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Dominican Republic / Historical Sites

By Fiona Dunlop

Of all the Caribbean islands, it is the Dominican Republic that has the finest, most extensive displays of pre-Columbian indigenous art. The South-west boasts the most prolific cave art and there are good examples in the East too. Colonisation by the Spanish, from the early 16th century, led to a wealth of military and domestic architecture mainly concentrated in Santo Domingo (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) but also in the North. If you have neither the time nor the energy to walk round the capital’s Zona Colonial, then take the Chu Chu Colonial, a little white train that trundles round the sights in 45 minutes.

Santo Domingo

Alcazar de Colon - Iconic is the word for this beautiful, arcaded building, standing in splendid isolation on the Plaza de España overlooking the Ozama river. It was built in Isabelline style in 1512 for Columbus’ son, Diego, then Viceroy of the Indies. Entry to the palace includes an audio-guide talking you through its history, furniture and antiques. None of the contents actually date from Columbus’ time as they were installed by the dictator Trujillo but, ironically, they fit the surroundings perfectly.

Catedral Primada de America, Parque Colon - It may have lost its historical aura through massive renovation, air-conditioning and modern stained glass, but it will always keep its status of being the first cathedral in the New World. More recently, it played a major role protecting dissidents during Trujillo’s dictatorship,

Convento de los Dominicos - This beautiful 1510 convent really stands out from its surroundings although you will have to admire it from outside, as it is closed to the public. It became another New World first in 1538, a university, and was where the first criticism was made of colonial atrocities in the Americas, by Fray Anton de Montesinos

Monasterio de San Francisco - These evocative ruins at the northern end of the Zona Colonial date from the arrival of Franciscan monks, in 1502 although this structure came later. Go there at nightfall on a Sunday for fantastic live salsa music and dancing, a real local institution.

Fortaleza Ozama- Enter the walled enclosure of this vast and venerable fortress to visualise Spanish galleons ships leaving the Ozama estuary to conquer Cuba, Colombia, Jamaica, Peru and Mexico. Enthusiasts should visit the military museum and climb the tower for great views.

Hospital San Nicolas de Bari - Another first in the New World, this time a hospital dating from 1503, that was devastated by a hurricane in 1911. What remains still has allure, above all the Renaissance columns ending in a Gothic arch - now much loved by pigeons.


Cuevas del Pomier - High in the hills just north of San Cristobal, right behind a limestone quarry, lies the most important prehistoric site in all the Caribbean. Dubbed the Lascaux Caves of the Caribbean, a network of 30 caves (of a total 55) contain some 6,000 examples of Taino pictographs and about 500 petroglyphs. Five caves can be visited with the help of a guide using torches to peer at the simple charcoal drawings of birds, fish, reptiles and humans. There are curiosities like a pair of Siamese twins and, typically Dominican, a couple dancing. The first person to come across them was the German-born British Consul, Sir Robert Schomburg, in 1849.

Las Caritas - A small but impeccably preserved cluster of petroglyphs near the jetty for Isla Cabritos on the north side of Lago Enriquillo. It is a moving example of rock art in the open-air, as opposed to deep in a gloomy cave, located just above the road. You access site by climbing a steep but short path with a rickety handrail.


Cueva de Las Maravillas, La Romana, t 951 9009 - Spectacularly presented with sensor-activated lighting, rails, ramps and even a lift for those with mobility problems. Inside you hear the drip-drip of humidity, smell guano and spot bats flitting through the gloom. There are over 500 Taino drawings between 600 and 1200 years old of creatures, snakes, stick-men and gods, as well as dramatic geological formations. Above ground, a nature reserve offers iguanas, cacti and horse riding. Closed Monday

Parque Nacional Los Haitises - Some beautiful Taino rock art can be seen in the caves of Bahia San Lorezo, beyond the mangroves and banana jetty relics. See Eco/Nature.

Cueva Fun Fun - These extraordinary karstic caves near Hato Mayor are more about speleology and caving, but also contain some impressive Taino pictographs and petroglyphs. See Eco/Nature.


La Isabela - Few people make it to this remote yet primordial site of the Dominican Republic. It’s a pity, as even the access road is scenically memorable. This is where Columbus built his first New World settlement on his second voyage, in late 1493, after the fort of La Navidad, in today’s Haiti, had been destroyed. La Isabela (named after Spain’s ruling Queen) thus became the seat of the first colonial government in the Americas, complete with the first law court and celebration of the first mass, in January 1494. Columbus had his own house built overlooking the bay beside 200 others, but in 1496 destructive hurricanes spelled their end. Columbus went on to found Santo Domingo. All you see today, between the flamboyant trees, are stones tracing the outline of the settlement. A small museum contains artefacts (including original roof tiles and Spanish pots brought by Columbus’ ships) and information panels, all in Spanish. Guides are available, mostly Spanish-speaking.

Fortaleza de Puerto Plata - This symbol of the North Coast’s most significant town gives great insight into its history. After recognition as an official Spanish city in 1508, Puerto Plata finally got protection when this fort was completed, in 1567. Strategically sited at the harbour entrance, it watched over gold exports and imported provisions for the new settlers. Dubious business between the Spanish and Dutch traffickers led to increased English pirate attacks in the 1580s. A few decades later Puerto Plata was destroyed and abandoned, leaving only ruins and the fortress. You can walk around the ramparts, look across the harbour at Mt Isabel and inspect military exhibits inside, clearly explained by an audio-guide.


La Vega Vieja - More symbolic than anything else, this site is only worth seeing if you are close by. From the Dominican Republic’s most venerated sanctuary on Santo Cerro (Holy Hill) that commemorates Colombus’ resounding defeat of the Tainos, it is a pleasant walk downhill to reach La Vega Vieja. These are the ruins of Columbus’ original settlement, built in 1494, after La Isabela and the conqueror’s battle on Santo Cerro. It flourished thanks to a neighbouring gold mine, but in 1564 was destroyed by an earthquake.

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  1. Soak up the sun on 1000 miles of beaches - watch out for the currents though
  2. Visit Lago Enriquillo, a vast salt lake below sea-level in a cactus-studded desert
  3. Get married amid the spectacular contrasting landscapes
  4. Learn to dance the Merengue in historic colonial buildings
  5. Experience local food and culture with friendly families

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