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Published: December 8th 2016
During the Thanksgiving Break this year, we made a quick 5 day trip to Dominican Republic. We flew to Santa Domingo, capital city of Dominican Republic. Air travel was short and eventless and immigration process for US citizens is simple as getting a visa costing $10/person at the air port. Drive from the airport to Santa Domingo is very beautiful along the palm tree lined shoreline of turquoise Caribbean Sea. We noticed how similar this route is to the drive from Colombo to Galle. DR even smells the same as Sri Lanka. Out of all the countries we have visited so far, we felt DR comes closest to our home country. Santa Domingo, Capital of the DR is the first European settlement in the Western hemisphere and the Old City (“the Colonial Zone”) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We arrived at our hotel (Sheraton Santa Domingo) driving though the colonial part of the city which gave us good orientation of area. The hotel is located across the street from Caribbean Sea on George Washington Ave which is the major rough fare of the city. That proved to be one of challenges later on when we tried to explore the area
on foot. While there were plenty of marked pedestrian crossings, none of the vehicles stopped to let us cross. Eventually, we had to get help from two street vendors who were brave enough to jump in front of moving vehicles to help us cross it.
First place we visited in Santa Domingo is Los Tres Ojos (Three Eyes National Park) which is about 20 minutes drive from the city. It is one the most popular tourist sites and we had to stay in line for a little while to get in. It has a set of underground, amazingly beautiful, crystal clear blue water lakes carved out of limestone thought to be occupied by natives, Taino Indians. The Lakes are fed by underground springs and caves are covered is dramatic stalagmites. This natural wonder is only accessible by stairs, but it is an easy descend and climb. Well maintained place has animated guides should you need one.
Next stop was Faro a Colon, the Columbus Light House which looks like something out of an alien movie. It is a huge cross shaped structure that spring up out of nowhere. Closer proximity Los Tres Ojos makes it a good place
to visit together. It has beams of light that emanate towards the sky that can be seen for miles (even from Puerto Rico apparently). It supposedly contains the remains of Columbus (Cathedral of Seville, also claim to possess the explorer's remains– see the visit to Spain, DNA testing was inconclusive as to which place has the real remains). It is both a mausoleum and a museum containing artifacts from all most all countries in the world.
Zona Colonial is the historic central neighborhood of Santo Domingo and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Walkable cobble stones streets lined with interesting architecture make it look like a smaller European city. High light of all the sites is Catedral Primada de América. It is very European cathedral with vaulted Gothic ceilings, Romanesque arches and baroque ornamentation. Christopher Columbus’s son Diego has laid the fist stone of the cathedral in 1514, but construction was completed much later. However, this is considered the oldest church (functioning) in the new world. Do not wear short shorts to this church (or for that matter any religious institution in any country out of
respect even though it may be hot and humid) as we noticed people who did were asked to wear a piece of cloth (like a sarong) to cover the legs before entering the church. From there it is an easy walk to Fort Ozama – the oldest military structure in the new world. It is much smaller than Castilo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan (Puerto Rico) but looks similar.
After few days in Santa Domingo, 2.5 hours of drive to east took us to the lazy part of our vacation – to Punta Cana on the east side of the island. It is basically a resort town with luxurious hotels dotting the Caribbean coast line. There we stayed in The Westin Resort and Club located on the most beautiful stretch of white sandy beach. We however managed to squeeze in few sights in the nearby city, Higuey escaping all the tourist traps that promote wild life safaris, swim with dolphins etc.
Church in Higüey, The Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia is a Roman Catholic cathedral in Higuey dedicated to Our Lady of Altagracia, patroness of the nation. From outside, it looks like a
strange concrete structure; inside is much nicer with tall elongated concrete arches and stain glassed windows- the wall opposite the front door consists of stained glass and is quite beautiful when sun is streaming in. The glass-encased image of the Virgin of Altagracia (the Virgin is said to have bestowed miraculous cures) housed inside makes it one of most famous and most visited cathedrals in the country.
The Museo de la Altagracia which is in the grounds of Basilica is an extremely well-done and modern museum. It has lots of religious and historical artifacts including the offers by rich and poor for the favors bestowed on them by Virgin of Altagracia. The guided tours explaining the history of religion and culture in the DR back to the 18th century is very informative. Sadly, this place is rarely visited by tourists; we recommend it highly as it is well worth the visit.
Visit to a Caribbean Island is not complete without a customary stop at a rum factory, cigar factory and in this case at a chocolate factory as well. Most interesting was the cigar factory where we were able to see the cigar rolling process by some very
experienced cigar rollers. While it is a labor intensive process, who knew that some cigars cost $100+ a piece! It’s literally burning your money.
Most tourists visit DR as a beach destination- some don’t venture out of their all inclusive resorts at all, but the country has a long history and is geographically diverse. Friendly Dominicans are passionate about baseball, rum, and religion in equal measure, are quite helpful to tourists. DR is a great destination for a quick respite visit from the USA.
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