Finding an unspoiled vacation haven in the Caribbean isn’t that hard, considering the region’s incredible waters and the exotic islands piercing their surface. The sun-filled Dominican Republic is an excellent example of Caribbean charm, marked with white sands, crystalline waters and abundant forests that make it a popular escape for American travelers. But there’s plenty more to do here that doesn’t often grab the headlines. Browse through our guide and find out how to make the most of your trip to the Dominican Republic – along with suggestions on places to stay.
From walking the streets of a colonial settlement in the capital of Santo Domingo, to swimming with dolphins in Puerto Plata, here are the top things to see and do during your stay in the Dominican Republic.
Ciudad Colonial – also known as Zona Colonial – is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas. Strolling around the streets of this Unesco-listed town in Santo Domingo, you’ll come across gorgeous buildings from the 1500s, such as the Primada de América Cathedral or the peculiar Ozama Fortress. Standing out is the Puerta del Conde, the gate where Francisco del Rosario Sánchez first raised the Dominican flag and proclaimed the nation’s independence from neighboring Haiti in 1844. Above the gate’s arch, a phrase reads “iDulce et Decori est pro patria morii” – or, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Given it sits on an island, it’s no wonder the Dominican Republic brims with superb beaches, rivers and lakes. The country takes pride in its crystalline, emerald waters and white-sand shores, where you can either sunbathe or take part in fun water sports such as jet skiing, parasailing, and banana boat rides. Visit Bavaro Beach for the latter, and pass by the 20-mile-long beach of Punta Cana, or by Playa Dorada in Puerto Plata, to make the most of the exotic landscape – think creamy, soft sands and endless greenery. Two more water-heavens await at the Laguna Gri-Gri and Laguna Bavaro lakes – complete with playful sea turtles.
For those looking to take water sports to the next level, Cabarete should be your go-to place. Known as the wind-surfing capital of the country, Cabarete attracts the athletic and adventurous. This resort town with warm waters and consistently strong winds is among the best wind-surfing and kite-boarding hubs in the world. Its four-mile, white-sand beach is lined with cafes, restaurants and shops, which means you’ll have a place to catch your breath should you get tired from trying to tame the ocean. Alternatively, lie on the beach and watch the pros do their thing.
Speaking of water, not one, not two, but 27 waterfalls make up the paradise that is Damajaqua Cascades. Found in the hills of the Northern Corridor mountain range, these amazing waterfalls are among the biggest attractions in the province of Puerto Plata, with more than 50,000 people coming here every year to marvel at their splendor. The Damajaqua Cascades pour over the rugged terrain, forming natural pools framed by rocks. Guided tours will allow you to climb up to the falls and then jump or slide all the way down to enjoy a divine swim in the milky, turquoise waters.
As filled with water as this country is, it’s also a green oasis comprising huge verdant parks. Don’t miss the Parque Nacional Los Haitises, which is one of the few remaining tropical forests in the Dominican Republic. Featuring mangroves and caves, this spectacular park covers a jungly area of 1,600sqkm which, unsurprisingly, was used as a setting in the Jurassic Park film. The 1,500-acre Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park & Reserve in Punta Cana is also a must-visit, boasting 12 freshwater lagoons, while hosting local plants as well as rare and endangered animal species such as the Ridgway Hawk.
When it comes to awe-inspiring peaks, the Dominican Republic does not disappoint. The most impressive has to be Mount Isabel de Torres, a 2,600-foot mountain (the highest in the Caribbean), that offers unparalleled views of Puerto Plata from its top. Hop on a cute, multi-colored cable car or hike all the way up, and you’ll be surrounded by botanical gardens and caves – don’t let the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer scare you away. On a more barren note, try sand-surfing at Dunas de Bani, a dune made of volcanic rock and grey sand. You will likely see lizards and desert goats pass you by.
There’s no better place to connect with animals than here. The town of Samaná is where you will catch a rare spectacle starring humpback whales – around 2,000 of them gather at the Marine Mammal Sanctuary at Samaná Bay from December to March to reproduce. Some males sing songs to attract the females, while others perform all kinds of acrobatics. You may also swim with dolphins and play with sea lions and pet sharks at Ocean World Adventures in Puerto Plata. Or embark on a zipline adventure, where you’ll be soaring through the jungle – stopping only to pose with resident animals like squirrel monkeys.
The national gem of the Dominican Republic, amber is getting the royal treatment in the Amber Museum in Puerto Plata. As amber is formed when tree sap fossilizes, it’s known to sometimes catch plants and animals in it – which is what makes the exhibits in Museo del Ambar all the more fascinating. In the Victorian-style building that houses the museum, you will find a rare collection of valuable amber items, some of which actually incorporate entrapped plants and even entire animals. The most famous display – and for good reason – is a nearly 17-inch-long ancient lizard encased in amber.
Take your pick from colonial-style retreats and glamorous resorts facing the shimmering coast. These are our top places to stay during a trip in the Dominican Republic.