Costs are creeping up in the Dominican Republic, for tourists as well as for locals. It is still cheap compared to other Caribbean destinations, with reasonable prices on the ground for independent travellers and budget package deals from the UK, Ireland and the US that include hotel, food and flight for those who want beach on a budget. In many parts of the country shoestring travellers can survive on as little as US$40/£25 per day by getting by as the locals do; having a beer or eating in a local cafeteria cost less than US$/UK£1, for example. The savings are spread unevenly, though: riding from town to town via public transport can cost as little as US$0.50/£0.30, but car rental will set you back at least US$60/£40 a day. You may also want to set aside us$100/UK£65 or so for unexpected splurges like an outdoor activity tour, which are priced to tourist, not local, budgets.
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Crime and personal safety
The Dominican Republic is a relatively safe place, but recent increases in urban crime were concerning enough for President Leonel Fernández to institute an alcohol curfew in 2007 that shut down bars after 11pm. This draconian move has been successful in dropping the crime rate in the major cities and the restrictions have been loosened significantly.
In cities, you should take the same precautions that you would anywhere else: don’t flaunt your wealth with fat rolls of pesos, leave your expensive jewellery at home and avoid walking alone late at night. A more likely scenario is that you’ll be the target of a small-scale rip-off, but even these can usually be avoided by not changing money on the street and by following the hints regarding guaguas. Sex tourism is visible in tourist towns like Boca Chica, Sosúa and Las Terrenas but it’s mostly kept to particular bars and so you are unlikely to be hassled on the street.
With largely common sense, you should get through your trip unscathed. It’s best to keep a copy of your passport, airplane ticket and all travellers’ cheques at home and another at your hotel. You will need your tourist card and a photo ID on you at all times; a photocopy of your passport is acceptable. A couple of additional precautions will help keep your belongings safe: use the lock box in your room if there is one and take a room on an upper storey if you can. Always keep an eye on your things while you’re on the beach and on your luggage at the airport.
The Dominican Republic is a relatively conservative culture and while T-shirts and shorts are expected and entirely acceptable in resort areas, elsewhere both men and women should avoid wearing shorts and overly revealing clothing; topless men and women with bikini tops, for example, are frowned upon and will offend.
Electricity service in the DR has gotten a lot more reliable in recent years, and blackouts are experienced less frequently and only in the more remote corners of the country. Plugs are standard American two-pins, so European visitors should bring suitable adaptors. The voltage is 110v AC. Intermittent, chronic power outages throughout the country mean that you may want to ask if your hotel has a generator that they’re willing to use 24 hours a day.
All visitors are obliged to pay a US$10 cash-only entry tax on arrival. Citizens and permanent residents of the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa and all EU countries don’t need a visa when visiting the Dominican Republic, but must obtain a thirty-day Dominican Republic tourist card for US$10 (US dollars only) at the airport on arrival; check first with your airline to see if the price of the tourist card is included in your flight. If you stay for a longer period of time, on departure you will have to pay an additional RD$150 for 15 days to 3 months, RD$250 for 3–9 months, or RD$300 for 9 months to 1 year. New Zealanders must apply to the Dominican consulate in Sydney for an Aus$80 visa, valid for up to sixty days’ stay. Whatever nationality, you’ll have to show a return ticket home before boarding your flight and your passport on arrival.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Many resort towns like Boca Chica, Sosúa, Cabarete and Las Terrenas have a small but fairly open gay and lesbian component but, although homosexuality is legal here, the only parts of the country that have a gay club scene are Santo Domingo and, to a lesser extent, Santiago. The best website for gay and lesbian life in the DR is w www.monaga.net, which includes a list of gay-friendly hotels. Keep in mind that Dominican culture in general is still a bit homophobic; overt public displays of affection may be met with harassment and you need to be especially careful as you enter and leave gay nightclubs, as assaults are relatively common.
The standards of Dominican health care vary widely from institution to institution, even in the capital. Some hospitals don’t properly sterilize operating rooms and there are a good number of frauds among the ranks of private doctors. But there are also a number of excellent institutions where you can get high-quality medical care. In emergencies you can dial t 911 for ambulance and emergency medical care. No specific inoculations are required but it’s strongly recommended that you be up to date with your Hepatitis A vaccination in particular, which is not unheard of in the DR and can be contracted more casually than other forms of hepatitis (eg contaminated drinking water). In general, you should do as the locals do and don’t drink the water. Stick with bottled water for both drinking and brushing your teeth. For longer stays you can buy purified water in four-gallon jugs; if you return the bottle for deposit when you’re done, it will cost you only RD$40.
There have been occasional reports of malaria and dengue fever in the Dominican Republic, though the risk of becoming infected is still quite low. Check with your doctor about the necessity of malaria pills; most people don’t bother because of the extremely low rate of incidence. If you do opt on the side of caution, pay the extra cash and use malarone, as it has few side effects and will not interfere with your enjoyment of the trip.
