Santo Domingo (pop: 4 million), the capital and chief seaport, was founded on 5 August 1498 (although the first houses were built in 1496) by Columbus’ brother Bartolomé on the eastern bank of the Río Ozama and hence was the first capital in Spanish America.
For years the city was the base for the Spaniards’ exploration and conquest of the continent: from it Ponce de León sailed to discover Puerto Rico, Hernán Cortés launched his attack on Mexico, Balboa discovered the Pacific and Diego de Velázquez set out to settle Cuba. Hispaniola was where Europe’s first social and political activities in the Americas took place. Santo Domingo itself holds the title ‘first’ for a variety of offices: first city, having the first Audiencia Real, cathedral, university, coinage, et cetera. In view of this, Unesco has designated Santo Domingo a World Cultural Heritage site (Patrimonio Cultural Mundial). In the old part of the city, on the west bank of the Río Ozama, there are many fine early 16th century buildings. Restoration of the old city has made the area very attractive, with open air cafés and pleasant squares near the waterfront Avenida Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó, formerly Avenida del Puerto.
Under the title of the Quinto Centenario, Santo Domingo played a prominent role in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landfall in the Caribbean (1492-1992). The Government undertook an extensive programme of public works, principally restoration work in the colonial city. A series of commemorative coins in limited editions was struck, available from the Centro de Información Numismática, Casa del Quinto Centenario, Isabel la Católica 103, T6820185, F5309164, Santo Domingo.
Catedral Basílica Menor de Santa María, Primada de América, Isabel La Católica esquina Nouel, the first cathedral to be founded in the New World. Its first stone was laid by Diego Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, in 1514; the architect was Alonzo Rodríguez. It was finished in 1540. The alleged remains of Christopher Columbus were found in 1877 during restoration work. In 1892, the Government of Spain donated the tomb in which the remains lay, behind the high altar, until their removal to the Faro a Colón. The cathedral was fully restored for 1992, with new gargoyles and sculptures at the gates showing the indigenous people when Columbus arrived. The windows, altars and roof were all returned to their colonial splendour. (0900-1200, 1500-1630. No shorts allowed).
Torre del Homenaje inside Fortaleza Ozama, reached through the mansion of Rodrigo Bastidas (later the founder of the city of Santa Marta in Colombia) on Calle Las Damas, which is now completely restored and has a museum/gallery with temporary exhibitions. It is the oldest fortress in America, constructed 1503-07 by Nicolás de Ovando, whose house in the same street is being restored and turned into a splendid hotel. (US$1).
Museo de las Casas Reales, on Calle Las Damas, in a reconstructed early 16th century building which was in colonial days the Palace of the Governors and Captains-General, and of the Real Audiencia and Chancery of the Indies. It is an excellent colonial museum (often has special exhibits). (T6824202. US$1. Tuesday-Sunday 0900-1800). The Voluntariado de las Casas Reales has exhibitions of contemporary Dominican art.
Alcázar de Colón at the end of Las Damas and Emilio Tejera, constructed by Diego Colón in 1510-14. For six decades it was the seat of the Spanish Crown in the New World; it was sacked by Drake in 1586. Now completely restored, it houses the interesting Museo Virreinal (Viceregal Museum). (US$0.75. 0900-1700 daily).
Casa del Cordón, Isabel La Católica esquina Emiliano Tejera, built in 1509 by Francisco de Garay, who accompanied Columbus on his first voyage to Hispaniola. Named for the cord of the Franciscan Order, sculpted above the entrance. Now the offices of the Banco Popular; free guided tours during working hours.
Monasterio de San Francisco (ruins), Hostos esquina E Tejera, first monastery in America, constructed in the first decade of the 16th century. Sacked by Drake and destroyed by earthquakes in 1673 and 1751.
Reloj de Sol (sundial) built 1753, near end of Las Damas, by order of General Francisco de Rubio y Peñaranda; by its side is Capilla de Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios, built in the early 16th century as the private chapel of the Dávila family.
La Atarazana, near the Alcázar, a cluster of 16th century buildings which served as warehouses. Now restored to contain shops, bars and restaurants.
The Museo Naval de la Atarazana (T6825834. Free. Thursday-Tuesday, 0900-1800).
