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Dominican Republic - beyond the trendy allure of Punta Cana

Dominican Republic - beyond the trendy allure of Punta Cana

Beyond the allure of picture perfect, powdery soft white sands and crystalline turquoise waters, there is much more than a trip to the Dominican Republic than the beaches that have made it famous to travellers and sun-seekers around the world.

There is a real vibrancy to this nation that very few travellers take the time to discover and even fewer are aware of. From hidden trails to protected parks, isolated beaches, whale-watching experiences, cultural encounters, carnival dancing and city tours; you have not experienced the real Dominican Republic until you've stepped out of its glitzy beach resorts to take in the heritage, meet the people and learn the culture.

This is why, I've made it my mission to expose the not-so-well-known yet equally mesmerising (if not more so) hideouts of the Dominican Republic, beyond the white sands of Punta Cana and the allure of an all inclusive resorts.

So, read on for the full guide of the not-to-be-missed natural, cultural and seaside (yes, there are other pristine beaches beyond the main resorts – more beautiful and secluded ones in fact) hideaways you can find in this tropical country.

Santo Domingo, capital and historic centre

If you want to get to the beating heart of the Dominican Republic and experience the vibrancy and faster pace of urban life, then a visit to its capital is a must. Not only to get a glimpse of daily city life but also to admire the colonial charm of some of the buildings and take in a bit of the history too.

In Santo Domingo is where you'll breathe in a truly Dominican atmosphere, where the music is blasting from house stereos and car speakers, and where the sounds of life are better appreciated - from traffic noises, to children dropping their baseball bats (or improvised sticks) as they go for a home run and domino players slapping the wooden pieces on the tables – it's all more intense in the city, and you can absorb it all by simply walking along the streets. Because that's where everybody's at; right on the streets - the domino players, the children, housewives going about their daily routines and commuting workers.

This is a city that moves energetically to the rhythms of merengue and bachata, the sounds of which are impossible to miss as they pour out of almost every corner shop or convenience store. Santo Domingo is in short, what New York may be to Americans, or Havana to Cubans, the pulsating heart and soul that fuels the entire nation.

But before you jump to conclusions and think there's little to see here beyond taking in the local way of life and mingling with the locals; think again. Santo Domingo not only was the first seat of colonial rule in the New World but it also stands as the oldest European settlement continuously inhabited in the Americas. As such you can already guess the city's brimming with historical sites, museums and buildings that are worthy of admiration and deserve a visit.

For a deep immersion in the country's history and culture, you will find the Zona Colonial at the heart of the city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the focal point of which is Parque Colon, found right in the middle of it. Right across from the park stands the oldest cathedral in the West Indies, the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor, once the receiver of the title of Primate of the Americas, the only Archdiocese to have ever held this title.

Just a few steps away from the Caribbean's oldest church you'll find one of the Caribbean's oldest streets where the oldest surviving European fortress still stands, the Fortaleza Ozama. Not too far from there you'll stumble upon the first castle to be built in the Americas, the Alcazar de Colon; once the home of Don Diego Colon, one of Cristopher Columbus' sons. The ruins of the very first monastery in the New World are also found here, at the Monasterio de San Francisco, and also here is the oldest fortress in the Americas, the Panteon Nacional, so you can clearly see now how Santo Domingo was the first of many things in the West Indies, a true pioneering city in the New World. Even the first ever convent in the Americas was built here!

One place not to miss in Santo Domingo is the Museo de las Casas Reales (The Royal Houses Museum), an impressive complex of monumental proportions where you'll find the building of the former Royal Audiencia of Santo Domingo, the former Palace of the Governors as well as some of the above-mentioned buildings (Panteon Nacional, Fortaleza Ozama and the Dominican Convent).

As you walk along the cobblestone streets that are more reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter, than of a Caribbean city, be it not for the humid heat, you will admire the relics from the colonial times. But there's more to Santo Domingo than busy urban centres and historical sites, the city is also home to pumping nightclubs, cultural institutions and suited-up businessmen lunching in elegant restaurants. In more than one way this city is the representation of the many Dominican contradictions, the embodiment of all things that are central to the Dominican experience.

Cachote, mountain retreat in a cloud forest

Cloud forests aren't exclusive to Costa Rica, as some may think, and the Dominican Republic's southwestern mountain range of Bahoruco is home to an amazing and protected biosphere reserve in a small region known as Cachote.

