Road to Santo Domingo

I’ve been coming to the Dominican Republic for over 15 years, but never had the chance to visit the capital, Santo Domingo. Why? It was always too far from the tourists resorts of Samana, Punta Cana, and La Romana where I usually ended up. The one time I dared to book a visit, food riots broke out in the capital city and my tour was cancelled. This year, I was determined to break the hoodoo.

My stay was at a tourist resort in Punta Cana last month—after escaping a terrible snowstorm in Toronto—on a cool, gusty, and seaweed-heavy beach that was still pleasant but daunting for swimming, for a guy like me who likes his ocean at room temperature. Why does the DR set up its tourist resorts on the frigid Atlantic side, I wondered, when the warmer, placid Caribbean side was so much more inviting? Santo Domingo is on that calmer side, although it only has a handful of hotels and doesn’t get much package tour traffic.

I was soon to find out why, when we arrived on the outskirts of this sprawling city of 4 million (total population of the DR is 11 million). Haphazard suburban sprawl surrounds the city for many miles, with ad hoc housing, incomplete or unpaved roads, and open garbage – unlike the more planned development in the resort areas. Our guide advised us that the city is old and proper zoning came in late; those who were already squatting were grandfathered. An eyesore for tourists and an embarrassment for the hosts.

During the two-hour drive from Punta Cana to the capital, we got the history of the DR. The biggest existential crisis for this eastern half of the island of Hispaniola is co-existing with its other half, Haiti. One side is French (Haiti) and the other is Spanish speaking (DR). Haiti opted for the segregated master-slave form of settlement and governance, while the DR opted for the mixing of races. Haiti was the first free-black country in 1804, but was hobbled with debt by its colonial master, France, and has never raised its head from that burden; it also gets the rough end of the stick when it comes to weather: all the hurricanes and earthquakes seem to happen on their side, while the DR gets off lightly. The DR was briefly invaded and occupied by Haiti during its darkest period from 1822-1844, and has had other periods of occupation: by Spain (1860-65) and the USA (1916 and 1965). Despite these interruptions, the DR now has a higher standard of living than its French neighbour and uses the latter’s migrant labour force extensively, particularly in its sugar plantations. In addition to sugar, the DR trades in tourism (8 M visitors in 2022 and the best bounce-back from the pandemic in the Caribbean), and baseball players to the major leagues.

Our guide steered us away from the downtown sky scrapers that we saw in the distance, and took us into the old city of Santo Domingo, the first European settlement in the Americas, founded by His Excellency himself, Christopher Columbus, but not before we got a sweeping view of the wave-free and warm Caribbean Sea that ran alongside us for miles. Before entering the old city, we stopped to see the monstrosity of a lighthouse built in the shape of a cross and named after Columbus, a monument that shoots lights into the sky to form the shape of a cross, and which was commissioned for opening in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the great explorer’s maiden voyage to the New World. Apparently, Christopher’s remains are stored here, but you’d better not say that in front of a Spaniard or an Italian, for they both claim to have a piece of old Chris in their homelands.

The Spanish Wall that surrounds the city is impressive, fully restored in some parts, crumbling in others, it reminded that this was a garrison city and entrepot to the rest of the Spanish conquests of the Americas. That fact is very clear when you walk down the Calle Las Damas (Street of the Ladies), the oldest street in the town, along which are the residences of famous conquistadors who claimed new lands for their king: Rodrigo de Bastidas (Colombia), Diego Vasquez (Cuba), Hernand Cortez (Mexico), Juan Ponce De León (Florida). It’s as if they would meet in the pub and say, “You go north, you go south and you go west, and let’s see who comes back with the biggest pile of loot.” Even Francisco Pizzaro (Peru) was supposed to have passed through this junction of sea routes between the Old World and the New, but he did not stop to buy a house here – perhaps, given Francisco’s notorious character, his fellow conquistadors didn’t fancy his company. All these historic residences had now been converted into government offices or tourist hotels.

The only conquistador residence we got to visit was Columbus’s son Diego’s palace with its broad second storey verandah overlooking the Ozama river that divides the city. Diego became Viceroy of the Indies and tried to reclaim his Italian father’s titles and privileges by marrying a niece of the Spanish King. The house is typically European but modest for its minimalist frontier style and 16th century décor and architecture.

Everything in this old town is the “first” or the “oldest” – oldest cathedral, first university, oldest settlement, first Jesuit monastery, and so on. The city resembled Old Havana in layout (a city I visited only the year before) but larger, although its forts facing the open sea are modest compared to those in the Cuban capital. Santo Domingos’s narrow streets are lined with two-storey houses, well maintained. The sprawling Columbus Square behind the Cathedral was a welcome relief from narrow streets that were getting hotter as the day progressed, although the pigeons were shitting big time on Christopher’s statue that dominated the square. What was even more welcome was the restaurant where we had a buffet lunch, built like a garden with giant indoor trees, through which high powered fans blew noiselessly to keep us cool. The Colonial Market (a gift shop) where all tourists are eventually herded into, I discovered, was a bit of a rip off, because you got great discounts if you paid in US cash; the discounts vanished the moment you produced a Canadian credit card.  And watch out for the famous DR chocolate – a bar of the dark stuff will set you back CDN$20.00. I left Santo Domingo glad that I had taken the time to pay homage to its culture and history, and not make this yet another trip to the DR for just sun, sand, sea, and good cuisine. This historic “first and oldest” city is well worth a visit to take us back to the European conquest and settlement that started a new era for the Americas, one we have still to come to grips with and reconcile to the satisfaction of all affected parties.

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