A proud Hispanic capital of the Caribbean offers a top vacation at dirt-cheap rates
It's midnight at La Gu cara Tana, a rockin' nightclub set in a natural cave near the old quarter of Santo Domingo, and the very stalactites are practically boogying to the irrepressible merengue rhythms and the hip-swinging crowd below. Our Puritan forefathers might've plotzed at the scene and lyrics, but then they never set foot on the island of Hispaniola, where the sensual allure of the land and its people are truly enough to make you dump the work ethic and spend the rest of your days "livin' la vida loca." Christopher Columbus, the first outsider to fall under its spell, dubbed it "the fairest land that human eyes have seen." Five centuries later, the pristine beaches and exuberant greenery of La Republica Dominicana could still move the old imperialista to wax poetic - not just about the scenery but also about the prices, among the lowest in the tourist universe.
About 50 miles due west of Puerto Rico, this wedge of a republic smaller than West Virginia harbors 8 million souls, sharing Hispaniola with Haiti to the west. Both nations offer quality getaways at hard-to-beat prices (see BT's article on Haiti in the summer 1998 issue), but it's the D.R.'s quantity and variety of offerings that make it the Caribbean destination of choice for the traveler on a tight budget; prices here run a good 30 to 40 percent lower than Puerto Rico, Jamaica, or other nearby vacation stalwarts.
Depending on the season, in fact, seven-night air/hotel packages to all-inclusive resorts (providing unlimited meals, drinks, and activities) can go for less than $640 from Miami, $740 from New York, $900 from Chicago, and $970 from Los Angeles. Not a few of these deals feature Allegro (800/858-2258), a Santo Domingo-based all-inclusive resort chain that's one of the world's biggest; its Caribbean Village brand often comes in at less than $100 a night. Other decently priced Dominican chains worth considering include Amhsa (800/472-3985; www.amhsahotels.com), Occidental (800/424-5192; www.occidental-hoteles.com), and Coral (888/767-1664; www.coralhotels.com). If you're looking for something a little more intimate, small lodgings abound for as little as $20-$30 a night with breakfast.
Best of all, just because the D.R. is cheap doesn't mean it's a one-horse island; indeed, the home of merengue, Oscar de la Renta, and Sammy Sosa offers much more substance than tiny islets like Aruba and St. Croix - lovely in their own right, but more limited in their offerings. There is plenty of culture, ecology, and architecture here, and - best of all, perhaps - there's distance. You can drive for hours on end, from undeveloped Barahona on the pleasant southwest coast, past mountains so high that apples grow on their cool flanks, all the way up to the north-coast resorts; this is also the only Caribbean island that offers white-water rafting. In my opinion, though, the true wealth of the land is the dominicanos themselves, a beautiful "cafe con leche" blend of European and African who'll spoil you with some of the friendliest treatment between Key West and Caracas.
Most visitors skip the rugged interior and the funky towns for modern holiday developments along the thousand or so miles of crystalline beaches - especially the north shore's resort enclave of Playa Dorada, near Puerto Plata, and the peninsula of Punta Cana way out east (even more isolated, and home to the country's only Club Med). A smaller number go to beach towns like Sosua, Cabarete, and Saman on the north shore, or La Romana, Juan Dolio, and Boca Chica on the south.
Basically, you can do the D.R. one of two ways, both quite economical: book a package through a tour operator (see box on tk) to one of the above resorts and veg on the beach all week, or combine sun 'n' sand with visits to towns where you'll actually see Dominicans not just changing your linens or hamming it up in goofy resort shows, but working and playing in their everyday lives. I'd like to cover two of those towns, focusing on the lesser-known, more authentic side of the Dominican Republic.
Named for the patron saint of the priests who founded the city, Santo Domingo has a population of more than 2 million and a character both sacred (the first cathedral in the Americas) and profane (more "love motels" per capita than any place this writer has ever seen). Santo Domingo also manages to be simultaneously charming (the old colonial quarter, with atmospheric cobbled lanes like Calle de las Damas), seedy (dumpy shops galore), bombastic (don't miss the gargantuan, vaguely fascist-looking Columbus Lighthouse), and upscale (check out Sammy Sosa's extravagant new digs downtown on Avenida George Washington). This jumble of contradictions is, to a great extent, what makes this colorful urb worth a couple of days of the adventurous traveler's vacation time, despite the lack of all-inclusives and prices that, while still reasonable, tend to be rather higher than out on the island (blame the business travelers).
