Exploring Santo Domingo’s Historic Zona Colonial

Thinking about visiting Santo Dominigo’s historic Zona Colonial on your own and on a budget? Here’s what to expect plus lessons learned from our own experience exploring the oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere.

This is the first time to the Caribbean for the two of us and we are hopeful the DR will not disappoint.

It seems to have everything we’re looking for in a backpacking adventure—a budget-friendly balance of cross-cultural experiences and beach time in the warm tropical sun.

Furthermore, though we’ve backpacked many times apart, this visit to the Dominican Republic will be our first time backpacking together, and we couldn’t be more excited!

Getting to Santo Domingo

dominican republic backpacking route

My journey down to the Dominican Republic was a bit long, but very pleasant.

I left Seattle Friday night, got four hours of sleep on a smooth B757 flight to JFK, then enjoyed another smooth five-hour flight down the Atlantic coast, taking in the bright turquoise waters surrounding the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos before touching down at Las Américas International Airport shortly after noon Saturday (four-hour time change from PST).

Over the next seven days we plan to spend time in Santo Domingo, the DR’s capital in the south; Jarabacoa, a mountain town in the central part of the country near Pico Duarte, the Dominican Republic’s highest peak at 10,164 ft.; and the beach-dotted Samaná Peninsula in the Northeast.

The taxi ride from the airport to the Zona Colonial where we were staying cost US$40, a seemingly non-negotiable price listed on an official looking sheet. Lori tried her best to get us a deal utilizing her impeccable Spanish but to no avail.

Our Santo Domingo Accommodations

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo

Our first stop in the capital was Hostal Dominico Mundial, our home for the next few nights.

Lori called ahead to make reservations, but not-surprisingly the lady working at the front desk had no record of our reservation. Luckily, we had printed out a copy of the information that Lori had typed and the lady treated it like an official document.

Our room was basic and clean, through a small gate in the courtyard and up some stairs. It had a balcony with a few chairs that overlooked the simple courtyard, a TV, fridge and fan (that didn’t work). The bathroom was detached, down the stairs, but private as we had the only key.

The room was typically US$25 per night, but the management dropped five bucks off the price due to the hassle (you may have gathered by now that the Dominican Republic isn’t exactly what you call a shoe-string backpacker travel destination).

We left the hostel to walk around for a bit and get our bearings. We were surprised at the lack of people and activity in general on a Saturday afternoon and attributed it to the unseasonably cold weather. Our suspicions were confirmed when we returned to the capital the next day to find the sun shining and the city bustling.

The Chapel of the Third Dominican Order at the end of Av. Duarte–the only colonial structure in Santo Domingo to reach the present fully intact (1729).

Food & Drink

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo

But for now, we found ourselves quite hungry with very few places open. We found a quiet eatery with a nice walled-in courtyard, ordered ceviche and two Presidente cervezas (the official beer of the DR) and whiled away the next 15 minutes until the rains came.

presidente beer santo domingo

Even in the rain, the old colonial district is an agreeable and charming place to amble, as many of the outdoor cafes have large umbrellas and people (mostly in the evening) still eat, drink and wander around.

drinking presidente beer santo domingo

We spent the evening running from awning to overhang in the pouring rain searching for restaurants recommended by our guidebook that were actually open. The one we had planned to go to was closed for a private party, and others weren’t exactly what we were looking for.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo

We eventually settled on a place off the Parque Colón with excellent comida typica (local food) and good prices.

The experience was tainted a bit by the pouring rain and our overly attentive waiter and his friend who crowded in under our sun-brella the entire time we dined.

It may have remained an uncomfortable situation if the Cuba Libres Lori and I ordered hadn’t been as strong, and the rain (actually music speaker crackle that we had mistaken for rain) hadn’t been as loud.

Despite a few minor setbacks, all in all, a very pleasant first day backpacking through the Dominican Republic.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo

Our second day in Santo Domingo brought people out in the streets and bright Caribbean sunshine.

Lori and I took a stroll down Duarte and El Conde and stopped to have breakfast at Hotel Conde, a bustling outdoor cafe on the Parque Colon that offered a long list of omelets and sandwiches with a variety of exotic juices.

We knew the place wasn’t exactly a “local” joint, but was exactly the vibe we were looking for to help get a jump on our day of sightseeing.

We enjoyed our breakfast sandwiches, balmy morning weather, and people watching—a perfect start to our time backpacking the Dominican Republic.

Fortaleza Ozama

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Fortaleza Ozama (c.1502)–oldest colonial military edifice in the New World.

After breakfast, Lori and I consulted our list of must-see attractions and paid a visit to Santo Domingo’s 16th-century colonial fort on the river (Fortaleza Ozama), which was actually really worth a visit.

The remarkably well-preserved fort was relatively empty, not the least bit commercialized, and no part of the structure was off limits to the public.

As a bonus, the natural light throughout the fort lent itself nicely to picture taking. And Lori proved a lovely and patient subject.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
One of several period cannons at Fortaleza Ozama.
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Rio Ozama from the top of Fortaleza Ozama.
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Zona Colonial from Fortaleza Ozama.

One of the most fun and interesting parts of the fort was the eclectic collection of various military machinery and installations.

There were a number of armored trucks and tanks spanning several decades, canons, fixed guns, and (I hope) decommissioned bombs, missiles, and torpedoes—apparently now being used as seating for the fort’s many loitering police officers and military personnel.

Anti-aircraft gun at Fortaleza Ozama.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial

Panteon Nacional

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Panteon Nacional, where the Dominican Republic’s most illustrious are laid to rest.

Next, our things-to-see-in-Santo-Domingo shortlist took us to the National Pantheon, a building with a fascinating history. Its most recent incarnation is (as the current name would suggest) that of national mausoleum where some of the DR’s most honored and beloved come to nap…eternally.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial

Around the Zona Colonial

Next, we took a stroll through the Plaza España where we passed Chris Columbus’ son’s old palace, the Royal Palace and, of course, the Museum of Ham.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
“Museum of Ham”
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
San Francisco Giants fan serenading lunchtime passersby (the DR has a San Francisco also, along with a Giants baseball team with the same logo and colors…)

After some Presidente beers at a cafe in the Plaza España, we started making our way down to the Malecón via the ruins of a 16th-century hospital.

We hadn’t originally planned on walking down to the Malecón (seawall, also the part of the city along the sea) but a run-in with a “tourist guide” earlier that day piqued our interest.

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Resting for a spell in the midday heat.

The guide seemed nice enough and claimed that his services were free, but he was way too eager and well dressed to want to lead us around town for an hour for nothing.

He even had his own little laminated photo tour of the Zona Colonial, but above all else, what he really seemed to want was for us to visit his friend’s cigar factory, which of course sounded too cool to pass up.

We eventually convinced him that his services were not needed, but agreed to go check out the factory, which (though labeled “Fabrica de Tobacco”) ended up being no more than an overpriced cigar shop, though we did learn apparently that Mama Juana, contrary to folklore, was not a Dominican afrodisiac, but a panacea of sorts for aches and pains, just FYI.

Another useful tidbit derived from our little side excursion was that today of all days just happened to be the final day of Carnival (a bit late we thought, considering we were already a few weeks into Lent by now, but this is merely a detail, apparently—easily overlooked by the carefree Dominican masses).

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial
Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial

Hospital ruins (c.1503).

Backpacking Dominican Republic Santo Domingo Zona Colonial

Day two of our Dominican Republic backpacking adventure in the can! Well…not quite. There’s still this business of lazy Carnival to address. Or, maybe the cigar factory tout was merely putting another one over on us. Vamos a ver

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