Parque Central is heart of the downtown area and a recognizable landmark from which to base explorations of the city. Locals flock to the shaded benches concealed by lush vegetation all but shutting out traffic buzzing around the square. Under the gazebo are restrooms which tend to be hit-and-miss for availability. As a traveler, you'll attract much attention from shoeshine boys. Either wear comfortable sandals or tennis shoes, or be prepared to repeatedly make or break these childrens' survival efforts; a thorough spit-shine polish costing RD10.
Banks, internet cafes, Casas de Cambios for exchanging currencies, and Codetel telephone can be found in the immediate area, but I've always considered the daily life in general as the genuine feature. Some of the most unsuspecting surprises await inside places like the drug store, supply company or hardware store where business is conducted with nostalgic throw-backs to the 60's. Visions, even smells have served as comforts of childhood with chances to step-back into memories of when life was simple; an appeal La Romana has still managed to retain despite very obvious signs of progress.
Streets south of the center running towards Avenida Libertad are dominated with shops specializing in clothing and shoes. Dominicans especially love dressing-up their small children in lace-frilled dresses and stylish suits for boys; unique purchases beyond souvenir shopping. The area often feels as if it's in a permanent state of sidewalk sale since many stores take advantage of pleasant weather for moving racks of merchandise outdoors. There's no shortage of baseball caps, knock-off designer wear, and even truck loads of second-hand clothing parked curbsides that eagerly get pawed through.
Joyerías, (jewelry stores), have a better selection of amber and lorimar creations than you'll find in most tourist-related outlets. Prices reflect the higher quality, but merchants are often willing to haggle over prices; paying with cash guaranteed to net lower costs than using plastic.
The City's Outdoor Market
Across from the northern side of the park is the city's original Cathedral centralized within a large yard surrounded by a caste-iron fence. It's rather plain and unimpressive, and at no point have I ever found the yard or church open for a quick peek inside. Follow either one of the side-streets to find the outdoor market which is north behind the church.
Regardless of when you arrive, expect to find a frenzy of activities. Vendor boothes line streets and sidewalks surrounding the central block which has a cluster of buildings jammed with commodities. Casual browsing nets immediate attention from tradesmen, and while they'll insist you take a closer look, they'll also smile and take "no" for an answer, unlike high-pressure tactics found in some poorer countries.
There's numerous clothing and shoes available for comparative shopping with what's found in official stores. Similar products at the market will likely cost less depending upon your haggling skills. Initial asking prices are often double of what the vendor hopes to earn, and they enjoy bartering. While most local people encountered will only speak Spanish, vendors have often mastered numerous languages based on survival. Basic Spanish will surely help, but expect an interesting exchange, and don't be afraid to walk away to help seal a better price.
Opportunities for buying local music on downloaded cd's should be bypassed since there's no guarantee of overall quality, even if they've played a couple of songs. There are smaller walk-in booths with tourist-type souvenirs that are rather generic in mass production. A shopper is likely to find more original purchases among the house wares and things Dominicans consider everyday standards.
Foods dominate choices in the typical outdoor market environment that always manages to stir concerns of sanitary practices. Filth and waste are rudely alarming, especially along meat counters where processing takes place and flies swarm carcasses. Regardless of cringing, realize how everyone appears healthy and happy from consuming such questionable products on a regular basis. A bag of inexpensive mangoes, grapes, or bananas from the mountains of produce are great for snacking without fear of bacterial illnesses.
The largest building of the market contains a curious assortment of spices, herbs, and dry goods as well as botánicas selling items used for Santería worship. This area is also where you'd look if wanting to take home an authentic bottle of Mama Juana. Most of what's sold in tourist traps is priced higher and contains fewer ingredients. These bottles are loaded for the locals, and prices vary with size. If you know what to ask for, they specifically make blends upon request, including favorites that contain dried seafood and have legendary potencies. The 1.75-liter I requested cost RD300/US$10 with only the dry goods, but will last as long as I keep adding rum, red wine, and honey.
A Lunch Favorite
Located off the northeastern corner of the central plaza on the north side of Calle Eugenio Miranda, Trigo de Oro Café is an unsuspecting find. The French-run bistro and bakery is housed in a renovated two-story house concealed behind a wall. Awnings and a jungle-like canopy shade the entire yard, which contains the main dining area. The upscale ambience seems out of place, but prices don't reflect poshness. Inexpensive baguette sandwich baskets run less than US$5, the pastry cases and specialty coffees definitely worth saving room for.
The New Shopping Circuit
When leaving Trigo de Oro, heading left/east runs you into Calle Francisco de Castillo Márquez. Take a right on this street if you still want to shop. I was shocked by the number of wall-to-wall tourist-related stores that have opened within the last year. Most contain the same assortments of junk found everywhere with comparable prices, but if looking for unique treasures from the Dominican Republic, be sure and take a peruse through Corazón Latino located at No. 52.
Their selection of artwork, sculptures, and trinkets qualify as home decor and were certainly worth minimal splurges in price. They add a 5% service charge for using credit cards, and don't be surprised if the clerk needs help running the processing machine.
Continuing south will intersect back on Avenida Libertad at the corner of Jumbo Department Store's complex, where you'll need to check all bags upon entry. American Airlines has a new location in front and next door is an outlet selling more junk, but the best buys are in the store.
The Music Department has local percussion instruments and a section labeled Versión Economica, factory seconds of Latin music cd's sold only in the Dominican Republic for RD85/US$2.85. You'll need to pay for anything within this area before leaving. Perhaps you'll find other good buys within clothing and house wares, but my most-requested souvenirs are in grocery stores.
A 1-pound bag of Dominican coffee costs under US$2. Just across from the bread aisle is a section you'd never know to look for, but it's stocked with mouthwatering sweets, including Jalao, 16 coconut and molasses balls for US$1.65,Dulce Leche, various forms of sweet milk candy with a fudge texture in one-pound bricks, some containing fruit for US$1.30, and packages of tropical pastes, great for making side-dish sauces, for US$1.34. There's also a well-stocked liquor section with local and international spirits priced as cheap as duty-free shops. A recommended favorite is Ponche Crema de Oro, excellent rum cream for US$4 a liter.
The Deli is my other favorite place to eat, with an endless selection of creolle cuisine sold by the pound. There's an upstairs dining area great for people-watching and absorbing the brisk air-conditioning. At any of Jumbo's check-out counters, credit cards or US dollars are readily accepted, and change is returned in pesos based on daily exchange rates.
There's a taxi stand in the parking lot with rates posted, or there are other transportation connections along Avenida Libertad. Depending on the amount of purchases, tip the bag boy, especially if they've helped carry things outside. If you've driven with your own transportation, there is no parking fee, but questionable lot monitors also expect a tip for watching your car.
- 1-Río Soldado cruise-ship port
- 2-Avenida Libertad where Bayahibe públicos depart
- 3-Jumbo Shopping Complex
- 4-Parque Central with Markets to the north
- 5-Calle Castillo Márquez
Top of the photo is south
Getting to Parque Central is an easy walk or taxi ride from the cruise-ship port. If arriving by público from Bayahibe, the van makes numerous stops and eventually passes through downtown. For public transportation transfers to other destinations, a shuttle bus leaves from the park's northwest corner for the main terminal west of town. From there, local and express buses frequently depart for anywhere between La Romana and Santo Domingo. The small terminal for east-bound destinations connecting through Higuey is on the right side of the central street, which heads north from the square.