Hospital-Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari (ruins), Hostos between Mercedes and Luperón, begun in 1509 by Nicolás de Ovando, completed 1552, the first stone-built hospital in the Americas. Also sacked by Drake, it was probably one of the best constructed buildings of the period, it survived many earthquakes and hurricanes. In 1911 some of its walls were knocked down because they posed a hazard to passers-by; also the last of its valuable wood was taken. It is now full of pigeons.
Convento de San Ignacio de Loyola, Las Damas between Mercedes and El Conde. Finished in 1743, it is now the National Pantheon. It was restored in 1955 and contains memorials to many of the country’s heroes and patriots. It also contains an ornate tomb built before his death for the dictator Trujillo, the ‘Benefactor of the Fatherland’, but his remains do not lie there. (T6820185. Free. Tuesday-Sunday 0900-1700).
Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, off Mella to the left near Calle J Parra, near the end of Isabel La Católica. Built in 1574, sacked by Drake in 1586, destroyed by a hurricane in 1591, reconstructed at the beginning of the 17th century. Behind the church are the ruins of its fort, where there are good views.
Convento de los Dominicos, built in 1510. Here in 1538 the first university in the Americas was founded, named for St Thomas Aquinas; it now bears the title of the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. It has a unique ceiling which shows the medieval concept that identified the elements of the universe, the classical gods and the Christian icons in one system. The Sun is God, the four evangelists are the planetary symbols Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. The University itself has moved to a site in the suburbs.
Iglesia de la Regina Angelorum, built 1537, contains a wall of silver near one of its altars.
Iglesia del Carmen, built around 1615 at side of Capilla de San Andrés, contains an interesting wooden sculpture of Christ.
Puerta del Conde (Baluarte de 27 de Febrero), at the end of El Conde (now a pedestrian street) in the Parque Independencia. Named for the Conde de Peñalva, who helped defend the city against William Penn in 1655. Restored in 1976, near it lie the remains of Sánchez, Mella and Duarte, the 1844 independence leaders.
Puerta de la Misericordia, Palo Hincado and Arzobispo Portes, so named because people fled under it for protection during earthquakes and hurricanes. It forms part of the wall that used to surround the colonial city, into which are now built many of the houses and shops of Ciudad Nueva. It was here on 27 February 1844 that Mella fired the first shot in the struggle for independence from Haiti.
Capilla de La Virgen del Rosario, on the other side of the Río Ozama, near the Molinos Dominicanos at the end of Avenida Olegario Vargas. It was the first church constructed in America, restored in 1943.
Museo de Duarte, Isabel La Católica 308, T6890326. Contains items linked with the independence struggle and Duarte, the national hero, whose home it was. (US$0.75. 0900-1700, Monday-Friday).
Other old buildings are the Iglesia de las Mercedes, dating from 1555; the Puerta de San Diego, near the Alcázar; the Palacio de Borgella, Isabel la Católica, near Plaza Colón; the ruins of Fuerte de la Concepción, at the corner of Mella and Palo Hincado, built in 1543; the ruins of Fuerte de San Gil, Padre Billini, near the end of Calle Pina; and the ruins of Iglesia de San Antón, off Mella esquina Vicente Celestino Duarte.
The Ciudad Vieja and adjacent Ciudad Nueva (the area of middle-class housing of the 19th century, complete with pulperías – turn-of-the-century stores) are practically deserted on Sunday, a good time to stroll around and take in the architecture and atmosphere in peace.
At the mouth of the Río Ozama, the Avenida Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó (formerly Avenida del Puerto) gives access to the Antigua Ceiba, where Columbus moored his caravelles, the Plaza de Armas, the city’s original drainage system and the old city wall. Steps lead up to the Alcázar de Colón where the Plaza de España has been established. The Avenida has in a short time become an open-air discothèque, more popular than the Malecón. Together with the inauguration of the Avenida Caamaño Deñó is a boat service on the Río Ozama for sightseeing upstream (operated by Mar C por A in the vessel Sea). (US$4, happy hour from 1800-2000, drinks two for the price of one. Monday-Friday 1800-2200, Saturday 1600). Watersports and speed-boat races can also be seen. The eastern bank of the Ozama is being restored with a new footpath, the Vereda del Almirante, an amphitheatre and a new tourist harbour. All commercial shipping will be diverted to Río Haina.
