Dominican Republic and Punta Canta
Travelers familiar with the Lilliputian scale of the Caribbean's Leeward Islands may be surprised by the Dominican Republic's size. This is not just another tiny Caribbean island with a beach and a straw market.
Instead, it's a big country with spectacularly varied scenery that includes the tallest mountains (with elevations of more than 10,000 ft/3,048 m) and lowest point (more than 100 ft/31 m below sea level) in the region; ecosystems that range from desert to cloud forest; stretches of talcum-white sand that run unbroken for miles/kilometers; and the Caribbean's oldest and—some claim—most cosmopolitan city, Santo Domingo.
No surprise, then, that the "DR," as it is colloquially known, outstrips all other Caribbean destinations in the number of international visitors by a wide margin.
The Dominican Republic was long one of the Caribbean's more obscure destinations. In the 1970s, a group of investors developed Punta Cana as a beach resort destination unrivaled by any other. Then the Dominican Republic's government began proudly splashing its assets around the world in colorful TV and print advertisements in a determination to elevate the country's name on the list of Caribbean vacation spots.
Evidence of its success is visible throughout the country. Visitor numbers, which top 5 million annually, have soared along with the construction of dozens of world-class, all-inclusive resorts. There's also been an increase in visits by cruise ships to the ports of Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, Samana and La Romana.
Other improvements can be traced to the pursuit of tourism income: Many of the country's roads have been widened and paved, historic areas in the major cities have been renovated, Santo Domingo has gained an underground metro system, and the nation has gained a new cache among the world's rich and famous as more and more deluxe boutique-hotels, chic resorts, championship golf courses and marinas open.
Although the growth in tourism has eased some of the country's economic troubles, it hasn't ended the desperate conditions experienced by many Dominicans. The unemployment rate is high, and more than a quarter of the people live in poverty—many residing in shantytowns and rural shacks that even visitors to all-inclusive resorts will find hard to ignore.
At 250 mi/400 km by 150 mi/240 km, the Dominican Republic is larger than any other Caribbean nation except Cuba. It is also the most diverse territory in the region. The Dominican Republic boasts both the highest point in the Caribbean (Pico Duarte at 10,164 ft/3,089 m) and its lowest (Lago Enriquillo at 144 ft/44 m below sea level).
Cacti stud the desert-dry southwest in the lee of mountains clad in cloud forest. The lush agricultural valley of El Cibao lies within a one-hour drive of north coast beaches that abut mangrove-lined lagoons sheltering manatees. The bathtub-warm waters of Samana Bay attract thousands of humpback whales in winter, while nearby Los Haitises National Park is a rugged karst terrain pitted with caves. Drawing the lion's share of tourists, the talcum sands of Punta Cana and neighboring beaches shelve into waters of Maxfield Parrish hues stretching almost to the horizon.
The Dominican Republic's foremost attractions are its beautiful beaches and warm tropical waters, historical sites, casinos, golf courses, mountain scenery, national parks, merengue dancing, baseball games, cigars, reef and wreck diving, windsurfing and kiteboarding, and caves full of pre-Columbian art.
Travelers who are interested in resort activities (watersports, golf, tennis), colonial history and Caribbean culture will be happy in the Dominican Republic. Those who would rather not witness conditions in a poor, developing country or who can't tolerate reckless drivers may prefer the Virgin Islands or other smaller Caribbean resort destinations.
Do's and Dont's
Do attend a Dominican baseball game if you visit during the professional season (late October-late February). The quality of play is excellent, and it will probably be the most raucous sporting event you'll ever attend.
Do rent a car, if you are brave enough, and explore the Dominican countryside. You'll get a truer view and appreciation of the country by visiting its small towns and rural areas than if you stick to the all-inclusive resorts.
Don't get in a taxi or hire a tour guide without agreeing on a price first, and never hire a motoconcho or hail a cab off the street because of the inherent safety risks. Call a radio dispatched cab.
Do learn some Spanish words and phrases and practice them with Dominicans. They'll appreciate your effort.
Do ask a local resident to teach you to dance merengue. Dominicans take great pride in their music and dance—it's a vital part of their national identity.
Don't be in a hurry. Dominicans never are and, as a result, have a reputation of being a bit late for almost everything. Ease into the Caribbean pace.
Do tour one of the cigar plants and watch workers roll cigars by hand.
Do expect to encounter people on the beaches eager to sell you something. A polite "no thank you" and a firm attitude will put an end to any pestering. Be aware that showing even the slightest amount of interest may encourage other vendors to close in and start trying to cut a deal.
Don't get angry or impatient in restaurants if your bill doesn't arrive. In the Dominican Republic, it is considered rude to present patrons with the bill until they ask for it.
Do keep a flashlight handy. Power failures are common, except at hotels and restaurants that have their own generators.
Passport/Visa Requirements: All visitors must have a valid passport when entering the Dominican Republic. No visas are required, but upon landing tourists are given a tourist card (US$10) valid for 30 days. Any extensions or questions about the tourist card should be directed to the Department of Immigration (phone 809-508-2555). Visitors can extend their tourist card up to 90 days, paying a small fee to Immigration on their departure. A US $20 departure tax must be paid at the airport. It should be included in the price of your airline ticket, but this is not always the case, so ask ahead of time.
Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Catholic, Protestant), Jewish.
