I had no set expectations of Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. I just knew that as long as I was flying all the way to Punta Cana, I might as well see Santo Domingo too. It’s only a 2 hour and 20 minute drive from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo — trust me, I did it twice — but the two are worlds apart. Punta Cana is all mega-resorts and all-inclusive and casinos and beaches and spray tans. Santo Domingo is all colonial charm and street hawkers and pot holes and UNESCO World Heritage.
In a crazy way, Santo Domingo reminded me of Damascus, without the crowds and with less clothing.
I arrived in Santo Domingo in the heat of midday. Not a good look. It took me about two hours of roaming around to shake a weird feeling that I can’t explain. There’s a pedestrian street that all the guidebooks talk about, but I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you like the cat calls. I do not like the cat calls, even when they are the multilingual cat calls. Dominicanos like to chat, which is a good thing I suppose, but a weird thing when you are on your own. Better were the quiet side streets and the lovely little doorways and alleyways where everything was quiet and peaceful and I was able to shake the weird feeling.
Within an afternoon, I fell so much in love with Zona Colonial that I barely left it. This makes me a bad tourist. A convenient tourist. But I talked to a lot of people in Zone Colonial and I learned a lot of things about colonialism and immigration and Haiti and rum and I was enjoying myself so much that I really didn’t want to leave. Even though it was hot. So hot. The Spanish brought windows that closed against the heat to Santo Domingo. The French brought the balconies to escape the heat. But on the street, where I was most of the time, there were no windows or balconies and the heat was inescapable.
Christopher Columbus discovered Hispaniola in 1492. The island was inhabited by native people at the time, and the story goes that diseases from the new world decimated the native population. But ask the locals and they will tell you about the small villages inland in the DR, where the people look like no one they have ever seen before.
I tried to ask my tour guide where his family was from originally. “Oh you know. A man came from Portugal many years ago. He had a baby with one lady and a baby with another lady and then a baby with another lady. We think there were three brothers.”
The guy you never heard about in history class — or at least I never did — was Christopher Columbus’ brother, Bartholomew. Bart was the guy that established Santo Domingo as Santo Domingo. But Spain, according to the Dominicans, eventually abandoned Hispaniola and the short story is that the French took over and things went downhill quickly. Colonialism is a tragic thing and people have a lot of opinions about it, even 500 years later. Almost as many opinions as they have about baseball.
The only thing everyone I talked to in Santo Domingo could completely and totally agree on was that Julio Iglesias is not a nice person. I am not sure how he has managed to piss off so many individuals in one country (especially taxi drivers), but he has. (Julio has had a home in the Dominican for many years.)
Oscar de la Renta is held in much higher regard. Excellent regard. A good man. May he rest in peace.
These are the things I like to know when I visit a place. Santo Domingo delivered. I think it is at a tipping point. Give it some high speed broadband and the Digital Nomad expats will follow.