Among the attractive parks are the Central Olímpico (see above) in the city centre, Parque Independencia (a peaceful haven amid all the traffic, with the Altar de la Patria, containing the remains of the country’s founders, Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez and Ramón Matías Mella), Parque Colón, Parque Mirador del Este (Autopista de las Américas, a seven kilometre-long alameda) and Parque Mirador del Sur (Paseo de las Indios at Mirador Sur, seven kilometres long, popular for walking, jogging, cycling, picnics). Parque Mirador del Norte has been constructed on the banks of the Río Isabela, near Guarícano and Villa Mella. There is a boating lake, picnic areas, restaurants, jogging and cycling trails, open 0900-1800, Tuesday-Sunday, US$0.40. On Avenida José Contreras are many caves, some with lakes, in the southern cliff of Parque Mirador del Sur. Along this cliff the Avenida Cayetano Germosén has been built, giving access to a number of caves used at one time by Taino Indians. One such Lago Subterráneo has been opened as a tourist attraction. (US$0.40. 0900-1730). The road, lined with gardens, links Avenidas Luperón and Italia.
The Jardín Botánico Nacional, Urbanización Los Ríos. (T5676211, 5652860. US$0.75, children half price. Tuesday-Sunday 0900-1800). Parque Zoológico Nacional, La Puya. (T5623149. US$1, tours of the grounds US$0.75, children US$0.55. 0900-1700). The Botanical Gardens are highly recommended (the Japanese Garden especially); horse-drawn carriages and a small train tour the grounds (US$0.75, children US$0.55), which are extensive. There is an Acuario Nacional, Avenida España, on the coast east of the city, a manatee is one of the exhibits, very popular; it has a café serving pizzas (there is a bus from Parque Enriquillo). (T5921509. US$1. Tuesday-Sunday 0930-1730). Aqua Splash, a water fun centre is on the other side of the road. Quisqueya Park, César Nicolás Penson, is a recreational park for children. (US$0.40). The Parque Infantil at Avenidas Bolívar y Tiradentes is to be remodelled.
The Faro a Colón (Columbus Lighthouse), built at great cost (and not without controversy) in the Parque Mirador del Este, is in the shape of a cross. Where the arms of the cross intersect is the mausoleum containing the supposed remains of Columbus. The navy mounts a permanent guard over the tomb. Spotlights project a crucifix of light into the night sky, spectacular on a cloudy night, less so when it is clear. Until the lighthouse has its own solar-powered generators, the lights are lit Friday to Sunday 2000-2200 and on holidays. One of the rooms inside the lighthouse is a chapel, in others different countries have mounted exhibitions (the British exhibit concentrates on the entries for the competition to design the lighthouse: the competition was won by a British design). Many rooms are empty and the Taino museum on the second floor has yet to be mounted. The interior of the arms of the cross are open to the sky so that when it rains the only shelter is around the mausoleum, where there are no seats. Around the building gardens have been laid out. (T5925217. US$1.50, free for children. Daily 0900-1700. Photography inside permitted; guides are free, but give a tip; shorts above the knee not allowed). East of the Lighthouse in the Parque Mirador del Este are the cenotes Tres Ojos, two water-filled caves and a sunken lake, a popular tourist attraction. (US$1.50. A ferry runs over the first two to get to the third. Bus from Parque Enriquillo US$0.20).
The modern city is very spread out because, until recently, there was no high-rise building. The outer city has fine avenues, especially Avenida George Washington (also known as the Malecón) which runs parallel to the sea; it often becomes an open-air discothèque, where locals and foreigners dance the merengue. The annual merengue festival is held here. The spectacular monument to Fray Antón de Montesinos is at the eastern end of Avenida George Washington. A new exhibition centre has been built on Avenida George Washington opposite the Parque Eugenio María de Hostos, and cultural events and shows take place here. During the 1997 merengue festival the Plaza Ñico Lora was inaugurated on the Malecón in front of the Parque Eugenio María de Hostos. This is to be the equivalent of Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, with pericos ripiaos from all over the country playing in the plaza.
The continuation (Prolongación) of Avenida México, which runs parallel to Avs Bolívar and 27 de Febrero, has many modern buildings, while Expreso Quinto Centenario, in the Villa Juana and Villa Francisca districts, is a new roadway which has rejuvenated these parts of the city. Other important avenues are Independencia, Bolívar, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Núñez de Cáceres, 27 de Febrero, John F Kennedy, Juan Pablo Duarte, Ramón Matías Mella and General Gregorio Luperón. Traffic movement has been eased by the construction of a tunnel on Avenida 27 de Febrero allowing a five-minute crossing of the main commercial zone from Avenida Winston Churchill to Leopoldo Navarro. Above the tunnel, the Government has made an attractive pedestrian boulevard with small shops and bars. A huge iron clock marks the hour with chords from the merengue ‘Compadre Pedro Juan’, one of the most traditional exponents of Dominican music. There are also two large screens controlling the tunnel traffic which will also be used for showing major events.