More than a region, Cachote is actually a tiny village poised right on the cloud forest of Bahoruco Oriental. It stands tall some 1,1100 metres above sea level which means that right in the middle of the cool cloudy forest you will feel as if you could almost touch the sky. Just picture it, a small town with fewer than 50 inhabitants where approximately no more than 30 families live...pure and total bliss amidst on the purest and rawest of nature. Here you can enjoy the "bare necessities of life" while staying in a charmingly rustic retreat; a lodge made up of three wooden cabins that can sleep up to 25 guests.

Agriculture and coffee in particular, is the main livelihood of Cachote's dwellers, although the community is also involved in tourism in more recent times. As a matter of fact, it is a local group called Microempresa Ecoturistica de Cachote, which is in charge of managing the afore-mentioned Canto del Jilguero eco-lodge, named after the song of the rufous-throated solitaire that inhabits the area.

And on the topic of birds, Cachote is a splendid spot for birdwatching too, as the area is home to 26 of Hispaniola's 34 endemic bird species. Some of the rare tropical birds to watch out for during a birdwatching tour here include; the Grey-headed Quail-dove, the Western Chat Tanager, the Golden Swallow, and, of course, the emblematic Rufous-throated Solitare or jilguero.

Besides birdwatching, the fog that characterises the surrounding forest here is simply magic, with the low-lying mist creating captivatingly eerie and magical scenery. You can go on beautifully-kept trails that are regularly maintained by the local community, although birdwatching is possible from any point here and it's really good from the primary access road.

Numerous walking, trekking and birdwatching tours are organised from the main eco-lodge. Food is also provided onsite in a common eating area where meals prepared by local cooks, so you can get to experience true local fare prepare by the humble hands of this small town's enchanting and welcoming visitors.

Bahia de la Aguilas, most stunning beach in Dom Rep

While Punta Cana, and perhaps to a lesser extent La Romana or Puerto Plana , may be known as the Dominican Republic's top beaches and number one tourist hotspots, these often crowded beaches can feel a little to popular and mass-marketed for your liking –especially if you seek intimacy and seclusion.

This is when Bahia de Las Aguilas (or Eagles' Bay) steals the show with its vast expanse of isolated white sands and almost fluorescent-like crystalline blue waters. Virtually untouched and uninhabited this unadulterated piece of heaven spreads along eight kilometres on the country's south-western coast and is considered by many as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (certainly Dominicans think so as they regard it the country's best stretch of sand).

Part of the Jaragua National Park, this protected beach boasts an abundance of marine life thriving just beneath its translucent waters. The transparency of the shallow water is so incredible that you'll be able to see right through it and admire the colourful little fish swimming by without having to submerge your head in the water (although that way you'll get an ever closer view).

If you'd just see how beautifully cocooned away from the world this stunning beach actually is, you'll see little wonder in it having received so much praise over the years. The stillness and totally untouched beauty of it will have you gasping in awe – in fact it's sure to leave you truly speechless

If all this sounds too appealing and you're already yearning to be there, you must note that for such a blissful and paradisiacal place to exist, no signs of civilisation must be present in the areas surrounding it, or else the delicate ecosystem would be spoiled. Here you won't find any form of development, none in fact and the beach is only reachable by boat, after an enjoyable winding journey through scenic rock formations.

This is why Bahia de los Aguilas is a long way from pretty much everywhere else in the Dominican Republic. To get to it you'll have to drive for hours to Barahona, but even the ride there will be picturesque and the journey will prove well worth it once you arrive at your destination and cast your eyes over the isolated beauty of this heavenly bay.

Laguna de Oviedo, saltwater lagoon ideal for wildlife spotting

And just before you leave Bahia de Aguilas, within the same national park the Bahia de las Aguilas beach is found in, there's another natural wonder to be admired – the Laguna de Oviedo.

This impressive saltwater lagoon is another breathtaking sight that will leave a long-lasting impression on your memory. The spectacular green colour of this lake's waters will simply take your breath away, especially as the flickers of light filter through the waves – a magical sight to fully absorb in wonder.

Extending over 25 square kilometres, this lake is the second largest body of water in the Dominican Republic, second only to Lake Enriquillo. The greenish tinge of its waters is caused by limestone sediments that over the years have been dragged into the lake the by underground water flow.

But the lake's most stunning and attractive feature is the wildlife it is home to. This is by far and wide, the best place in the Dominican Republic to admire numerous aquatic birds, including a colony of plink flamingos and endemic birds as well as iguanas, crabs, herons and seagulls.

Abundant marine life is another draw of this place, with species like the Cyprinodon nicholsi being unique to this lake. The endangered Rhinoceros Iguana lives here and although they may look impressively large they are completely harmless.

