Dominican Republic

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Introduction to Dominican Republic

The white-sand beaches, impressive mountain ranges veined with spectacular rivers and waterfalls, and saltwater lakes teeming with exotic wildlife are just part of the Dominican Republic's appeal. Whether you're looking to party, relax or explore, the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer.

Steer a small boat through endless mangrove forests in search of gentle manatees. Spy on lovesick humpback whales in the Bahía de Samaná. And once you've had your fill of this exquisite island's natural wonder, get back to civilization and prepare to party.

The locals throw festivals, parties and carnivals like there's no tomorrow. Folks in the Americas' first European city, Santo Domingo, don't just spend their time admiring the fine colonial architecture gracing their home. Nope, this town has not one, but two complete Carnivals, complete with parades, elaborate floats, lots of live music and plenty of dancing in the streets. Pre-Lent Carnivals are celebrated in Santiago, Cabral, Monte Cristi and La Vega as well. If that's not enough, check out the country's two major merengue festivals, the annual Latin Music Festival and the national surfing and windsurfing championships.

Full country name: Dominican Republic

Area: 48,730 sq km

Population: 8.71 million

Capital City: Santo Domingo

People: 73% mulatto, 16% European descent, 11% African descent

Language: Spanish

Religion: 95% Roman Catholic

Government: representative democracy

Head of State: President Leonel Fernández Reyna

GDP: US$43.7 billion

GDP per capita: US$5,400

Annual Growth: 8.3%

Inflation: 5.1%

Major Industries: Tourism, sugar refining, nickel and gold mining, cement, tobacco.

Major Trading Partners: USA, Venezuela, Belgium, Mexico, Japan

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Traveler Facts

Visas: All visitors require a valid passport; citizens of Andorra, Antigua & Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Curaçao, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Jamaica, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Monaco, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Russia, Surinam, Switzerland, Uruguay, USA, Venezuela and Yugoslavia are eligible for a 90-day tourist card. Check with the Dominican consulate for the latest visa requirements.

Health risks: malaria, dengue fever, Giardiasis, typhoid, hepatitis

Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4

Dialling Code: 809

Electricity: 110V ,60Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

One Carnival isn't enough for fun-loving Santo Domingo. Nope, the pre-Lent celebration, which is echoed throughout the country, always begins two or three days before February 27 (Independence Day) and ends a few days later. It's a monster party combining Catholic decompression with African spirituality, not to mention great costumes, spectacular floats and all the rum you can drink. The second Carnival begins August 15, to coincide with Restoration Day (when the DR declared war on Spain); August festivities may be marginally more sedate, but they're still the perfect place to wear that sequined-and-feathered number.

The DR throws another wild party during the last week of July and first week of August, a merengue festival that is the epicenter of the art form, attracting the world's top talent to Santo Domingo for a festival that engulfs the city and surrounding suburbs in music and dance. Another merengue festival goes off in Puerto Plata during the first week of October. If you'd like a little variety while you dance, however, don't miss the three-day Latin Music Festival in the capital, when everyone from Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin get down with Tito Rojas and Fernando Villalona.

Other can't-miss festivities worth crossing the Caribbean for include Puerto Plata's week-long Cultural Festival in June, with jazz, blues, merengue and folk concerts throughout town; Cabarete Alegría, in which the country dedicates the entire month of February to fun, with weekend events like mountain-bike races, kite-flying competitions and sand-castle building contests; and the Encuentro Classic, an internationally known windsurfing spectacular that pits the sport's stars against the hurricane season.

Of course, the best time to hit the restaurant- and bar-packed town of Sosúais is during the few days before Easter Sunday, Holy Week. Dominicans from all over the country flock to the bayside city to compete in volleyball contests, drink themselves silly, soak up the sun and dance the night away. Hell, yeah.

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Best time to Visit

The DR has a primarily tropical climate, with more local variations in temperature than seasonal ones. August is muggy and hot, January a bit less so. There are two rainy seasons, October to May along the northern coast and May to October in the south; bring an umbrella if you plan to travel the entire country. Dominican rain isn't your garden-variety 'just-enough-to-cool-things-off' precipitation native to Hawaii or Central America - this stuff drenches waterfall-style and could easily last half a day.

