Beyond the belt of industrial barrios that encases Santo Domingo are a variety of day-trips within easy striking distance, none of them on a list of top must-dos, but good diversions nevertheless. History buffs will enjoy scavenging the western barrios for the impressive bits of colonial architecture that still stand, mostly in the form of the substantial ruins of four separate sixteenth-century sugar mills. You’ll need your own wheels to get there, though, tucked away as they are in relatively out-of-the-way places. Those looking for a slice of Caribbean beach life should head to Boca Chica, an overcrowded resort town 10km east of the airport, about halfway between Santo Domingo and San Pedro de Macorís; you might do better continuing along the highway to Juan Dolio, where there is more beachfront albeit dominated by all-inclusive hotels and its sister town Guayacanes, with its great beaches and lack of tourist development.
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The sugar mill ruins
The sugar mill ruins
Of the four colonial ruins that lie hidden among the rambling, semi-rural barrios west of the city (and nearly impossible to reach via public transport), a couple are particularly worth seeking out. West of barrio Manoguayabo, the ruins of the grand Palavé manor, a typical sixteenth-century sugar hacienda, are the best maintained of the bunch. Named Palais Bel during Haitian rule, its masonry and brick facade were restored in the 1970s and still boast bits of the old Andalucian whitewash and a prominent parapet. Three Romanesque portals lead into the large, central room; the beam above the doorways once supported a second-floor balcony. The easiest way to get there is to take the Autopista Duarte and turn left at the Manoguayabo turnoff. Just past the town, take the right-hand fork in the road and head 3km beyond Hato Nuevo to the village Buena Noche; a left at the kerosene station leads 100m to the ruins.
The extensive remains of another sugar mill, Engombe, on the Río Haina, are overgrown with weeds. Mentioned by Oviedo in his 1534 History of the Indies as the colony’s leading mill, the manor and adjoining chapel are for the most part still intact. The mansion’s militaristic, rectangular facade was originally fortified to protect against slave rebellion – here and there along the wall you’ll see foundations of the spiked limestone barrier. The double Romanesque portals on both floors lead to the open main room, which is connected to two galleries and an interior staircase that now leads to nowhere. Beside the house is the large chapel with two frames – a polygonal apse and a leaning sacristy. A brief spate of renovation by Santo Domingo’s Catholic University in 1963 restored its original Moorish tiled roof, but the buildings have since fallen back into neglect. Fifty metres further down the road you’ll find the scattered ruins of the slave barracks and the mill in a family’s garden. The easiest way to Engombe is to take the Carretera San Cristóbal west from Santo Domingo and make a right turn on an unmarked dirt turnoff just before the Río Haina (for which you’ll have to keep a very careful eye out), then a left at the fork in the road.
BOCA CHICA, 25km east of Santo Domingo, curves along a small bay protected by shoals, with wonderfully transparent Caribbean water lapping at a long line of beach shacks serving excellent food. It used to be one of the island’s prime swimming spots, but the town that surrounds it has unfortunately become so crowded with freelance guides, sex workers and persistent touts that it’s impossible to walk more than a few feet without being accosted by some enterprising individual hell-bent on attaching themselves to you for the duration of your stay.
On weekends the beach is jam-packed with thousands of day-tripping city-dwellers swimming in the sea and dancing to a cacophony of car stereos – which does make for an unforgettable beach party scene. At night, after the Dominicans leave, it devolves into little more than a gringo brothel. Sitting on the beach is the main attraction and the waters are low and calm enough to walk out to the bird-inhabited mangrove island La Matica just off shore. If you tire of swimming and sunbathing, you could opt for a more rigorous activity like scuba diving. Regular trips are led by Caribbean Divers at Duarte 28 (t 854-3483, w www.caribbeandivers.de; US$30–65), a PADI- and PDIC-certified outfit. Dives head out to La Caleta Submarine National Park, a protected nearby coral reef at the bottom of which lie two sunken ships: the Hickory, once a treasure-hunting ship that salvaged two Spanish shipwrecks but now home to thousands of tropical sea creatures; and a bizarre-looking vehicle called “The UFO”, which is touted on the tour as being potentially extraterrestrial, but in fact is an old oil rig. Other diving excursions go to the waters off Bayahibe, Isla Catalina and a cave dive near Santo Domingo; they also do deep-sea fishing excursions and watersports such as sailing, surfing and snorkelling.
Juan Dolio and Guayacanes
Juan Dolio and Guayacanes
Just east past Boca Chica begins a 25km-long stretch of rocky coast that holds a strip of holiday homes and all-inclusives collectively referred to as JUAN DOLIO. This package resort area was created in response to the wild success of Playa Dorada in the early 1980s, but has never quite matched its northern rival. There has been some recent investment in the area and although a couple of new resorts are the equal of any all-inclusives in the country, the quality of the beach lets the side down. Though the sand here is perfectly acceptable, the expanse of dead coral under the water makes swimming and walking in the water uncomfortable, and the private hotel beaches are isolated, small pockets of sand – simply no match for what you’ll find further east at Punta Cana and Bávaro. The sands are significantly more appealing in the nearby hamlet of GUAYACANES, Juan Dolio’s next-door neighbour, with two nice beaches and one of the best restaurants on the island.
Juan Dolio does have a few advantages over its regional competitors. There’s none of the large-scale harassment of Boca Chica and wandering around the strip is relatively hassle-free. Unlike Bávaro, there are a number of quality restaurants and budget hotels geared towards independent travellers, the nightlife is good and the strip is still in shouting distance of Santo Domingo.
If you’re up for some out-of-the-way natural beauty, head 3km further west of Guayacanes (the spot is marked by a highway overpass on your right) and you’ll find a long-abandoned beach home with a natural swimming pool that was carved into the rock by its former owners. It’s perfectly safe to swim in the pool, which has rough-hewn steps leading into it from the ground and from here you can look out onto the Caribbean crashing against high, jagged cliffs.