Disclosure: There are some affiliate links in the post below where I will earn a commission if you make a purchase but there’s zero cost to you. I only recommend brands I love that are aligned with responsible tourism.
The Dominican Republic is one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets when it comes to immersive experiences away from all-inclusive resorts. This might sound surreal to those who haven’t visited, but it’s true: a huge part of the country is the antithesis to the all-inclusive resort image. Once you discover that other side, and once you know where to find great boutique hotels and lodges, you’ll be in for an amazing ride.
Independent travelers to the DR — primarily Canadians, Europeans and some South Americans, as well as Caribbean visitors — know to look for culture-packed areas. They use well-researched guidebooks or ask lots of questions on expat forums to find them. But the majority of mainstream American visitors don’t realize that there are many corners in which to enjoy the DR away from the chain of all inclusive resorts on the east coast. Or if they do, they might not know where to start and they often default to the cheap package deals online.
But seeing the Dominican Republic away from gated enclaves that use the “all you can eat and drink” model — I know that can appeal as a nice break from reality at times — which has nothing to do with life on the ground, is essential to get a clear picture of this country. To see how beautifully diverse it is in its cultural nuances, to understand what its socio-political challenges are, to see how most of its people live (yes, including the millions of Haitians who live and work here legally and illegally), and to see what Dominicans are really like beyond the negative stereotypes that are often perpetuated in US media because it sells.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” – Mark Twain.
In an earlier post, I shared six offbeat areas to explore in the DR. This time, by popular request after my recent gone-viral post addressing the recent incidents in the DR, I get more specific.
In this post, I share a few of my curated picks of places to stay in up to nine small to medium sized beach towns, riverside villages or mountain campo towns. From Dominican-owned or operated guesthouses to eco-lodges, boutique hotels and hostels, there are options for every type of traveler seeking a local beat, even if you want to include some pampering along the way.
The only risk you’ll find in these areas I list below is falling in love with the DR and spending the rest of your time back home lamenting re-entry, while figuring out how to save to retire here.
I once dreamed of hosting my own tours around the DR to show people that there’s a different and stunning side that’s a far cry from all-inclusive resorts. I got too busy with writing my guidebooks to fully market my custom tour, but perhaps one day soon I’ll pick that dream up again because every year I am here, I discover yet another incredible, remote part of this country.
Before I dive into my picks of locations for you, I want to address one question that’s come up since all the negative press on the DR’s few isolated, nonviolent resort deaths. Because the answer to this question has been impacting other areas of the country unfairly.
I. Why the Dominican Republic?
The ill-informed comments on social media since the news outlets jumped on their sensationalism (many have since retracted, stating the incidents were not out of the ordinary for a major tourist area) have been eye opening, because most came from Americans who’ve never seen the DR or who have only visited the Punta Cana region’s gated all inclusive resorts. I’m using the general Punta Cana term here, but I’ll explain that further in this post.
I don’t believe in forcing people to go to a destination — we either want to have open minds or we decide that travel won’t change it.
But the one comment I read a few times across several sites and which begs addressing is this: “There are many other Caribbean islands to visit.”
This is such a common misconception: that all Caribbean islands are the same, that one destination can be interchanged with a neighboring one. We have the news media to blame for that on the one hand. But on the other hand, this confusion over islands happens often because — in my humble expert opinion — a good number of Caribbean destinations have failed to truly distinguish their brand. They make generic claims of gorgeous beaches, romantic sunsets, pristine nature, diverse cuisine and luxurious stays. A smaller group has stood out because they’ve pushed their cultural differences, articulate their historical past and emphasize their celebrations.
I realize that I’m able to discern because I’ve been privileged to explore and live long term in many of these countries, from Grenada to Belize, DR and Jamaica. I know that each Caribbean destination has its own personality, its own culture and history, its culinary differences and distinct protected areas, among other things. Most of all, its people are not the same (stating the obvious here, but you get the drift).
What I love about Antigua is not what I love about Jamaica, Barbados or the DR. Is France the same as Spain? Or Portugal the same as Italy, because they’re all in Western Europe? It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? That’s the case for the Caribbean. It might not be a continent, but it’s a region of different countries and territories, boasting their own imprint and culture, and deserving of being differentiated.
