Travel

Before Going to the Dominican Republic

Travel comes with inherent risks. Some small, some not. Understanding the history of a country and how that can impact safety while traveling, is on us, the traveler. That said, bloggers and "travel influencers" glossing over safety issues by only sharing the glamorous side of travel are frankly, dangerous.

I might not be an influencer, but if there is any chance someone’s travel plans and therefore their safety could be impacted, then transparency is my obligation. With transparency comes another responsibility, fairness. It wouldn’t be fair to Dominicans to share a scary story without taking a look at the history of the Dominican Republic and at least trying to understand what’s driving current events.

My goal with this post is to be honest, fair, and helpful for anyone looking to answer the question, is the Dominican Republic safe for travel? I’m sharing the good, the bad, and to the best of my ability a little history behind the latter.

For Dominican Citizens or history buffs, if you feel the summation of my research is lacking, incorrect or unfair, I welcome your knowledge and point of view. Please share it in the comments below.

Without further ado, let’s jump into the good and bad experiences we had while traveling the Dominican Republic, starting with Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone)

Founded in 1496 Santo Domingo is the oldest permanent city established by Europeans in the West. In 1990 Santo Domingo’s historic district known as the Colonial Zone was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Which is part of the reason Paolo and I wanted to see Santo Domingo when visiting the Dominican Republic. Paolo loves history and I love cities with unique architecture. Santo Domingo is rich with both.

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Spanish Architecture in Santo Domingo

Parque Colon

Our first stop in Santo Domingo was the picturesque Parque Colon. A lively square thanks to shade from mature trees. Locals line park benches reading the paper and cafe tables chatting over coffee. The first Cathedral constructed in the New World stands regal to one side while a statue dedicated to Christopher Columbus claims center stage.

Christopher Columbus Statue in Parque Colon

Calle El Conde

A quick jaunt from Parque Colon is Calle El Conde a pedestrian street in Santo Domingo. Stretching between Parque Duarte and Parque Independencia, El Conde is lined with shops, restaurants and offices. Music spills out of souvenir shops while locals buzz between offices. Walking El Conde gives a snapshot of modern Dominican culture right in the heart of the Colonial Zone.

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Calle El Conde, the main modern drag in Santo Domingo.

San Francisco Monastery, Santo Domingo

We stumbled on the ruins of the San Francisco Monastery by accident and I’m glad we did. Between Calle Duarte and Calle Hostos the San Francisco Monastery ruins seem oddly out of place despite their legacy standing. Having endured fire and earthquakes the rustic walls have given way to life again as a concert stage on the weekends.

Plaza España Santo Domingo

Plaza España was pretty empty the day we visited due to mid day heat. School kids clustered under trees surrounding the square. The minute a cloud broke free, so too did they. Laughter bouncing through the square as a quick game a tag broke out. As the sun came back, back under the trees they went.

There is an enticing juxtaposition of pristine Spanish Architecture and patina throughout Santo Domingo. Colonial areas where most tourists remain are immaculate. While neighborhoods just outside the Colonial Zone hint of high crime rates the capital city is plagued with.

Staying Safe While Visiting Santo Domingo

This is where travel gets personal. Knowing who you are as a traveler is critical when exploring a city for the first time. Are you comfortable researching local crimes and scams? Staying aware of your surroundings? Not drinking to much in public? Trusting your instincts? Leaving all valuables including jewelry and electronics at home? If yes and Smart Traveler the official U.S. State Department app for travelers is something you’re already aware of, my cautionary advice is not needed.

If any of these questions bring even a moment of pause, especially the part about not carrying valuables or drinking to much in public, spend time researching before you go. I’m not saying don’t go or don’t relax and enjoy a beer on vacation in Santo Domingo. I am saying keep your wits about you and stick to one, preferably a lower ABV option like locally favored Presidente which is only 5%.

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Presidente Pilsner, 5% ABV

Where to Have a Beer in Santo Domingo

Here are four Santo Domingo spots to stop for a low ABV @cervpresidente.

  • @ritascafe for an elevated and more importantly shaded view of Plaza España
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Elevated, shaded view of Plaza España from Ritas Cafe in Santo Domingo.
  • @dluisparrillada feast your eyes on the Caribbean Sea and your belly on Mofongo (YUM) and the absolute coldest beer we had on the trip.
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View from D’Luis Parrillada of Caribbean Waters.
  • BODEGAS! Toilet paper by day, bar by night. Music from an old boom box blasts while locals dance and sip cold Presidente.
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Bodega in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.
  • @cava_billini or Lulu’s Tasting Bar. Both are perfectly situated on a beautiful crescent-shaped square, Parque Billini. Paolo’s photo is by day but at night, those large trees sway in the evening breeze making for a romantic evening drink.
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Parque Billini a beautiful crescent-shaped square in Santo Domingo.

