An Insider’s Guide by Travel Style
The Dominican Republic (DR) is well known for its incredible beaches and all-inclusive resorts. These are iconic to the island for good reason and they are just the beginning of all there is to experience in DR. During a visit here you can experience the sight of waterfalls tucked in mountain jungles, dance in a town plaza during Carnaval, enjoy the sunset at cliffside restaurant, and see whales breaching gracefully in Samana Bay. It is no coincidence that “Dominican Republic has it all” is the official motto of the Dominican Republic Tourism Office. I lived in DR for several years and go back often to see family and continue exploring. In this guide, I’ll share with you the best places to visit in the Dominican Republic for your travel style. No matter what experience you are looking for, there is a destination that is a match for you!
As of November 16, 2020, the current travel guidance is as follows:
- All inbound travelers will undergo a temperature check.
- Between 3 – 10% of inbound travelers will be randomly selected for a breath test.
- Anyone with positive test results or displaying symptoms, will be isolated and will coordinate with local authorities on next steps.
- Consult with your airline regarding all travel requirements, including those for returning home.
- Upon entry to the Dominican Republic, all travelers must complete a “Travelers Health Affidavit.” This form is to declare contact information for the next 30 days as well as if you have had any symptoms in the last 72 hours.
- The Dominican Government is offering a Travel Assistance Plan to assist international visitors in the event of a COVID-related emergency (contracted in country).
- Social distancing guidance is 6.5 feet and face masks are required in public places as well as indoors. Masks are not required in beach, pool, and jacuzzi areas. It is important to note that hotels have some flexibility over their on-site requirements for mask use. Check with your hotel for guidance on their policies.
- A country-wide curfew is in place until December 1st. Monday through Friday it is from 9PM to 5AM. On Saturday and Sunday, it is from 7PM to 5AM. This does not apply to guests on resort grounds, however guests are not permitted to leave the resort during those times.
1. Samana Peninsula
In this Region: Las Galleras, Las Terrenas, Samana
Best Place to Visit for: Explorers
This is an area of unrivaled natural beauty that is best known for rugged beaches and whale watching. There is always something to uncover here, if you are up for a little exploring. It is also a haven for wildlife that reside in and migrate to this pristine habitat. This region is a popular relocation destination for ex-pats from several countries.
- Pristine Beaches: There are many gorgeous beaches to discover in this area. These beaches may be accessible by boat, car, hiking, ATV, and horseback. Do your research on this and safety tips.
- There is an undeniable wow factor from Playa Fronton’s rocky cliffs, electric blue water, and perfect palm-lined beach. This truly is an explorer’s beach as it is accessed most commonly by boat. The alternate option is a hike through the jungle.
- El Salto de Limon: This waterfall is stunningly beautiful! There are two main ways people access the falls, guided horseback rides or hiking. In my research, I found that I was not comfortable supporting the horseback rides due to the conditions. Since I would have been doing this activity solo and would have had to go earlier than I felt was safe to hike alone (due to time constraints), I ended up passing on this for now.
- Whale Watching: Every year, Humpback Whales migrate to Samana Bay to give birth. The main season for whale watching is from January to March, with February typically being the busiest month. Be sure to check out which companies respect the whales and give them proper space as well as follow local laws. We toured with Whale Samana – link below. They were, by far, the most respectful of the whales as wild animals. We got to experience everything with great naturalists on board (information is given in multiple languages).
- Ex-pat influence: It is understandable why so many people want to make this great location their home, however there were multiple times when ex-pats from various countries (including, but not limited to, my own) seemed to feel that they had license to act however they pleased because they were on permanent vacation. For me, this detracted from visiting this area.
Getting there and around: The closest airport is Samana El Catey (AZS). This is a very small airport. In most cases, your best bet will be to fly into Santo Domingo, Santiago, or Puerto Plata and arrange transport in advance. You can arrange a private shuttle or book a hotel that has one. Driving to/from the Samana Peninsula can be difficult and is not recommended at night. Some mountain roads are dangerously curvy and there may be unexpected obstacles in the road (such as parked vehicles or massive potholes).
In this Region: Bavaro, Cap Cana, Punta Cana
Best Place to Visit for: “Show up and relax, no more planning required” travelers
This area is known for all-inclusive resorts with gorgeous beaches, incredible pools, and a plethora of food and drink options. Many of these resorts also offer excursions for nearby activities. If you are looking for the chance to completely unwind by having everything easily accessible, this is the region for you.
- Resorts: With so many resort options in this area, there is one for every travel personality, from mega-resorts with endless restaurant options to more intimate, peaceful settings. One of my favorites is Ocean Blue, which boasts one of the area’s largest pools and makes great mixed drinks. Another favorite, Sanctuary Cap Cana is a stunning resort that will make you feel like you are in a castle on the edge of paradise. You’ll truly enjoy eating outside on the back patios or at the Blue Marlin overwater restaurant.