The June-to-September hurricane season might be worth missing; though the chances of one blowing through are miniscule, remember that one little hurricane can wreck your whole holiday.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Dominican Republic Peso

Meals

Budget: US$5-8

Mid-range: US$8-20

High: US$20-35

Deluxe: US$35+

Lodging

Budget: US$20-70

Mid-range: US$70-150

High: US$150-300

Deluxe: US$300+

If you're purchasing a package with an all-inclusive resort, the Dominican Republic is one of the bargains of the Caribbean. However, the cost of independent travel is decidedly less of a deal. Budget accommodations are rare and rather pricey, and as a great deal of food must be imported, meals aren't cheap either.

The best foreign currency to carry in the Dominican Republic is US dollars. Credit cards and traveler's checks will get you by in Santo Domingo but aren't much use in rural areas. You'll have to carry cash, preferably in small denominations, when traveling off the beaten track. Avoid changing money on the black market.

There are so many taxes on hotel rooms that it's not funny; count on paying a whopping 23% on a good night's sleep. Restaurant bills collect 8% VAT and a 10% service charge. A tip of 5-10% on a meal is appreciated but not required. Likewise, taxi drivers and hotel porters won't complain if they're rewarded for their services.

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Attractions

Santo Domingo

It's the capital of the Dominican Republic and the first European city in the 'New World'. It's also a vibrant, exciting, polluted, sometimes dangerous (leave the Rolex at home) and always interesting Caribbean city with more to do and see than you might think.

Sights to take in include the Zona Colonial, the ground zero of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the arrival point for settlers and conquistadors, and an administrative centre once helmed by Christopher Columbus' son, Diego.

Amber Coast

The northern coast of the Dominican Republic gets its name from the world's richest deposits of amber found in the hills near here. Its reputation is squarely based on the 120km (75mi) string of beautiful beaches stretching east of Puerto Plata.

It's the most developed stretch of the island, much of it geared toward the desires of package tourists, although there are some small towns where the laidback atmosphere of palm-thatched restaurants and local guesthouses still prevails over the concrete box architecture of the resorts.

Cabarete

This is the serious vacationer's destination. It's got an enormous, beautiful bay, considered one of the best in the world for windsurfing. The lovely, white-sand beaches are postcard perfect and proud of it. If you need a bathful of luxury, Cabarete is your town.

Don't overlook the bars and discos either, where live music is served fresh nightly to hundreds of well-dressed party people. Even if the thought of scantily clad European 20-somethings enjoying sand and surf isn't your cup of tea, you'll have to admit that the ocean view is spectacular.

Samaná

In many ways, Samaná is just another tranquil, tropical town with swaying coconut trees and jellybean-coloured houses clinging to the verdant hillsides. There are a couple of places to drink while admiring the bay, once considered so strategically important that the USA occupied it for eight years.

Santiago

The Dominican Republic's second city officially goes by the grandiose name of Santiago de los Caballeros (Santiago of the Gentlemen), and Santiago is indeed an aristocratic, if somewhat provincial, city. It is the commercial hub of the Valle del Cibao, the nation's breadbasket.

Factories here process raw sugar and tobacco into excellent rum and cigars. Santiago boasts a thriving industrial sector and one of the finest universities in the country, but its leisurely, refined tempo is a pleasant surprise to the few travellers who make their way this far.

Sosúa

Sosúa is more than just another perfect beach town with good diving opportunities, still in the early stages of development yet impossibly rich in wide sandy shores and coconut trees. There are scores of sunbathers there, taking advantage of the pleasant restaurant scene and lively nightlife.

But Sosúa also boasts a fascinating history. The area was owned by United Fruit until the late 1920s, when the government bought the land and sold it at a profit to Jewish organisations in the USA. In 1940, some 350 Jewish families fleeing Nazi persecution moved onto the land.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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