Santo Domingo - Extremely Alive & Well
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
Santo Domingo is alive and well, and for those traveling to the Dominican Republic looking to escape the all-inclusive beaches, even for just a sober non sugary drink moment, history awaits you. The firsts of the new world, as presented by the conquering Spanish, await you in the Zona Colonial Santo Domingo. The city of Santo Domingo was founded not by Christopher Columbus, but his brother Bartholomew in 1496. The first university, cathedral, fortress and a myriad of other institutions of the new world began here. Santo Domingo is the country’s heartbeat, its capital, the place where all things Dominican seem to start.
We landed in Punta Cana on a direct flight from Philadelphia. Our initial thoughts seem to be that, Santo Domingo Airport would have been the better airport option from Philadelphia, but connections and timing made us think otherwise. After all was said and done, maybe the connecting flight to Santo Domingo would have been wiser. The Punta Cana Airport facilities are pretty good. Clean, efficient with good signage to find your way through security, baggage collection and finally to your ground transportation, whether it be shuttle, taxi or rental car. We reserved a rental car, which through the online booking process, stated the facilities were on premises. They were not, but they are not terribly far away, 2 minute shuttle ride tops. All the big rental agencies seemed to be clustered within one small, modest looking building. Hmm, this should have been our sign that not many tourists participate in the adventure of driving here. Our initial travel research was filled with DR driving horror stories, and for the record they are real and legitimate. Once we secured our car, we headed out to Highway 3 for the estimated 2 hour drive to Santo Domingo.
Immediately leaving the airport facility, you are lulled into a false sense of “driving” security as the highway is a divided highway with two lanes in each direction and smoothly paved, not unlike European or US highways. I will tell you emphatically that any similarities end there. Small common sense things are ignored, like using blinkers (apparently their optional), keeping left except to pass (oh you own that lane? I didn’t realize it), nor is maintaining a lane (we called them drifters and they would literally slowly drift into our lane) and lastly the flyers (shiny late model, i.e., expensive vehicles passing at high velocity). If what I just described to you sounds like a carnival, the fun has just begun. Being a creature of adaptation, I was going to fit right in.
I utilized a few of the habits I observed, mainly velocity, optional blinker usage and checked my mirrors every few seconds to see what might be coming up behind us, and just how fast. We proceeded mentally unscathed for miles, however once you begin to near Boca Chica (30 minutes from Santo Domingo), another element of insanity begins en masse, motor scooters. They are everywhere and used for every means. As personal transport, taxi’s (up to four we observed could ride uh, comfortably?), and as commercial vehicles carrying supplies of all types. The carnage and confluence of this motorized chaos claims victims, as we witnessed one motor scooter driver painfully laying on the shoulder of the roadway with a bloody femur exposed. The traffic in the urban areas (between Boca Chica and Santo Domingo), becomes much more congested and interesting. The DR road rule that is in effect at all times seem to be, if I am in front of you I can cut you off, take your lane, turn in front of you. It didn’t seem to matter if it was motor scooter, car, truck or pedestrian. I used this rule once to cut three lanes of traffic to make an off ramp. It worked like a charm, international driving language and rules understood, no middle finger necessary.
Once in Santo Domingo, another level of awareness is needed, like we could be anymore aware. By now darkness had set in and the streets were no less crowded, as it was a Sunday evening in the city, which means the good citizens have been liberated from their weekly toils and they congregate gregariously everywhere. As we neared our Airbnb, motor scooters without headlights raced through the streets, pedestrians seemed to haphazardly walk into oncoming traffic and streets signs and lights are blatantly ignored. What to do? Act like you belong and drive like it. As we entered the Zona Colonial, the streets became cobbled, narrowed and one way in direction, which for me mitigated some of the driving craziness. The Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo at night and first glance seems sketchy, intriguing and very much alive. Sometimes it was pedestrians and cars, sometimes with trash and noise and often with all the above. It is festive, bravado (and bravada) and it collectively hangs unfiltered, unadulterated in the tropical air here. After circling the block where our Airbnb was located, we found “parking” and made our way to our stay. The Santome Loft, our 2 night stay, is a nice space in the city. It’s a small, secure bi level loft building that has all the amenities one might want or need, it’s also convenient to Calle El Conde.
Calle El Conde is a pedestrian only walkway in the Zona Colonial with shopping, hotels and restaurants. The one thing that Santome Loft is not, due to the proximity of Calle El Conde, is quiet. After a 3 ½ hour flight, an “illuminating” 2 ½ drive, the only thing you really crave is something to eat, drink and perhaps some solitude. That Sunday evening, we only got to experience the first two things. After dinner and a short stroll along Calle El Conde, we made our way back through the festive crowds to the loft to settle in, but we just might have been better off pitching a tent on the sidewalk. If you’re invited to a Dominican party, you’re going to attend and on Sunday night in Santo Domingo, the party is on. It was a long chaotic night between the blaring music, megaphoned motor scooters, car alarms and drunken revelers. There would be very little sleep this night and there would be no escape. La vida loca had come to our doorstep and it made no plans to leave, until about 3 a.m. We awoke the next morning tired and bleary eyed from the “human tsunami” of the previous night. I pulled back the curtain and peered outside the window, magically the city was still standing. Upon further inspection, the only remnants of the mayhem was trash that was strewn here and there, and our rental car was subject to theft of the driver’s side mirror. And here we thought driving in the Dominican was interesting before. Oh Dominican Republic, give us your best shot.
Being in Santo Domingo for just two nights, one of our must visits was to explore the historic
Zona Colonial. We walked Calle El Conde east to Fortaleza Ozama, where we met Juan Sanchez. Juan would be our guide to the history of Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic. Juan was articulate and enthusiastic, the cost of the tour for just under 2 hours was $60 USD. Even though we believed we were fairly well read, it was money well spent as Juan brought Zona Colonial to life. Most of the walking tour guides for hire will be wearing blue shirts with khakis, and proper if not quite "official badging", to demonstrate that they are official Zona Colonial guides. Most will be stationed near the Parque de Colon (Columbus Park). A few of the popular sites you will see on the tour will be the Parque De Colon, the Monasterio de Francisco, Fortaleza de Ozama, Museo de las Casas Reales, Panteon de Nacional, Alcazar de Colon and the Hospital San Nicolas de Bari. Should you need to get out of the Dominican heat during your tour, there are plenty of art galleries (featuring talented local artists) and restaurants located throughout the Zona Colonial.
Santo Domingo, beyond Zona Colonial, has other exciting things to see and do, as the city continues to grow. There is a burgeoning restaurant scene as well as nightlife. The neighborhoods of Piantini, Arroyo Honda, Gazcue, Bella Vista and Naco will allow you to sample upscale and traditional Dominican flavor of all types. Roam and explore to absorb the vibrance that can be Santo Domingo at its charming best. On our last night in Santo Domingo, we dined at Restaurante Filigrana. Restaurante Filigrana is located in the Catalonia Hotel (Av. George Washington 500, the Malecon) on the 5th floor and it is an experience. Elevated above the city, the dining room stares squarely into the abyss of the Caribbean sea. Filigrana cleverly serves both great food and idyllic ambience. Their preparations are inspired and creative. Filigrana provided the perfect ending for our two night stay in Santo Domingo.
Santo Domingo is alive and well in the most boisterous of ways. You’ll either join the party of be run over by it, the choice will be yours. Experience the firsts of the new world, taste its richness and create your own “la vida loca”, it’s waiting for you in the heart of the DR, Santo Domingo.