- Juanillo Beach – Cap Cana: This is a beach you will always remember as one of the best. This soft, sandy beach is as perfect as a postcard. It is a public beach but is located on the private grounds of Cap Cana, so you will need to show identification when entering Cap Cana. Located next door to the Sanctuary Resort, this beach offers plenty of palm trees for shade, perfectly calm Caribbean blue waters, and a small beach bar.
- Nightlife: Punta Cana offers many nightlight options. Coco Bongo is the best place to visit for an experience like none other. This experience is part club, part Cirque-du-Soleil, and part Moulin-Rouge. It is located in the heart of Downtown Punta Cana. Tickets and VIP tables can be reserved online. Another local favorite is Imagine. This popular nightclub is located in a cave. The ambience makes for a party you won’t forget.
Getting there and around: Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) is served by several major air carriers. If you are planning to spend your entire visit on an all-inclusive resort with maybe an excursion or two arranged with the resort, you will not need a car. Most resorts will have a shuttle for transfer to/from the airport. If you are planning to explore outside of the resort, there are car rental options on-site. Be sure to check with your regular insurance about whether or not you are covered in the Dominican Republic.
3. La Romana
In this Region: Isla Catalina, Isla Saona, La Romana, Bayahibe
Best Place to Visit for: Day Trippers
As the most popular cruise ship port of call in the country, La Romana is home to many incredible day trips ranging from smaller islands, to the Dominican’s most expensive resort, to a national park.
- Isla Catalina and Isla Saona: These quintessential Caribbean islands are reachable by catamaran tour. Both offer dreamlike beaches that will leave you longing to return. Isla Catalina has more of a laid back vibe and is popular for water sports. Isla Saona is larger, is extremely popular, and leans more into the party vibe. Depending on what you’re feeling, there is a tour that’s right for you.
- Cotubanamá National Park: Both of these islands are part of this national park and are therefore protected locations. The main portion of this park is located on the Dominican mainland. Here visitors can explore caves, whitesand beaches, and freshwater springs. This area is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 300 species of birds found here, including the National Bird of DR, the Palmchat.
- Casa Del Campo & Altos de Chavón: Casa del Campo’s sprawling grounds encompass many attractions that are accessible to visitors (for a fee), even if you are not staying at the resort. This resort is the most expensive in all of DR and has several world-renowned golf courses, the most famous of which is Teeth of the Dog. The other main attraction here is Altos de Chavón, a full scale replica of a 16th century Mediterranian city. You can wander here to enjoy watching artisans create the crafts sold in local shops, fine dining, and a museum.
Getting to and around: This is the most popular cruise ship destination in DR – with two ports, one in Catalina and one at Casa del Campo. The La Romana Casa del Campo International Airport (LRM) also serves this area. By car, it can be visited as a day trip from Punta Cana (just over an hour) or from Santo Domingo (1.5 hours).
4. Santo Domingo
Best Place to Visit for: History buffs, Foodies, and Nightlife Seekers
The capital city of the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer visitors. It is a location full of history, charm, and culture. As such, it offers a coming together of passionate people, who welcome guests like family. Santo Domingo is also home to the annual National Parade during Carnaval.
- Ciudad Colonial: The historic district of the city is perfect for wandering. Several of the streets are pedestrian only. Buildings in this area have been preserved, some of which date back to the 1500s. Here you can see evidence of past fortresses, the historic home of Christopher Columbus’s son, the Catedral Primada de América (the first cathedral built in the Americas), and much more.
- Calle El Conde: This is the premiere street for shopping in Ciudad Colonial. This historic cobblestone street serves vendors and shoppers over a span of more than 10 blocks. In addition to shops, you will also find sidewalk cafes to refuel and people-watch.
- Puerta del Conde and Parque Independencia: Calle El Conde will lead you to these two iconic locations. “Puerta” means door and this door has a special meaning. In this location, Dominican independence was declared in 1844. Independence Park is through the door, which is a former entrance to the Colonial City. Each of the Founding Fathers of DR (Juan Pablo Duarte, Matías Ramón Mella, and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez) were laid to rest in the mausoleum here.
- Dominican Food: The Dominican Republic has several signature dishes. You will be able to sample these delicious foods all over the country but while in the capital city, you will have access to them all in one place. Two items that I highly recommend are:
- To drink – Jugo de Chinola – This perfectly sweet juice is made from passion fruit. It is the most refreshing choice on a hot day.
- To eat – Tres Golpes – This translates to three hits. This full meal includes the Dominican staple of mangú, which is mashed plantain with vinegar sauce and onions, fried salami, and….wait for it….fried cheese! Dominicans use a specific cheese for frying and cook it just right, so it turns golden brown. You can’t beat it!
