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.Read More
Syncretic religion – the mixing of European and African religions in South America and the Caribbean – is very much a part of Dominican culture, though Eurocentrism and official disfavour make it an object of shame. Cousin to Haitian Voodoo, it came about during the colonial era, when European Christianity was imposed on African slaves from the Congo and West Africa; the slaves mixed Catholicism, along with elements from European paganism, freemasonry and Taino religion, with their own belief system. Over time, various Christian saints came to be linked to deities imported from Africa, allowing the slaves to practise their religion in peace. St Patrick, for example, was the equivalent of Damballa, a powerful Dominican Vodú deity, because both were associated with snakes; St Elias was identified with Samedi, guardian of the cemetery; while St John the Baptist’s association with water has connected him to Chango, Dahomeyan god of the ocean, lightning and tempests.
Vodú practice involves private ceremonies using large altars covered with depictions of saints, offertory candles, plastic cups of rum and numerous crosses honouring the gedes, bawdy cemetery spirits known to spout lascivious songs when they possess humans. Possession is an integral part of Vodú ceremonies, both by saints and the spirits of dead Taino warriors. You’ll see Vodú paraphernalia, including love potions, spray cans that impart good luck in the lottery and Catholic icons at the many botánicas throughout the country. For more intractable problems, followers will consult a brujo, or spiritual medium, who offers herbal healing remedies and acts as a go-between in barter deals made with the saints; in exchange for good health, for example, you might trade daily prayers for a year, a week-long pilgrimage to Higüey on foot, or a direct cash payment to the brujo.
All the aspects of Dominican syncretism can be witnessed at the fiestas patronales. These festivals vary quite a bit in the amount of folk religion they exhibit (some have had most of the religion leeched out of them). In Nigua, 12km west of Santo Domingo, you may also stumble onto a rosario, a penitent procession entreating the Virgin of Altagracia in times of drought or distress, with townsfolk marching behind the banner of their patron saint, singing folk songs structured in the manner of the Catholic “Hail Mary” (sung fifty times each in three sessions) and playing tambourines and drums; some devotees carry boulders on their head as an act of penance.
Santo Domingo festivals
Santo Domingo festivals
Carnival Partying, live music and elaborate costumes along El Conde and the Malecón every Sunday, especially the last of the month. Expect to be pelted with inflated sheep bladders and balloons.
Independence Day A citywide celebration on the final day of Carnival, with a raucous re-enactment of the Trinitarians’ 1844 torch-lit march to El Conde, to the tune of the 1812 Overture, accompanied by live cannon. Afterwards, head to Puerta San Diego where you’ll hear big-name merengue acts.
Last two weeks of March
Son Festival Dozens of events celebrating this popular Cuban musical form that many Dominicans claim as their own. Mesón de Bari posts a list of all events on its wall in early February.
Variable (usually in April)
Semana Santa In Haina, on the city’s western outskirts, you’ll find a Hispanicized version of the Haitian Semana Santa festivities also found in the bateyes. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, go to the Zona Colonial’s Iglesia del Carmen, where a statue of Christ is paraded through the streets, serenaded and draped in money.
Seven weeks after Semana Santa
Espíritu Santo A full week of religious processions and conga drums in Villa Mella, certainly the most spirited and visually interesting of the local festivals.
First Sunday before June 13
San Antonio Large, culturally authentic festival in the rural northern suburb of Yamasá. The Hermanos Guillen pump a lot of money into this festival (including free food and drink for everyone) with the purpose of preserving traditional rural Dominican musical forms gagá, gajumbe and bambulá.
Last two weeks of July
Merengue Festival Loud outdoor concerts on the Malecón by big-name merengueros, plus traditional accordion merengue groups performing at the Palacio de Bellas Artes and merengue-based “folklore” shows at the National Theatre that feature the Vodú-based palos musicians of Villa Mella with the National Folklore Ballet.
Virgen de las Mercedes Syncretic religious ceremony and neighbourhood street party in Mata Los Indios near Villa Mella. Famous for its African-style drumming and music.