Part of the reason Paolo and I were able to enjoy our time in Santo Domingo is that we are both experienced travelers and comfortable in big cities. We knew ahead of time to be careful in Santo Domingo and we were. We locked our valuables in the safe in our room. Stayed alert and kept drinks to a minimum before having a nightcap in our room from a bottle of wine we purchased at a Bodega.

Unfortunately, in order to split our time between Santo Domingo and our resort, we had to rent a car, which is part of where the trouble for us began. Most tourists go straight to all-inclusive beach resorts in Punta Cana for a reason. Something I’ll go into in more detail soon. Right now, I’d like to share my favorite part of our time in the Dominican Republic. Where we stayed and the beaches we visited.

Where to Stay in the Dominican Republic

We chose the area of Las Galeras for two reasons. One Las Galera is more out of the way and as introverts we prefer uncrowded beaches. Two we thought Las Galeras would be safer than Punta Cana.

Punta Cana is the number one tourist destination in the Dominican Republic. Famous for sandy white beaches and all-inclusive resorts most tourists flock to Punta Cana creating a target-rich environment. Instead we got more for our money at El Paraíso in Las Galeras.

El Paraíso went beyond all expectations. Staying here was an experience in and of itself. This Swiss Family Robinson multi-bungalow rustic getaway was previously a family home. Three very lucky kids grew up in this paradise. Perched high above Samaná Bay Owners Nora and Jose take great pride in creating a space that is one with the surrounding landscape.

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Huts of El Paraíso in the Dominican Republic

A clear love of Samaná Bay itself can also be seen in the touches of each bungalow. Construction materials were all drawn from the surrounding land. Each morning a hearty Dominican breakfast is served. A cup of coffee turned into three and sometimes four just to relax in front of this view.

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View from the Breakfast Area of El Paraiso

Each bungalow only has three walls connecting guests to nature in a very real way. Our room had two hammocks that essentially made the fourth wall of our bungalow. A room that just so happened to be Nora and Jose’s master bedroom before 2016 when they decided to turn their family home into a resort.

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Fourth Wall of Our Room in El Paraiso

Our first night I awoke to a thunderstorm. After a bolt of lightening, I sat straight up in bed only to be met by strong winds and rain pelting my face. Even after rolling down a rain shield that night was an unforgettable experience. We were taken aback by both the use of the land and the open architecture plan which provided endless panoramic views.

Dominican Republic Beaches

The Dominican Republic deserves its due when it comes to beautiful beaches. The weather is warm, sand is soft and the ocean is a mix of Caribbean turquoise and azure blue. Here are two of the best beaches near Las Galeras.

Playa Las Galeras

The first is Playa Las Galeras. The main downtown street ends at Playa Las Galeras. Off the beaten tourist track, Playa Las Galeras is an astoundingly beautiful city beach. Soft white sand washes into a rainbow of blue so beautiful I kept saying “I can’t believe this is a city beach! How is this a city beach?”

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Playa Las Galeras

Playa Rincon

The second and more impressive beach was Playa Rincon. Again lined by soft white sands and Caribbean hues but this time, surrounded by more lush green mountains. One side of the beach has small stands for food and drinks while the other side ends in a mango grove.

Travel Dominican Republic Safe Playa Rincon
Playa Rincon

Playa Rincon is stunning. Being there in the off-season meant we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. That ended up being a double-edged sword. Before leaving El Paraíso we were warned not to take anything to Playa Rincon. “Don’t wear anything that shines and park your car where we can see it.” Playa Rincon is indeed beautiful, but all the warnings made it hard to relax. Which brings me to my final point. Safety issues in the Dominican Republic for tourists.

Driving in the Dominican Republic is Risky

For the most part, our trip to the Dominican Republic was enjoyable. The nature and the unique experience at El Paraíso alone would have brought me back. That is until we were stopped three times driving from Las Galeras back to the airport.

The first time, a heavily armed officer stopped us by walking into the middle of the road and waving us down. Scowling, he looked into our car and waved us on. No big deal.

The second time, the officer asked where we were headed. Then asked for Paolo’s ID. Before handing it back he said “Dinero.” Calmly, Paolo said no. Thankfully he let us go. No big deal.