Time Zone: 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-5 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 809, 829 and 849 country codes;
The best time to visit is November-March, when days are in the 80s F/28-32 C and nights in the 60s F/15-22 C. The rainy season is May-October, although it generally isn't bad enough to rule out a visit unless a hurricane is predicted. (Hurricanes are possible June-November.) The north coast can get rainy in winter as well. The mountains in the western part of the country are considerably cooler, requiring a sweater or jacket during the evening. Constant breezes keep the temperature and humidity fairly tolerable, though Santo Domingo can be extremely muggy in the summer. The southwest desert, while drier, can get extremely hot in daytime.
The island's main international airport, Santo Domingo Las Americas (SDQ), is 15 mi/25 km east of the city. A taxi ride from the city center costs about RD$1,000 and takes about 45 minutes, depending on traffic. There is no airport shuttle. Phone 809-947-2297.
Santa Domingo's other airport, La Isabela (JBQ), replaced the outmoded Herrera International and handles mostly domestic and charter flights, though it does handle some flights to other Caribbean islands. Phone 809-826-4019.
The privately owned airport at Punta Cana (PUJ) receives nearly two-thirds of all tourist arrivals and now has three terminals. A fourth terminal is planned, although no date has been set for opening. Phone 809-959-2376. http://www.puntacanainternationalairport.com.
International flights also land at the airports in Puerto Plata (POP; phone 809-291-0000); Santiago (STI; phone 809-233-8000); Barahona (BRX; phone 809-524-4144); and at the airport in La Romana (LRM; phone 809-813-9000), near the Casa de Campo resort. Shuttle service between La Romana airport and most area resorts is available. The Samana El Catey international airport (AZS) at Sanchez serves the Samana Peninsula (phone 809-338-5888).
For the most current arrival and departure information for flights at Santo Domingo (SDQ), Puerto Plata (POP) and Punta Cana (PUJ) airports enter the name or location of your airport at http://www.flightstats.com.
Because the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the Dominican Republic does not provide appropriate oversight of the country's air carriers, Dominican Republic airlines are not allowed to fly to the U.S.
Located about 100 mi/160 km east of Santo Domingo, Punta Cana and its neighbor, Bavaro, are ground zero in the ongoing all-inclusive resort explosion under way in the Dominican Republic (affectionately known as just "DR"). They're located along a beautiful 30-mi/48-km stretch of white-sand beach lined with coconut palms that was once nicknamed the Costa del Coco for marketing purposes; the Dominican Tourist Board, however, no longer favors the moniker. This lovely strip of shore looks like it was taken straight off a travel poster and has perhaps the finest (and certainly the longest and whitest) beaches and most beautiful turquoise and jade seas in the country.
Most hotels concentrate in Bavaro, although the entire coast has become known as Punta Cana, which is technically a separate and somewhat more exclusive area about 10 mi/16 km south of Bavaro. In the communities just inland from Bavaro, unregulated development has stolen much of the charm away from the sands and seas.
The Bavaro hotels are closer together than those in Punta Cana, allowing for more movement between properties. Hotel development continues to make public beach access more difficult year by year, although several narrow access lanes lie hidden between the resorts.
Although more development is moving into the area, the resorts of Punta Cana have so far retained the relaxed atmosphere most visitors expect from a Caribbean vacation spot. Much of the ongoing development is centered on Cap Cana, south of Punta Cana proper; and at Macao and neighboring Uvero Alto, about a 40-minute drive north of Bavaro.
Located in the province of La Altagracia on the eastern-most tip of the country, the Punta Cana area's most distinct feature is the sandy white beachfront known as the Coconut Coast that runs from Punta Cana through Bavaro and up to Playa Macao in Uvero Alto. The warm Caribbean Sea harbors one of the longest coral reefs (19 mi/31 km) in the world, and the area also enjoys year-round sun and a warm climate.
Tourists enjoy the cave rappelling outside La Romana and day trips to the various islands such as Isla Saona and Isla Catalina.
After rum, the country's next biggest export to the U.S. is star baseball players, including David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa. All-star New York Yankee A-Rod (Alexander Rodriguez) moved to the DR when he was 4.
Do's and Dont's
Do say "DR" for "Dominican Republic"—it's the term everybody uses.
Do get on the dance floor with the locals and try the bachata and the merengue.
Do learn a few local phrases. It shows you are interested in the culture. Dominicans love conversation.
Do leave the resort and visit some of the landmarks, which are easily accessible through the various local group tour operators.
Do return home with some Dominican-made products. The Dominicans are proud of their rum production and cigar-making abilities.
Do try some of the local dishes, such as habichuelas con dulce, which is a mix of red beans, spices, milk, coconut milk, sugar and sweet potato, usually served at Easter.
Do enjoy a cold Presidente with your meals. This light and refreshing beverage is the official beer of the Dominican Republic.
Punta Cana is blessed with a tropical sun year-round, so expect an annual warm climate with the hottest temperatures occurring in summer June-September. The temperature averages 87 F/31 C with seasonal fluctuations of 4-6 degrees depending on the month. Humidity can be bad at that time, so it's good to stay poolside or in an air-conditioned environment.
The Dominican Republic is located in the Caribbean hurricane zone. The hurricane season officially lasts June-November, put peak season in the Punta Cana area usually occurs in September and October.