A 10-day trip around the island nation of Dominican Republic (DR) for under $1000 (including flights) might just be the best plan ever. The DR is one of the biggest islands (split with Haiti) in the Caribbean. A country where I can speak Spanish (something I truly miss) – French was also spoken plenty – and a country I´ve never set foot in.
Most people know the nation for baseball, merengue music and Punta Cana, with it´s pristine beaches and all inclusive resorts. I saw plenty of baseball being practiced (tons of basketball courts), little merengue due to covid and avoided the Punta Cana area while still seeing plenty of pristine beaches because they are literally everywhere! I went to explore the island, see more than just it’s beautiful beaches and stray as much away from overly tourist areas as possible. If you want to know more about Punta Cana, look elsewhere.
The trip started in Santo Domingo (Sto Dom), capital and oldest European settled city in the Americas! Founded by Christopher Columbus’ brother Bartolomé in 1496. For being the oldest Spanish city in the Americas, it felt quite small (colonial zone) and it was nothing like I expected. After seeing La Havana, Cartagena, Granada, Panama, Antigua and other Spanish colonial cities of the Americas I was least impressed with Santo Domingo. What Sto Dom did offer however was a peak into how the cities from here on out were put together, a ton of history and the oldest cathedral (went to mass here), university (wandered around campus) and hospital (ruins now) of the Americas. This was the first capital of all Spanish settlements in the region, the central meeting point of explorers and base for conquering and expanding into the Americas. This is also why it was included on the agenda. Of course all this is new history as the island was inhabited by Taíno and Arawak people before Christopher Columbus landed and created La Isla Española…or Hispaniola. By the way, Columbus is respected enough here to actually be entombed in Santo Domingo in an enormous cross shaped monument that becomes a beacon at night (not often)…called Faró a Colón. Quite controversial in many ways but architecturally impressive.
The colonial zone (La Zona) has been going through restoration the past few years to attract more tourists (approx. 7 million a year visit the island) to the capital and you can tell because it is quite vibrant, clean and safe in the colonial zone (even during Covid). My favorite was Plaza de España, the castle (Ozama) at night and colorful Calle Hostos! I also enjoyed noticing how many women leaders were represented all over the capital and country. From my first run in the city I saw women on the obelisk and then at the Parque Independencia….it surprised and excited me to to see so much female representation and respect in a Latin country. Look up the Mirabal Sisters for a good representation.
I did this trip with my boyfriend so we split costs. We decided to rent a car for freedom and cost savings for the remainder of the trip (7 days). Turns out this is the least cost saving you can do on the island! Although the car was 12$ a day (cheap) local auto insurance was a must at nearly 40$ a day! Forget about using your credit card or online rental insurance plans…as they are not accepted here :! (we actually had to call and cancel ours). It was too late to really change this plan and take the bus so we ate the cost for a week rental. Buses on the other hand are very cheap, decent and go everywhere. Plus you don’t need to adapt to Dominican driving habits or motorcycles everywhere. I highly recommend going by bus instead. Know that gas is in gallons and was about 230 pesos (about 56 pesos to 1 usd) a gallon, it’s Right side of road driving (mainly) and distances are in kilometers. So odd that it’s gallons and kilometers but whatever. Even though we got a car the trip (including airfare, hotels, food, etc) was about 1000 usd each…and you could do it for even cheaper avoiding the car and getting a tad cheaper hotels. Food was around 2.5$ to 15$ – water 25 to 50 cents and beer out was $2.5 or 1 dollar at a super market.
If you do drive be ready for motos to your right, cars parked on the road, passing on double lines, unexpected overtaking, traffic in the city, tons of speed bumps everywhere, countdown traffic lights, winding roads everywhere, tolls on nicer highways (between 60 pesos to 600 pesos – 1.05$ to 10$) and be willing to have confidence to just move. At gas stations be sure the price is set at 0 before they pump, they often ask you but try not to fall for that scam. Roadways were mainly decent until you got off into mountain or beach roads that weren´t principal. We somehow took a tiny Kia up a mountain road….yes, up steep ass hills with zero horsepower, across rivers with low clearance, over potholes we literally had to cover up as we went, move rocks…and survived. Exciting and beautiful but not recommended unless you´re at least with all-wheel drive!
For hotels we did anything from basic to glamping to 5-star. All options included breakfast. Glamping oddly was the most expensive at 95$ direct ocean access with view (there were cheaper options – $78 with non-direct view – and more basic even lower priced too). We did no all inclusive hotels and for the 5-star we paid just $70. Most places had AC but not all…if you must have that confirm beforehand. The climate was cool at night when we were there in May so we didn´t always need AC. We only reserved one hotel in advance (Sto Dom) the rest were day of or a few days prior (if weekend).
