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One of the most geographically diverse islands in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has it all, from 800 miles of Atlantic and Caribbean coastline to four mountain ranges, subtropical rain forests, abundant rivers and waterfalls, and desert dunes that almost meet the sea. Visitors can also look …forward to a lush interior with year-round cool temperatures and the highest peak in the Caribbean (the 10,000-foot Pico Duerte); a biosphere reserve with a lake (home to a large population of American crocodiles) and tiny island that’s 144 feet below sea level; and the capital city of Santo Domingo, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the Spaniards built the island’s first cathedral, monastery, paved street, hospital, and court of justice, as well as the first university in the Americas. There are 31 provinces in the country, and five major tourist regions: Santo Domingo, the Samaná Peninsula, Punta Cana, La Romana, and Puerto Plata.
What to know before you go to Dominican Republic
Dominicans will tell you it’s always summer on the island, but what they mean is that it can be warm and sunny any time of year. Temperatures don’t vary much from month to month, and there aren’t distinct seasons. Even during the so-called rainy period, which varies by region, it doesn’t necessarily rain every day—sometimes there’s only a sudden, hard downpour for an hour or two.
It’s usually sunny in Santo Domingo, with the most rain and highest temperatures occurring between May and October. Same goes for Punta Cana, although rainfall isn’t as abundant. Just fifty miles from Punta Cana, La Romana has high temperatures year-round—August is the hottest month, January the coolest, March the driest, and October the rainiest. The Samaná Peninsula has a wet equatorial climate without a defined dry season, but still averages up to eight hours of sunshine a day; humidity is lowest in March and highest in September. Across the island, hotel rates are lowest from August to early December, and highest the week before Easter and again from July through August.
Direct flights to Santo Domingo’s Las Américas International Airport arrive from Boston, Newark, New York, and Miami. There’s also nonstop service to Punta Cana International—the country’s busiest airport—from Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.
A taxi from Las Américas International Airport to Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial costs around $40. In the Zona, taxis don’t cruise looking for passengers. Instead, they congregate at intersections along the pedestrianized El Conde and well-populated spots such as Parque Colón, where the drivers quote high fares. Taxis are unmetered, so negotiate the fare in advance; Uber is cheaper and operates in Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata.
Major car rental agencies operate at the Santo Domingo, Puerta Plata, and Punta Cana airports, as well as in downtown Santo Domingo, La Romana, and Santiago. If you rent a vehicle, carry small change for the toll booths (between RD$60 and RD$100) and opt for full insurance coverage, especially the Casa del Conductor option that prevents you from being jailed if you’re involved in an accident in which someone is injured.
For getting between major cities, Metro Tours and Caribe Tours offer long-distance rides in comfortable, air-conditioned coaches. Espresso Bavaro is the only bus transport between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana. All three have daily service with a set schedule.
The Dominican diet is heavy on starches, from rice and potatoes to yucca, cassava, and plantains. When visiting, be sure to try favorite dishes like la bandera Dominicana (a combination of white rice, stewed beans, beef, and salad), mofongo (boiled and mashed plantains with garlic, olive oil, and pork rinds), and sancocho (a stew of pork, beef, goat, fish, and potatoes). Also worth sampling are plates that showcase the country’s diverse population, from chambre (a one-pot bean-and-meat stew brought over by African slaves) and niños envueltos (a spicy version of Middle Eastern cabbage rolls) to chofa (a Dominican-Chinese rice dish) and tipili (a bulgur salad popularized by Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian immigrants).
One might expect rum to be the national drink, but that recognition goes to Mama Juana, a spirit made from soaking tree bark and herbs in rum, red wine, and honey. Dominican rum owes its existence to Columbus, who brought sugarcane plants from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola on his second voyage in 1493. The island’s sugar industry was slow to grow, however, and didn’t take off until the late 19th century. Brugal Rum, the Dominican Republic’s first distillery, opened in 1888.
A true melting pot, the Dominican Republic was shaped by periods of Spanish and French rule, the African slave trade, and a surge in immigrants from the Middle East and Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Also hugely influential was the indigenous Taino population, which numbered around 3 million when the Spaniards first arrived but died out by the end of the 16th century. Many of their inventions—including barbecues, hammocks, and 100-man canoes—were adopted by subsequent generations, and some Taino place names and vocabulary made their way into Dominican Spanish.
Music and dance—from salsa and merengue to the Dominican bachata—seem to run through Dominicans’ veins. In Santo Domingo and other towns, you’ll hear music coming from colmadas (tiny corner grocery stores that also serve as social hangouts) and see couples dancing gracefully on the sidewalks. For contemporary art, head to Mamey Liberia Café in the Zona Colonial, the Centro León in Santiago, or the famed art school and galleries in La Romana.
Celebrated on Hispaniola since 1520, Carnival takes place on the first Sunday in March in Santo Domingo, with regional parades held throughout February in Bonao, Barahona, La Vega, Montecristi, Puerto Plata, and Río San Juan. The Puerto Plata Cultural Festival brings tribal dance, folk music, salsa, and merengue to Fuerte San Felipe during the third week of June, while the Festival de Merengue attracts the world’s best merengue dancers and musicians to Santo Domingo in late July and early August.
Even if you only have a few days in the Dominican Republic, don’t miss the colonial capital of Santo Domingo. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas, with buildings dating back to the 16th century.
The Dominican Republic is also a country of world-class beaches, so work in plenty of fun in the sun, especially on the northern shore from Río San Juan to Montecristi near the Haitian border. Also save time for the laid-back port town of Puerto Plata, with its mix of colonial and Victorian architecture, gorgeous palm-lined beaches, and lush mountainous backdrop.
U.S. citizens need a valid passport to enter the Dominican Republic. If you plan on staying longer than 30 days, you also must put in a request at the Migration Department in Santo Domingo and pay a fee proportional to the length of your trip. (Fees range from around US$55 for a month’s extension to US$1,400 for ten years.)
The official language is Spanish (with some slight regional variations), the currency is the Dominican peso (shown locally as RD$), the voltage is 110 V (the same as in the United States), and the electrical outlets are Type A (two flat prongs).
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Gail Harrington is a New York–based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Departures, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and the New York Times. Her assignments have led her to construct and navigate a log raft in Sweden, transect the Fijian rain forest with machete in hand, and build dry stonewalls in Scotland. For the past eight years, she’s been a full-time vagabond with long stays in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, plus small fishing villages in Ecuador and Ireland.
Updated January 2019.