Gazcue is a quiet, attractive residential area with expensive homes built in the 1930s and 1940s, stretching west of the Zona Colonial as far as Avenida Máximo Gómez. The coral pink Palacio Presidencial with a neo-classical central portico and cupola, built by Trujillo, is at the intersection of Doctor Delgado and Manuel María Castillo. It is used by the President, but guided tours of the richly decorated interior can be arranged, T6864771 ext 340 or 360. Opposite the Palacio’s grounds, at Avenida México y 30 de Marzo, are the government offices. The 1955/56 World’s Fair (Feria de Confraternidad) buildings now house the Senate and Congress.
Villaa Mella, a suburb to the north of the capital is famed for the traditional Feria del Chicharrón de Villa Mella, on 10 May, when you can eat pork crackling cooked the Dominican way. Another local attraction is the dance of the congos, a ritual of African origin.
Three bridges cross the Río Ozama: the nearest to the sea is Mella (originally nicknamed La Bicicleta because it is so narrow, but now with a new bridge beside it to ease congestion), next is Duarte, and further inland Sánchez. A fourth is proposed which would link the Malécon with Avenida España, giving quicker access to the aquarium, the lighthouse, the race track, Sans Souci cruise ship terminal and restaurants.
The national museum collection, which includes a wonderful display of Taino artefacts and the ethnography section mentioned under Festivals above, is in the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, which forms part of the Plaza de la Cultura, founded by Joaquín Balaguer on Avenida Máximo Gómez. (T6873622. US$0.75, 1000-1700, closed on Monday). It also includes the ultra-modern national theatre and national library; the Museo de Arte Moderno (T6852153, US$1.25, Tuesday-Sunday 0900-1700), the Cinemateca Nacional, the Museo de Historia Natural (T6890106, US$0.75, Tuesday-Sunday 1000-1700, café open 0700-1900) and the Museo de Historia y Geografía (T6866668, free, 0930-1700).
The Museo de la Familia Dominicana is housed in the Casa de Tostada (Calle Padre Billini esq Arzobispo Meriño), an early 16th century mansion. (T6895057. US$0.80. Monday-Friday, 0900-1700). The Banco Central has a Museo Numismático y Filatélico, Avenida Pedro Henríquez Ureña, opposite the main building, with stamps dating back to 1865. (T6886512. Free. Monday-Friday 0900-1600).
The Fundación García Arévalo, in the 7 Up building, Avenida San Martín 279, near Lope de Vega, has an exhibition of pre-hispanic art and civilization. (T5407777. Free. Monday-Saturday 0800-1200). For archaeologists there is the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, José Reyes 24. At José Reyes 6, in the Zona Colonial, is the Instituto de la Porcelana. (T6891766). At the entrance to the airport is La Caleta Archaeological Museum (Museo Ceremonial La Caleta) with its display of Taino and Arawak ceramics and a Taino burial site (entry free). Roadside sellers offer copies of statues. Museo Mundo de Ambar, Arzobispo Meriño 452, esq Restauración, in restored 17th century building, fascinating display of scorpions, butterflies and plants fossilized in amber, with microscopes and videos. A guided tour is recommended but not essential. Craftsmen polish and shape raw amber for sale in adjoining room. (T6823309, F6881142, mam...@codetel.net.do. US$1. 0900-1800).
The Museo de Ambar, El Conde 107 on Parque Colón, opened end-1998. Museum upstairs, shop downstairs selling amber, larimar, black coral, local gold and pearls. (T2211333, F6825101. US$1). The Museo de la Radio y Televisión Don Lulio Moscoso opened in 1996 in the amphitheatre of the television station on Calle Dr Tejada Florentino, collection of equipment used at the state television station and historic recordings, admission free but visit by prior arrangement. Museo Bellapart, Avenida John F Kennedy, showing the private art collection of Juan José Bellapart, with works from 1800 to the present day, including paintings by Julio Desangles and Jaime Colson. (Monday-Saturday, 0900-1800).