History and Culture in the Dominican Republic

One of the first European settlements in the Americas, La Isabela is among the Dominican Republic’s most fascinating attractions. Look beyond the island’s colonial-era cities, however, and you’ll also find caves full of Taino pictographs, a replica of a 16th-century Tuscan village, a museum devoted to Dominican culture, and more.

La Romana 22000, Dominican Republic
Seven miles from La Romana, this enchanting national park comprises a 2,600-foot-long cave system with stalactites and stalagmites, plus almost 500 pictographs and petroglyphs created by the Tainos who inhabited the island at the time the Spaniards first arrived. Good lighting, ramps, footpaths, and an elevator make these caves easily accessible.
La Romana 22000, Dominican Republic
On the Dominican Republic’s southeastern coast, high above the Chavón River gorge in La Romana, sits Altos de Chavón, a replica of a 16th-century Tuscan village handcrafted by local artisans. Completed in 1976, the site now boasts artists’ studios, galleries, and the Altos de Chavón School of Design, an affiliate of New York’s Parsons School of Art and Design. Other highlights include the Museo Arqueológico Regional, home to a fascinating collection of pre-Columbian artifacts; a 5,000-seat limestone amphitheater that regularly hosts world-renowned performers; and the small St. Stanislaus Church, blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Av 27 de Febrero 146, Santiago De Los Caballeros 51053, Dominican Republic
One of the Dominican Republic’s finest museums can be found in its second-largest city, Santiago de los Caballeros. Centro León, a philanthropic project run by the Grupo León Jimenes tobacco company, focuses on Dominican culture, showcasing everything from historical displays to contemporary art. Learn about the island’s ecosystem, history, and people, then browse work by noted Dominican artists. In a separate building is an exhibition about the founder of Grupo León Jimenes and his family business. For a souvenir, be sure to stop by the excellent gift shop, which features a wide selection of books on Dominican history, art, culture, and food.
La Isabela 57000, Dominican Republic
Thirty miles west of Puerto Plata in Luperon, you’ll find the remains of La Isabela. One of the first European settlements in the Americas, it was founded by Christopher Columbus in 1493 but abandoned just three years later after crop failures, hunger, hurricanes, conflicts with the Tainos, and disputes among the crew. The ruins were discovered in the mid-20th century and now comprise a national park, complete with the remains of Columbus’s house, a church, and a graveyard where you can see a skeleton in the ground beneath the glass. There’s also a museum that details the story of the Taino people and the Spaniards’ arrival, and features some preserved relics.
Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
On the Dominican Republic’s southeastern coast, near Bayahibe, this 300-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage site spans both land and sea. As you snorkel or row a glass-bottom boat out to one of the three islands in the reserve—Saona (a turtle nesting site from March through November), Catalina, and Catalinita—be on the lookout for bottlenose dolphins, manatees, four species of sea turtles, and, from January through March, humpback whales. You can also hike the Sendero del Padre Nuestro trail to explore caves filled with well-preserved Taino pictographs, or try to spot some of the 144 bird species that call the park home, from white-headed doves and red-footed boobies to barn owls and Hispaniolan parrots. There’s even a frigate bird colony at Bahia de las Calderas.
Santo Domingo 10212, Dominican Republic
Don’t miss this Gothic Renaissance palace in the Zona Colonial, built between 1510 and 1514 for Christopher Columbus’s eldest son, Diego Colón (governor of the colony and viceroy of the Indies), and his wife, María de Toledo (niece of King Ferdinand of Spain). Unfortunately, Francis Drake and his band of pirates pillaged the place in 1586, setting fire to the third floor on their way out. What’s left today is a believable re-creation of the original palace—minus one floor—where visiting conquistadores Balboa, Cortés, Pizarro, and Velázquez planned expeditions in grand rooms and plotted to conquer other lands. Visitors can take a solid audio tour of 22 restored rooms, including the viceroy’s waiting room and a ballroom with a crystal chandelier.
Calle Las Damas, Santo Domingo 10210, Dominican Republic
At the top of Calle Las Damas—where María de Toledo (the niece of King Ferdinand of Spain) and her ladies in waiting strolled in fine dresses every afternoon—you’ll find the former Spanish Governor’s Royal Court, made up of the governor’s palace, the treasury, and the courts of law. Built in 1508, the three stone buildings were joined in 1520 and now serve as a cultural history museum, detailing the story of the Dominican Republic from the colonial period through the days of slavery and up to the country’s first independence from Spain in 1821. Highlights include models of Columbus’s three ships and a large map showcasing his four major voyages; portraits of other Spanish explorers and the pirate Francis Drake; treasures from sunken galleons; and ceramic artifacts made by the Taino, the indigenous Indians who occupied the island when Columbus first arrived.
Calle Hostos, Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Built between 1503 and 1508, this Gothic Renaissance relic with Moorish arches was the first hospital in the New World. Named for the patron saint of cures, it was designed in the shape of a Latin cross—the center nave was used for worship and the two lateral sections housed patients. While some walls were torn down in 1911 to avoid collapse, the resulting ruins are still staggeringly beautiful, revealing a story of pirate attacks, hurricanes, earthquakes, and revolution. Visit on Sunday night, when there’s live music, merengue, and salsa dancing in front of the ruins.
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