Dominican Republic: Places, Culture, Tradition

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Famous for its beaches and music, Dominican Republic has won its place in the hearts of tourists around the world. However, there is much more than just pearly white beaches and merengue. As the first European settlement in the Americas, much of Dominican culture and history set the tone for the rest of the development in the New World.

Keep reading to learn many interesting facts about Dominican Republic!

Dominican Republic at a glance

With a current population 10.5 million, Dominican Republic is one of the most populous countries in the Caribbean. It is also one of the largest countries, with a total extension of 48,670 square kilometers. The largest part of the population resides within the capital, Santo Domingo, and in other cities along the southeast and northwest coasts.

Dominican Republic is divided geographically by four mountain ranges: Cordillera Central, Cordillera Septentrional, Sierra de Neiba, and Sierra de Bahoruco. The highest point, El Pico Duarte, sits atop the Cordillera Central at 3,175 meters above sea level. In contrast, the country’s lowest point is Lake Enriquillo, one of only salt water lakes inhabited by crocodiles (if not the only).

The Dominican Republic is bordered in the west by Haiti, in the south by the Caribbean Sea, in the east by the Mona Passage, and in the north by the Atlantic Ocean.

Currently, there are around 1.6 million Dominican expats around the world.


Indigenous civilizations of La Hispaniola

Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti, which was named Hispaniola by the Spanish conquistadores. The island was originally inhabited by Taínos, an Arawakan tribe believed to have originated either in the Amazon Basin or the Andes. There is much debate as to what the original name of the island was, with Bohío (how Taínos referred to their houses) and Haiti (meaning mountainous land) being the top contenders.

The Taínos were a peaceful people who spent most of their time fishing, planting and harvesting yucca, or dancing. These dances were called areitos, a type of ceremonial dance used to preserve the Taíno oral history and pay worship to the gods. Taíno infrastructure was mostly limited to houses built with tree trunks and dried palm tree leaves. For this reason, very little has survived from the pre-Columbian period aside from pottery and wood crafts made with Mohagany. However, many Taíno words and names, agricultural techniques, and cultural practices still linger in the island, especially in rural areas.

Dominican Gastronomy

Most Dominican gastronomy is based on simple ingredients like yucca, plantain, and red kidney beans. However, the versatility in presentation and flavors will surprise you! Below is a list of the most popular Dominican food, some of which are really easy to make at home.

  • Mangú. One of the most popular dishes, Mangú is mashed plantains, usually served with red onions, fried cheese, and salami. In Dominican Republic, mangú is considered the breakfast of champions.
  • Arroz con habichuela. White rice served with a red kidney bean stew, arroz con habichuela is usually eaten for lunch with a side of meat and salad. Dominican households can eat this same dish every day!
  • Sancocho. The best option for rainy days, sancocho is a type of soup made with almost everything you can find lying around in a Dominican household. Typical ingredients include plantains, yucca, pork, beef, lamb, and chicken thighs. All the ingredients are cut into cubes and cooked in a broth.
  • Tostones. Pressed and fried plantain patties, tostones are the quintessential side dish for any and all meals.
  • Catibías.  These Dominican empanadas are made with yucca flour and filled with cheese or meat.
  • Habichuela con dulce. A traditional Holy Week dish, habichuela con dulce is a sweet red kidney bean stew. It’s often made in bulk and served with milk cookies.
  • Pastel en hoja. Similar to tamales, pasteles en hoja are a yucca or plantain mash wrapped in plantain leaves. It usually has chicken or beef filling and is served as a side dish for Christmas Eve.
  • Casabe (Cassava). Made from pressed yucca, casabe is a traditional Taíno recipe that’s baked and consumed as an alternative to bread or crackers.
  • Arañitas de yuca. A fan favorite, arañitas are made with shaved yucca and deep fried.
  • Mabí (Maubey). A traditional drink made from fermented tree bark, a recipe passed down through generations since the Taíno era.

Places to Visit in Dominican Republic

If you’re visiting Dominican Republic, we recommend taking some time out of the beach resort to visit any of the following locations. There is truly much more to see!

Samaná

The crown jewel of Dominican Republic, Samaná has it all. Did you know humpback whales come to mate and reproduce at the Samaná Bay every year? In fact, studies show that all Atlantic humpback whales are born in Dominican waters. From December to March, you can go whale watching in Samaná. The whales are incredibly friendly and enjoy waving with their fins and engaging in summersaults for their visitors.

Samaná is also known for its Atlantic beaches, namely the area of Las Terrenas and Playa Rincon, the former being considered one of the top ten beaches in the world. Last but not least, the beautiful and lively town of Santa Bárbara, lined with colorful Victorian-style houses is the perfect place to experience Dominican culture. This traditional seaside town is easy to navigate and is well conditioned for visitors while still retaining its local flair.

Los Haitises

Located near Samaná, Los Haitises National Park is a mix of subtropical humid forest areas and mangroves. Sinkholes, caverns, and hills are sprinkled around a limestone karst plateau. The park is inhabited by several endemic species, including the Hispaniolan hutia and the Hispaniolan solenodon.  In some of the park’s caverns pictograms and petroglyphs can be found, cementing its place as a must-visit.

Punta Cana

Of course, touristic areas had to make the cut. Punta Cana is currently one of the most active tourism areas in Dominican Republic thanks to its international airport and extensive kilometers of Atlantic and Caribbean beaches. Located at the easternmost tip, Punta Cana has everything from disco caves to ecological parks like the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve

Jarabacoa

A top destination for ecotourism, Jarabacoa is located at the top of the Cordillera Central (Central Range) and is one of the access points to El Pico Duarte, the island’s highest point. Jarabacoa was one of the main Taíno settlements, belonging to the Chiefdom of Maguana. In the native language, Jarabacoa means “Land of Waters,” which is a fitting name considering sometimes even gold washes up the shores of its rivers. Top places to visit include the Salto Jimenoa waterfall and the Ebano Verde Scientific Reserve and National Park. 

Santiago

Known as “Ciudad Corazón” (Heartland City), Santiago is the second largest city in Dominican Republic. Having once served as the capital, Santiago is a cultural and financial hub. Thanks to its location in the Cibao valley, the city is surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges.

Ciudad Colonial

The first settlement of the Americas, the Dominican colonial zone is located in Santo Domingo. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, which was built between 1514 and 1541. The Alcazar de Colón, Diego Colombus’s family home is also found in Ciudad Colonial. Thanks to the cobblestone streets and well-preserved Spanish architecture, a walk around Ciudad Colonial is like stepping into a history book.

Last but not least, we leave you with an aerial view of Dominican Republic, because why not!

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