So if you think you’ll find an equivalent escape to the Dominican Republic elsewhere in the Caribbean, there’s one thing I know for sure (and yes, I’m quoting Oprah): you won’t.
Not just because you’d miss out on some of the longest, most spectacular beaches in one single Caribbean country counting over 1,000 miles of coastline.
Or because you’d miss out on the highest mountain ranges in the Caribbean, home to the region’s highest peaks, the tallest of which is Pico Duarte at 10,101 feet. Or because you’d miss out on spectacular scenic drives along coconut or coffee plantations, hikes along rugged clifftops and hillside villages.
You also wouldn’t hear the sound of bachata and merengue luring you to move your feet and smile, while witnessing couples suddenly on their feet dancing in the park or on the sidewalk, wherever the rhythm moves their spirit. Or the other folkloric dances, many of which have a heavy African influence and are showcased every week in Santo Domingo.
You wouldn’t know the taste of dishes unique to this country, like the mangu from the platano verde that grows here, or the sancocho that unites people around a big pot of stew, the taste of pasteles en hoja or the street side frituras and the unique desserts – like habichuelas con dulce – and the fresh passion fruit that grows all over the country like oranges.
And most of all, you’d miss out on knowing a people whose spirit is contagious — Dominicans are known not only for their humor and their jerga or Dominican slang, but also for their spirit of sharing and communing, their love for family and guests, and an unparalleled ability to live every day to the fullest with so little.
I remember three years ago when heavy floods hit low income barrios in the Puerto Plata region, a video clip of one Dominican family went viral. They stood ankle-deep in flood waters in their yard, beside their humble zinc-roof home. But they were cooking sancocho, stirring the pot, singing and swaying to the sound of merengue playing from a phone. I immediately thought, that – how do I bottle that up?
You’d miss out too, on feeling the energy that’s deeply entrenched in their air here. The echo of vendors yelling “Hay aguacate, mami! Guineo!” down the street as they weave through the neighborhoods, or the bus and motorbike drivers calling out to you “Morena!” as they look for customers. And then there’s carnival month, February when you really get to see how much alegria Dominicans have regardless of their circumstances, young or old, man or woman, gay or straight. How much they celebrate music and dance, from the drumming to the Ali Baba makeshift trumpets, the chanting of the Villa Mella Congos or the Guloyas’ that call everyone out of the house. These last two are actually groups included by UNESCO on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
I could write a love letter about Jamaica as well, my first muse, but my point is this: every Caribbean destination is different and so are the locals, each offering hospitality and personality in their own way.
What the media, travel agents and tourists need to stop saying is that you can replace one island with another. This is why there was confusion when the devastating twin hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the region in 2017. The media painted the entire region as destroyed and the public was confused – do you remember that? We went through a tough season; the DR barely got a lick, Jamaica survived while others like Puerto Rico, British Virgin Islands and Barbuda were hit hard. Remember too, when zika was all over the news? Everyone judged, generalized destinations and squirmed.
My best advice is this: if you’re interested in a specific Caribbean destination, seek out the person who knows it best. Google it, check social media, buy guidebooks and read reputable blogs that show a track record. Those experts will be able to tell you what it’s really like and if it’s a fit for your needs. You can even hire travel experts to craft your itinerary.
If someone says to you “there are many other islands” as I saw one tourist say online while the agent replied that it was fair – walk away and ask someone else.
Because here’s the thing: the DR can’t be found elsewhere in the Caribbean or in the world.
II. Where to stay in DR: From beaches to mountains
From Santo Domingo to Puerto Plata, Las Terrenas and Bayahibe, I’ve put together a first timer’s primer for a trip filled with culture, the outdoors and easy access to surrounding local businesses to support.
As one reader once described me in an email, I’m ‘the fun maximizer.’ I don’t sit much on my trips – I love to get up early and hit the markets, try different foods, beach hop, hike forests to falls and take cultural workshops. These areas below will give you a chance to experience all of this, or a combination.They attract both locals and foreigners, particularly at the beach on weekends, while the mountain towns are more removed from the typical visitor trail.