The third stop, was a bigger deal. There were two officers. One in front, standing off to the side of the road. Very large gun in hand. The second officer tapped on the window and asked for license, registration, and passports. Thankfully Paolo understood enough Spanish to know what he wanted and handed everything over.

Staring at Paolo not the documents, the officer said in Spanish, “Otro documento.” Paolo paused. There were no other documents. Irritated and insistent the officer shouted “Otro documento! Otro!” After a third, increasingly angry request, the officer did something that made my heart race.

Crossing one hand over the other he tapped his wrists together and tilted his head as if to say, “you’re in big trouble.” The expression on his face matched his actions, which said it all.

Paolo “No. Turista.”

The officer tapped his wrists together making a “tisk, tisk, tisk” sound.

Paolo calm but firm “No. Turista.”

Tapping his wrists together the officer said “dinero” before nodding to the second officer who then took a step forward, clutching his gun higher.

Paolo had warned me this could happen. He’s driven all over the world and been stopped before. He had already warned me the best thing to do was to remain calm no matter what. Despite my heart now beating wildly in my throat and the blood draining from my face, I did my best to appear calm.

Paolo still calm “No, Turista.”

With that, the officer cracked a smile and said in English “Joking, joking. I got you!”

It wasn’t funny.

Somehow Paolo had the inner strength to laugh along saying “Good one, good one!”

The officer handed our documents back and waved us on.

After pulling away, Paolo’s false humor instantly disappeared. I finally breathed. Neither of us spoke.

While experiences like this are nothing new for a traveler like Paolo, feeling responsible for his wife’s safety in the middle of it is. These guys had our passports, guns, and motive, money. We had suntans, the jitters, and a flight to catch.

Why is the Dominican Republic So Corrupt?

This historical timeline from the BBC helped me better understand the struggles the Dominican Republic has faced to stabilize as a country. There is a long and storied past of power struggles, inequality and economic instability.

Colonization and annexing. Uprising and independence. Treaties and occupations. Dictators and massacres and that was all before 1940. In the 80s while America was living in excess the Dominican Republic faced austerity measures on food and gas leading to riots. Instead of reform, presidential corruption and fraud scandals followed.

Plus, natural disasters have strained Dominicans and their economy forcing them to start over and over again. Between 1979 and 2012, four hurricanes killed hundreds, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left well over $2 billion in damages.

Even I can understand that a legacy of instability, political corruption as high as the presidency and natural disasters do not make for a strong economy. Nor does one political party holding power for too long without the will to create a system of reform and oversight into corruption.

What it makes for is persistent inequality and even more widespread corruption at all levels. Corruption this deep comes from the top down and without resources and proper elections, cries for change from the bottom up are stifled.

Is it Safe to Travel to the Dominican Republic?

Is it fair for me to share beautiful photos of the Dominican Republic and then share a seriously cautionary tale? I think so, here’s why. Stories like ours usually come out only when patterns make the news. Like in 2019 when there was a string of American tourists died in the Dominican Republic.

Then in time tourists return for the promise of a beautiful beach vacation at an affordable rate. No tourism board or all-inclusive brochure discloses cautionary tales. Their job is to get you to spend money in their country, not to share the history behind what’s happening. Frankly that’s not okay. Not for tourists and not for citizens fighting corruption.

Once aware of the risk, only you can decide for yourself if it’s safe to travel to the Dominican Republic. I knew about the risks ahead of time. What I didn’t know was what it felt like to be asked for money by a man with a gun and my passport. I also didn’t know, an experience that frightens me, can overpower the good memories of a vacation.

Now. If you’re already an experienced traveler who is comfortable accepting risk for reward that’s one thing. However, if you are an inexperienced or sensitive traveler, think carefully about going to the Dominican Republic. At the very least, do research on recent crime rates and how to stay safe while traveling. Keep them both in mind when that amazing all-inclusive deal flashes up on your screen.

Sources On Dominican Republic History & Corruption

4 comments

  1. It sounds like it would be best if we took a tour when visiting DR. Cruising would probably be the only way we’d visit there after the Corona scare.

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    1. I would recommend working with a tour company yes. Usually we prefer not to but if you like us enjoy seeing more of a country, then this would be a safer way to go then self guided. I thought when we left I wouldn’t return but our repatriation flight from Florida to Italy stopped in the Dominican Republic. Our surprise stop was incredibly well organized on the Dominican side. So I had to tip my hat to the Dominican government that day. What cruise line do you prefer?

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