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.