Legacy Lullabies: Rocking the New World's Cradle

Charged with Firsts and Worsts of the Western World, Santo Domingo is usually one of those places to avoid. Finally returning just for the fun of it exposed some unexpected adventures. But as always, the best thing about coming here was when it was time to leave.

Legacy Lullabies: Rocking the New World's Cradle

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

Work vs. Pleasure
Past experiences in Santo Domingo had always been tainted as work-related trips, wrangling with bureaucratic consulates and topsy-turvy local government agencies while trying to help Spanish Harlem families. Even after adopting DR as my second home, trips to the capital had always been for quick emergencies until now. Wailing from growing pains, trying to keep up with almost 4 million inhabitants, there's no reason to base travel from here unless it’s business-related, but playing tourist for a couple of days chanced more surprises than even I bargained for.

Predating Memoirs…
La Zona Colonial is the most popular attraction, with landmarks of the Western world's first European city. But long before explorers arrived, Los Tres Ojos, a trio of mammoth sinkholes, was a sacred draw for indigenous tribes and should naturally be included on any list of must see-attractions.

Monuments of Sacrifice
Once the dictator was assassinated in '61, head henchman Joaquín Balaguer manipulated votes off and on for the next 35 years, continuing to cripple the country with a dictatorship regime disguised as democracy. Excessive spending loaded Santo Domingo with elaborate flauntings. Still controversial when locals can't spare minimal admission fees, travelers will be shocked by some of these finds, undoubtedly Bests of... the Caribbean:

  1. Parque Zoológico Nacional, located north of the city, turned out to be more than just a menagerie of animals. The zoo is set within a tropical forest on rolling hills, providing quite the hike, as well as beautiful settings which fulfilled desires for also visiting nearby Jardín Botánico Nacional.
  2. El Acuario Nacional was an unplanned double feature situated on the elevated coast east of the city, with a backyard garden plaza offering dazzling views of the sparkling Caribbean and distant city skyline.
  3. El Faro a Colón was built in honor of the 500th anniversary for when Columbus discovered the New World. The seven-story structure contains a museum with artifacts from Latin America, and the people who rewrote history with expeditions.

The Love-Hate Conspiracy
Personal feelings about Santo Domingo run extreme. A city this uncouth doesn't jibe with island paradise. The laid-back approach, synchronized by lack of education and third-world bedlam, only complicates predicaments. Entertaining the ugly firstborn sister next door is like hair of the dog--bitter shots of reality on the rocks, with a twist of Dominican. One thing's certain; it will only be a matter of time until I find myself straying again.

${QuickSuggestions} Hiring a Guide
Licensed guides speaking numerous languages can be hired in Parque Colón and could be worth the escort for keeping hawkers away in parts guaranteed to make most uncomfortable. Negotiate a price, and later tip them.

Defining Attributes
Guidebooks romanticize and glamorize the city far beyond what travelers encounter. It's the capital, home to unsubstantial wealthy, but they're no more worldly than their country cousins. Conditions are crude, especially for cruise ship and resort cliques dominating tourism. Independent travelers not speaking good Spanish will be challenged. Also, information at attractions is only in Spanish.

Common sense will safeguard against petty crimes found in any metropolitan area. One thing to watch out for: if a stranger approaches and begins speaking English or other languages, they likely want something; fluency is their survival tool. Potential risks rise after sundown, especially along Calle Conde, where prostitutes and hustlers, known as tigres, capitalize on the country's sex trade.

Maximizing Efforts
Los Tres Ojos, Faro a Colón, and the Aquarium are closely grouped east of Río Ozama and can be toured in half a day. The zoo and botanical gardens are on the northern outskirts and take the better part of a day.

${BestWay} Comprehensive Lunacy
2003's Pan-Am Games necessitated a new interstate linking Aeropuerto Las Américas to downtown, but the elevated autobahn comes to a grinding standstill off any exit. Most tourists arrive by private motor coaches, while independent travelers should only use public transportation.

Express gua-guas from La Romana take under two hours, costing RD85/US$2.85. Lonely Planet's maps have stations clearly marked for buses returning East. Travelers from north and west will prefer Metro and Caribe luxury lines.

