I love the Dominican Republic because there is so much to do there from rest and relaxation to outdoor adventures; this is the place to be (Photo: Dominican Republic by Miguel Discart, Flickr). Here’s a list of my top picks to get your Caribbean vacation in the Dominican Republic off to a great start. If you follow my suggestions, you’ll be able to sample (and learn about local methods of producing) world-renowned chocolate and rum, explore underwater wonders, have relaxing drinks on a great beach, visit underground caves and cave paintings of early indigenous tribes, ride on a zipline through treetops, hike around amazing lagoon-checkered forests, take in incredible city and coastal views, and learn about local history. Now that’s a trip!
1. Aquamundo Sambil
Aquamundo Sambil is an exceptional aquarium situated in the middle of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. It provides a glimpse into the diversity of the local marine life to be found around the Dominican Republic as well as in the waters of the Caribbean generally. You won’t want to miss the shark tunnel (where all that stands between you and the sharks is a bit of acrylic), particularly at feeding time (4:00 P.M.) when diverse species of sharks bare their teeth (for your selfies of course). This aquarium also boasts a really interesting insect and reptile exhibit that is worth checking out.
2. Cueva de las Maravillas
Situated two miles west of La Romana and dubbed the “Cave of Wonders”, Cueva de las Maravillas is an extensive eight hundred meter cave system situated 25 meters underground with an incredible array of stalactites and stalagmites that can be taken in on the 240 meter portion of the system open to the public (the rest of the cave system serves as a bat habitat, so you would likely need a really convincing bat costume to get in to it). The site was also inhabited by the Taino Indians (the ancient inhabitants of the area) and is adorned with fantastic black and red pictographs and petroglyphs. The Water Mirror Gallery portion of the system contains an artificial lake that reflects with mirror-like fidelity, the cave ceiling along with The Great Panel with its Taino cave painting of a funeral ritual. Cave access is afforded by way of ramps, a cement path, and an elevator. I was sold at Stalagmites and Stalactites alone.
3. Hacienda la Esmeralda
The Dominican Republic is world renowned for its chocolate, so it’s definitely worth taking a short detour from Santo Domingo to go to Hacienda la Esmeralda. On arrival, they give you a freshly-made cup of hot chocolate, followed by a tour of how cacao beans are grown and harvested. Then at the factory, you are able to see how the cacao beans are processed into incredible chocolate treats and have the chance to make your own chocolate bar. Then sit back and relax as you are served a traditional meal on a terrace with great local music and dancing. If you like chocolate, this excursion is a must.
4. Museum of Royal Houses
The colonial-style Museum of Royal Houses in Santo Domingo was constructed in the early 1500’s and is comprised on two adjoining buildings, the first of which first of which held the Royal Court (which was the first of its kind in the context of New World) and government offices. The second building served as living quarters for high-level government officials. With a beautiful interior courtyard and a museum worth of Taino and colonial artifacts (including a great array of antique weapons), it's worth visiting this site to learn about the historical context behind modern Santo Domingo.
5. Pirate Rum Factory
If you are a pirate at heart and you love rum, then head over to the Pirate Rum Factory in Punta Cana. With their beautiful hand-painted bottles, 300 year old rum recipes, and eight flavors of rum from which to choose (with sampling available), you can’t go wrong. Flavors include pineapple, banana, café, coconut, passion fruit, coconut milk, lemon, and the exotic mamajuana. For more about mamajuana, see my article, Top 10 List of Crazy Foreign Drinks That’ll Blow Your Mind.
6. The Hispaniola Aquatic Adventures
The Hispaniola Aquatic Adventures tour company in Punta Cana offers an array of both private and group catamaran excursions, complete with sailing and snorkeling adventures. For snorkeling, they take you to visit one of the most outstanding, local snorkeling reefs, Cabeza de Toro (the bull’s head reef). There is so much amazing marine life to observe in the area and what I like is that the guides take lots of underwater photos for you, so that you spend your time focused on the unique underwater world in which you find yourself. While on the tour, you are also taken to a beautiful, palm-lined beach to kick back and relax while drinking cocktails. Generally, the aquatic excursions last for roughly four hours. Usually, they come with a seafood lunch and the provision of any snorkeling gear necessary for the adventure. Cheers!
HorsePlay adventure ranch in Punta Cana extends for 300 acres of cacao, verdant forests, rivers, and tobacco plantations. Offering options for the intrepid adventure traveler ranging from gliding over the forest on a zipline to a riding expedition through a tropical forest on horseback to joining a cattle drive, the ranch has exceptional half day and whole day packages (that generally include lunch). If you have the adventure travel gene and a penchant for beautiful scenery, then HorsePlay should definitely be on your travel bucket list while in the Dominican Republic.
8. Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park
The 45+ acre Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park in Punta Cana is an extensive tropical forest crowned by underground-river-fed fresh water lagoons known as “eyes”. With over 100 types of bird and 27 species unique only to the Dominican Republic, it’s definitely worth taking the tour to learn more about the park’s flora and fauna. This tremendous park also offers tours of its splendid fruit gardens, botanical gardens, and an iguana farm. It even has a petting zoo which is perfect if you are traveling with children. Travelers are permitted to swim in three of the lagoons and while tours are recommended, they are not required. The brilliant blue eyes are captivatingly beautiful, so definitely grab your bathing suits and head out to this wonderland. You won’t be sorry.
9. 3 Eyes National Park
For those with a greater physical endurance and traveling without children, the 3 Eyes National Park in Santo Domingo is another exceptional outdoor experience. Three lakes are almost alchemically imbued with a blue-green iridescent from sunlight filtering into them from overhead. Be forewarned that there are some fairly steep stairs leading to the first lagoon, but if you can handle it, it’s well worth the effort. After arriving at the park’s third lagoon, you can glide on a raft over to the park’s fourth lagoon which is surround by an incredible variety of tropical flora. The final lake must be reached through a cave system, which makes the adventure all the sweeter. If you have the endurance for this amazing experience, I would highly recommend it.
10. Mount Isabel de Torres
Mount Isabel de Torres situated near Puerto Plata in the northern coastal region of the Dominican Republic is truly a top tourist destination for a reason. A cable car with panoramic vistas will carry you to the top of the mountain to enjoy sweeping views of the city as well as of the coast. The National Botanical Gardens and a giant statue of Christ are also attractions not to miss. You really do get some of the best views from Mount Isabel de Torres, so be sure to bring your camera and prepare to be dazzled.