Dominican Republic

The original plan was to go to Nassau for a college basketball tournament, but due to the COVID pandemic, we had to change our plans a few months out. Since we were going to be in Miami, and because D.R. had manageable restrictions, off we went. In any event, being the baseball hotbed that it is, I’ve wanted to visit for a while, even if I couldn’t attend any baseball games.

Cap Cana: We started out the trip with a three-night stay at the year-old Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana. The family friendly Hyatt Ziva is next door, and the properties share some amenities, like a water park. For 25,000 points a night at an adults-only all-inclusive beach-front resort, we were very pleased with the redemption. We spent most of our time beach-side under palm trees and umbrellas, drinking Presidente and taking occasional dips in the Caribbean. The rest was spent eating at the numerous on-site restaurants and relaxing. This was only my second experience at an all-inclusive resort, and I would definitely return. The property itself was gorgeous; it was clearly designed to maximize the geographic value its location provides. We stayed on property the entire time, but if so inclined, Punta Cana is a short drive away with shopping and other activities. If you need to acquire World of Hyatt points quickly to stay at a resort like this, one of the fastest ways is too acquire the World of Hyatt credit card from Chase.*

Santo Domingo: After a few days of beach resort relaxation, we were looking forward to some city life. I used Marriott Bonvoy points to stay at the J.W. Marriott Hotel Santo Domingo. The hotel was nice and modern, but it is located in an urban shopping mall (the BlueMall), so the lobby is an elevator ride up and parking was interesting. We lucked out and were able to park essentially on the sidewalk area for our stay, otherwise, there’s a garage that also is used by the mall. The hotel area seemed fine, with not many tourists, and plenty of shops and restaurants were nearby, but we really only went to dinner in the vicinity of the hotel. Our first dinner was at Laurel, and the second night at Julieta Brasserie. Both meals were very good, with Laurel having the better menu overall.

Santo Domingo Streets, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

The bulk of our first day was spent in the Zona Colonial. We took an Uber there and back to avoid parking, getting dropped off at the Parque Colon. If you’d like a bilingual tour guide to escort you around, this is a good place to find them, with their turquoise polo shirts and I.D. badges. Price was definitely negotiable, but I’d expect to pay no more than $20 (USD) an hour, and you can probably manage less. Because of COVID and the general lack of tourism at the time, many of the historical sites were closed, so we could only view them from the outside. In any event, some of the first colonial sites established in North America were built here, so there’s a lot of history to absorb. Even if you skip through the baseball portions, you can read a lot about the history of colonial and post-colonial D.R. in The Eastern Stars by Mark Kurlansky, which I recommend you do. But if you’re only going to be in Santo Domingo for a day, this is likely the neighborhood where you want to spend most of your time.

Santo Domingo, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

On our second day we ventured to Los Tres Ojos Parque Nacional. This is a blink and you’ll miss it site situated just off the main east-west highway in the eastern part of the city. Decline the persistent tour guides waiting outside the gates (you won’t need them), and pay your entrance fee and head down. You’ll be rewarded with multiple caverns filled with water, including one with a drawboat to take you to see an open area made famous for its use in one of the Jurassic Park movies. You’ll need $5 or so to pay to be brought back across the water, but it’s well worth it. After an hour or two at the park, we went back into the city to have lunch at Barra Payan. This well-known sandwich shop a couple blocks from the Capitol was introduced to me by Anthony Bourdain in his D.R. episode of No Reservations. We had a great lunch at the counter, followed by a walk around the Capitol. On our way back to the car, we had a run-in with an attempted motorcycle purse snatcher, but fortunately made out with all of our belongings. Try to avoid carrying a purse!

Los Tres Ojos Parque Nacional, Santo Domingo, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Logistics: While I generally try to avoid flying American Airlines, if you’re in Miami and looking to go to the Caribbean, it’s almost unavoidable. In any event, we had no trouble with our direct flights from Miami to Santo Domingo and back. If you’re planning to only visit the resorts in the Punta Cana area, I’d recommend just flying directly there so as to save yourself the two hour drive each way—and accompanying driving experience (see below). The airport in Santo Domingo is fairly small. As soon as you exit, be prepared for an onslaught of solicitations from eager drivers. If you’re renting a car, think twice about doing that, but if you insist, the Avis building is easily walkable from the terminal if you don’t want to wait for the shuttle (which literally just circles back to the front of the airport entrance). If you’re renting a car, get some cash at an ATM before you leave the airport, as there are toll roads on most all of the highways, including on the way to/from the airport. **ATM tip: it took looking like a fool and having to ask for help to learn this, so let me save you the hassle; you may have to insert your debit card sideways into the machine, not with the magnetic stripe on the right like you do at every other ATM I’ve used around the world. When flying out of Santo Domingo, there is a Priority Pass lounge, Sala Caribe, which we took advantage of for a quick lite breakfast. It was at the opposite end of the terminal from our gate, but it was an easy 5-10 minute walk back.

Driving: Driving in the Dominican Republic was by far the most nerve-wracking travel experience I’ve had so far. On the freeway, be prepared to deal with mopeds and motorcycles driving both ways on the shoulder. On all roads, expect everyone to speed and to use every inch of the road. Lanes are more of a suggestion than rule. This is especially true in Santo Domingo. That said, if you avoid driving at night, pay attention, keep pace with traffic, are always on the lookout for motorcycles, and use your turn signal, you should be ok. Every drive was a white knuckle experience, but I didn’t get a scratch on the rental car. Of all places, this is a good one to either make sure you buy a damage waiver when renting a car, or use a credit card with good coverage, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

I did have one particularly odd experience, though. While waiting at a traffic light, a policeman of some sort asked me for my documents. As it took me a minute to understand what he was asking for, and to find them, the light changed, requiring me to make a U-turn through the light and meet him on the other side of the road. After reviewing my license, car rental registration, and image of my passport on my phone, we were back on our way. I’m not sure what that was about, but next time I’ll remember to have a photocopy of my passport so I don’t have to hand over my phone. Next time, however, I’ll probably just stick to Ubers and taxis and avoid dealing with the stress.

I will definitely return to the Dominican in the future, but I’m content to not drive there again. I’d love to see some winter baseball, as well as get to see the inside of the historic sites. I’d probably stay in the Colonial Zone next time, as well as return to Cap Cana.

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Santo Domingo, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.