Exploring Santo Domingo
and its Surroundings
by Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal
Earlier this year I visited the Dominican Republic to attend a scientific conference. That was a good excuse to do some exploring of the country’s vibrant capital city, Santo Domingo, and its surroundings.
Shopping: ‘Faceless Dolls’ and Amber
Our hotel, Hostal Primaveral la Mansión, was a tiny establishment located in the outskirts of Santo Domingo and a five-minute walk from Old Santo Domingo (Zona Colonial de Santo Domingo). My favourite place there was Calle El Conde. This street is not only popular with visitors but with the locals as well, since it is “a one stop shop”: there are clothing, music and souvenir shops and restaurants that offer live entertainment outside their establishments at night. Vehicles are prohibited, so vendors set up stalls in the centre of this very wide street to sell clothing (at ridiculously low prices) or paintings (mostly copies of art from Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola). These vendors are there until around 7:00PM.
Old Santo Domingo is the place to go for great deals on souvenirs. Bear in mind that the Dominican Republic is quite diverse in terms of beliefs and culture, so that souvenirs you may get in one region you may not be able to find in another. Our hotel was also within walking distance of the Mercado Modelo, which is another location for affordable trinkets. Some popular souvenirs include the characteristic straw hats, musical instruments such as drums and graters (yes, these are used in traditional music), and the famous handmade Faceless Dolls. The artist who originally made these clay dolls without faces said she did so because it was a way to solve the dilemma of representing the myriad different ethnicities in the Dominican Republic.
If music is your drug, be sure to dance to some salsa and pick up some CDs. Get some bachata, a Latino genre of music that originated in the Dominican Republic. Most of the songs are romantic, often dealing with heartbreak.
There are also vendors who sell jewelry made of larimar (a blue stone found only in the Dominican Republic) and amber. The Dominican Republic is very well known for its amber, and most of the pieces have insects, spiders or larger animals, such as lizards, embedded in them. But you must beware — there is a lot of fake amber out there. Fake amber is generally very inexpensive, so you think you are getting a good deal. Real amber pieces can range in price from US$25 to over US$100. The key thing to look for is flawlessness: if there are no bubbles in the amber then it is usually fake! Another test is to place the piece in a super-saturated salt solution. If it floats then it is real, but if it sinks to the bottom then the piece is fake. There are some vendors that will tell you outright that they are selling fakes, which you can take back as inexpensive trinkets, as well as real amber, which they keep separate; if you know your stuff then often the vendors will admit to some pieces being fake and bring out the real ones.
If you don’t want to haggle and call bluffs, then I suggest visiting the Amber Museum, also located in Old Santo Domingo, which, in addition to exhibiting amber, also sells it.
It is easy to get around the city and to natural attractions in the area using public transport. Getting around Santo Domingo is an adventure in itself, as many of the vehicles used in public transport look like they are falling apart. Despite appearances, they get you where you want to go! Vehicles used as taxis have the letter “H” at the start of their license plate. There are also taxis painted a bright yellow, as in the USA. The fare is a bit higher than if you were to take a mini-bus because you are hiring the entire vehicle, whereas in mini-buses you are paying per seat. There are many small buses and cars that assemble at “stands”, or sections of certain streets. However, there are no signs denoting the location of these stands or the routes that they take. Therefore, it is advisable to have a good command of Spanish so that you can find your way to the right place if you choose to take public transport. Then again, you can always take the subway. There are two lines: one that runs from north to south while the second line runs east to west.
So, besides fun shopping, what is there to do in Santo Domingo? The city has a lovely Natural History Museum (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural), mainly devoted to marine life. Santo Domingo is also a beautiful area to photograph. As in many other Latin American countries, you will see many statues and sculptures, and colourful murals covering the walls of institutions.
The Zoo and the Caves
As zoologists, one of the places we had to visit was the National Zoo, located on the outskirts of the city. There are mini-buses that go to the Zoo, and a short walk from the Zoo entrance you can get mini-buses that will take you back close to the city centre. Keep in mind that on Sundays the Zoo’s front entrance is open, but on weekdays the public uses the side entrance — so if you get there on a weekday it might appear to be closed.