- For the inside scoop on all the local dishes from the Dominican Ministry of Tourism, click here: https://www.godominicanrepublic.com/about-dr/gastronomy/
- Nightlife in and around the city: There are nightlife options of various types. In the Colonial City there are options for dancing and several casual bars. The Malecón (meaning waterfront) is a hotspot for dancing on weekends at hotel bars and nightclubs.
Getting there and around: Las Américas International Airport (SDQ) is located on the eastern side of the city. This airport is supported by most major carriers. Driving in the city can be chaotic. If you are not used to driving in similar conditions, I would not recommend it.
Best Place to Visit for: Bonao, Constanza, Jarabacoa, La Vega
Travel Styles: Adventurers
The inland region of DR is an adventurer’s paradise. Home to breathtaking waterfalls, endless hiking options, paragliding, and numerous water sports – this is a spot to embrace your outdoor activity of choice. It is also the perfect spot to enjoy the energy and passion of Carnaval during the Spring!
- Waterfalls: This portion of DR is full of vibrant mountain jungle. Hidden in those mountains are gorgeous waterfalls. Spend your time exploring to uncover these local gems such as Salto de Aguas Blancas in Constanza, Salto de Jimenoa in Jarabacoa, or Salto de Jima in Bonao.
- Hikes: In addition to waterfall hikes, there are hikes through nature preserves and national parks. The highest mountain in the Caribbean, Pico Durate, stands tall over this area reaching a height of 10,125’. You must have an official guide to summit this peak, which is sandwiched between two national parks. Excursions usually take two to three days.
- Paragliding: Have you always wanted to fly? Head to Constanza or Jarabacoa for the flight of your life over the gorgeous green mountains.
- Rafting: Jarabacoa translates to “place of water” in the native Taino language of DR. This area has numerous rivers and all the water sports to go with it. Rafting is one of the most popular.
- Carnaval: Every year in the February to March time frame, these towns come alive for Carnaval. Sundays are filled with lively music blasting in the streets while groups, called crews, showcase elaborate costumes that have been months in the making. It is a party and everyone is invited! Bonao and La Vega are both known for hosting some of the best Carnaval festivities in the entire country.
Getting there and around: Aeropuerto Internacional del Cibao in Santiago (STI) is located about an hour north of these locations. You can rent a car but ensure you rent from a reputable company, know your insurance policies, and watch your surroundings on the road for obstacles. I’d recommend an SUV if you are planning on mountain driving, including visiting Constanza or Jarabarcoa.
Best Places to Visit in the Dominican Republic Highlights
- If doing any type of tour involving animals, do you research on how those animals are cared for (such as horses for trails rides) or if the company is committed to the safety and well-being of the animals being observed (such as humpback whales).
- Be sure to take all your trash from a day at the beach with you so it doesn’t end up harming local wildlife. When possible, use reusable items at the beach, resort, etc.
Cigua Palmera (Palmchat bird) – Dulus dominicus
The Palmchat is native to the island of Hispanola, which includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Known as Cigua Palmera in Spanish, this bird is unique because it is the only member of its taxonomic family and genus. One of the places they are most commonly found is on Isla Saona. Keep an eye out for small gray or black birds with sturdy yellow beaks. They also are frequently found on palm plantations. Even if you don’t see the birds themselves, you may spot their nests, which are made of sticks and located on palm branches. These are typically elaborate structures with separate rooms and hallways within the nest itself. This resourceful songbird is the National Bird of the Dominican Republic.
- Dominican Republic Tourism: https://www.godominicanrepublic.com
- Dominican Republic Tourism COVID Guidelines: https://www.godominicanrepublic.com/newsroom/coronavirus/
- Whale Samana: http://www.whalesamana.com/
Bayahíbe Rose (Pereskia quisqueyana)
This beautiful light pink flower is endemic to a very small portion of DR. It is only found in Bayahíbe, near La Romana. This special flower is part of a cactus plant that can grow to heights of up to six feet. In 2011, it was declared as the National Flower of DR, replacing the Caoba Flower, which is now the National Tree. Look closely at a 500 pesos note while you are visiting and will see the Bayahíbe Rose represented there!
Expeditions with Evelyn Exclusives (EEE):
- There is a $10 Tourist Fee to enter DR. Guidance for this was recently changed and is now bundled with airfare cost. This means it is no longer paid upon arrival at the airport in DR. Yay!
- A lot of slang is spoken in DR. It is worth researching a little bit before you go in addition to basic Spanish. One of the most common greetings is “Que lo que” which is similar to what’s happening/what’s up.
What did you choose from the best places to visit in the Dominican Republic?
Where in DR is the best place to visit for your travel style? Tell me about the adventure you had or are planning. Let me know if you have any questions. I would love to help however I can. Happy Expeditions!