For our first trip to a tropical island we chose Dominican Republic. One of the biggest and the richest (= the least poor) countries in the Caribbean will offer anything you would possibly want from such a trip: white sand beaches, palm trees, sun, as well as a lot of opportunities to discover the nature of tropical rainforests: there are many national parks and reserves here for such a small country. Those interested in history will also find something here: Santo Domingo, the capital of DR, is the place of the first Columbus’s disembarkation and the oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere. Ten days of our trip only gave as enough time to see the most popular sights of the country. The rest of them has to wait when we decide to come here again. This will happen most definitely because DR is such a wonderful tropical destination!
Tourism is one of the most important sources of revenue for DR. It comes at no surprise that DR is visa free for citizens of most countries. After the arrival in the airport it is required to pay a tourist fee of $10, after which you are on your own. I strongly recommend taxi services: they allow to book a car in advance for a specific time. Those services are quite pricey but very convenient and will safely deliver you straight to your hotel.
Even though DR is one of the most developed Caribbean countries, it is still quite poor which strengthens the risk for white tourists to get robbed or even killed. More to that, DR shares the island with Haiti, one of the poorest world countries.
Initially we were thinking about renting a car and exploring the island on our own, but after reading some disturbing stories decided to abandon this idea. In the end we stayed in a “standard” well guarded hotel and left it with almost only tour buses.
As we realized when already on the spot, it is the most common way to visit DR. All more or less big hotels collaborate with tour organizers. Day trips are bookable at the hotel reception or online (for example, on viator.com), and the bus will pick you up for the tour at your hotel and drop you off also there by the end of the tour.
If your hotel has a restaurant and a beach, you can just stay in its territory all the time, except for the tours. In case there is no restaurant, you will have to get food for yourself on your own. I would not recommend to go out in the streets after dark. Policemen here always carry shotguns and machine guns, and I can guess they do it for a reason.
How to pack
Apart from the normal beach stuff, you will also need some basic medicine. Like in other tropical countries, different nasty diseases are broadly spread in DR. The good news is that most of them a carried by mosquitoes so your No. 1 helper in fighting them is a mosquito repellent. A good idea is to ask an epidemiologist a couple of months before the trip about medicines you might need and which vaccinations should be done.
You will also need cash, preferably in small dollar bills ($1, $5, and $10). You will need that for tipping which you will be begged for everywhere. It is not recommended to use credit cards in DR, because many cases of identity theft with hacked ATMs and bank terminals were reported.
When to go
The high season in DR is from December to March. The weather is dry and sunny at this time of the year. By the middle of January whale watching tours start as humpback whales come to the Dominican shores for mating. The obvious downsides of the high season are crowds of tourists and elevated prices for day trips, hotels, and flights.
Ones willing to miss out on whales, I recommend coming in the late April or the early May. The weather is almost as good, and the beaches are desert and empty.
We arrived to the beach by 10-11 AM, and there was no single time we failed to take a spot in the front line. The prices were also pleasant. Our hotel in Punta Cana had most of the benefits of good hotels: front line, armed guards, staffed reception, swimming pool, tour service. Only the food was missing, and we only paid $70 a night.
What to see
We only stayed for one night in the capital city. I bet we missed a lot of interesting stuff. For example, we only had a short walk in the Colonial Zone which is a UNESCO World Heritage object. If you are willing to walk the steps of Columbus and the first settlers, there are guided tours for that.
The objects that we managed to see were quite interesting. They remind of the Spanish style, of course, but also have unique flavor. Palms and other tropical trees surround them and add some special mood to them.
The main reason why we decided to stay for a bit in Santo Domingo was not the history though, but the Los Tres Ojos National Park which is located right in the middle of the city! A brick wall separates the city from this piece of a tropical rainforest equipped with stairs and viewing platforms.
Its name (“the three eyes”) the park got due to three cave lakes of stunning blue color and crystal clearness.
But the main sight of this park is a “secret” fourth lake where you can get to for a couple of dollars in a raft.
It is astonishing and I could not believe that right behind this wall of trees is a lively city full of people and cars.
The main tourist destinations of Dominican Republic are Puerto Plata and Samana in the north of the country, Santo Domingo in the south, and Punta Cana in the east. Among those Punta Cana is the most developed and popular and has the most day trips starting there.
The entire coast around Punta Cana is occupied by hotels, and very often only the hotel guests can get to the hotel’s beach. If your hotel is not located on the water front, there is a high probability that it would take quite some time to get to the beach because you would have to walk around all those private territories.
Beaches themselves are white sand, palm trees and unbelievably warm sea. The early May is a good time to enjoy them without tourist crowds.
Nine days on the same beach is not our cup of tea: before the trip we researched some tourist websites and picked five very different day tours with the best reviews.
Whole day trips in DR usually include food and drinks which is very nice. More to that, a drunk tourist = a happy tourist = higher tips: party tours to different small islands always imply unlimited rum included 😉 Stock up some small bills because every person you meet will ask for tips: bus driver, boat captains, the guide, entertainers etc.