The seafront Malec:n makes for a pretty - and fairly interesting-stroll, but downtown's main drag is a couple of blocks inland: Calle El Conde, a once-elegant shopping street that runs the length of the old town from Plaza Col:n, with its imposing sixteenth-century cathedral, to the ancient fortifications at Parque Independencia. Nowadays this pedestrian thoroughfare serves up downscale shops (average monthly salaries, after all, hover around $100), street vendors hawking trinkets and Haitian paintings, and the usual yanqui fast-food suspects (KFC, Burger King, yech-cetera). This vibrant scene, more local than tourist, is framed by an array of eclectic architecture that runs the gamut from grand colonial to 1960s-era eyesores.
Nearby Avenida Mella offers artsy-craftsy shopping at the Mercado Modelo bazaar; other good island buys include knockoffs of Cuban cigars like the respectable "Cohiba robusto," a much better deal at $5 a smoke than the authentic commie Cohibas. Amber is another national specialty, sold very reasonably at the Mundo de Ambar museum and shop (Calle Merino 452, 809/682-3309), where a small chunk with an embedded insect fossil runs as low as 225 pesos ($14).
Finally, el beisbol is a great deal in a country that has produced many household names (not just Sosa but recently Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians); seats run $4.50 to $12 at the Quisqueya Stadium (Avenida Tiradentes at San Cristobal, 809/590-
5772) during the October-February local season - a prime opportunity to catch tomorrow's major-league stars. La inusica - not just merengue, but also bachata and other Latin rhythms - is another local treat, and can be enjoyed at a selection of clubs that won't break your bank. Besides the aforementioned Gu cara Taina on Paseo de Los Indios (cover $10), recommendable venues include Jet Set (Avenida Independencia 2253), Disco Sonido el Aguila (Avenida San Vincent de Paul 20), and Disco Kristal (Calle Pena Batlle 170); or, for a gay twist, head to Disco Free (Avenida Ortega y Gasset 13). Meanwhile, during the last week in July and the first in August (admittedly a hot, sticky time of year), the annual merengue festival is a wild (and free!) experience that takes over the Malecon.
Time permitting, rent some wheels (from $44 a day at MC Auto Rent A Car, Avenida George Washington 105, 809/688-6518) for a day trip or two. For beachy fun near the capital, try Boca Chica, about a half-hour's drive (15 miles) east of town just past the airport. Aim to go on a weekday afternoon if you value peace and quiet; weekends, the strand is overrun by local families and boom boxes. Either way, the price is right, with secured parking costing a mere 60[cents] and food vendors selling cheap eats like yaniqueques (flat doughy pancakes) for about 6[cents] and fresh fried fish for under a dollar. Another 70 miles farther east along the coast, baseball fans will also appreciate San Pedro de Macors, source of most of the Dominicans in the U.S. major leagues (Tetelo Vargas stadium charges $8-$13 to catch games). If you're up for a solid day's jaunt, consider the hundred-mile trip out to the galleries and workshops of Altos de Chavon, an artists' colony near La Romana that's an artificial but engaging 23-year-old re-creation of colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.
Eating and sleeping, Creole-style
The least expensive beds in Santo Domingo happen to be on a prime corner right on El Conde at the Hotel Aida (Conde Espaillat 464, 809/685-7692), a charming if plainish pension where $24 lands you a comfy room with a nice balcony overlooking the street action - but no AC. Air-conditioned rooms here, oddly enough, lack windows altogether and go for $2 more; both categories, though, have their own bath. Located in the tourist district just west of the Old Town, the Hotel San Geronimo (Avenida Independencia 1067, 809/221-6600, fax 809/221-9106) rents out perfectly serviceable doubles with all the amenities - including sea views - for about $39, assuming you don't mind the slightly dated decor and clunky furniture. There is, however, a nice little pool bar and even a casino.
"Dated" could also describe the Hotel Cervantes (Calle Cervantes 202, 809/688-2261, fax 809/686-5754), but it carries off the look with a bit more panache. For $54, the doubles here are roomier, with two queen beds, simple rattan furniture, mini-fridge - and bright fluorescent lighting (think of it as a quirky Caribbean thang). There's also a pool and a good-quality in-house restaurant, the Bronco Steak House (see below). If, on the other hand, you prefer to cook, then look no further than the ApartHotel Plaza Colonial (Calle Luisa Pellerano at Julio Verne, 809/687-9111, fax 809/686-2877) in the Gazcue district west of Calle El Conde. Here you can live like a middle-class Dominican in a studio apartment ($50), a roomy one-bedroom ($53), or a huge two-bedroom ($69); all units have kitchens, rattan furniture, and sparkling tile floors, and some even boast balconies. Other perks include maid service, a small pool, and a backup generator for those occasional blackouts.