From Sto Dom we headed west to Pedernales to see the country’s most beautiful beach Bahia de las Águilas. It was worth it but it took us 2 days to get there! A few stops, windy roads, food and distance got in our way. We’d totally suggest flying to Barahona and renting a car from there instead or bus! The drive was the prettiest we went on during the whole trip so that did make up for the long days on the road. We might have made the drive in one day but preferred to sight see along the way…stopping at Dunas de Baní and Playa Salinas on day one. Bahia de las Aguilas is the least developed beach area and considered the prettiest in the country as it’s inside Jaragua National Park. Weekends are very busy and this is where glamping, camping is best. The beaches on the drive over were full of people (all bused over in hoards) since it was the weekend but we missed all the crowds by arriving Sunday afternoon and had the place nearly all to ourselves! In this area many also free camp safely….but you need the right car…and well a tent…ha ha. Be sure to check out Laguna de Oviedo on the other side of the National Park.
I swam, ran and wanted to stay longer but the next destination was far so we made our way back along the coast taking our time to stop in nearly every little town and beach area on the way back then choose a beach hotel just outside Barahona (there were plenty to choose from but we picked the first one we saw lol) as it got dark. The beach here wasn’t as calm but it was very pretty.
Next up on the agenda was the mountains. The Dominican has the tallest mountain in the whole Caribbean, Mt Duarte, at 10,000 feet which is a 2-3 day hike and named after the Dominican´s hero and founding father (one of 3) Juan Pablo Duarte who helped gain Independence from Haiti (1844). We did hike but decided to save the tallest mountain for another trip…that is since the country is very easy to get to and generally tickets are cheap. We paid around $250 RT for flights.
COVID is still around the world and here cases were rising as we left. In the Dominican they dealt with it by using masks and setting curfew. Both of these are very relaxed though…things begin to close at curfew and then you have like an hour or maybe more to be on your way home. We stayed out at least 1 hour past curfew without any issues or rush. Nothing like Belize where it was strictly enforced and masks were worn everywhere. If you want more safety measures Belize was very on top of it. To enter the DR there are no PCR tests required but you might need them to leave and they are easiest to find in Sto Dom or Punta Cana…but with some asking around you´ll find them elsewhere too (but still available just not as easy, timely or cheap). The airport offers it too but costs 150$ and takes 2-4 hours. We did ours in a touristy beach town (Las Terrenas) but they were not as simple to get as you’d think. However after asking at the hotel we got an appointment where a doctor came to our hotel and took the swab for about $80 and results in a few hours which was pretty awesome. Prepare to travel quite freely here because that is about it on the covid stuff.
Jarabacoa was the mountain destination and it was very touristy and posh in the lush jungle forests with rivers, beautiful waterfalls and misty mountains. We made it about 1 hour out, to Constanza, instead because we decided to take this mountain road (aka most direct route from Southwestern coast) instead of back through Sto Dom and vía some tolls (FYI take the tolls! ). The route was beautiful but it was most likely the car´s first time ever on this type of road…aka it was not made for those hills, dirt roads, potholes, rocks or water crossings…the whole time we were teasing the idea of having to turn back or potentially getting stuck and having to abandon vehicle…
The mountain road started out great from Padre las Casa town until it turned up a dirt road. Luckily most of the dirt road was well maintained but we had a Kia rental car with literally no horsepower to take the steep ass hills…nor much traction at times. If you do this road at least get all-wheel drive….it was a beautiful drive albeit very slow in this car. To go up the hills we were in lowest gear, pedal to the floor and barely making it…but our Kia tried as hard as it could as well as my boyfriend. One hill was so steep we thought we might go backwards and once we got up it we asked the first person we came across about road conditions further up. This was also an unmarked road so we had to ask often which direction to go from whoever was remarkably around when we needed to know. Some said the car can’t make it because of a river crossing that was bad while others said take it step by step, go slow, take photos and enjoy the ride. Those saying it wasn’t possible had us worried but we were happy once we got to the river to find it with a bridge. Right after that though we ran into problems with an area messed up from past water run off on the road…literally just past the river. It was so bad we got stuck. Luckily it was all dry and a local on moto saw us and decided to help by searching for tools to level a section of road we most likely wouldn’t pass. We fixed the road a bit but kept getting stuck in the soft newly made road lol. We weren’t ready to give up being only 8 miles from pavement and the locals were adamant to help soooo we kept trying. It took several reconstructions of the road (just where wheels would go), two people sitting on the hood of the car for weight and some steady speed to finally make it past the crappiest part of the whole road. Ten miles later we were in Constanza but that freedom was only after conquering a huge puddle, a smaller river and a massive speed bump in our way ha ha. It couldn´t get any better than finding upon arrival to the hotel room a saying ¨let´s travel new roads¨ hanging on the wall LOL!