The zoo is large and has its own salt pond. There are snackettes and bathrooms dotted around the property. There is also an open area behind the main entrance that has tables and chairs where you can eat or just hang out. Nearby there is a spacious gift shop that offers an assortment of handicraft items. These are very affordable, ranging from DOP2.50 to DOP50. [Editor’s note: At the time of writing, there were 43.6 Dominican Republic pesos to the US dollar.] Your ticket entitles you to a train ride. Well, it is not a real train, but trucks outfitted to look like trains and their cars that take you up the long hill to the main exhibition area where you are given a mini-tour, after which you can get out and explore. On the walk back down the hill you see tropical rainforest on either side.
After a lunch of fresh fruit that we bought along the way, we had time to visit another attraction, so that afternoon we visited Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) on the extreme outskirts of the city in the Mirador del Este Park, about a 45-minute drive. Created centuries ago, this limestone cave system was originally inhabited by the island’s first inhabitants, the Taíno Indians. This natural attraction gets its name from the fact that there are three caves relatively close to each other. This is evident when you walk to the lookout, which is the top of a vertical shaft where you can see all three openings of the caves. As with the zoo, there is an admission fee and you carry your ticket to the person at the entrance to the cave where an adhesive paper bracelet is placed around your wrist. To enter the cave you have a short walk down stairs that have been cut into the rock. At the bottom there are walkways and stairs to get to each cave. Each cave is filled with clear, blue water that is inhabited by fish. In the largest cave there is a “boat”, really a raft with some seats and railings, which goes across the water on a pulley system. It can accommodate about six passengers at a time and the trip (one-way) costs about a US quarter. Once across, you follow a pathway that opens up into a huge vertical shaft and a circular lake surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. The boatman mentioned that this was one of the locations where one of the “Tarzan” movies was shot. Also in the largest cave, a man appearing to be in his early 70s climbed the rocky side of the cave to a height of about six metres, without any ropes or safety harnesses, and then dove into the water. After his performance spectators gave him money.
Quite a different natural attraction is Dunas de Las Calderas. This national park contains the largest area of sand-dune ecosystem in the Antilles. To get there is very easy: you hop on a bus to Bani that regularly passes along the main road (coastal road). The mini-buses to Bani and points much more distant are colourful, with very ornate window treatments, the logic being that if you have to travel such a long distance and spend so much time one might as well travel in style. Along the way the mini-bus stopped at a little town where passengers could get out and buy sweets and cakes from street vendors. In some cases vendors would come on the bus and offer their goods that included handmade cheese. As we drove along the main road we noticed groups of dirt bikes and their riders on the side of the road at the junction of dirt roads and the highway. These small roads led to rural communities and these dirt bikes were the taxis, taking commuters from the villages to the main road to get public transport. At Bani you change buses and get one that goes to Las Salinas.
At Dunas de Las Calderas you pay a small fee to enter, as it is a national park. From the entrance you see just a small sandy trail, but when you get up to the lookout you get a great view of the bay and the neighbouring naval base. You also see how extensive the dunes are, complete with cacti in some spots, giving one the impression that there is a mini-desert in the middle of the Caribbean. It may seem daunting, but the dunes can be crossed to reach a secluded beach.
Food: Empanadas and Besitos
In addition to shopping and sightseeing, the Dominican Republic offers a lot to eat. Different parts of the country have their specialties, and where we stayed in Santo Domingo the street food included empanadas. We also discovered pasteles en hoja, which are similar to Mexican tamales. In the Dominican Republic, these are made of boiled and mashed plantains instead of cornmeal, and wrapped and steamed in banana leaves instead of cornhusks. There are many restaurants that sell local food, and you can always find that staple — Chinese food. My favourite meal is dessert, so I concentrated on the sweets. Some popular ones included what is known in my country (Trinidad & Tobago) as guava “cheese”, a very dense jam made from the guava fruit and usually sold in blocks and coated in sugar. Another type of sweet that is common is coconut macaroons (besitos de coco). There are also sweets made of tamarind: the pulp is removed from the seeds and mixed with sugar into a semi-soft paste and rolled into balls and coated with sugar.
To me, the Dominican Republic has the perfect blend of cosmopolitan and natural beauty with a Caribbean flavor. But with a country so large, you would need to spend a few weeks to get to know it, and by that time you may not want to leave.
Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal, Ph. D., is a zoologist at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and editor of the Environment Tobago Newsletter.
For information about sailing in the Dominican Republic visit www.noonsite.com/Countries/DominicanRepublic and http://freecruisingguides.com/dominican-republic; also see ad for Marina ZarPar on page 21.
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