HIV is a particular concern, as it is around the world. Roughly one percent of the population between the ages of 15–42 is hiv positive, and the rate among sex workers is twenty times higher than that. Unprotected sex with a stranger is a bad idea, period, and condoms are readily available. Swimming in or drinking from rivers and streams also has risks, particularly the dreaded Giardia, a bacterium that causes stomach upset, fever and diarrhoea, and Schistosomiasis, a freshwater flatworm that can penetrate unbroken skin; both are treatable with antibiotics.
It is a sound idea to take out travel insurance coverage to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. Before paying for a new policy, however, it’s worth checking whether you are already covered: some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas and many private medical schemes include cover when abroad. In Canada, provincial health plans usually provide partial cover for medical mishaps overseas, while holders of official student/teacher/youth cards in Canada and the US are entitled to meagre accident coverage and hospital in-patient benefits.
Students in the US will often find that their student health coverage extends during the vacations and for one term beyond the date of last enrolment.
After checking out the possibilities above, you might want to contact a specialist travel insurance company. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in the Dominican Republic this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing and trekking, though probably not kayaking or jeep safaris.
Virtually every town in the Dominican Republic has public internet access by way of phone centres, internet cafés and wi-fi access in restaurants, and from most mid-range and luxury hotels; the latter also tend to have at least one computer available for guests. Connection speed is not a problem in the DR, and you’ll find using high-bandwidth services like Skype relatively easy. The going rate is typically RD$30 per 30min.
Hotels typically offer laundry service and there are laundrettes in the major cities of the DR. These days, it’s normal to have to pay per item, with the following prices a rough guide to what you should expect: trousers RD$20, men’s shirt RD$15, blouses RD$20, underwear RD$5 and socks RD$5.
Living in the Dominican Republic
Many foreigners work in the tourism industry as adventure sport instructors or reps for all-inclusive resorts; most of these people work illegally on a tourist card, as it’s phenomenally expensive and time-consuming to obtain an official work permit. If you’re at a North American college, it’s worth checking whether your school is one of the many to operate an exchange programme with the Catholic University in Santiago.
Dominican correos, or post offices, are notoriously slow; even if you use special delivery (highly recommended) you’ll still have to allow at least three weeks for your postcard or letter to reach North America and at least a month for it to reach Europe or Australasia. Postage costs RD$5 to North America, RD$8 elsewhere. You can cut these delivery times by as much as a week if you use the central correos in Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata or Santiago, which have specific special-delivery windows; look for the “entrega especial” sign. Sending packages is unreliable (damage and theft are frequent) and not recommended unless absolutely necessary; if you must send parcels, bring them unsealed to the post office for inspection. Whatever you do, don’t use the postal boxes that you’ll see on the streets of many towns – you’ll be lucky if the mail is picked up once a month – and don’t ever send money or other valuables. A private postal service operates in Cabarete and Las Terrenas.
The most convenient way to receive mail is to have it sent to your hotel, though most post offices have a reasonably reliable lista de correos, where mail is held for you for up to four weeks, for a charge of RD$10 per letter. Bring your passport (or a photocopy) when picking up mail and make sure that correspondents address letters to you under your name as it appears on your passport.
There are two distinct economies within the Dominican Republic, the US dollar economy of the all-inclusive hotels and tour operators and that of the official Dominican currency, the peso (RD$). Throughout most of the country, you will have to change any foreign currency into pesos in order to conduct transactions. At the all-inclusive resorts and other foreign-owned tourism companies, though, all prices will be quoted in US dollars and Dominican pesos are accepted reluctantly – and at a poor rate.
Today the peso floats freely against the dollar, which means that there’s some variation in exchange rate from day to day.
ATM machines are available across the country, even in fairly small towns. Visa and MasterCard are accepted in major cities and tourist destinations, and Amex is accepted in most large hotels and resorts, but when travelling in the countryside, expect to pay in pesos.
Opening hours and public holidays
Banks and most businesses are typically open Mon–Fri 9am–12.30pm & 2–5pm, Sat 9am–12.30pm, though retail and other shops often stay open all afternoon and on weekends. There is no standard set of opening hours applicable to museums and colonial landmarks.
Phone rates are typically expensive from your hotel room, but there are phone centres in every town that will allow you to call home. The going rate is RD$6 per minute to North America, RD$16 to Europe and RD$3.50 for calls within the country. You can purchase local sim cards for your mobile phone from RD$100. Orange is by far the best-value vendor with the most national coverage and offices across the country. Their phone cards are sold in stores as well as by street vendors at major intersections of the cities and major highways. If you do bring your own mobile phone, keep in mind that radical roaming charges can be applied to calls made in the Dominican Republic; it’s best to check roaming rates with your carrier ahead of time.
