Everything to know for your first time in the Dominican Republic
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Years visited: 2013 & 2018
Time of year: July & March
La República Dominicana
I first had the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic as a media intern, the summer before my last year of college. I was able to spend a whole month living in the country, exploring everywhere from the poorest neighborhoods and isolated villages to the major cities and top tourist destinations.
In 2018, I returned to the DR with my church for a week long mission trip. We visited people in their homes, played chicken tracks at a retirement home, and visited a home for juvenile delinquents without our interpreter (accidentally!).
I’ve seen all sides to this incredible country, both good and bad. It never would have crossed my mind to visit the DR on my own, but it certainly holds a special place in my heart.
If you are interested in visiting the Dominican Republic, or just learning more about it, I’ve put together a first timer’s guide to the country.
Dominican Republic Country Overview
The Dominican Republic is a small country on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with its neighboring country Haiti.
The three main cities and places to visit are:
Santo Domingo - the nation’s capital
Santo Domingo is the capital city. It is the largest city, and has lots of things to do. There are a lot of history museums to visit in Santo Domingo.
Santiago is a smaller city. It does not have as much to see, but it is also less crowded and more relaxing.
Punta Cana is a popular cruise ship port on the western coast. It is a wealthy area, and is extremely popular with tourists.
The southern coast of the DR is in the Caribbean, while the northern coast is the Atlantic Ocean. I have been to beaches on both sides, so I can definitely say that you will find better beaches by Santo Domingo and Punta Cana than by Santiago.
Things to Know About the Dominican Republic
Do I need a visa to enter the DR?
(from the US)
No, you do not need a visa to enter the Dominican Republic from the U.S.
You will have $10 (USD) fee to pay upon arrival at the airport to get into the country.
What language do they speak in the DR?
They speak Spanish in the Dominican Republic.
Here are some common phrases it would be good to know:
¿Donde ir al baño? - Where is the bathroom?
Hola - Hello
Gracias - Thank you
De Nada - You’re welcome
Por Favor - Please
Lo Siento - I’m sorry
¿Puedas ayudarme? - Can you help me?
Aquí - Here
¿Cuánto cuesta? - How much?
Más - More
Menos - less
What is the weather like in the DR?
The weather is very hot. Especially in the summer, when the sun is beating down on you, you can break into a sweat just sitting there.
I have been in July and in March. The weather was very pleasant for me in March (but I do like to be warm!).
March is probably one of the best months weather-wise, although personally I would actually like it to be a little warmer. That way I get to really enjoy the beach!
They do get hurricanes in the DR. Hurricane season is generally between June and October.
Can you flush the toilet paper in the Dominican Republic?
This is probably the hardest thing to get used to when you are visiting the DR. Because the septic system cannot handle the toilet paper, you will clog the pipes if you accidentally flush too much of it (definitely not a good plan!).
There will be a little trash can next to every toilet for you to throw away your toilet paper.
Can you drink the water in the Dominican Republic?
It is not safe to drink unfiltered water in the DR.
The place where you’re staying should have filtered water available.
What kind of outlets do they use?
The outlets are the same as in the US. They are two or three pronged, 120V and 60Hz.
Because there are frequent power outages, it may be a good idea to bring a surge protector power strip with you. Just…make sure it’s turned on before you complain that the power has been out for an awfully long time…
Things to bring with you:
It’s not a bad idea to bring some of your own toilet paper with you. Chances are, you’re probably going to be staying at a resort, and this should not be a problem. But hey, you never know when the bathroom might run out, wherever you are!
But especially if you are doing any volunteer work in the villages, it is likely that you will be in a bathroom with no toilet paper.
On my second trip to the DR, one of my friends actually brought a whole roll of toilet paper in her purse (always better to be prepared!). Personally, I brought a small pack of tissues, which seemed much more travel friendly. But then if I was stuck, I would have my tissues. And then just throw them in the little trash can!
Also always a good idea when traveling! But especially when you are in a village or on a construction site with an outhouse, it’s never a guarantee there will be soap (or even hand sanitizer). So bring a little bottle with you.