Potential Scams
Taxis are the most reliable source for inching around. At least 90% of traffic lights don't work, turning side streets into rush-hour traffic jams. Cabs aren't metered, and drivers don't seem to compute delays into fares, though they are prone to charge foreigners ridiculous prices. Speaking Spanish helps, but never get in without agreeing on price first. Specifics are included within each entry.

Independencia Speedway
City traffic converges on the octogonal track, looping around Parque Indpendencia that recharacterizes Rat Race. The confusion is baffling; a sure confirmation of why trying to drive anywhere would be insane! Daring to finally try out city public transportation was an adventure surely not to be missed.

Hotel Independencia

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

No matter how many self-promises have been made to find better accommodations, returning to Hotel Independencia is like indulging a bad habit. Years since needing a place to stay, either expectations had changed or effort really had been put forth in one of the capital’s few budget hotels.

Much to my enlivenment, Independencia was about the only place/thing in the country that had somehow sidestepped price increases. A room with private bath still cost RD450/$15 a night, just like back in the late ‘90s and even during the holiday season! This was compared to the highly touted, budget-friendly Hotel Aida asking RD1,200/$40 for a night on nearby Calle Conde. Check first to see if Independencia suits your standards, especially if only staying a few nights.

Independencía's rooms are bare basic, with a comfortable bed and chair. The large closets don't have much use without hangers, but at least they provide room to stash bags for increasing the limited floor space. A fresh coat of paint brightened the interiors, and the same worn carpet at least had been cleaned. Toilet paper, towels, and soap are provided, the shower having decent pressure and warm water. Chilled water for drinking is dispensed free of charge in the main hallway, but you'll need your own container.

At no point recently did this area experience one of the capital's notorious rolling brown-outs, when power gets shut-off anywhere from 2 to 8 hours at a time. The desk clerk said they have a generator, as always reported before, but should electricity go off, expect to be in the dark unless they've acquired a back-up power source. Potentially worse is not having use of the fan, especially in the daytime.

I've never bothered making reservations, which could be questionable as to why there's not more business. Lack of publicity, including Lonely Planet's discontinued listing based on my previous recommendations, further keeps this place a secret, though now it shouldn't. Independencía has more than cleaned up their act. First impressions may have guests wondering if this establishment rents rooms by the hour. While there's been some interesting characters disguised as guests, safety and security has never been an issue. No one passes the front desk that isn't registered.

Located at the intersection of calles Arzobispo Nouel and Estrelleta, unwelcome noise could be the biggest turn-off. If traffic circling the park by 7am doesn't rouse you, children in the nearby schoolyard will. Ongoing commotion also impedes daytime napping. Hand-cranked slats substitute glass for windows. Closing them helps keep out heat but does little for curbing sound. Fortunately, mosquitoes and flying insects have never been a problem with the absence of screens.

Parque Independencia, across the street, is my designated hotel lounge. Dominicans secured independence in 1844 at the Puerta del Conde, further significance added with Altar de la Patria honoring three national heroes, their tombs guarded by sharply dressed soldiers. A favorite is the benches around the lush gardens for enjoying downtime without having to stay tucked away in the hotel.

Hotel Independencia
Calle Estrellata 265
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
(809) 686-1663

Dining in General

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

Going hungry in Santo Domingo is hard to justify, though encountering numerous homeless people in the streets has a way of redefining famished. Dining opportunities are limitless regardless of tastes, whether recognizable fast-food chains or "high-end feasting" rarely exceeding RD6,000/$20. Some of my first finds around Zona Colonial have remained favorites, which are close to Hotel Independencia and have budge prices to boot.

Sandwiches dominate most breakfast menus. Dumbo's, on Calle Nouel, in the same block as the hotel, is a counter-top eatery serving up toasted cubanos, ham and cheese, and other light plates for RD45. For those with a sweet tooth, the Colonial Deli & Pandería, 1 block farther, has loaded pastry cases with nothing costing over RD60. A couple of cheese-laced popovers filled with tropical-flavored pastes and creams compliment the robust of local coffee brewed through espresso machines. The Café Americano’s larger-sized serving averages RD15 in most establishments, and it is highly recommended to jump-start any portion of the day when lagging.