Constanza was all farm land in a valley that was great for running and biking. I am sure there was more to it but we only left time for a run then we were on our way to waterfall hopping into Jarabacoa! Waterfalls were lovely and all on the way into town for us. First up was Salto Jimenoa which we really liked because you had to hike down and it was so powerful and wild. There is actually two falls with this name but the second one was closed because bridges had been wiped out….as we later learned upon visiting…ha well maybe check if it is open before heading over….it looked like an awesome walk to get there and if not there was a nice river walk with picnic areas opposite it´s entrance. The second waterfall we made our way to see was Salto de Baiguate which we were happy we did second because it was damned and not as real. There was a paved path (which came in handy later), it was only 600m from the parking lot, free (the other charged parking) and actually did look good in photos. We arrived here just in time to enjoy the natural pool before a monsoon arrived. Well kind of….
We ended up leaving as it started to rain on us and started running when it really started pouring to avoid being totally soaked…but my boyfriend couldn´t run as fast in sandals so he met me at the entrance later….but waaaay later….so much so that I began to worry. Everyone at the falls had now returned and he was dead last….soaked obviously. Turns out he lost his phone…amid the fury of water dropping from the sky. At the falls besides ourselves were a group of boys and another couple. The group of boys arrived after me and left on their motorbikes in the pouring rain and then came the girlfriend by herself…Where were our boyfriends? …Finally they return and slowly explain what happened….after a bit of a communication issue the guy comes and talks to me and I finally understand what is happening. Turns out he believes the phone is actually stolen….by the group of boys….Still pouring out we side with their story claiming the boyfriend saw one of them crouch down and pick something up…and knows the boys personally. One guy at the office jumps in our car and we follow the couple on moto to the house of the group of boys with the plan to simply talk them into returning the phone (guy in our car was the security enforcer on the deal). We waited on the street while the couple went up to the house…surprisingly they return with my boyfriends phone. The guy in our car tells us that the guy who helped us out used to be a ¨delincuente¨ (criminal) but found God and gave it all up and now helps others when he can and that he is well respected because he used to be like the boys who stole the phone. The boys got off with no police issues and we have the phone….one story that is very lucky, super random, right place, right time (or wrong?) and a lesson that there is always someone out there looking to take advantage of some other…even in a straight downpour of rain! …This poor phone is not happy with 2021 trips…ha ha in Belize it fell and was destroyed only to be fixed a few days before this Dominican Republic…lol.
In Jarabacoa we stayed at Hotel Gran Jimenoa right on the river, wandered the downtown area some and made sure to do El Mogoté hike the next morning before the afternoon rainstorm. A steep but nice hike up to a local peak that takes around 3 hours roundtrip through the dense jungle forest to a lookout at 1,163 m on the rounded limestone peak. It is a hike you can do without guide, route is easy to follow and trailhead is near the monastery (Santa Maria del Evangelio).
Finally we rounded off the trip with a few more days on the beaches of Las Terrenas and the Samaná department….even if the rain hovered around with us. Not much beach dipping happened due to weather but we did jump in a pretty waterfall called Salto de Limón…the most popular waterfall in the country and we did visit Samaná the city which we thought was better than Las Terrenas. Then when the time came we hopped on the most expensive toll road in the country…$10 to head directly to the Sto Dom airport….or so we thought…ha ha until I looked at the map and clock and saw we had time to check out Boca Chica for one more dip in the sea….only 10 minutes from the airport. Very pretty area totally worth a stop or even stay for its clear, beautiful, expansive and shallow beach.
In reality we learned that the airport needs more then a 2 hour window before the flight because the operation of immigration and security is very F***ed. By far the worst I have ever seen in nearly 80 countries. Security separates genders to allow for pat down and then rejoins a tiny room for a long unorganized immigration line. Because it is so bad the airline agents come to look for you and pull you out so you don´t miss the flight but there is no megaphone and therefore no hope if you don´t hear them. I was surprised that more females were traveling then males which wouldn´t normally bode well for me except I was lucky to be traveling with a male who could get a bit farther in the next line. In the end we had to negotiate our way to the front and run to our gate….to be the last passengers let on the flight before doors shut some 7 minutes later….This was an already delayed flight since we actually left the line to speak to the officer after our flight was supposed to stop boarding and be on the runway. I guess every airline has lots of flight delays and missing passengers…just keep it in mind before flying out of Sto Dom. By the way car rental drop off was easy, just be sure to have photos of any damages you saw before renting to show in case they try to blame it on you.
Overall a trip to the Dominican Republic was a great mix of everything. Too bad we didn´t have enough time to explore more near Pedernales and couldn´t make it up to Puerto Plata area for some of the most beautiful drives in the country or visit the country´s pure adventure department but maybe next time as I would also really love to visit Haiti and continue my exploration of Hispaniola. I better brush up on my French…
Useful links: (Translate page to your language)
Covid related links:
Covid Test Locations
also in Las Terrenas – Sireny Lab, Plaza Rodriguez #3, Calle del Carmen (809) 847-3880