1. Bayahibe Village
If I had to choose the perfect beach town where one can walk around freely and safely at any time of the day or evening, plus enjoy tourist amenities and culture in the same place, Bayahibe Village would be it.
This small Caribbean Sea-facing hub receives thousands of tourists daily who hop off the big buses from Punta Cana but then immediately board their catamaran excursion to Saona Island.
Most don’t overnight here because they simply don’t realize Bayahibe Village a much better experience and bang for your buck. Not only are there only small hotels, guesthouses and rental apartments in this seafront village, but it also counts excellent seafood restaurants as well as international cuisine thanks to a long-established Italian and French expat community here. Nearby is Parque Nacional Cotubanamá, one of the most beautiful national parks in the DR, which encompasses both land hiking areas and marine areas with offshore islands.
This means you’re super close to Saona Island, a spectacular sailing experience (in my mind, one of the top 3 most beautiful offshore islands in the Caribbean). Also close are Catalina and Catalinita islands. Diving is excellent in this entire area, particularly off Catalina, and reputable independent dive shops are located in Bayahibe. Even if you don’t dive, when you overnight in the village you get to hire your own licensed boat captain and avoid the crowds by picking your own beaches along the island.
Once the sun comes down, the Dominican vibe is alive and well with merengue and bachata at the corner colmado and in the heart of the village where locals hang out at the seafront park and sidewalk restaurant terraces.
Recommended places to stay include the Hotel Bayahibe, a solid deal for a clean, no frills stay — get the breakfast included so you can enjoy it by the sea every morning, at the restaurant across the street. There’s a pool on site but with the Caribbean Sea literally a hop away, you won’t need it. There are also numerous AirBnB apartment hotels near the beach. All offer A/C, Wi-Fi, and cable TV.
2. Las Terrenas, Samaná Peninsula
A favorite of independent travelers, the Samaná Peninsula is a dreamy haven of blue coastline, coconut plantations as far as the eye can see, and long beaches that appear straight out of postcards. Las Terrenas is one of the best bases to pick; it’s also home to rivers and waterfalls, clifftop sunsets and plenty of bachata dancing every night.
The reason it attracts so many solo travelers is also the wide variety in small to medium sized accommodations to suit all budgets. You have Dan and Manty’s Guesthouse, a ten-minute walk from the main town and beach area, where travelers from around the world commune in dorm or private rooms and make friends over Manty’s daily Dominican dinner buffet on site, to which locals also flock for a small fee.
For a luxury pick, there’s the cozy Mahona Boutique Hotel, a delightful villa turned small luxury hideout run by a French couple with an architecture background. The breakfast here is absolutely fit for a queen – and well worth the splurge of staying here, not to mention the swimming pool.
You’ll find numerous other options for villa and condo rentals around Las Terrenas, many of which are listed on booking sites online.
Las Galeras is an easy day trip over for more spectacular beaches, even if lots of tourists do visit during the day; you can avoid them by staying overnight and visiting beaches when day trippers aren’t present.
3. Puerto Plata, North DR
On the north coast, Puerto Plata or “la novia del Atlantico” is a huge province — one of 32 in the Dominican Republic, and it counts nine municipalities with one of the most diverse sceneries in the DR. The province, which bears the same name as its principal city, borders the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. This means that in Puerto Plata, you could stay both on the beach and in the mountains and get two different experiences in one area.
Picture rivers, the 27 Falls of Damajagua, and lesser known waterfalls and sinkholes where you’ll be the only ones there.
An exception within Playa Dorada’s complex of many all inclusive resorts is Blue Jack Tar — which is actually a boutique, a la carte hotel. You won’t feel like staying at a massive all-inclusive at all because it isn’t one.
There’s a decent sized pool, the restaurant is excellent, and the beachfront here is gorgeous with plenty of day beds and loungers.
Within an easy hop are additional beaches, including one of my favorites: Playa Costambar.
What I also like about Blue Jack Tar is that it’s just a few steps to a beach popular with locals where you’ll find a restaurant and local food options, as well as plenty of family vibes on Sundays.
In addition, this coastline is ideal for surfing or kitesurfing or windsurfing, thanks to the Atlantic trade winds – surf hubs Cabarete and Encuentro are just under an hour away, by car or by public transportation.