El Colonial is the restaurant of posh Mercure Hotel at the corner of Conde & Hostos. Tuxedoed waiters fuss around the upscale atmosphere further iced with rare-find air-conditioning. Daily lunch specials, averaging $6, are posted on an outdoor billboard and feature local dishes, though an extensive menu includes pricey French-infused selections. A savory helping of pollo chicharonnes, diced breaded chicken fried in garlic, oregano, and lime, served with generous portions of yellow rice, beans, and salad and a bottomless bread basket more than sufficed for meal of the day.

My other habitual haunt is El Conde Restaurant on the northwest corner of Parque Colón. Coming here at night, long after the tourist exodus, is well worth the wait. The menu caters to every appetite. Sandwiches and fries average RD150/$5, while multiple-course meals, including fresh seafood, are priced between $12 and $15. They've a full bar, but their best-kept secrets are the fruit smoothies for RD80; RD120 for ones dosed with rum.

Indoor dining rooms open onto a sidewalk café where you'll be lucky to find a table People-watching is as popular as the food regardless of time, but here's a forewarning: watch where and how you place your loose belongings. The enchanting environment could quickly turn nasty if not paying attention. "Snatchings" reportedly take place all around Parque Colón because of opportunity. The area isn't necessarily any riskier at night, but I've never carried backpack or camera anywhere in Santo Domingo after dark.

Truth be told, local restaurants have always been more for relaxing with a cold beer rather than sit-down meals. Opportunities for gorging in the streets sees to that.

Street vendors hawk more mouthfuls than swarms of unaccompanied 10-year olds with pockets full of money could founder on at the circus. Temptations include everything from fruits or corn-on-the-cob boiling in gas-rigged carts, to pizza, hot dogs, and kabobs to fried pastelies and homemade dulces, sweets that can make your teeth hurt. Snacking is inexpensively satisfying but may require a cast-iron stomach, more for indigestion than potential food bacteria.

Santo Domingo Dining
Throughout La Zona Colonial
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Los Tres Ojos

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

Predating Santo Domingo by thousands of years, Los Tres Ojos are three open-air limestone sinkholes obscurely shrouded in forest across from eastern border of Parque Mirador del Este. Excursion buses stopping on their way to/from the capital have turned this natural highlight into quite the tourist trap, evident by the large parking lot on the northeast corner off the highway and swarms of vendors waiting to pounce on new arrivals.

A very steep staircase plunges into an unforgettable Land of the Lost, a strenuous workout far from over with the multiple levels of vantage points for exploring the first cave. A verdant forest has thrived in the terrarium-like environment dank with tropical humidity. Off the central plateau, paths descend toward different side pools shimmering with crystal-clear fresh waters.

The staircase on the southern border leads towards a mammoth entry to the second eye, which has the best cave qualities with stalactites jutting overhead. A young Dominican made quite the dramatized production scaling the slippery wall before executing a graceful swan dive into the bottomless depths below. At far edge of the pool is the launching point for viewing the final eye that shouldn't be missed, regardless of potential wait.

For RD10, a small raft on a rope pulley shuttles guests across the cave. Not until reaching the other side could I fully appreciate immenseness of the second cave, the craggy opening naturally framing the first eye beyond. A short trail leads to a viewing deck of the third eye, which contains salt water.

Profuse vegetation encircling the sink hole was astonishing! A low-lying natural ceiling snagged with eye-level stalactites rather defined a potential mouth for the three eyes, the mystical environment only swallowing you in more.

Guides speaking numerous languages are available for hire, likely providing additional information, but the caves are rather self-explanatory and can be done in 30 minutes with plenty of time for soaking in the natural w(o/a)nder. Popularity has provoked tainted-ness, including underground vendors with racks of postcards and Polaroid photo opportunities. Avoiding the above-ground circus unknowingly extended the tour.

Once paying the RD30 admission fee, restrooms and a small snack bar are farther back in the forest. Wanting to dodge sales pitches while getting a jump on the bus unloading, I made a beeline for the bathrooms and then followed paved paths leading farther into the woods. Overcast skies spitting rain added to the eerie ambience. It was quite the trek circling around, with eventual overhead views of the third eye that are worth the effort if there's additional time.

Eventually asking a gardener where the entrance was, he directed me back to the main entry. In haste, it had totally eluded me that it was next to the ticket booth.

For independent travelers arriving on public transportation from anywhere east, the bus will drop you off along the highway for crossing over to the park. Taxis are available when departing, but negotiate a price before leaving! I didn't, and the 1.5km ride to nearby Faro a Colón is pleasantly walkable if you'd rather not pay RD100/$3.33.

