Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial
Take a walk through history in the oldest European city in the New World. With its cobblestone streets and beautifully restored mansions, churches and forts, many converted into evocative museums, hotels and restaurants, it’s easy to imagine the landmark quarter in Santo Domingo as the seat of Spain’s 16th-century empire. But the past and present coexist rather gracefully here: follow in the footsteps of pirates and conquistadors one moment, then next pop into a 4D movie theater or shop selling CDs from the latest Dominican merengue star.
Bahía de Las Águilas
The remoteness and loneliness of the country’s most far-flung and beautiful beach adds savor and spice to the adventure of getting to Bahía de Las Águilas, a stunning 10km-long stretch of postcard-perfect sand nearly hugging Haiti in an extreme corner of the Península de Pedernales. The fact that you take a boat that weaves in and out through craggy cliffs and sea-diving pelicans to get here – and you’ll only share it with a few other tourists – only adds to its allure.
Sun, Sea & Sand at Playa Rincón
Consistently rated one of the top beaches in the Caribbean by those in the know – people who courageously brave heatstroke and sunburn in a quest for the ideal – the 3km of pitch-perfect sands at Rincon is second in the DR only to Bahía de Las Águilas. It’s large enough for every day-tripper to claim their own piece of real estate without nosy neighbors peeking over the seaweed and driftwood. A thick palm forest provides the backdrop, and fresh seafood can be served upon request.
Descending the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua
A short drive from Puerto Plata, a hard-won slosh to the far side of the river and then a trek through the lush forest lead to these falls. Experiencing this spectacular series of cascades involves wading through clear pools, swimming inside narrow, smooth-walled canyons, hiking through dripping tropical forest, and climbing rocks, ropes and ladders through the roaring falls themselves. The adrenaline-pumping fun culminates when you can leap and slide down the falls, with some jumps from as high as 10m.
Las Terrenas Cafe Culture
Mellow out in this cosmopolitan beachfront town where French and Italian accents are as common as Dominican. International camaraderie is contagious when every day begins and ends with espresso among baguette-toting foreigners at open-air cafes and restaurants overlooking the ocean. The relaxed vibe of this former simple fishing village is a marriage between water-sports adventurers swapping tips and tales after an exhausting day and the more sedentary set, content to admire their exploits from afar, while relishing the town’s European flare.
Santo Domingo Nightlife & Dancing
Get dressed to the nines, do some limbering up and get your dance moves on. Nightclubs in the seaside resort hotels host some of the best merengue and salsa bands this side of Havana. Downtown has trendy, sceney clubs for the fashionable set, while the Zona Colonial is chockablock with drinking holes, from sweaty corner stores and boozy bohemian hangouts to upscale restaurants, hipster-y craft cocktail bars and hideaways with magnificent colonial-era courtyards.
Dominicans don’t just worship at Sunday Mass: baseball makes a solid claim for the country’s other religion. Hometown fanatics cheer their teams on with a passion and enthusiasm equal to bleacher creatures in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, but with better dancers and possibly a wider selection of stadium fare. The Dominican league’s six teams go cabeza a cabeza several nights a week – Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo is home field for two longtime rivals – culminating in a championship series at the end of January.
Leisurely Las Galeras
The sleepy fishing village of Las Galeras at the far eastern end of the Península de Samaná is an escape from your getaway. Fewer tourists and therefore less development means that the area around includes some of the more scenic locales in all the DR. Swaying palm trees back beaches ready-made for a movie set, and waves crash over hard-to-get-to cliffs. Even more cinematic are the astounding views from a few elevated dining and sleeping options, which take in the surrounding expanses of jungle, mountain and sea.
Kitesurfing in Cabarete & Beyond
Year-round strong offshore breezes make Cabarete on the DR’s north coast one of the undisputed capitals for the sport of kitesurfing, and the wind-whipped shallows around Las Terrenas and a developing spot called Buen Hombre, just west of Punta Rucia, are also gaining traction. Harnessing the wind’s power to propel you over the choppy surface of the Atlantic isn’t like another day at the beach. It takes training and muscles, not to mention faith, before you can attempt the moves of the pros from around the world.
The Caribbean’s only raftable river, the Río Yaque del Norte near Jarabacoa in the central highlands of the DR, is tailor-made for those looking to recharge their batteries after too much sun and sand. A short but intense series of rapids will get the adrenaline going, as will a spill in the cold roiling river; fortunately, there are stretches of flat water where you can loosen your grip on the paddle and gaze at the mountain scenery in the distance, or jump in for a refreshing swim.
North Americans and Europeans aren’t the only ones who migrate south to the Caribbean in the winter. Every year, thousands of humpback whales congregate in the waters off the Península de Samaná to mate and give birth, watched (hopefully, from a respectful distance) by boatloads of their human fans. Get a front-row seat to this spectacle, including mothers and their babies trying out their fins for the first time, from mid-January to mid-March.
Toward the border with Haiti you’ll find Lago Enriquillo, an enormous saltwater lake 40m below sea level and a remnant of the strait that once bisected the island from Barahona to Port-au-Prince. Several hundred crocodiles call the lake home, and everywhere you’ll see rocks of fossilized coral. Waters have receded somewhat in recent years, unveiling an eerily picturesque sunken forest. Around the lake, colonies of seemingly menacing Ricord and rhinoceros iguanas roam freely and cacti thrive, while swarms of butterflies color the landscape every June.
Mountain Vistas in Constanza
The scenery found in the central highlands of the DR is a surprise to most. Cloud-covered peaks whose slopes are a patchwork of well-tended agricultural plots and galloping forest growth rising from the valley floor are vistas not often associated with Caribbean islands. A stay on the outskirts of Constanza, truly a world away from the developing coastline, provides tableaus of often spectacular sunsets – a time of day when the temperature begins to dip and the chilly air calls for sweaters and blankets.
Hiking Pico Duarte
Hispaniola has some surprisingly rugged, pine-tree-covered terrain in the Central Cordillera, including Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest mountain (3087m). You’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes, warm clothing, good stamina and several days, but if you summit when the clouds have dispersed, the views out to both the Atlantic and the Caribbean are more than worth the blisters. Along with the memories of a night huddling around the fire out under the stars, you’ll take home a well-earned feeling of accomplishment.
Underwater visibility and consistent ocean conditions make this coastal village, near La Romana in the southeast, the country’s best diving destination bar none. You’ll find boat services to the islands of Saona and Catalina, and the island’s best wreck dive, the St George, is out here, too. Snorkelers will find themselves equally well catered to, and there’s the unique opportunity to spend a few hours cruising the shoreline in a traditional fishing vessel.
La Vega Carnival
Carnival is a huge blowout everywhere in the DR, but especially so in La Vega; the entire city turns out for the parade and every corner and park is transformed into a combination impromptu concert and dance party. Look out for the whips when dancing with costumed devils. Garish, colorful, baroque and elaborately and painstakingly made outfits – capes, demonic masks with bulging eyes and pointed teeth – are worn by marauding groups of revelers.
Mountain Biking the Dominican Alps
Hardcore cyclists rave about the rough trails of the DR’s central highlands, where they feel like pioneers. Free styling their way on rocky descents, through alpine meadows and coursing streams, is an adventurer’s dream. Less strenuous rides abound, too: pedal along dirt roads through farming communities and sugarcane fields, and be greeted by smiles and friendly invitations to stop and grab a Presidente or two.