San Miguel Fiesta patronal in honour of one of the country’s most important saints, celebrated in Villa Mella and the Zona Colonial’s barrio San Miguel. A large procession carries an effigy of the saint accompanied by drums and gagá band.
Fiesta Oriental The eastern side of the city had the first recorded Dominican Carnival (1520) and in recent years the Zona Oriental now finally has its share of festivities again. This massive Carnival in honour of the barrios east of the Ozama is heavier on the African syncretic elements of Dominican culture than the February event, including traditional local dances like the mandinga and bailan pri-pri, as well as guloya performances from the Cocolos of San Pedro. Runs the length of Av Venezuela and ends up in Parque Mirador del Este.
There’s a wide variety of accommodation in the city, but budget rooms in decent neighbourhoods are hard to come by. Most expensive are the high-rises along the Malecón, which offer great rooms and decent service, though the restaurants attached are generally sub-par; prices here are typically US$50 cheaper on weekends, when there are fewer business travellers. Given the exorbitant rate at these hotels, you should demand a room with an ocean view; initial protestations that they’re all booked are best treated with a dose of scepticism. If you’ve got this kind of budget, though, the smaller luxury pensiones tucked away in the Zona Colonial, some of them in sixteenth-century mansions, are really worth considering.
The Zona Colonial also has a few mid-range options, but keep in mind that they’re set amid the centre of city activity and thus can get a bit noisy at night. If you want peace and quiet at a more reasonable rate, head to one of the small hotels in residential Gazcue, all of which come with hot water, TV and optional air conditioning. Be sure to see your bed before paying for it; room quality can vary widely within a single establishment. There are also plenty of less expensive, basic rooms available in the shopping district around Avenida Duarte, but that neighbourhood gets very dicey at night. Wherever you go, you may want to check that your hotel has a generator that provides power during the frequent city blackouts and that the management is willing to run it 24 hours a day.Book a hostel in Santo Domingo
Dining options in the capital range from the small family comedores and pica pollos present in every neighbourhood to gourmet restaurants with ethnic cuisines as diverse as Basque, North African and Japanese. At the more expensive restaurants, expect to spend about US$25–40 including tax and tip (but not drinks); phone numbers are given in the listings below where reservations may be necessary. Gazcue is the city’s top restaurant district, but there are plenty of great places within the Zona Colonial and in the smarter parts of the Arroyo Hondo district as well. Much cheaper fare can be found in the many informal food shacks and stands that dot the Malecón, where you’ll be able to pick up pulled-pork sandwiches, grilled chicken with rice and beans or a burger for as little as RD$60.
There are plenty of good grocery stores spread throughout town, including Nacional, 27 de Febrero and Lopé de Vega; Supermercado Casa Pérez, Arz. Nouel and Hincado; and Supermercado Olé, Av Duarte 194. Otherwise, you can get basic food supplies and cooking ingredients at the numerous small colmados spread throughout the city.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Santo Domingo’s Malecón is the traditional focus of nightlife; along with some of the city’s finest dancehalls, the promenade is crowded with outdoor restaurants and food shacks that slowly start getting crowded around 10pm and stay open into the early hours of the morning. Less known to outsiders are the nightclubs along Avenida Venezuela 1km east of the Río Ozama and Avenida Abraham Lincoln north of 27 de Febrero, easily the most popular clubs with locals but a bit intimidating for foreigners. In addition to the discos listed below, Avenida Venezuela boasts a host of smaller beer halls, pool halls and colmados that attract huge crowds nightly. There are also several clubs across the city that specialize in son – a slow, melodious Cuban groove with acoustic guitars and percussion that many Dominicans claim was born here – long popular and enjoying unprecedented respectability, highlighted by a citywide festival in March.
Keep in mind, though, that in 2007 due to an increase in night-time crime across the country, a strict curfew on drinking was imposed that shut all bars and dancehalls down at 11pm every night. These restrictions had the desired effect of lowering the crime rate significantly and have since been informally relaxed to the point where you can expect bars to stay open until 2am on most nights.
