Dominican Republic: the basics
Last year nearly 100,000 Britons visited the Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic. That’s a small number compared to the total of millions that come each year. Since it has been a staple feature in the holiday brochures of major tour operators for decades why don’t more of us visit a country that combines the prospect of beach holidays, trekking, desert landscapes, and rainforest?
So here is a quick potted guide to what the Dominican Republic has to offer the holidaymaker and traveler.
This is the place where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The Spanish influence has lasted to this day although the country has been independent for nearly 170 years. It attracts the fourth largest number of tourists in Latin America each year after Mexico, Brazil and Argentina and those visitor dollars mean that nearly 8% of the economy is due entirely to tourism. 4.6 million people visited the country with 1.6 million from the USA alone. This means that US dollars are freely available even though the peso is the official currency with about 68 pesos to the pound. It also means that the country works hard to attract visitors with a continuous upgrading of services and the introduction of new ones.
Take the opening of Los Delfines Water & Amusement Park last week. Los Delfines, the Caribbean’s biggest amusement park was created to gather the family, around a wholesome and enjoyable activity overlooking the sea. A second stage to increase its size by two-thirds is already planned.
Whilst you probably won’t holiday in the capital, chances are that you will be offered an excursion there. The capital is Santo Domingo – the oldest city in the Americas – which is also where the bulk of the population of the country lives. Although a modern city in most respects, it has an area known as the colonial zone which is largely a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is here that you’ll find Catedral Santa María La Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Casa de Bastidas ( a military complex dating back to 1512)and El Alcazar – a palace built for the Spanish leaders. Less than a week ago, the tourism ministry announced that funds would be made available to restore and renovate the historic facades of individuals homes in a dilapidated state within the Zone.
Golfing is a major attraction for the country having twenty-seven golf clubs including five in Casa de Campo’s where there are the “teeth of the Dog” course which is reputed to be not only the best in the Caribbean but one of the top fifty courses in the world. It may be given a run for its money by a Jack Nicklaus course at Punta Espada which is proving popular with visitors.
Like most Caribbean destinations, it is to the beaches and the sea that visitors are attracted. In the south, there tend to be more beaches catering for the visitor whilst in the north, they are less developed in some areas although more money for development is being considered. Inland there is mountaineering, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, paragliding, driving in 4×4 vehicles, tubing, cascading, canyoning and rappelling.
Punta Cana is probably the leading tourist destination with over 35,000 hotel rooms, golf courses and miles of beaches. Here you’ll also find the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park which has exotic plants on trails that take you through via eleven natural lagoons and one of the country’s largest caves, Fun Fun Cave which has a 4.5-mile long river flowing inside it. From here you can join one of the many jeep safaris, that will take you through a tropical jungle but you’ll still be never too far away from a deserted beach where you can stop for a swim before re-joining the safari.
And where there are beaches, there is skin-diving but this is the Caribbean. Here there are tales of Spanish galleons laden with treasure that foundered on the reefs. In August it was announced that divers from Anchor Research and Salvage working with the Punta Cana Foundation discovered a 450-year-old wreck. The cargo found contains the single largest cache of 16th-century pewter tableware ever discovered as well as some extremely rare Spanish silver coins from the late 1400′s. Is it any wonder that divers come in their thousands in the hope of seeing something like this or just to admire the seabed and the corals.
They also come for the turtles as do many other visitors. The government operates a nest-vigilance programme to monitor, count and protect one the great tourist draws. This year, 1,317 births of various sea turtle species – hawksbills, greens, and leatherbacks -from May to September were recorded on the beaches of the National District.
On the northern coast is Puerto Plata with 62 miles of beaches, coastal villages and hotels This is where you’ll find the remains of the first European settlement in the Americas are located. The three ships of Columbus made landfall here in 1492 and called it La Isabela. Nicknamed the “Amber Coast” because of the amber deposits this is the most developed are in the north. Incidentally, amber is one of the major tourist souvenirs but bring back only amber that has been worked as its export in the raw is forbidden.
If there is evidence of colonial influence here, then Pedernales in the south-west is where you will find indigenous influence. The province also features a high number of caves, many with evidence of pre-historic cave paintings, such as pictographs made with red paint. Among the most notable are La Altagracia, Trou Nicolás, and La Colmena.
Eco and adventure tourism majors strongly in the Dominican Republic. In fact, there are nine distinct ecological zones including a desert area in the south-west. It certainly wouldn’t like to be known as just another Caribbean beach destination.
British Airways has direct flights from Gatwick Airport. Thomas Cook has flights from Gatwick and Manchester and Thomson Airlines links the country from Birmingham, East Midlands, Gatwick and Manchester with seasonal services from Glasgow and Newcastle. Air Europa has flights via Madrid from Gatwick; Air France via Paris from over 20 different British and Irish airports.
You will require a visa which costs $10 and this can be obtained on arrival. Check with your travel agency to see whether this is included in your bill from them. Returning from the country there is a departure tax but this is often rolled into you airfare or your holiday package.