According to residents of the area surrounding the lake, the water here is three times saltier than sea water and if you think this is an exaggeration just dip your finger in and go for a little taste.

Right at the centre of the lake there are 24 small islets which the locals call "Cayos de las Iguanas". You should hop on a boat tour along these islets to spot frigate birds, pelicans, golden spoonbills, herons and the native jutias (a large rat-like rodent) endemic to the Caribbean.

Located within the Jaragua National Park, on the mountain range of Bahoruco Laguna de Oviedo is a stunningly well-preserved biosphere reserve that you shouldn't miss on your journey of discovery along the Dominican Republic, especially if you stop off at Bahia de las Aguilas first, as the lake is only a short ride from there.

Constanza, great area for trekking and outdooor adventures

Named after the daughter of a local Taino cacique who lived in this valley during pre-Colombian times, the town of Constanza is a remote village in the La Vega province, located at a height of 1220 metres, right in the heart of the Dominican Republic's Central Mountain Range (Cordillera Central).

And what could possibly attract you to a remote town in the middle of nowhere, you ask? Surely there's nothing here you haven't seen before. Well, not quite like this, you haven't. This is no ordinary small Caribbean countryside town, you won't just find another typically Dominican countryside hideaway, as a matter of fact this place looks more like an alpine Swiss postcard than a tropical town.

The architecture of the summer cabins, the numerous pine trees, the small boutique hotels and splendid valleys remind you more of a European-style country cottage than a Dominican one.

Constanza is so different it even has its own oceanic micro-climate with moderately warm and humid summers and mild, dry winters. Temperature range between 5 and 20 degrees Celsuis throughout the year and they are quite stable with no big differences between summer and winter. During the day temperatures oscillate between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius in the summer while at night they drop to between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius. Daytime temperatures during the winter vary little, only dropping to between 21 to 24 degrees Celsius and ranging from 8 to 12 degrees Celsius at night.

This is the place to come and be wowed by the scenic views, to connect with Mother Nature and admire the impressive valley and mountain views. Fog is quite a common occurrence and makes for some dramatic photo snaps. Just picture getting up in the morning and opening your eyes to sweeping views of the valley, the picturesque trees bearing colourful fruits, the flourishing flowers and the abundance of vegetable crops.

This is an agricultural town located in one of the Caribbena's most fertile valleys, and as such you'll flind plenty of ornamental plants being cultivated as well as carrots, potatoes, lettuce, celery and giant strawberries. With a unique cooking style, you should make your very best effort to make time to try their celery stalk puree.

If you visit Constanza you should plan for at least one overnight stay at Rancho Constanza, where you will get to fully experience village-living at its purest in a wondrous setting. These colourful cabins perched right up on the mountains offer sustainable eco-lodging at its best and while no luxury should be expected, this rustically charming lodging offers the most amazing experience with Mother Nature. The scenery to be observed from here is truly breathtaking, from jaw-dropping mountain views to beautiful, fragranced gardens and the freshest fruits and vegetables you could find. A true out of this world experience!

Jarabacoa, gateway to Pico Duarte and adventure capital in "Quisqueya"

Another jewel in the crown of the Cordillera Central, Jarabacoa is the other inland city of what some refer to as the Dominican Alps. Also within the province of La Vega, Jarabacoa boasts a wealth of natural riches to be admired and experienced with all the senses.

It stands as La Vega's second largest municipality and enjoys a tropical rainforest climate. This is the epitome of mountain-living at it rawest and most enthralling; the true antithesis to the worn cliche of what a Dominican Republic holiday is all about. No beaches here, just paradisiacal nature, scenic landscapes and tonnes of rural charm. There's a good reason after all that all affluent Dominicans from the capital have built their summer homes in what they call the "City of Eternal Spring".

When it comes to accommodation in Jarabacoa, you'll find that it's charmingly varied and plentiful. You can choose from small boutique properties and rustic eco-lodges for an authentic and memorable stay in the Dominican countryside.

Ideal for all sorts of thrilling nature adventures, Jarabacoa is the place for river-rafting, canyoning, horseback riding, hiking, biking or simply engaging in some laid-back exploration of the rural.

There are activities and adventures here for all kinds of visitors. From the less intense bird-watching tours to the gentle trails and leisurely horseback rides to the more adrenalin-pumping quad-riding, paragliding and cascading, you can do it all or take your pick from the varied selection.