I ranked our trips below from the least to the most interesting.
Snorkeling at the Catalina Island
Reefs are not the best in DR. Those interested in diving should consider a different destination.
This tour brought us to snorkel a bit over a barely alive reef. Even though it was my first reef to see, I was bored. After half an hour of snorkeling they bring you to a beach to get food and drinks. This is a typical party tour and the main purpose here is to get drunk with Cuba Libre on a catamaran. Nothing more to see.
El Limon waterfall
This trip left me with very unclear emotions. On the first hand, the waterfall is gorgeous, just look at that:
On the other hand, it is located a bit deep in the jungle. Fat tourists apparently were not inspired to walk the path, so most of the distance you will cover on a horseback. This is my only but critical problem with this tour. The horses are treated horribly, they live in a small pen, are very thin and suffering from flies and the heat.
Every tourist is assigned a “volunteer” whose purpose is to make the horse walk by hitting it with sticks and even throwing stones at it.
I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this trip, even though it is wonderfully beautiful:
After the waterfall you get to another beach on another island. It is quite cute, and you can see Samana Bay shore covered with a dense rainforest.
Quad ride to Macao Beach
Unlike the other tours, this one is only for half a day, so the food is not included. I recommend to plan this trip on the spot and choose a day after the rain: I bet it is much more fun to drive muddy roads instead of dust. Although it was also fun without the mud. You ride such a buggy:
Along the way you make three stops. The first two are just money rip off and an attempt to sell you some bullshit souvenirs. But the third stop just made me cry. I finally found it – my perfect beach.
The Macao Beach is unique in a sense that its shoreline is not occupied by hotels. This is also a reason why there are almost no tourists (except for quad visits twice a day). The water is truly clear. Next to our hotel it was always full of some seaweed and palm pieces, and here there was nothing floating in there. The shore itself is painting worth.
The sad part is that they only give you 20 minutes on this beach with the quad ride.
If you are not too interested in day trips but rather searching for a relaxed beach vacation, I strongly recommend considering hostels close to this beach. They are most probably not supported by tour organizers, so this beach will be your only entertainment (I think it has a surfing school, which is something).
But since there are no big hotels around, there should be fewer people and real quality beach experience.
In total we have tried three party tours: this one, the snorkeling trip, and the waterfall. Among those three, Saona Island trip was the best to me.
A motor boat will carry you to this island most of which is a national park. The first stop is the “natural swimming pool”, a very long shallow stretch of shore.
After some Cuba Libre and an optional photoshooting in this “pool” you get to the beach. Once again we were happy to go outside the high season. Considering it is one of the most popular trips, I can guess that in the season it is extremely crowded.
On this beach I tried the best in my life Pina Colada: it costs nearly nothing, and they make it right in front of you out of a real pineapple: they will open it up, scratch its flesh out, mix it with rum and cream and pour everything back in:
The way back you cover on a catamaran where you can also learn to dance some local dances.
There is a version of this trip which includes a visit to a fake city Altos de Chavon. The local art academy built it in medieval Italian style as an art project. It is hard to believe that all these are less than half a century old. It is fun to visit but definitely not a must see sight – rather go to the real Italy 🙂
Fun Fun Cave
This tour is decisively the best out of all we have tried. This one trip is worth crossing the ocean for. This was a real adventure, and if I am ever again in DR, this will be not optional to visit.
The first part of the trip is a half an hour horseback ride. The experience here was much much better than at El Limon. The horses are treated well and have nice pastures to graze when not working.
When the path is too narrow and steep, it is time to dismount. For the next 40 minutes you will walk through the real jungle, where your guides will introduce you to the local plants and creatures (watch out for the tarantulas!).
Finally you arrive to a very suspicious whole in the ground: this is your cave. Your guides will rappel you into it: those 17 meters are very long and exciting when you are hanging in the air above darkness.
Feel yourself a speleologist:
Sometimes you will have to crawl under rocks, walk inside an underground river and even dive under a rock while you can see nearly nothing.
Not recommended for claustrophobic, but the rest are guaranteed to get some unique experience!
A bus will bring you to your sights, but along the way you will see how regular people live in small Dominican villages. The poverty jumps into your face straight away:
When a tour bus passes by such a shed, women and children will come out and smile at tourists. I was surprised by this: I think I in the same circumstances would hate all those riches which are hurrying to their 5 star hotels.
Often one can see unfinished buildings, and sometimes they are even occupied. Not all people have enough money to finish the construction in one phase, so they add amenities and floors one by one while living there.
With this poverty it is no surprise that every person you meet in DR will ask for as much tips as you are willing to give. Day trips in DR are quite cheap, and most of the price is taken by the organizer company. The actual workers will get close to nothing. Apart from trips, you will be expected to give tip to your waiter, taxi driver, concierge, room service and all other people who help you in any way during your trip.
Even despite some downsides (mostly due to safety reasons and annoying tip begging), the travel to Dominican Republic turned out to be one of my most interesting and memorable trips. A lot of things we did not manage to see in those nine days, but it is only another reason to come here again!