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DR Diaries, Part I: Soñando de Santo Domingo

Blogging consistently is damn tough. Sure, getting a nasty allergic reaction to your 30 mosquito bites amassed over the course of an otherwise blissful week in tropical paradise—and in the meantime struggling to do some major damage control to the work inbox overflow—certainly doesn’t help things. But still, I feel incredibly embarrassed at how long overdue this blog post is! Please forgive me…?

Anyways, back to that whole tropical paradise bit. For the past six years, I’ve managed to stay close friends with Marlena, my dearest college freshman roommate. Her adventurous spirit has since taken her down to the Dominican Republic where she is now working and living la vida, so it has been nearly two years since I last saw her. She’s doing some pretty incredible things through her job, working for a Christian nonprofit organization called Edify that not only promotes holistic educational development for children in developing countries, but also empowers the local people through a variety of economic opportunities. Hence why she’s the only non-Dominican working there and solely on a temporary contract, but that just only fuels her genuine, inspiring passion for her work even more.

She has always generously invited me to visit and stay with her, but it wasn’t until this year that my bank account was finally fattening up with enough disposable income to go. In case you haven’t already noticed, I pretty much save up (and subsequently blow) my money just to travel, so it’s no surprise that as soon as I knew it was financially feasible, I booked my $550 flight from Detroit to sunny Santo Domingo and haven’t looked back since!

“Marly & Me”: Posing in front of the colonial 16th-century doors to the Museo de las Casas Reales, one of Santo Domingo’s oldest and most notable cultural monuments

As wonderful as spontaneity is, I’ll admit that I do like to plan quite a bit when it comes to my international travels. Not only does it get me even more excited for my upcoming trip, but it can also save time, money and stress! I’m personally a huge fan of the National Geographic Traveler series, so I bought the 2017 edition of the Dominican Republic to educate myself a bit more on the country. If you’re traveling to the DR, here are a few travel-savvy tips to keep in mind:

  • Buy your tourist card online in advance—it costs $10 USD and is mandatory to enter the country (unless if you’re a citizen of one of the few exempt countries). This saved me a 30-minute extra wait in the line to buy in-person at the airport, and I was able to head straight to customs. Oh, and make sure to have a pen handy on you to fill out the customs forms during your flight.
  • Bring enough cash with you! Credit cards are accepted at most places but certainly not everywhere, especially if you travel outside of the tourist sections and the city proper. Better yet, if you already know someone living in the DR, PayPal them in advance and have them take out cash for you once you arrive since the Dominican peso conversion rate isn’t always optimal. ($1 USD = $47.26 DOP at the time of this posting.)
  • Make an itinerary for your trip, or at least a list of the top places and activities you want to see and do. After all, you’ll definitely want to maximize your time to the fullest while you’re there!
  • And if you’re super popular with the mosquito gang like me, you can never pack too many insect repellant wipes—Dominican mosquitoes are fearlessly brutal and love foreign blood.
Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your passport!

But even the most meticulous of planners have to be prepared to embrace the unexpected when things go awry—after all, that’s at the very heart and essence of traveling. After my flight kept getting delayed in Miami (thanks, American…), I ended up arriving at the Las Américas International Airport (SDQ) in Santo Domingo over four hours later than scheduled. This obviously screwed up our original plans and transportation from the airport but since Marly and I are seasoned travelers, we just knew to roll with the punches. I was a little bummed that I couldn’t visit her office at work and then head over to the Ágora Mall as was originally planned, but it all worked out in the end!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Uber is widely available in Santo Domingo, and is actually a safe and reliable option (although having to deal with my slow 3G connection was a hassle at times). You can even save money and request your Uber ride to be on a motorbike! However, Marly arranged for her friend and taxi driver Vinicio to take me to her apartment in the heart of the Zona Universitaria (University Zone) neighborhood along the Malecón, the capital city’s beautiful, palm tree-aligned pathway that’s adjacent to the ocean and the perfect runners’ paradise (#views for days). If you’re ever traveling to Santo Domingo, I highly recommend his amazing transportation service! Tell him Christine, la amiga chinita de Marlena, referred you 😊

As a spoiled American, it was a bit of an adjustment to the stifling tropical heat since A/C is a luxury and not commonly found in most Dominican homes. Portable old-school fans, open windows and twice-a-day cold showers will be your best friend here and you’ll very soon learn to live without it!

Marly’s roommates are absolute dimes just like her, and I was so excited to finally meet them beyond their (nonetheless gorgeous) Facebook photos! Heather and Yissel gave me the warmest welcome ever, and even picked up some food for me since I hadn’t eaten all day! For dinner I enjoyed a plato típico / plato del día, a generous portion of traditional Dominican food that will fill your tummy for less than $5—the typical staples being rice, beans, fried or mashed plantains, and a type of meat. Today’s plato, however, was arroz chofan—Chinese-style fried rice with a distinctly Dominican twist.