Food in the capital, surprisingly, is not always as cheap as one might expect. There are, however, three prime venues right on El Conde, and none primer than Restaurant-Cafeteria El Conde (Calle El Conde 111, 809/682-6944) - not a cafeteria at all, but rather a cafe and restaurant perched on Columbus Park across from the cathedral. Outside under bright umbrellas, or inside the French doors under ceiling fans, locals and tourists alike chow down on island specialties like breaded pork chops for $3.20, a lip-smacking goat stew for $5.70, or a side of mangu (plantain mashed with onions, practically the national dish) for $2.50. For even better value, try one of the daily specials, like carne ripiada (shredded beef), served with rice and beans, salad, and fried green plantains for $2.55!
The same prices prevail down the street at Cafetera Bariloche (Calle El Conde 203, 809/687-8509), a cavernous joint in a gorgeous art nouveau building with a long cafeteria-style counter showcasing Dominican goodies. The $2.50 daily specials are the thing here, with a choice of entr,es such as codfish or roast leg of pork served with rice, beans, and salad. With fresh food, soft drinks starting at 50[cents] and Presidente beer for a buck, you couldn't cook your own dinner cheaper. Want a break from island fare? Head for Pekin Express (Calle El Conde at 19 de Marzo, 809/688-0499), a spotless Chinese restaurant with tile walls, neon touches, and a friendly young staff; best of all, the smells wafting from the kitchen are straight out of old Hong Kong. A la carte prices here are quite reasonable, with appetizers starting at 90[cents] for an egg roll and entr,es (such as pork chops in a honey-garlic sauce or chicken with mushrooms and snow peas) hovering around $3. There are daily specials, too, like an egg roll, beef or chicken kebab, french fries, and a soft drink, all for $2.10. Finally, the cozy Bronco Steak House, overlooking the swimming pool at the Hotel Cervantes, makes for a more upscale experience at downscale prices, with appetizers starting at $2 (cheese balls or avocado salad) and many entrees priced around $5 (stewed goat or island-style pork chops).
Sosua, north shore, beaches, bars, & bar mitzvahs
To many travelers, the Dominican Republic is practically synonymous with Puerto Plata, a pleasant, moderately interesting town on the northern "Amber Coast" with a nearby international airport serving both North America and Europe. Most folks head right on to Playa Dorada, a gated 15-resort development ten miles west that offers elaborate hotels, golf courses, casinos and nightspots - and is all but totally cut off from local life and color. Visitors who appreciate that color sail past the gate and on to Sosua ("so-SOO-ah"), a town of 30,000 just 12 miles west of Puerto Plata and a 15-minute, 150-peso ($9) cab ride from the airport.
Compared to Santo Domingo, Sosua is practically brand new, but it has a unique history. Nobody could accuse longtime (1930-61) dictator Rafael Trujillo of being an angel of mercy, but he did do a good turn in 1940 by granting a group of 600 Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany the right to found a community along this lush stretch of coast. Sixty years later, there's not much left in the way of Jewish presence, save for a modest synagogue and street names like "Dr. Rosen" and "David Stern;" ironically, it's German tourists and expatriates who throng those streets nowadays, and merengue bars outnumber bar mitzvahs by far. The town now has a vigorous Dominican culture, funky street life, five of the country's best beaches, and scores of lodgings and eateries geared toward both foreigners and locals.
Roads along this part of the coast are fairly decent, and using Sosua as a base you can get around quite easily by renting a motorbike (typically $20 to $25 a day) or car ($40 to $60) at one of the agencies in town, or by taking advantage of the many taxis and motoconchos (motorbike-taxis). Drive to Puerto Plata to take in the little colonial San Felipe Fortress; the gracious main plaza, complete with gazebo; the Brugal rum factory; and the interesting amber museum (which has capitalized on Jurassic Park, partly filmed on-island, right down to the logo). Or cruise 90 miles east to Samana, with its superb whale-watching (February is peak season), or nine miles east to Cabarete, a pleasant tourist town smaller than Sosua and boasting one of the hemisphere's best windsurfing beaches. Other outdoorsy activities include hiking, horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba, golf, white-water rafting, and the Columbus Aquapark; day trips to Santo Domingo or even Haiti are also available (try local operators like Melissa Tours on Calle Duarte in Sosua, 809/571-2567).
Sosua is basically divided in two: Los Charamicos, where most of the locals live, and El Batey ("el bah-TAY"), the tourist-oriented part of town, which is full of restaurants with names like Alt Dusseldorf, Schnitzel Paradise, and Margaritaville, as well as loads of bars and nightclubs (usually charging $2 cover); a local fave is the Merengue Bar on Calle Pedro Clisante. Some eateries are frankly turista traps not much cheaper than you'd find in the States, but at other local joints, such as the simple patio at Comedor Estiven on Ayuntamiento Street, you can get a plate heaped with tasty, down-home comida criolla (local fare) for $2 and a Presidente beer for 75[cents]. Your hotel's front desk staff can clue you in to others, which can open and go out of business regularly.
