White sand, swaying palms, warm Caribbean waters… most people don’t ask for much more on a Dominican Republic holiday.
But it’s not just about wallowing in coastal perfection on the island. A cauldron of exotic influences are celebrated through lively music, local traditions, carnival celebrations and fascinating history. So while the sand performs its salubrious obligations, the Dominican Republic culture adds colourful paradigms and something quintessentially Caribbean. Here are some ideas about what to explore.
Taino history at Tainopark
The Dominican Republic was home to the Arawakan speaking Taino people, worshippers of spirits, who were full of intriguing tales. That quickly changed after Columbus arrived. Within half a century the Taino were extinct and their story is wonderfully presented at Tainopark, the history relayed unflinchingly from a Taino perspective. Set within a reconstructed village, it’s a great introduction to the island’s past and the traditions that survived even though the indigenous people did not.
Take a walk through Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial
There’s a very different evocation of history in Zona Colonial, the antiquated buildings of the first “new world” settlement lined along streets of enchantment. Churches stand on forgotten corners while ice cream stalls send the smells of summer onto the streets. Cathedral Primada de America stands at the region’s heart, a place that offers a more idealised version of Columbus’s history. Consider coming late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
Dancing to Merengue music
Fast-paced and packed with different instruments, merengue is the local musical obsession. Combining African drums with Latin percussion, brass instruments and saxophones with rope-tuned tambora, merengue beats emanate from bars all over the country. It’s quick and fun, the dance style requiring few formal steps and little previous dancing ability. Although you definitely need energy to keep up with the locals. You don’t need to hit the dance floor. Just watching the furious drumming and dozens of musicians is a very unique experience. You can hear live merengue in many bars, especially in Santo Domingo. The annual Festival del Merengues takes place for a week in late July or early August and is ideal for music lovers.
Dining on raw chocolate
After the 150 beats per minute of merengue let’s reenergise! The country’s chocolate plantations stand on hills above the beaches, cacao pods hanging from verdant foliage. It looks and tastes nothing like a chocolate bar so tours take you through the whole process from bitter pod to sweet indulgence. El Sendero del Cacao in San Francisco de Macoris provides an excellent quick tour, while the organic La Esmeralda plantation also includes a fabulous walk through the forest.
La Aurora Cigar Factory
It’s a little cliché but most preconceptions of Dominican Republic culture involve a mature man with a moustache smoking a cigar. While it’s only partly accurate, this Santiago de los Caballeros factory does an excellent job of explaining the island’s cigar history, both for the economy and as a local treat.
Watching the Carnival every February
Most Latin American countries have a week-long carnival. In the Dominican Republic, the festivities last for a whole month. Throughout February, musical parades snake through the streets of almost every town and village, with each having their own unique twist on the carnival. It’s the exuberant highlight of Dominican Republic culture. To the beat of merengue and bachata music, the locals parade dressed like Diablo Cojuelo (the Limping Devil) or Roba la Gallina (Steal the Chicken). For your Dominican Republic holiday the largest carnival celebrations are in La Vega, Santo Domingo and Montecristi, all of them climaxing on 27th February, Independence Day. It’s an event that’s celebrated by the whole community, from the youngest to the oldest.
Recycled and Unusual Art
Dominican Republic culture is doused in colour, the streets awash with vivid swirls. The country’s art is equally vivacious, exemplified by the tiny Kana Rapai Art Studio with its quirky canvases and sculptures made from recycled finds. Another equally unusual spot for your Dominican Republic holiday is the gallery at Altos de Chavon, full of strange sculptures and surrounded by peaceful churches and old-world villages.
A baseball game at Estadio Quisqueya
Crowds roar at Estadio Quisqueya, the national baseball stadium of an island preoccupied with the sport. The country has six teams, with Santo Domingo’s rivals Licey and Escogido pitching at this charming little ground. A seat in the stands costs less than £5 with front-row seats next to the ballplayers around £15. You don’t need to enjoy the actual baseball, this experience is all about the enthusiastic atmosphere and spending time with the locals.
A Rum and Coke
If you’re still struggling to peel yourself away from the sand then consider your choice of drink. Rum and coke is the national standard and if you stick a cocktail umbrella in it then the West neatly mingles with the Caribbean.