and, though the last forty years have been the longest stretch of peace Santo Domingo has seen in two centuries, the tough living conditions of many inhabitants make it less than idyllic.