But not all activities in Jarabacoa have to be on land, there are indeed some swimming spots if you look forwards to making a splash. As waterfalls abound in this mountainous region, you'll have plenty of spots to dip your toes in, but there are two that clearly outshine the rest. I'm talking about Salto de Jimenoa and Aguas Blancas.

The first of the two is found over the hydroelectric dam of Jimenoa's River, and you can go right across it through a suspended bridge affording magnificent views. A visit to this beautiful waterfall will make for stunning photo ops as well as a refreshing bathing session.

The latter stands at an impressive height of 1,800 metres with a vertical drop of 87 metres. It stands proudly as the Caribbean's largest waterfall and it certainly is an impressive sight to witness. There are ongoing plans to improving access and conservation of the site with new signs on the works and a possible expansion of trails. At present you can find 170 metres of paved trails to access the waterfall, two observation platforms from which to take dramatic snapshots and a small steel footbridge.

But Dominicans' love affair with Jarabacoa is not just due to its location right at the heart of the Central Mountain Range and its outstanding natural beauty, but also because it provides one of the main access points to Pico Duarte, the Caribbean's largest mountain peak. You can have a crack at making it all the way to the top and there's no need to be an experienced climber either, just a reasonable amount of fitness is required. The trail is at times challenging but the views are absolutely spectacular.

Climbing the tallest peak in the West Indies is a challenge many visitors like to take on and an epic one at that – you'll remember it all your life. If you doubt you'll be fit enough for the climb you can choose the trip length that's right for you and do it a slower, more comfortable place. While most people hike Pico Duarte in two days, the three-day option will spread the amount of hiking you do each day more evenly, which means that instead of upping the tempo and doing the final 17-mile stretch on the last day you'll be doing the same 12 miles you did on day one (plus you'll enjoy a slower paced second day of climbing where you'll only do five miles, which allows for a good break in-between to rest off from the first day and charge up batteries for the second). There are different camps along the way for spending the night and in case the journey gets too tough or tiring climb there are mules that can take you some of the way (in fact if you wished you could do the whole climb on the back of a mule).

La Vega, the best place to catch the Carnival

If you're in for an authentic cultural experience like no other, then being part of the famous La Vega Carnaval should be on the top of things to do before you leave the Dominican province of La Vega.

To see it you have to plan to be here in February, more specifically on a Sunday, as this is when the carnival takes place. Whichever Sunday you pick is fine, as long as it's on February you can be sure there'll be a street party going on that's nothing like you've ever seen before.

One of the oldest and most traditional carnivals still celebrated today in the Dominican Republic, the La Vega Carnival dates all the way back to 1520, when the first residents of la Vega wore customs and came dressed as Christians and Muslims. Nowadays, the carnival has evolved and grown significantly, attracting locals as well as international visitors and gathering over 20 different participating groups, each with a different costume them. The groups are known as comparsas and to the rhythmic sound of drums they dance and show off their elaborate masks and colourful clothing.

The striking costumes take months to sew and decorate; they are made a few months in advance each year and are impressively detailed and colourful. But there's something about the mask in the La Vega Carnival that sets them apart from the rest, they are unmistakable for their frightening look, some to the point of being downright grotesque. With intricate decorations that include the use of feathers and rhinestones, they are known for having bulging eyes with bloodshot veins, rows of protruding fangs coming out of their menacing grins.

If the music is as important to you as the costumes, get ready for a good street dance. This carnival moves to the sounds of merengue and salsa and the beats pouring out of the music revellers fill the air with an intoxicating rhythm that's hard to resist.

Punta Rucia, laidback town in the beach

For a quieter hideaway, you should head to the Dominican Republic's most heavenly quiet beachside retreat. This secret it's so well-kept you'll hardly find any development in the area apart from the odd small hotel or lodge.

This is a serene place where you'll find that time stops to a standstill allowing you to fully take in the mesmerising beauty of a glistening beach. Well away from the sight of any big resort, this small fishing town takes pride in its unspoilt nature and its very few resorts, there's only a couple of them.

The two most popular places providing accommodation here are the upscale Punta Rucia Lodge and the more rustic Corales. Owned by an extremely friendly German gentleman that speaks three languages, the Corales hotel is a small and charming beachfront property that also arranges eco-tours and excursions as well as providing comfortable lodging with modern facilities.

Arguably the best beach on the Dominican Republic's northern coast, Punta Rucia is renowned for its ivory sands and scenic mountain views. A thriving coral reef separating Punta Rucia from the nearby (and more visited) Playa Ensenada, provides great snorkelling conditions as well as some fantastic opportunities for scuba diving.