Los Tres Ojos
Av. Las Américas
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
+1 809 472 4204

Faro a Colón

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

Years since appearing on the western edge of Parque Mirador del Este, the monument honoring Christopher Columbus's voyages is still one of the most controversial landmarks in all of the Western World he discovered.

At a cost of US$200 million, Faro a Colón is a haphazard blemish, looking like a cap-sized cruise ship blown ashore during hurricane season! What the seven-story museum supposedly features, compared to what you'll actually find, is almost as pitiful as nearby impoverished residents concealed behind barriers so visitors don't have to see them.

The entry facade contains relevant scripture and quotes framed within concrete blocks, summarizing rather well how the world and its people changed forever once the Europeans arrived. Admission is RD30/US$1, and next to the entry are numerous prayer chapels honoring appropriate Catholic saints. Beyond the towering altar centralized in the apex, patrons are on their own with no directions or brochures.

Two wings are interaccessible on the ground level, allowing visitors to pass from side to side. Floors above each wing are only reachable by stairwells, and the elevator wasn't working. There was little use for either, since only half-floors were currently open with displays.

The first floor, left of the entry, is a tribute to countries in the Americas memorializing indigenous peoples explorers all but annihilated. I was engrossed, comparing exhibits to like being on the ultimate fieldtrip for my Latin American cultural studies, but without knowledge or interest, most will likely feel rather lost. Information was only in Spanish, which included forbidding use of flash photography. Artifacts were hard to see in the darkened interior; smothering stuffiness guaranteed to make quick work of viewings. At wing's end is a gift shop with overpriced junk, and a small snack bar.

Working back-to-front across corridor in the other wing, out of place displays for Japan and China gave way to rooms featuring European countries that vied for expedition positions while dividing-up territories in the New World. To no surprise, Spain and Columbus dominated exhibits. But as Planet's guidebook clearly states, maps, documents and drawings are all copies; not original as signs claim.

A morbid interest for seeing the tomb which Dominicans claim enshrines Columbus's remains was nowhere to be accessed. After hiking stairwells on both wings, only two-thirds of the second floor on the right was open. Maritime enthusiasts will appreciate these displays, but of greatest interest were drawings of submitted designs for the proposed monument, and wondering why present monstrosity was chosen.

The structure is built in shape of a Latin Cross. Floodlights bordering roof cast a haunting image of the cross on overcast nights, yet another controversial expense while most of the capital sits in the dark for hours based on rolling apagones/brown-outs for conserving energy.

If you're driving, there's a large parking lot on the north. Taxis can only be hailed from the front entry plaza where long walkways lead to museum entrance. Expect to pay RD100 if coming from/heading to nearby Los Tres Ojos or El Acuario.

Faro a Colón
Av. Estados Unidos
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
+1 809 591 1492

The National Aquarium

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

With potential for being a top attraction, the National Aquarium unfortunately showcased what makes Dominican travel experiences so questionable at times regarding what's considered acceptable or priority. The aquarium is built around several open-air wings housing various sized tanks, but the major downfall was overall cleanliness. Heavy residue buildup from murky waters hindered visibility.

While some of the cleaned displays were further illuminated by the overhead sun piercing crystal-clear waters, most were extremely dirty. The biggest attraction, containing sharks and large fish, was in such need of desperate cleaning, as there was no viewing what might be swimming around from main-floor vantage points. Passing through the glass-encased, underwater walkway, one of the first-ever designed well before Nassau's Atlantis, was just as disappointing.

Unless you can understand Spanish, information placards won't be of any help either. The varieties on display were rather limited, especially when considering structural formations allow glimpses of the nearby sea concealing the best aquatic habitat. Better experiences for viewing fish and marine life will surely come from snorkeling excursions. However, these options are also limited in the Santo Domingo area, reinforcing cause for having an aquarium regardless of conditions.

The grounds provided a tranquil environment compared to the chaotic city and might be considered more recommendable as a secondary purpose. There's a trio of small restaurants selling pizzas, burgers, and other standard snacks that can be enjoyed on a palm-shaded patio overlooking the gardens. A walkway bordering the elevated coast was definitely an unplanned highlight.