There are also dozens of cute little hotels and guesthouses offering very reasonable rates. The 28-room, German-Canadian-owned El Paraiso (Calle Dr. Rosen 14, 809/571-2906, fax 809/571-2906) charges just $40 per double in high season ($25 in summer), including tax and use of a small, pleasant courtyard pool; several beaches are a short walk away. Slightly larger and more upscale, the Sea Breeze (Calle Alejo Martinez, 809/571-3858, fax 809/571-2115) - right next door to the synagogue - also sports a nice pool, plus 31 rooms with kitchenettes starting at $41 a night in winter.
For something more elaborate, the huge Casa Marina complex on Calle Alejo Martinez (809/571-3690, fax 809/571-3110) charges just $65 a night per person through April 24 for an all-inclusive plan (that's three meals a day, plus unlimited drinks, alcoholic and not, day or night) and access to a nice beach, seaside Jacuzzi, multiple pools, restaurants, bars, shops, its own disco, and nightly shows; in July and August the price drops to $57 daily. To that, add typical high-season midweek fares of $310 to $360 round-trip from New York and $325 from Miami (both on American). A few tour operators also offer all-inclusive air-land deals such as seven nights this spring at the Sol de Plata resort just outside Sosua (from TourScan; see box, p. 123) for about $850 out of New York. Most operators, however, tend to concentrate their efforts on the Playa Dorada ghetto.
One caveat: while the D.R. is not especially unsafe, bear in mind that this is one of the world's poorest countries (with an unemployment rate approaching 30 percent), and in some areas the stream of relatively affluent tourists unfortunately encourages prostitution. Thus in Sosua, for example, it's not single women but rather single guys who can sometimes be harassed on the streets (beware: postcoital robberies are not unknown); it helps not to wander around alone at night. The putas also frequent certain discos such as Moby Dick or High Caribbean (try Copacabana, Tropic, and Pyramide instead, which tend to be less infested). Cabarete has some tourist-friendly evening street life, too, but noticeably less of this particular kind of hassle.
Gettin' to La Vida Loca
In addition to seasonal charters, there's a fair amount of regularly scheduled airlift to the Dominican Republic, especially via New York and Miami. Flying times are approximately three-and-a-half hours from New York and two hours from Miami. Fares vary according to season, but midweek and round-trip they run $310-$470 from New York and $325-$350 from Miami.
To Santo Domingo
TWA (800/892-4141; www.twa.com) from New York and San Juan; Tower (800/231-0856; www.towerair.com) from New York; Continental (800/5250280; www.continental.com) from Newark; American (800/433-7300; www.aa.com) from New York, Miami, and San Juan.
To Puerto Plata
American from New York, Miami, and San Juan; TWA from New York; Continental from Newark (as of mid-June).
To Punta Cana
WA from New York and Newark.
On the island
Flights between Santo Domingo and either Puerto Plata or Punta Cana typically run 850 pesos ($54) each way on Air Santo Domingo (809/683-8020). If you want to go by land, it takes about four-and-a-half hours to drive the 140 miles between Sosua/Cabarete and Santo Domingo. The main roads are okay, but smaller ones can be in awful shape, getting lost is a possibility, and the Dominicans are not always the best drivers. So I'd definitely recommend the reliable, comfortable hourly bus service run by Caribe Tours (809/571-3808) and Metro Servicios Turisticos (809/586-6062). Both charge around 90 pesos ($5.70) between the north shore and Santo Domingo.
Smooth operators Top marketers of air/hotel packages to the DR include: Apple Vacations (800/727-3400; www.applevacations.com), Funjet (800/558-3050; www.funjet.com), InterIsland Tours (800/245-3434), Moment's Notice (718/234-6295; www.moments-notice.com), TourScan (800/962-2080), and Vacation Travel Mart (800/288-1435; www.festaholidays.com).
Informacion, por favor
For further details before leaving home, contact the Dominican Tourist Board at 800/723-6138; in New York, call 212/588-1012, in Florida 305/444-4592, and in Chicago 773/529-1336. On the Web, log on to http://dominicanresorts.com, www.debbiesdominicantravel.com, www.hispaniola.com/DR, and www.dominicanrepublicpage.com.
Once you're on the island, several free publications in English can be helpful, such as Santo Domingo News and Touring in the capital and La Costa and The Columbus Guide on the north shore. For phone assistance while in Sosua, dial 71-3433 or toll-free 1-200-3500.