Samana, whale-watching

If there is one place in the Caribbean ideal for whale-watching, that's the Dominican Republic and within it the province of Samana is the number one spot for admiring these gentle giants as they do their annual migration and swim to warmer waters to mate.

You can catch the whales' affectionate display in all splendour with a specialised tour that will take you out to open sea, halting in a spot from where you can observe these mesmerising creatures from a perfect distance that's close enough for you to enjoy the show but not so close that you will interfere in their mating antics.

Whale-watching season in the Dominican Republic lasts two months and goes from 14th January through to 15th March. Occasionally the season can extend all the way to the end of March, but you must plan to visit early to avoid disappointments, even when the excursions continue for as long as some whales remain. Some say mid-February is the best time to do a whale-watching tour in Samana as this is the peak of their mating season – it seems humpback whales also celebrate Valentine's Day and they take a special holiday to the Dominican Republic to celebrate in warmer waters!

Once you're there the spectacle to be admired is truly awe-inspiring. You'll be gasping in awe as humpback whales engage in their mating rituals right before your eyes. You'll listen to the male humpbacks' solitary courting song and witness amazing displays of tail lobbing, flippering and breaching. They truly make a splash and you'll be so close that you might get sprayed in the process. This will certainly prove one of the most memorable experiences in your lifetime.

Access to Samana Bay is easy and you can book a whale-watching boat tour from most hotels in Samana or at the city dock. The seaside province of Samana is located on the north-astern side of the Dominican Republic, on the Atlantic Ocean coast. It's easily reachable by plane, bus or car, especially now after the construction in 2008 of a highway connecting the Samana peninsula to the capital city of Santo Domingo, so you can easily make it part of your Dominican Republic holiday if you plan ahead.

And if you think we're done with the beautiful Samana peninsula or that this province is only famous for its whale-watching opportunities, just read on to find out one other reason you should definitely add it to your holiday itinerary,

Playa Rincon, one of the Top 10 beaches in the world

Picking up from where we left off and while we're on the subject of Samana, there is a beach there that that you shouldn't miss out on seeing – Playa Rincon.

If uncrowded, un-touristy beaches are what you seek, then Playa Rincon is the answer. Praised as one of the most beautiful in the Dominican Republic, this pristine stretch of fine white sands and sparkling blue waters is the epitome of Caribbean beauty. In fact, it recently featured on Conde Nast Traveler's Top 10 Beaches in the World!

Totally secluded from all signs of civilisation, this pretty beach is spread over four kilometres and despite being widely recognised as one of the most stunning stretches of sand it has managed to remain quiet and virtually deserted.

If you walk along the beach from end to end you may come across no more than five people in total (if any at all) and most of the time you will feel as though you have the beach all to yourself. There are no high-rise buildings or any forms of construction here to obstruct the glorious views – an amazing treat for the senses.

If you're in need of some refreshments during your time here there are only a few places from where you can get a few drinks, all located at each end of the beach. One of these is a family-run seafood shack where you can expert freshly cooked food with a smile.

A nice surprise during your walk along the shoreline will be discovering the small Cano Frio River, which you will discover close to a small community where you'll also find food stalls offering pina coladas and refreshing coconut water – just what your body will be asking for after a walk on the sands under the scorching sun.

Access to the beach can be tricky due to the narrow road and a few potholes here and there. Nevertheless buses regularly operate to the area and you can also access it via a beautiful and scenic boat trip. It departs from Las Galeras fishing village, found on the end of the Samna peninsula and the journey along the calm waters makes for amazing photography opportunities. As you approach the Rincon beach you will see how it is beautifully surrounded by a row of palm trees running along the white sands and standing in sharp contrast against the backdrop of the cliffs of Cape Cabron, rising over 600 metres – a truly magnificent sight.

The Dominican Republic – so much more than beachside tourist resorts

As you've read throughout this post, there is so much more to this Caribbean destination if you look beyond the lure of its upscale resorts and glitzy all inclusives. Away from the over-commercialised beach hideouts that the Dominican Republic has become so well-known for, there is a real vibrancy and distinctiveness to this Caribbean nation.

If you scratch beneath the surface you'll find a fascinating country overflowing with unique adventure pursuits, protected natural parks, historical sites and enthralling cultural traditions. With a fast-beating Latin soul and a tropical laidback approach, there's no better way to get to know the real Dominican Republic and the friendly Dominicans than by exploring some of its less trodden destinations.

Gaby Lucius

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Gaby Lucius

Gaby Lucius

Chill-out facilitator

With an eye for finding pleasurable travel experiences around the globe and catching the latest...

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