There weren't that many locals or tourists at the only place that had a double-standard for admission fees. Cost for Dominicans was RD15, but signs boldly imply that tourists will need to pay RD40. They'll also accept a $1, which saves about $0.30. Apparently the aquarium is covered as part of excursion packages for area tourists arriving by private van or bus. Independent travelers won't have it so easy.

Should you have your own car, there is no official parking, except for random curbside spots. I made the mistake of getting dropped off without realizing there was no taxi stand nearby. Public transportation doesn't run along this highway in either direction. I waited a good 30 minute hoping a taxi would be vacated when dropping someone off, but the sparse arrivals had all paid the drivers to wait. Without time for making a run into the city, a gentleman at least drove me to the nearest taxi stand at no charge. The fare back into the city was RD200/$6.65.

Most guidebooks rave about the aquarium, though I'm not sure why. Garden views are stunning, but that's not why anyone should come here. Even if the tanks had been clean, the overall effort wasn't worth the minimal cost. Adequate maintenance doesn't seem to be a priority, so putting this on your must-see list should be viewed the same way.

Acuario Nacional de la República Dominicana (National Aquarium)
Av. España No. 75 Sans Soucí
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
+1 809 766 1709

Gua-Gua Safari to the Zoo

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

Waiting to cross the ever-buzzing parkway where Zona Colonial's pedestrianized El Conde ends in front of Puerta del Conde, zoológico caught my attention as a listed destination on signs displayed in front windows of buses. There was the challenge of freedom, baptized in cheapness and philandered with potential once checking out of hotel and returning to the same spot.

With years spurting around Santo Domingo, taxis had always been a cocksure choice. Any foreigner that has ever stood along the loop encircling El Parque Independencia has likely been just as dumbfounded by perpetual traffic dominated by beat-up cars, vans, and buses known as públicos and gua-guas. Methods to the public transportations' madness had always been indecipherable until spotting the keyword bound to extend the day's adventures.

Waving down opportunity, apprehensions weren't abated when the bus made a curbside swerve and the porter yanked me on amid the rolling stop. Morning commuters eventually thinned out, allowing a back-row window seat for absorbing all that was about to unfold. Passing Parque Enriquillo along Avenida José Marti, the bustling shopping district was a congested jumble divulged at a snail's pace. The parade of sensory assaults with sights, sounds, and noxious smells was hideously invigorating to think such hidden travel experiences were waiting to be had.

Blocks of commerce gradually eased into residential areas, but sidewalks were still coursing with activities. Major intersections still hosted traffic jams with the absence of working stoplights; at times, policemen, all but dancing to the rhythms of their whistles, ushered through carts, horses, and about any other forms of go that would get one there. The porter eventually made his rounds to collect fares. A 100 peso bill was smallest I had. Eventually receiving RD90 in change wasn't an error with a ride to the zoo costing $0.33!

Traffic and frequent stops had elongated the trip beyond 1 hour when the bus descended a steep hill into a small shaded plaza. When pulling out, I asked another passenger where the stop for the zoo was. She indicated I'd just missed it, but another's prompt reaction had this clueless tourist off at the next corner. Returning to the plaza and asking directions, locals kept pointing farther down the hill.

A fertile gulley, where crops are grown, splits two major thoroughfares, which unknowingly led in the same direction. For all purposes, travelers will probably feel more comfortable if they walk the half-mile or so remaining using roadway on the right. I took the left, and uneasiness was more from heading into the unknown rather than watchful eyes of people milling about, wielding camera totally out of the question!

The area is crudely impoverished - waste piled along the streets from the cinder-block shanties that crowded surrounding hills. The biggest disadvantage was not properly pronouncing zoológico, but hopefully these instructions will encourage thrill-seekers regardless of language barriers. The entrance to the zoo was at bottom of the hill, as was a taxi stand for when it was time to leave. The ride back into the city was RD180/$6.

Gua-Gua Safari to the Zoo
From Zona Colonial to the Zoo
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Gringo Without a Cage

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

After paying the RD30/US$1 admission, there were no signs or maps for what awaited in the Nacional Zoo. A fork in the road headed into rolling hills of tropical forest, and the only clue was trailing a lady and four children off to the right. A good quarter-mile walk, passing random cages of birds, leads to what's definitely a hidden attraction.