The Dominican Republic shares the same dialling prefix as the US (1), and the vast majority of phone numbers share a countrywide area code (t 809), though recently the new area codes t 829 and t 849 have been added nationally to allow for an increased number of mobile phones and fax lines. To call the Dominican Republic from the US or Canada, or to call from one region of the DR to another, you simply dial 1 plus the area code and the seven-digit local number. From all other countries, dial t 001 plus the area code and seven-digit number.
The Dominican Republic is in North America’s Eastern Standard Time Zone (same time as New York and Atlanta) and five hours behind GMT. There is no daylight savings time.
The Dominican government also maintains tourist offices and toll-free tourist hotlines throughout the country and in the UK and North America, which can be helpful in hooking you up with tour operators and package travel agents. The glossy promotional materials handed out by Dominican consuls and tourist agencies are pretty to look at but seriously lacking in hard facts.
The tourist office maps aren’t especially good, but you can find several excellent ones of the country in travel bookstores and online; National Geographic’s Dominican Republic Adventure Map is especially accurate and detailed. Mapas Gaar, El Conde 502, 3rd Floor, Santo Domingo, RD (t 688-8004; closed Sun), has navigational charts of the surrounding waters and wall-sized, detailed blueprints of most Dominican towns.
Canada 2980 Crescent St, Montreal, PQ H3G 2B8 t 514/499-1918; 35 Church St, Toronto, ON M5E 1T3 t 416/361-2126.
UK Dominican Republic Tourist Board, 18–22 Hands Court, High Holborn, London WC1 t 020/7242 7778. Call t 0900/1600 305 for brochure.
US 1501 Broadway, Suite 410, New York, NY 10036 t 1-888/374-6361; 561 W Diversey, Suite 214, Chicago, IL 60614 t 773/529-1336; 2355 Salzedo St, Suite 307, Coral Gables, FL 33134 t 305/444-4592.
The Dominican Republic maintains a large presence on the internet although ferreting out a specific piece of information can take some time. The following are a few tried-and-tested sites.
w www.activecabarete.com Terrific website devoted to Cabarete, with a detailed interactive map and a complete listing of hotels, restaurants, bars, current wind conditions, a calendar of events and other local services.
w www.debbiesdominicantravel.com A dizzying array of links to hundreds of Dominican-related sites and a deep archive of travellers’ personal accounts of all-inclusive vacations.
w www.dr1.com The most heavily trafficked Dominican message board and the best place to get information on the web. Also has a good daily news bulletin that you can sign up for.
w www.hispaniola.com A site dedicated to Dominican tourism, with a Dominican Spanish phrasebook, daily weather, a message board and an interactive map of Cabarete.
w www.listindiario.com.do Online version of the DR’s most venerable newspaper, with the best Dominican news coverage on the internet.
w www.paginasamarillas.com.do Home page of the Dominican Republic’s premier phone company, with a comprehensive Yellow Pages covering the entire country.
w www.popreport.com An exhaustive news bulletin and comprehensive roundup of tourist attractions and businesses in the Puerto Plata area.
Travellers with children
The all-inclusive resorts are especially helpful when you’re travelling with children, as they’re in self-contained spaces, provide three meals a day and are generally designed to take care of the daily tasks of life for you. All resorts make at least some token effort toward children’s activities and some are quite good at it. Independent travellers will find that the DR is a family-oriented place, and that locals are welcoming to small children.
You should watch out particularly for the sun – which is dangerously strong; spf25 and above is recommended – and the water: children are particularly susceptible to gastro intestinal problems caused by tap water and you should make sure the whole family brush their teeth with bottled water.
You’ll find that Dominicans love children and will focus a lot of positive attention on them. They’re also more accepting of them in restaurants and hotels, and are unlikely to be bothered by any ancillary small-children chaos or noise; public breastfeeding, though, is pretty much unheard of. It’s easy enough to buy nappies and the like in grocery stores, pharmacies and even rural colmados.
Travellers with disabilities
There are unfortunately few facilities that make independent travelling easier for the disabled in the DR, and no rental cars come with hand controls, though certain major monuments have access ramps. Most of the all-inclusives, though, have wheelchair access to certain rooms and all of their restaurants, casinos, bars and beaches. Call the hotel directly before booking a package for specific details regarding the hotel’s infrastructure.
Though violent attacks against female tourists are relatively uncommon, many women find that the constant barrage of hisses, hoots and comments comes close to spoiling their vacation. Dominican men are quite aggressive and women travellers should come armed with the knowledge that they will draw incessant attention whether they like it or not. Also, at major festivals and on crowded streets, you may be subjected to a lot of groping hands. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to seem rude; even the mildest polite response will be considered an indication of serious interest.