Photo credit: Tracy Perez
At 48,442 square kilometers, the Dominican Republic is the second-largest island in the Caribbean. Larger than Maryland and smaller than West Virginia, as well as being home to thousands of miles of white sandy beaches with the Caribbean Sea off the south coast and the Atlantic Ocean off the north coast, the Dominican Republic is also home to the highest mountain in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte (at 9,843 feet), and the lowest point in the Caribbean, the salt lake Enriquillo (at 150 feet below sea level).
As well as having hundreds of all-inclusive resorts, the country is an amazing place for those who enjoy being off the beaten track, experiencing the real Dominican Republic, and doing it on a budget as well.
Getting around the country is simple and very cheap. There are seven international airports, so make sure you arrive at the closest one to your destination to save a long journey following arrival. The main airport, Las Americas, is situated around 20 minutes to the east of the capital, Santo Domingo, so that is a good place to start. There are also international airports in the very east of the island (Punta Cana), in the northeast peninsula (Samana), on the north coast (Puerto Plata), and in the center of the country (Santiago or Cibao International airport).
Once on the island, you have several means of travel. For long journeys, there are three main private bus companies: all 52-seat, air-conditioned buses with televisions and toilets. They can be very cold, so it is always worth taking a warm sweater! They are the Bavaro Express , which goes from the capital to Bavaro and Punta Cana in the east, Caribe Tours which covers the north, center, and west of the island – including going across the border to Haiti – and Metro Tours which covers from north to south. Prices range from $5 USD to $10 USD and they leave regularly from Santo Domingo.
Shorter journeys can be made in public shared taxis for only a few dollars (although they can be packed full of people), guaguas, or local buses and motorcycle taxis. None of these are particularly comfortable, but they are very convenient.
Where to Stay and What to Do
While the island has a wealth of five star hotels, there are also plenty of cheaper and equally comfortable and enjoyable options.
Here are just three of them, all very highly rated, with great atmospheres and surrounded by plenty of exciting and interesting things to do:
Located in the old part of Santo Domingo, in what is known as the Colonial Zone, or the Colonial City, Island Life Backpackers Hostel is a 400-year-old Colonial Building which has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. It has a variety of accommodation options, from double rooms to dormitories with bunk beds. Prices start at $17 USD per night for a bunk bed in the dorm up to US$38 for the double room.
The Colonial Zone is the perfect place to begin your stay in the country as it is only 20 minutes from the main airport, Las Americas. It is the first and oldest settlement in the whole of the Americas, dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus, providing a wonderful mixture of the past and present, where the old and the new intertwine to ensure a unique experience for travelers. Perfect for romance, photography, gastronomic experiences, and historians, it has something for everyone – including superbly preserved historical sites, such as the first cathedral in the Americas, fabulous restaurants, lively bars, beautiful plazas, and a wide range of shops. Spending time in the city is a step back in history with all the benefits of modern day comfort and the best place to soak up and experience the Dominican joy for living.
Situated in the northeast of the island, Las Terrenas is just over a two hour bus ride from Santo Domingo, which costs around $8 USD. Home to stunning scenery, beautiful waterfalls, horse riding, diving, and several amazing beaches, it is very close to Samana which is the breeding ground for humpback whales during February and March. Several different boats make tours to see these spectacular mammals as they leap out of the water.
Featuring free WiFi, a restaurant, and a large terrace, Dan and Manty’s Guesthouse offers great value for the money in Las Terrenas, with a variety of different sized dorms from $18 USD a night. There are several advantages to staying here, one of which is that it is just off the main street but in a beautiful tropical garden, so you feel as if you are in the middle of the countryside. The other major advantage is Manty’s cooking. Breakfast is only $3.50 USD and every night she puts on an enormous spread for around $7. Backpackers come from around the world, and every night the large terrace is a great place for hanging out and meeting different people.
Located at the opposite end of the island, deep in the southwest, Barahona province is one of the undiscovered hidden gems of the Dominican Republic. It is around 114 miles from Santo Domingo, and you can make the 3-4 hour journey by Caribe Tours, which has four buses a day and costs only $6.50.
What makes Barahona so special is its wild and natural landscape and tranquility. There are towering mountains which literally descend into the Caribbean Sea, with rivers running alongside the beaches and into the ocean, tropical rain forests, unspoiled and deserted beaches of smooth colorful pebbles or white powdery sand. Given the lack of development and the stunning natural beauty, it is home to a variety of wildlife including crocodiles, iguanas, and flamingos and is a bird lover’s paradise. The road from Barahona to Pedernales is further to the west and is said to be the most spectacular drive in the Caribbean.
While there are some beautiful five star luxury hotels, for a cheaper option you can stay in Eco Del Mar, which is close to Pedernales and what is said to be one of the best beaches in the world: Bahia de las Aguilas. The accommodation is in luxury tents, with proper beds and prices starting at $20 USD per person including breakfast. There is a bar and restaurant on site and excursions to the Bahia de Las Aguilas by boat can be arranged.
So a holiday in the Dominican Republic doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t have to involve lying on a beach all day in an all-inclusive resort. To experience the real country and get to know the friendly and fun loving Dominican people, do what more and more visitors are doing – just hop on the bus!
Lindsay de Feliz lives in the northwest mountains in the Dominican Republic with her Dominican husband, five dogs, two cats, six goats, and several chickens.
She is the author of two best selling and highly rated memoirs about her life in the Dominican Republic, What About Your Saucepans? and Life After My Saucepans and writes a blog about the Dominican Republic and daily life at www.yoursaucepans.blogspot.com.