Santo Domingo's zoo is more tranquil and tame than anything you'll find on city streets! A rather strenuous course thoroughly covers the large park passing through expansive, open-air enclosures where wildlife viewing is up-close and natural. Even more surprising than cleanliness within the garden setting was that animals appeared healthier, and perhaps better-fed, than potential local patrons.

Eventually catching up with the lady and her brood, ice was broken when explaining that a rinocernote/rhinoceros wasn't for the dinner table. Wisdom seemed to fascinate more than fluency while sharing commentaries over the next few displays.

Distant roars weren't from any large cats but hordes of schoolchildren pouring in for holiday field trips. Otherwise, there would have been less than 20 visitors on this Wednesday morning.
Ostriches were sassily prancing around while macho chimps mimicked papichulos stoked on Mama Juana. Between their uncued performances and the rowdy kids, one couldn't help but speculate theories of learned behaviors.

Snack kiosks and restrooms are scattered about; welcomed pit stops on what turned out to be quite the excursion. A tram, covered with admission, regularly circles the grounds - today, it was filled with wee ones, while groups of capricious teenagers roamed freely. Sitting along shaded passages, curious kids were quick to engage with "¡Americano!" followed by basic silliness in broken English. "Soy un gringo sin una jaula" (I'm a gringo without a cage) amused them and aroused their curiosity while they viewed the surprise travelling exhibit.

Halfway through the pursuit, the road divides again. Turning left leads back to the entry, skipping the entire second half. Continuing ahead up the large hill, playgrounds and picnic areas were teeming with energy. At the top is a cafeteria, though eating anything that's been sitting around at the sparsely frequented facility should be considered. Rather, enjoy views across the valley towards the country's central mountain chains which fade-off into the distance.

Before the route starts descending, there's a pair of left-turns that shouldn't be missed though appearing to lead off into nowhere. Clusters of smaller displays await, including a children's petting zoo unlike any I'd ever seen, with birds, monkeys, and reptiles, in addition to barnyard favorites. Shortened fences allowed petting from the walkway or swarming past, like the unsupervised youngsters.

At the bottom of the hill is a placid lake enclosed in jungle environments. Ducks skimming across the marine-colored waters provided movement within scenes that otherwise could double as paintings from Eden's gardens. A service path to the right allows different vantage points, as well as reminding glimpses of destitution beyond the borders. The botanical gardens are a short distance away, but when the zoo provides an unexpected two-for-one special, why bother?

Nacional Zoo - Gringo Without a Cage
Northern outskirts of the city.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Bang-for-your-Buck Shopping

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

Santo Domingo has abundance of anything travelers could possibly want to haul home. Knowing where and how to shop can save a pocket full of pesos because prices on goods have also more than doubled. Most organized excursions include a shopping spree at Mercado Modelo on Avenida Mella, and for good reason. The congested emporium is a plethora of mass-produced and unique Dominican artifacts guaranteed to please.

The market has a reputation for being a pickpocket's haven, and while I've never had reason to suspect problems, clutching backpacks in front is still a good idea to keep from bulldozing through narrow confines. Sales clerks are eager without being pushy; their Caribbean color further illustrated with wall-to-wall paintings. Styles of impressionistic Haitian art are finally giving way to Dominican talent using realism for creating local scenes and people. Works by nationally-known painter Rubén Gonza are definitely ones to ask for, or venture upstairs to the abandoned second floor where budding artists sit beside windows painting scenes from below.

Anyone coming to the market is guaranteed to be short-changed if only browsing inside. What awaits around the outer perimeter is how locals crudely define shopping based on needs. Mountains of produce, spices, and meats processed on-the-spot dominate the daily selections amid cultural encounters like none other. Mindful observance from the merchants indicates how few travelers actually explore beyond the tourist trap. Photo opportunities are endless while still respecting the locals, some immediately covering their faces at sight of a camera.

Across from the Mercado, shops selling souvenirs and artifacts are wall-to-wall for several blocks heading east along Avenida Mella until Avenida Duarte. Stores are less crowded and chaotic, and owners appeared more eager to barter prices, especially farther away from the heavy traffic area. Selections are basically the same, but it’s easier to browse in the more spacious settings.

