Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón
The Dominican Republic is a land of many wonders. This country with a past shaped by the Conquest can boast unparalleled white sand beaches. It is also home to great musicians and baseball players. The capital, Santo Domingo, offers tourists an unforgettable cultural experience characterized by a singular blend of Spanish, African, and indigenous influences that is reflected in the cuisine and the music.
Colonial Santo Domingo
Strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets of the oldest city in the Americas is an indescribable pleasure. More than three hundred historic sites built by the Spanish during the Colonial period are of great cultural interest in our own era. It can easily be seen that this city, founded by Bartolomé Colón in 1496, is home to many wonders of the New World. The town was initially located on the eastern bank of the Ozama River, but Nicolás de Ovando, governor of La Española, ordered that it be moved to the western bank. Even a brief stroll provides evidence of the city’s magnificence:
- The El Conde pedestrian street, which runs from Plaza de la Independencia to Plaza Colón, leads into the Colonial City. The street is chock-a-block with handicrafts and souvenir shops.
- The Church of Our Lady of Carmen (dating to 1615) houses the Christ figure carried in Easter Week processions.
- The Ozama Fortress, the oldest structure built by the Spanish in the Americas, defended the city against English, French, and Portuguese pirates and conquerors.
- The Santa Bárbara Munitions Depot (built in 1787) was constructed to resemble a church in order to fool the enemy, but it actually contained gunpowder, ammunition, and arms.
- The Lesser Basilica of Santo Domingo, the first Cathedral in the Americas; construction began in 1514 and lasted twenty-six years.
- The Museum of the Government Offices (built in 1511) housed the principal agencies of government, including the Royal Court of Justice, the first court on the new continent.
- One of the last Spanish constructions on the Island was the Santo Domingo Mausoleum, where national heroes are laid to rest.
Local products such as yucca, corn, plantain, grains, seven kinds of meat, and rice are the backbone of Dominican cuisine. A typical dish known as “The Dominican Flag” contains rice, beans, and stewed meat. Dominican cuisine is a reflection of the country’s history in that it is a fusion of African, French, Spanish, and indigenous flavors.
New products and spices brought by the Spanish enriched the cuisine; Africans introduced soups and ways to use seafood, resulting in sancocho, a traditional Dominican dish considered another of the country’s wonders. Sancocho gradually evolved into the current version: a soup of plantain, yucca, yam, free-range hen, guinea fowl, beef, chicken, pork, and goat. But a Dominican sancocho can contain just about anything; the only limit is the cook’s imagination.
Dominican culture is a rich and dynamic symbiosis of many influences; it was shaped by the need to adapt to a new environment. The long process of transculturation began with the Spanish conquest; elements from indigenous traditions were incorporated and later complemented by African influences.
The capital is also home to the New World’s first university, founded in 1538. And Near the Palace of Fine Arts, the Plaza de la Cultura Juan Pablo Duarte groups together several buildings dedicated to culture.
Aside from the friendly people, one of the most memorable aspects of a trip to the Dominican Republic is the music, a subtle blend of Spanish and African traditions. The calenda is an African dance that gave birth to many popular Santo Domingo rhythms. One of the most widespread genres is known as “los palos” (the sticks), a name used for both the rhythm and the membranophones (usually drums) used to produce the sound. Other rhythms that evoke African ancestors include sarandunga, congo, jaiba, and chenche matriculado.
The accordion, the güira (a metal “grater” scratched with a scraper), and the tambora (small drum), instruments typical of Dominican merengue, represent the union of the three cultures that formed Santo Domingo: European, indigenous, and African. The bachata, which emerged from the poorer sections of cities, is called the “music of bitterness” owing to its melancholy lyrics. It is recognized around the world. People dance not only in bars and discos, but in neighborhood shops called colmadones, which evolved in an effort to survive competition with supermarkets.
The Museum of Dominican Sport is located in the Olympic Center, built for the 1974 Central American Games and used for the 2003 Pan-American Games.
The Dominican people are very passionate about baseball; teams from the capital play at the Quisqueya Juan Marichal Stadium. The sport is so beloved that some U.S. major league teams have training centers on the island for scouting local talent.
The Dominican Republic is known around the world for the natural beauty of its coast. Beaches of white sand and turquoise waters can be found very near the capital.
Ten minutes from the capital’s airport lays Boca Chica, a beach that stretches for 1,300 feet. The contrast of turquoise water with the deeper blue of the ocean beyond the coral barrier makes this beach a delight. We can relax in this mini paradise, have dinner at Marina Makey, enjoy boat rides, and admire the sunset.
Events, Wellness, and Health
Santo Domingo attracts more than leisure tourists. The city is also a draw for hundreds of conventions and events, for which Santo Domingo offers an excellent hotel infrastructure. Prestigious hotel brands in the capital include Barceló, Hilton, Meliá, InterContinental, and Sheraton. The boardwalk alone has 1,035 hotel rooms and 47 meeting rooms; the downtown area offers another 1,998 hotel rooms and 58 meeting rooms, and the Colonial quarter counts 392 hotel rooms and 7 meeting rooms. There is also a state-of-the-art hospital infrastructure and accredited health centers with dedicated hotels, providing the technical and linguistic capacity to serve wellness and health tourism.
Santo Domingo is the complete package: history, culture, cuisine, and business combine to the rhythm of the music that seems innate in the city’s inhabitants. Now that I have returned from my visit, my new playlist makes me feel like Raquel Arias is singing directly to me with her hit “¿Por qué te fuiste, dulce amor?” (Why did you leave, my sweet love?).