The Dominican version of Chinese fried rice, complete with ají gustoso and fried yuca¡Qué rico!

If you’ve ever traveled to Latin America and the Caribbean, you’ll know that sleep is for peasants—and Dominican nightlife is the undisputed reigning queen. As the birthplace of merengue and bachata, the island is also home to the wildly popular Afro-Caribbean beats and rhythms that will make you want to dance all night long. In Santo Domingo, you’ll find a diverse range of fiesta every single night of the week, from lively street musicians and salsa dancing to boisterously packed beer gardens, jazz exhibitions, and colmados blasting reggaetón on every street corner. So even a long day of traveling certainly wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying Wednesday night happy hour with the girls! We headed to Santoña Gastro Bar Colonial, a trendy, Spanish tapas-style bar with an open-air courtyard in the heart of the city’s Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone) where most of the nightlife is centered, and enjoyed 2-for-1 mojitos well into the evening. The chinola (passion fruit)-flavored mojito is absolutely to die for!

We called it an early night since we all had to wake up early for work—yes, me included since I was going to accompany Marly on one of her weekly site visits! Although I must say that all three of them are not wholly human since they also willingly wake up at 5 AM to work out every single morning (um…thanks, but no thanks!). My lazy, out-of-shape self was more than content with sleeping in an extra two hours before heading out to Boca Chica, a lively beach town about 45 minutes away, with two of Marlena’s coworkers to collect surveys at one of the local schools. The coolest part was that I was able to help, thanks to my Spanish knowledge! The surveys essentially documented how well the students learn using tablets and the organization’s educational technology software in the classroom. I got to meet and talk one-on-one with many of the students, all who were adorable and very forgiving of my occasionally rusty Spanish. It’ll be exciting to hear from Marly how the survey data results will further shape Edify’s implementation strategies and partnerships with these schools in the near future!

I’m honored to have met Carlos and Raquel and learn more about their work and life in the DR—the duo are hilarious and truly young at heart! Before heading back to Santo Domingo we all stopped for a lovely lunch right on the ocean at Bocana Beach & Club, known for their fresh seafood and made-to-order juices. If you’re staying in Santo Domingo and have a day to spare, you might consider taking a day trip out to Boca Chica, although it’s best to travel with a local. As you can see from the photos below, the beach is absolutely gorgeous and perfect for sunbathing and snorkeling. Be mindful that the beach town also has a dark underbelly as a hub for the island’s sexual tourism industry, and can turn seedy at night.

Since the team had to go back to work at the office (hey, I’m technically on vacation after all!), they were kind enough to drop me off in the Zona Colonial to do some solo daytime exploring. You can easily dedicate several full days to sightseeing Santo Domingo’s museums and historical sites—after all, it’s the oldest city in the New World dating back to 1496! It’s also home to the Catedral Primada de América (RD $60 / $1.30 USD to enter) and Calle Las Damas, the first cathedral and the first European street in the Americas, respectively. Given the city’s incredibly rich historic and cultural heritage, I was quite shocked to see so few tourists compared to other Latin American cities I’ve visited, and I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, it was really nice to not have to deal with the massive crowds and also be able to experience the beauty of Dominican culture without the overwhelming bombardment of commercialized tourism. As I wandered alone along the cobblestone streets—past bright, colorful buildings and the marbled stone walls of timeless edifices—I felt whisked away to another time and place, where elegant ladies of the Spanish court took their evening stroll and the Taíno leader Enriquillo revolted against slavery under the conquistadores.

The ChocoMuseo is definitely worth a visit, where you can take a break from all that walking and try some delicious handcrafted Dominican chocolate with a variety of flavors! They have a small interactive museum on the history of chocolate toward the back and even offer workshops where you can learn to make your own chocolate from 100% cacao beans. Even though it was a tad bit on the expensive side, I ended up buying several dark chocolate bars as gifts for friends and coworkers back home and a bag of specialty chocolate coffee beans for my caffeine-addicted parents. Don’t forget to also grab a free map of the Zona on your way out!

I then walked over to Parque Colón, the historic central plaza anchored by the Cathedral and where locals gather to relax and socialize on a sunny afternoon. This is the perfect, picturesque place to cool off in the shade with a nice heladito (ice cream) and do some major people-watching. If you want to enter and tour the Cathedral, however, you must observe the dress code—no shorts, bare midriffs and sleeveless shirts (trust me, if you’re a female, you wouldn’t want to be walking around in Santo Domingo like that anyway…). Head a little ways to the right and you’ll soon find yourself at the gate to Fortaleza Ozama (RD $70 / $1.50 USD), the oldest colonial military fortress in the New World. While still worth a visit, I personally think it’s a bit overshadowed by the more impressive El Morro fortress in neighboring Puerto Rico.