Unique treasures plundered on this voyage included various-sized, wide-bordered picture frames matted with banana leaves, pods, and other dried flora for under $12. Island-influenced ceramics were equally priced, and the owner gave a two-for-one special on six-packs of shot glasses set in beveled leather with matching a case for RD800/$27.50. Smaller selections, like postcards, trinkets, and magnets, were tossed in for free.

Combined shelf price was over $140, but I was charged $87, only because I paid with cash. Tourist-related stores have signs indicating they accept credit cards, but Dominicans don't seem to like them. Shops add an additional percentage of total sales onto credit cards and do away with discounts all together.

The Zona Colonial is littered with shops as well as individuals that try and lure travelers to various places. Should you buy something, whatever price paid includes commission for the guide. The heaviest concentration of shopping is around Parque Colón and the pedestrianized El Conde, which also has an interesting array of street vendors. Unique finds are waiting in the equivalent of $1 department stores, where island flair can turn ordinary house wares and supplies into rare-find gifts and mementos.

Around the Zona Colonial
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Birthplace of the Americas

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on March 23, 2005

The majority of travelers visiting Santo Domingo have crawled out of bed early at some resort and had time to raid the continental breakfast buffet before boarding a luxury bus. Some will ride more than 4-hours one-way; trading beach for questionable encounters in the white man's first official city of the Western World. On any day of the week, excursion groups fill la Zona Colonial, which still pulses 500+ years later as heart of the metropolis. Whether huddled in guided clusters or roaming freely, I've always wondered what people really see, think, and feel, and what would ever make anyone want to return?

There was a common sentiment in NYC about not recommending Santo Domingo to anyone but a homesick Dominican, and perhaps for good reason. Age has left a scarred legacy of chaos that exhales among the ruins. The city was founded on the run in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus after his brother's first settlements on the northern coast, La Navidad in modern-day Haiti, and la Isabela west of Puerto Plata, had suffered numerous plagues, a devastating hurricane, and ongoing raids by indigenous tribes.

Hoping the southern coast would provide better prosperity and fortune, la Nueva Isabela was born at mouth of the Río Ozama along the eastern side. After another hurricane leveled the new colony in 1502, unbreakable settlers moved across the river to begin rebuilding what was destined to become ground zero for the new Spanish empire. Roots flourished with a third attempt; but accepting the disreputable capital for what it is today first requires understanding of what it never was.

Fame Without Fortune
The restored Alcázar de Colón was a former residence for Diego Colón, son of the great explorer. The museum contains sparse furnishings but does little for conveying early demises, as notable neighbors gathered to organize conquests of the Americas. Once abundant mineral deposits were discovered in Mexico and Peru, fortune seekers abandoned the island of Hispaniola about as quickly as Spain feigned interest. With absence of colonists and extinction of the indentured Tainos, African slaves debuted in 1520 and quickly outnumbered the aristocrats.

When focus turned mainland, islands of the Caribbean were up for grabs. Santo Domingo, perceived as Spain’s new threshold of power, turned out to be the goose that couldn't lay a golden egg. Ramparts did little for protecting an unguarded city ripe for slim pickings. What European invaders wanted, compared to what they actually found, all but set a precedent similar to what travelers should expect to still find today - negligence and poverty.

The city was already so depreciated when Sir Francis Drake staged the most infamous conquest in 1586, his troops plundered and destroyed many original structures in angered revenge, and held the city for ransom until Spain bought its return. Santo Domingo became a seaside patsy over the next couple of centuries, but land-invasions from the French, trying to subdue their upstart prodigy Haiti, is what really illustrates the country's oppressive history.

The Dominican Republic was born after locals staged a bloodless coup against the Haitians in 1844. However, nationalism was short lived once Spain, which had now lost control of most of the Americas, was bribed into reclaiming their original authority by corrupt government officials hoping for gains of the Motherland's elusive wealth. Civil unrest, that still burgeons today, was conceived during the Restoration War; an elongated mismatch against the Spanish crown. Eventually, the Queen gave up, withdrew troops and economic support, and abandoned the Dominicans to carry out what the country’s history has proven time and time again.

Since that point in 1865, the country has never been void of political turmoil. The U.S. intervened so often, even the Senate refused to ratify Roosevelt's 1905 amendment establishing protection over the degenerate nation. The Dominican flag proclaims God, country, and freedom, though words could as easily represent scandals, assassinations, and depravity from ruthless administrations disguised as dictatorships or democracies. Now, where are the playing fields more on display than in Santo Domingo; the first city which is capital for the second-most impoverished country of the Western World.

