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.
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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.
Where to go in the Dominican Republic
Many visitors head directly for beachfront resorts, and there’s much at these vacation retreats to admire. The southeastern part of the country probably has the loveliest all-inclusive resort zones, Bávaro and Punta Cana, both holding pristine coastline stretching for kilometres on end. Also dedicated to mass tourism is the mega-complex Playa Dorada on the north coast. Playa Dorada is set beside the city of Puerto Plata, a historic city worth examining for its wealth of Victorian architecture, and is also in easy proximity to wind- and kitesurfing capital Cabarete.
Of course, you don’t have to base yourself in a resort to visit the DR’s most popular sights, and there are plenty of opportunities for independent travellers to range further afield too. A quest for immaculate beaches may take you to the most remote corners of the southwest, where your efforts will be rewarded with the breathtaking sands of the Jaragua Peninsula. There are some beautiful, and far more accessible, beaches scattered about the Samaná Peninsula, however, poking out at the country’s extreme northeast. Its primary city, Samaná, serves as a base for checking out the humpback whales that migrate to the Bahía de Samaná each winter, while Las Terrenas is the peninsula’s liveliest town. Its long, sandy seafront is lined with expat-owned hotels, tour operators, and popular restaurants and bars, while secluded paradise isn’t far away at the beaches of playas Bonita and Rincón.
On the southern coast the capital city, Santo Domingo, offers the most fulfilling urban experience, and should be on everyone’s itinerary and not just because it has the country’s largest airport – historic forts, churches and the elegant homes of the Zona Colonial make it a fascinating destination in its own right.
If you’re seeking a bit more adventure and outdoor life, you needn’t look too hard. The Cordillera Central is the island’s largest mountain range and provides the stunning setting for multi-day treks through the wilderness to the top of Pico Duarte – the tallest peak in the Antilles – and trips to Jarabacoa, a resort town blessed with a cluster of four waterfalls in its immediate vicinity and featuring all manner of mountain sports.
Top image: Saona Tropical Beach Dominican Republic Caribbean © cieniu1/Shutterstock