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.

Brief history

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.

Top image: Historic City Center Plaza with Skyline of Colonial Buildings and Church (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) © Daniel Andis/Shutterstock

Accommodation

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.

Around Santo Domingo

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.

Boca Chica

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

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.

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.

Dominican syncretism

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.

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.

Cinema

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.

Eating

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.

Jardín Botánico

The botanical gardens, on Av Jardín Botánico and Los Próceres (daily 9am–6pm; RD$50; www.jbn-sdq.org), has samples of flora from every part of the island, a pavilion with three hundred types of orchid (most endemic) and greenhouses for bromeliads and aquatic plants. Less indigenous but quite striking is the manicured Japanese garden with a maze of shrubs and a pagoda with shaded benches beside a babbling brook. An RD$15 train ride will take you through the length of the park with a stop-off at some of the highlights, but it’s far more pleasant to wander about the grounds at your leisure.

Los Tres Ojos

El Faro, the controversial Columbus Lighthouse (Tues–Sun 9.30am– 5.30pm; RD$100; 591 1492), towers over the western end of Parque Mirador del Este, a pleasant stretch of manicured woodlands spanning the length of the barrios east of the Ozama. At the park’s far eastern tip is a series of large caves dotted with freshwater lagoons. Known as Los Tres Ojos, or “The Three Eyes” (daily 9am–5pm; RD$25), the caves were used by the Tainos for religious ceremonies; more recently they’ve been the setting for no less than six Tarzan movies. Walkways lead you to three of the lagoons and a manually powered pulley conducts a ferry to a fourth.

Santo Domingo festivals

February

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.

February 27

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.

September 15–24

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.

September 29

San MiguelFiesta 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.

October 7

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.

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.

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.

The Centro Olímpico

Head north on Máximo Gómez from the Plaza de la Cultura to visit the Centro Olímpico on Avenida Kennedy and Máximo Gómez, a wooded public park with basketball and tennis courts, Olympic swimming pool, pavilions for gymnastics and volleyball and three baseball fields that are heavily scouted by America’s Major Leagues. Only Dominican citizens are supposed to use the facilities, but you’re unlikely to be challenged except at the pool.

The Malecón

The capital’s famous oceanfront promenade, known as both the Malecón and Avenida George Washington, is best enjoyed on Sundays, when all motorized vehicles are banned and it becomes a broad pedestrian-only thoroughfare. It starts within the Zona Colonial at the large industrial port at the mouth of the Río Ozama, where an intact section of the old city wall follows it for 100m to the seventeenth-century San José Fort, built on a strategic oceanfront promontory after an attempted invasion by the British in 1655. The cannon that remain appear to point across the street at a 50m-high statue of Fray Montesino, a sixteenth-century priest who preached against the Taino genocide, his legendary rage manifested in the flame-like spikes of his hair. This section of the boardwalk is extremely popular at night, with massive crowds and live music on weekends at the commercial port below Puerta San Diego and a lively crowd at D’Luis Parrillada, an outdoor restaurant with dancing at night right next to the Montesino statue.

The Plaza de la Cultura

Well west of the Zona Colonial and north of the Malecón is rambling, tree-shaded Gazcue, the city’s prettiest residential district, a mostly middle-class neighbourhood highlighted by the Plaza de la Cultura, Máximo Gómez and Ureña, a complex of four museums alongside the National Theatre and Library. While southern Gazcue is in easy walking distance of Parque Independencia and the Zone, the Plaza is far enough away that you’ll need a taxi or a guagua to get there.

Museo de Arte Moderno

Of the museums in the Plaza de la Cultura, the first stop should be the Museo de Arte Moderno (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; RD$20; 685 2154), four storeys dedicated to modernist and post-modern Dominican art, with a magnificent permanent collection on the second and third floors, temporary exhibits on the first and fourth and installation art in the basement. At times the assemblage can seem a bit random, exacerbated by the frequent rotation of pieces within the museum space, but certain themes, like a reliance on Taino influences, can be spotted. Notable in this regard is Clara Ledesma’s Casetas, in the first floor’s first room, in which Taino-rendered campesinos peek out of a colmado and several mud huts at two gringo tourists lying on the beach.

The next room holds the arresting El sacrificio del chivo, Elegio Pichardo’s dark depiction of a family meal that interprets the everyday ritual of dinner as a pagan rite – note the shrunken head in the hand of the child as he waits for the mother to carve the goat. The third room is dominated by another piece incorporating native art, Junior Mendoza’s Ritual de Iniciación, a mixed-media burlap canvas with a malevolent Taino head – half-painted, half-stitched together with bone and shell fragments – surrounded by nails with a circle of straw dolls tied to them by rope. Equally disturbing is the borrowed Roman Catholic iconography of Rincón Mora’s Rito in the fourth room, his blood-smeared Christ peering through a glass window with smouldering red eyes.