Modern Day Conquistadors
The sugar-coated version of what most expect to find in the Zona Colonial runs from Calle de Las Damas to the Alcázar de Colón and expansive Plaza de la Hispanidad. Views from the city's best preserved sections of bulwarks have given way to cruise ships and passenger ferries docked along the adjacent Río Ozama where Spanish galleons and invaders' ships once moored. Nevertheless, the white man still comes with familiar curiosities; now spending money rather than looking to sack and pillage.

Conservative measures have been trampled by default from the new breed of invaders. These days, armed soldiers in dress-uniforms and military fatigues are on display like part of the tourist attraction; presence no longer enforces strict dress codes that kept most travelers from entering revered locations. There was guilty pleasure following leisurely-adorned crowds into places where I'd been denied entry throughout the years.

The Panteón Nacional, dating from 1747, is likely the most impressive structure along las Damas with the Plaza de María de Toledo off to the side. Built as a Jesuit church, the building had served many purposes until Trujillo, a former dictator, called for a mausoleum in 1958. Browsing names on tombs didn't reveal anyone of recognizable significance, but their final resting place is a sight to behold.

The domed, cavernous interior is lined with colossal wooden chandeliers; the largest hovering over a centralized eternal flame dancing in the winds from the entrances which are always guarded and never close. The afternoon sun, radiating through rear windows, castes a natural spotlight on the frescoed archway over what was once the high-altar.

Museo de las Casas Reales, on the same street, is also worth "a visit" with the refurbished structure more intriguing than exhibits. I asked the guard when was the last time any new displays had been added. He couldn't remember but seemed to eye me with recollection from asking the same question with each visit...before moving on. Indoor confinements have always been stiffling in this city which retains a behavior of bondage even in wide-open spaces.

El Parque Colón is the Zona's centralized meeting place shaded by trees and la Catedral Primada de América. Excursionists safely pass free time hounded by roving street vendors while waiting for others to finish shopping along pedestrianized Calle Conde; often ignoring all else whether by naiveté or choice.

Culture Shock - A Capital Offense
The Zona Colonial comprises an 11 x 11-block radius where the original city was hemmed within fortifications. Significant historic sites, including ruins from Americas' first Hospital San Nicolás de Bari and Monasterio de San Francisco, require straying from hot-spots through impoverished residential areas that are unavoidable. In the last few decades, Santo Domingo has been flooded with rural peasants. Crude measures of civil services have collapsed under keeping up with what's believed to now be 70-percent of the country's population.

Mountains of garbage line side streets with ongoing accumulations more than could ever be disposed of. At times, stench eludes to potential health-risks further confirmed by carcasses of dead rats, and remains of other animals slaughtered for food right along sidewalks. Shunning these third-World encounters is denying centuries'-worth of failures ingrained in history dating back to Columbus. A restless edge vibrating to Merengue permeates the close confines with factions of daily life on display most would never care to know existed, yet this is the Dominican Republic of the 21st century.

I will admit after years of country living, the survival gumption of Spanish Harlem had long-faded. Some areas previously ventured were willingly bypassed this time. The in-bred chaos and confusion are overwhelming. I've often felt uncomfortable in a challenged way, but never threatened or unsafe as one of the very few that obviously explore beyond. Curious gazes from locals confirm that, just as quickly as they'll share a smile and conversation as Living History attractions.

To fathom how the people survive from day to day in birthplace of the Americas is to also understand how miserably Spain failed with their initial greed, which essentially doomed Latin America. Atoning for my fellow white man's ways has always been a covert obligation in many ways, including travel. Coming to a place like Santo Domingo, and not experiencing life as they know it beyond the tourist trap, is all but condoning past and present conditions leaving little hope for the future.

A survival instinct has been embodied into Dominican culture as much as the Spanish heritage they're so very proud of. Together, they've withstood centuries of torment from poverty and oppression, earthquakes and hurricanes. Yet still, they manage to drink and dance and find pleasures amid their miseries. These elements are infectious appeasing when and where all else has fallen short. If it works for Dominicans on a proven ongoing basis, it will surely sustain travelers wanting to chance brief encounters just for a day.


©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009