Last but not least, Puerto Plata City is an easy cab ride away. Get out and get on the only cable car in the Caribbean to Mount Isabel, sample local food or nightlife, and explore the city’s historical sights and waterfront boulevard. Heads up: There’s now a rum festival hosted every year in Puerto Plata city and it’s in July.
4. Monte Cristi, Northwest DR
If you’re the kind of traveler intent on having a different experience even away from “lesser touristy” hubs, head straight for Monte Cristi. This beautiful, rustic seaside town on the northwestern edge of the DR is simple yet gorgeous with its rocky coastline and unusual landscape reminiscent of the Mediterranean.
Everything about Monte Cristi is different. Locals come here to relax for the weekend by the seaside, and the living is simple. There’s also a lot of history packed in this small area, as Monte Cristi is where Jose Marti and Dominican General Maximo Gomez forged Cuba’s plan for independence in 1895. You can tour the museum, once Gomez’s home, in town.
Stay at locally-owned and affordable Hotel Santa Clara located in town. For a notch up, choose the swankier boutique and lodge El Morro Eco Adventure Hotel, directly across from the sea and beach, a short ride to town and offering a swimming pool. You can also bike your way from the eco lodge to Playa El Morro, one of the main sights and national parks in Monte Cristi. You’ll find decent listings on AirBnB as well. Rent a car to make the most of the area, as taxis as few in these parts and mostly motorbike taxis make runs.
For even more adventure, sign up for a snorkel trip with locally-operated Soraya y Leonardo Tours to the secluded, offshore Seven Brother Cayes – I visited last year it was a spectacular experience.
5. Punta Cana ‘Proper’
If you’re a luxury traveler looking for pampering at some point in our journey, coupled with some nearby outdoor activities such as golf and hiking, plus a wide choice of a-la-carte fine dining restaurants — then your stay could include a couple of days in what I call “Punta Cana proper.”
No, I’m not referring to all inclusive resorts. Most people, including the news media, don’t realize that the name “Punta Cana” actually applies to the area that’s south of the Punta Cana Airport — and not the Bavaro area nor the Uvero Alto, Cabeza de Toro nor Arena Gorda areas, which are not part of Punta Cana per se.
Within the Punta Cana proper area then, are a string of three small to medium luxury boutique hotels within the Puntacana Resort & Club — spearheaded by the founder of the “Punta Cana” brand, Frank Rainieri, widely considered an icon in Caribbean tourism. I’ve stayed at the Westin Punta Cana, facing Playa Blanca — popular for its water sports and for its restaurant with a Caribbean-Dominican fusion menu.
Wherever you choose within the cluster of Puntacana Group’s small luxury hotels, you’ll access to a nearby reserve’s hiking trails and fresh water pools, as well as access to the first and currently the sole Six Senses Spa in the Caribbean region (I did get a massage there and it was as amazing).
More importantly, you should tour the onsite Puntacana Center for Sustainability to learn about their multiple ongoing projects, including coral reef restoration, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and aquaponics. Ask about arranging a “voluntarism” opportunity pre-trip to match your skills with one of their initiatives during your stay.
Last but not least, this area is a two-hour highway drive to Santo Domingo, which you should absolutely include for culture and a balanced experience of the DR, luxury aside. Hire a driver if you don’t want to handle driving in the capital, which can be intimidating at best.
B. City Side: The Capital
6. Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone
I’ve written about Santo Domingo several times – it’s one of my top three favorite areas in the DR. This capital city of the DR is the heart of Dominican culture, from the arts to the food scene and the nightlife. I’ll venture to say that you can’t come to the Dominican Republic and not glimpse the Colonial Zone or the first European-established city in the Americas, tour its historic buildings and museums – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and take in the cultural hub of the country.
For first timers, I recommend staying in one of the boutique hotels in the Colonial Zone. A favorite of mine is El Beaterio Casa Museo, housed in a beautiful 16th century former “beaterio” or home of beatas, which were devout women before they were known as nuns. From the friendly Dominican and Haitian staff to the beautiful courtyard and rooftop spaces and included breakfast, as well as a location sack in the heart of the Colonial City, it’s hard to beat this small hotel. Numerous celebrities like Vin Diesel opt to stay here time and again.