It’s tucked away a little off the beaten path and not as well-known—even the tourist police in Parque Colón had some difficulty giving me directions—but I also highly recommend visiting the Museo de la Porcelana (heading south on Calle José Reyes right before Calle Padre Billini). Since I was the only one there, the super sweet lady managing the front desk kindly obliged to give me a personal tour of the museum’s nine eclectic exhibits, each displaying beautiful porcelain antiques and ceramics from Latin America, Europe, China and the United States. The museum is free, but a small donation and writing a short note in their guestbook about your experience are greatly appreciated!

But perhaps my favorite part of the Zona is walking down the Calle El Conde, the bustling pedestrian-only pathway that runs straight through the heart of the colonial center. The street boasts an abundance of shops, markets and charming open-air cafés with brightly painted façades, and you simply can’t miss the colorful displays of artwork spilling out onto the street. It’s definitely most busy on Sunday night, which was when I came back to do some last-minute souvenir shopping there. Bartering down prices is usually not recommended unless you personally know the owner but if you’re polite (a huge plus if you can also speak Spanish), they’re often willing to offer you some sort of discount! Evenings also beckon street musicians, dancers and acrobats to showcase their talents out on the Calle—one of my favorite memories is of a violinist playing a beautiful rendition of the Latin hit song Vente Pa’ Ca, with two adorable little girls dancing along to the music. Oh, and if you see him along the way, don’t forget to say hi and take a picture with the Robot Man!

The last stop of my solo adventure ended at the Parque de la Independencia, a beautifully serene, yet solemn park that commemorates the Dominican struggle for independence. It also houses an altar containing the remains of the country’s three founding fathers—Juan Pablo Duarte, Matías Ramón Mella and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez. I was amazed at how still the soldiers stand in position at their guard posts dispersed throughout the park, and how they manage to bear the stifling tropical heat in their ornate full-body uniforms is beyond me.

Another really great cultural experience of my trip was the opportunity to attend a Dominican church. Roughly 17% of the country’s population is evangelical Protestant (a.k.a. non-Catholic Christian), and Marly has found such a strong community at Iglesia El Círculo, who’ve also welcomed me with open arms as if I were a part of their family. That Sunday happened to be El Día de las Madres (Mother’s Day) in the DR, so the church had cake, mocktails and a photo booth in celebration of all the mamás in attendance. I got to meet many more of Marly’s lovely friends, both Dominicans and expats alike, and a group of us met up for lunch afterwards at Pastry Pastelería, an amazing French-style bakery and café. ¡Buen provecho!

Interestingly, Sunday is actually the perfect night to experience the best of Dominican nightlife that I was raving so much about earlier. To start off your evening, you absolutely have to stop by Mamey Librería Café in the Zona—it’s a library, art gallery, coffee shop and full-service bar all rolled into one! I could easily spend hours sitting in their beautiful open-air courtyard while enjoying the lively salsa music in the background and one (or more…) of their amazing coffee-based cocktails.

However, Santo Domingo at night still has a lot to offer for those who aren’t into the whole partying scene. There are tons of cafés and restaurants open late and with plentiful outdoor seating so you can enjoy the live music playing nearby. I absolutely loved walking through the Zona as the sun set over the majestic colonial buildings and slowly gave way to the starry, twilit sky. Don’t forget to take lots of photos and simply enjoy those precious, unforgettable moments with your company!

But when in Santo Domingo on a Sunday, it’s an absolute sin not to stop by Las Ruinas del San Francisco for the beloved and legendary Grupo Bonye’s live performance, a free open-air concert enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Families and Dominicans young and old gather here with their lawn chairs and beer coolers to enjoy live salsa, merengue, bachata and son cubano well into the evening. You’ll find no shortage of pop-up stalls selling all the empanadas and Presidente beer your heart desires, so definitely plan to spend a couple hours here. Hands down, this is the one cultural experience that you definitely don’t want to miss!

Before heading over to Bonye, our group first met up at the nearby Plaza de España, the main central square typical of nearly every Latin American city. I’m so glad I wore my comfortable pair of heels or else I’d have probably fallen flat on my face and ended up with a broken ankle! Once at the ruins, I met some wonderful new Dominican amigos who kept the rum and good vibes flowing all night.

It’s truly amazing to see how the city’s historic treasures fuse together with its vibrant, cosmopolitan character—a surreal balance of the old and modern that you simply can’t find anywhere else. I knew I could easily spend another entire week here and yet still not feel like I’ve fully explored all that Santo Domingo has to offer. And thanks to Marly’s gracious hospitality and strong connections with the local community here, I’ve learned and gained a deeper insight into the Dominican way of life, well beyond the all-inclusive resorts and Instagram-drool-worthy beaches.

Con mucho amor,

¸.•´¸.•*¨) ¸.•*¨)
(¸.•´ (¸.•´ .•´ ¸¸.•¨¯`•.♥ Chris


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