For some informal Dominican entertainment, check out the merengue périco ripao bands that wander the crowded colmados along Avenida Duarte in the early evening. A popular tradition with the local middle class is open bars, where the drinks are free once you pay the cover charge; check the Spanish-language website w www.809k.com for open bars across the city.
There are several Spanish-language websites devoted exclusively to covering the latest events in Santo Domingo nightlife; particularly well worth checking out before you arrive is www.uepa.com.
Bars and cafés
The Zona Colonial is the place for bar-hopping: at night the ruins are particularly atmospheric and dotted around them are a variety of working-class neighbourhood joints, jazz bars and slick clubs. The other major centre of activity is the Plaza Central shopping district in Arroyo Hondo, where most wealthy young Dominicans hang out. It’s counter-intuitive, but the busiest night for heading out to these bars is Monday, perhaps because locals need to fortify themselves in the face of a new week at work. The Malecón also has a number of popular informal shacks, with a few chairs and tables, that sell booze to the sound of blaring merengue.
Discos and live music
Weekends see plenty of activity, but the busiest night for local clubs is Monday, when most are booked with big-name acts; street-side banners across the city advertise any notable concert, which will raise the cover charge by RD$200.
Gay clubs and bars
Gay clubs come and go in Santo Domingo so it’s often best to check in first at Friends for information on the current scene, or take a look at www.monaga.net. Keep in mind you’ll be accosted by local hustlers in most places. Male clubs are often a target for assault; unfortunately, it’s safest to arrive and depart by taxi.
Most Santo Domingo cinemas focus on first-run American action flicks, which hit the screens at the same time as they do in the States; unfortunately, almost every theatre in the city shows the same two or three Hollywood blockbusters. You’ll be able to check at the ticket booth whether the film is in English with Spanish subtitles or dubbed. Either way, expect the audience to be as much a part of the show as the movie – locals often derive most of their pleasure from making fun of the action on screen.
Sports and other activities
Sports and other activities
Baseball is the most exciting spectator sport in Santo Domingo. Two separate professional teams, Licey and Escogido, play in the winter professional league between mid-November and early February; games are at Estadio Quisqueya, Máximo Gómez and Kennedy. Tickets are generally available on the night of the game, or you can purchase in advance on Wednesday for the weekly Sunday games at locations across the island – see local newspapers for up-to-date ticket purchasing locations. Though more and more Dominican major-leaguers are opting out of the winter season, you’ll still find a few famous Dominican players along with some of America’s top minor-league prospects.
Most foreign visitors find cockfighting, the other local obsession, less easy to stomach, but it’s a central part of Dominican culture. The city’s grand Coliséo Gallístico, Zona Industrial Herrera, Av Luperón just south of the Autopista Duarte, practically transforms this traditionally rural pastime into something of an upper-class diversion; indeed, semi-formal dress is required. There are plenty of other, smaller venues spread across the city’s outer barrios, but this is by far the best place for visitors to come.
Finally, the entire city is dotted with pool halls. The best places to shoot a few games are the second-floor halls that you’ll find along El Conde – though as with most male-dominated Dominican hangouts, the atmosphere is hyper-macho.
Shops and galleries
Shops and galleries
High-end boutiques and shopping plazas spread outward from the Plaza Central at 27 de Febrero and Troncoso, marking the city’s main shopping district. More tourist-oriented shops can be found along El Conde in the Zona Colonial, which is also home to the city’s best bookstores. Most Dominicans shop for clothing and electronics at the budget stores that line Avenida Duarte, especially La Sirena, Mella 258 and Duarte, which has inexpensive counterfeit designer clothes purchased en masse at the markets along the Haitian border. Art galleries are spread throughout the city; of special note is Galería Elín, the outstanding Haitian art gallery in the Zona Colonial. Hours for stores and shops in Santo Domingo are typically Mon–Sat 9.30am–noon and 2.30–5.30pm. Most (though not all) are closed on Sunday.