Other popular picks include Nicholas de Ovando, while a more budget pick there’s Hotel Conde de Peñalba where I stayed years ago when I first came to Santo Domingo.
The rooftop views over Columbus Park are worth it, as well as the balcony rooms and the local restaurant on the ground floor, with a sidewalk terrace facing all the bustle of the Zona.
The center of Santo Domingo, starting a 15-minute drive west, is its own world with shopping malls, luxury hotels, movie theaters, traffic jams and numerous restaurants of all kinds. There are also several white sand beaches immediately outside the city going east — at Boca Chica, Guayacanes and Juan Dolio.
C. Mountains and hillsides
7. Tubagua Village, Puerto Plata
On Puerto Plata’s mountainside, you already know one of my favorite escapes for immersion in nature and culture: Tubagua Village and Tubagua Eco Lodge. I’ve written about this environmental award winning hotel before, but it bears mentioning that its owner has lived in the DR for over 30 years and has built not only a delightful lodge that connects you with the outdoors — with spectacular sea and green views — but he has also designed unique community experiences for guests and for the locals who benefit from this income.
From hiking in the village to reach falls to cacao and coffee plantation tours, it’s a win-win experience of a real slice of Dominican campo. The ideal Puerto Plata experience would include a beach stay coupled with a hillside escape.
8. Los Calabazos, Central DR
Did you know that the Dominican Republic counts a number of community tourism initiatives and women-run cooperatives? One of my favorites among them is the Sonido del Yaque lodge, named after the sounds of the Yaque river.
Tucked in the foothills of Los Calabazos, off the road towards Manabao, a stunning mountainside village in the heart of the DR, you’ll find a series of cabins with private porches tucked amid bougainvillea trees, banana and other fruit trees. The best part is that the lodge hugs the Yaque del Norte river, the longest in the DR, with plenty of areas to swim and relax by the fresh body of water.
The women cook meals on site, included in your rate, and there are hiking trails as well as a unique opportunity to interact with these enterprising Dominican women. By the way getting to the lodge is quite the adventure: I’ll leave it as a surprise.
Nearby are additional river parks or balnearios, local bars and more scenic drives in this mountainous area.
9. Jarabacoa, Central DR
This lovely mountain resort town is a favorite of wealthy Dominicans, who love to come here to escape the heat of Santo Domingo or Santiago and relax amid rivers and waterfalls, enjoy freshly grown foods, and go for long drives along spectacular mountain roads.
You’ll find local and international restaurants, art studios, eco lodges, small guesthouses, as well as AirBnBs, and incredible villa rentals with pools and scenic views. You can choose to be as active as you wish, from mountain climbing Pico Duarte, a two-day overnight expedition, to paragliding over Jarabacoa or simply relaxing by the rivers and falls.
My favorite places to stay here include Jarabacoa Mountain Hostel and Tia Yesi’s treehouses. If you time your visit for mid to end of July (dates can vary), you might get lucky and experience the Jarabacoa Flower Festival.
III. The perfect DR itinerary
If you’re a “fun maximizer” like I am — even though I do much of this for my travel writing work — an ideal DR trip would include a little bit of each landscape. It would go from beachside up north, whether in Samana or Puerto Plata, to mountainside in the center of the country, plus Santo Domingo. And you could throw in Punta Cana proper before or after Santo Domingo. Map it all out correctly because it’s a huge country and you’d need at minimum a full week to glimpse two or three areas.
However you decide to combine your stay using this mini-guide, the important detail to remember is to venture to the other parts of the DR and to pick boutique hotels rather than all you can eat foreign-owned resorts (and though it was left out of my quote for Oprah Magazine, Santo Domingo is connected by highway to the Punta Cana area). As a contact recently said, eating and drinking all day every day is not part of Dominican culture.
Only when you’ve explored this country outside of the diluted all inclusive resort stay and in a sustainable, responsible way can you witness how magical and fascinating it is, and how wonderful its people are.
What are your favorite regions to stay in the DR beyond all inclusive resorts?
Stay tuned to the blog for my continuing series of posts on the Dominican Republic, and beyond. You can also find my custom itineraries by region in the new Moon Dominican Republic edition releasing in September 2019.