The most highly regarded proponent of a more pastoral strain in modern Dominican art is Candido Bidó, whose stylized idealizations of campesino life have won international acclaim. Bidó’s father was a Carnival mask maker in Bonao – the influence is apparent in the faces with hollowed-out eyes, straight noses and exaggerated lips. The museum owns six Bidós, all of them in the second floor’s fifth room, including his most famous, El Paseo a las 10am, a painting of a Dominican woman in a sunhat with a handful of flowers. The pigeon fluttering by her side is a typical Bidó gesture, as is the use of colour: his serene, distinctive world contains a generous application of indigo blue and almost no green, with yellow fields, black mountains and the sun surrounded by a subduing, dark cyst.

Climb to the second floor to get a look at Alberto Bajo’s La Vida del Domini- cano en Nueva York, an enormous triptych in the fourth room depicting a family divided by American immigration. The first panel is of a sleepy Dominican fishing village, the second of the emigrant’s cramped Manhattan apartment (with a letter home in the typewriter) and the third of the alien, neon rumble of Times Square. Around the corner in the fifth room are Frank Almayar’s Composición Gráfico de Duarte, a dot-matrix Warhol rip-off that draws attention to the country’s unreflecting obsession with the image of its liberator and Silvano Lora’s Flor Endemica, a mixed-media commentary on the bombed-out urban environment that many of the country’s children live in. Lora is known locally as an outspoken defender of the oppressed – in 1992, when replicas of Columbus’s three ships tried to dock in Santo Domingo in honour of the 500th anniversary of his voyage, Lora dressed up like a Taino, paddled out to the boats in a canoe and fired arrows at them until his vessel was capsized by the Coast Guard.

Museo del Hombre Dominicano

The Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; RD$50; English language guide RD$50; 687 3622) holds an extraordinary collection of Taino artefacts and an anthropological exhibit on Dominican fiestas patronales. The ground floor is mostly concerned with the gift shop, but does display a dozen stone obelisks and Taino burial mounds found near Boca Chica in the 1970s. The first floor is office space; the second floor consists of one large room bearing display cases of Taino sculpture, beginning with seated human figures and cemis – small stone idols that stood in for the gods during rituals, possessing large, inward- spiralling eyes and flared nostrils. Further down the room is an extensive collection of flints, hatchets and stone spearheads, which can be scanned over before passing to the two cases bearing beautiful animal sculptures and ceremonial daggers. At the far end of the room you’ll find jewellery with incredibly intricate carvings made from coral, tooth, stone and conch shell, a case filled with spectacularly nasty-looking death heads and a few examples of the artwork created by the Tainos’ ancestors in the Amazon basin.

The third floor moves to Dominican culture after Columbus, with emphasis on the African influence. The first room focuses on the slave trade; the next room is taken up by a comparison of the rural dwellings of African peasants and Dominican campesinos. These are followed by a terrific exhibition on syncretist religious practices in the DR, including photographs of various rural fiestas patro- nales and a Dominican Vodú altar, with Catholic iconography standing in for African gods, votive candles and a sacrifice of cigarettes, a chicken and a bottle of rum. From here walk past the display of local musical instruments that originated in Africa to three large glass cases depicting costumed Carnival celebrations in Monte Cristi, La Vega and Santo Domingo.

Museo Prehispánico

The Museo Prehispánico, San Martín 179 and Lopé de Vega (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm; free), is a private collection of Taino artefacts housed in a large room within the Pepsi-Cola corporate building, rivalling the display at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Gazcue. At the entrance are a few Venezuelan pieces (the Tainos’ ancestral home) to provide historical context, a prelude to the fossil- ized mastodon and armadillo remains, animals the natives hunted to extinction on the island. Further on stand display cases outlining the history of indigenous ceramics, followed by intricate tooth and bone sculptures used in necklaces – one is so small you need a magnifying glass to see the carving. At the far end of the room you’ll see jewellery made from conch shells, coral, teeth and clay, before turning left to the opposite end of the room for a view of an intact wooden duho – a chair carved with the face of a Taino god, used by caciques as a throne during religious ceremonies. Along the wall beside it is a collection of clay animals that represented various deities, including a dozen frogs, a few turtles, a crocodile and two owls, which were believed to ferry souls to the afterlife. The exhibit turns to more practical items as you double back towards the entrance, but the intricate ornamentation on the pots, cassava grinders and ceremonial axeheads keeps your attention from flagging. Especially arresting is the jet-black monolith of a Taino deity with an ostentatious phallus – originally meant to guard the entrance to a cave.

The Zona Colonial

The Zona Colonial – a square-shaped district straddling the western mouth of the Río Ozama and encircled by the ruins of the original city walls – is crammed with monumental architecture, and yet it’s very much a living neighbourhood, thanks to the trendy cafés, local bars and rows of clapboard houses where thousands of people live and work. A multimillion-dollar renovation, begun in the 1970s in preparation for the Columbus Centenary, has brought a number of the historic buildings back to their original state, giving you a real sense of how the city looked when first developed and the piecemeal renovation continues as new businesses occupy the stone mansions and set up shop. Many of the important monuments can be seen in a single day if you keep to a brisk pace, although thorough exploration requires at least two or three. Chances are that you’ll pass through the district nearly every day while in town, since it holds many of the city’s best restaurants and bars. Wandering about you’ll no doubt be accosted by freelance guides, who are generally very friendly and sometimes quite knowledgeable; if you tell them you don’t want assistance (no gracias) they’ll leave you in peace.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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