I would highly suggest bringing Dramamine. I was told to bring this by the group I was working with, so my good ole’ mom packed it in my suitcase along with all of the other suggested medications.
I didn’t think I would need it; I’m not generally prone to car sickness. But my first couple of days in the Dominican, driving on the bumpy dirt roads, I got very sick. I was so thankful for this, and used it a couple times.
Sunscreen and bug spray!
I started off every day in the DR the same way: generously applying bug spray and sunscreen!
While some of my tanner friends opted to forgo the sunscreen, because the DR is so close to the equator, the sun is stronger here than in most other parts of the world, so sunscreen is always a good idea.
There are also a lot of mosquitoes, and Dengue fever is common, so be sure to bring bug spray.
Money in the DR
What kind of money do they use in the DR?
The official currency is the Dominican Peso. $1USD is worth 57.41 in Dominican Pesos.
You can use credit cards, or USD at some establishments, but you will probably get a better deal with pesos.
Do they tip in the DR?
I honestly wouldn’t have ever thought to ask this question, until we ate out a restaurant in Santiago and got our bill. It looked like they had already added the tip to the bill, so we spent 10 minutes attempting to ask our driver if we were supposed to leave a tip or not. This conversation was not as clear as our desperate “¿donde el baño?” had been…
I have since asked the all knowing Google what it thinks about tipping in the Dominican (and in other countries).
The conclusion from this tipping etiquette website is that yes, you should tip in the DR, but sometimes the tip is already included for you. However, you can leave an additional tip, if you think it is merited.
I would always err on the side of leaving a tip.
Are you supposed to barter in the DR?
Yes! At least at the tourist shops on the beach, they love to barter. Probably not at the grocery stores though.
I am seriously uncomfortable trying to barter. The only time I have ever done it well was on accident. I was looking at a purse in a shop along the beach, and decided I didn’t want it. The salesman tried to make me a deal, saying he would even trade the other purse I had already bought.
Pro Tip: I actually did find better purses I wanted more later, and he wouldn’t trade me, so I had to buy two purses! So shop around! Lots of gift shops have similar items, and you will likely find something better, and maybe even cheaper, somewhere else.
However, this purse was not the one I wanted. So I walked out of the store. He actually came running out after me to offer me an even better deal! It was such a good deal, I was tempted to take it just because. Too bad I really didn’t want that purse…
So… the moral of the story is, pretend you really don’t want it. And shop around! You can always come back. Plus, if you walk out, they might just come chasing after you!
Transportation in the DR
Most of the time, since both of my trips were with a missions organization, our transportation was provided for us. When us interns wanted to go to the mall on our day off though, we would ride in the A cars.
These are the Dominican taxis. Since they are paid by the person, their policy is to fit as many people into an A car as possible. The most we ever had at once was 6 passengers, plus the driver! It is a very cheap way to get around the city though.
Even with our limited Spanish, we just needed to tell them where we were going. I remember one of the other interns saying “Aquí es bien,” when we were close to the mall. In other words, “Here is good.”
Rent a Car
Renting a car is always a convenient way to get yourself around. I will say that driving in the DR is crazy (and super fun, if you’re not the person driving)!
Traffic rules are “more like guidelines anyway…” Everyone drives very fast, and they love to pass people, even with oncoming traffic!! But, nobody is on their cell phone while they’re driving. They’re actually paying attention to the road.
Personally, I would not want to drive in the DR. But if you’re brave (or better at driving than me, which is likely), this is certainly an option. Most cars will be standards, not automatic.
In the cities, people will come up to your car at stop lights and try to wash your windshield. Our drivers would wave their hands “no,” and often turn on their windshield wipers to keep people from washing it.
Book a Tour
The easiest way to get transportation in the DR is to book a tour. You can do this online ahead of time (try searching tour sites like Viator), or through your hotel when you arrive.
Things to Do
Relaxing on the beach is one of the main reasons you should travel to the DR. But let me just reiterate that the best beaches are by Santo Domingo & Punta Cana, not Santiago.
We visited Puerto Plata near Santiago on my second trip to the DR. As our guide said, this is still the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean. I was not impressed with this beach (also, the weather was bad, so were not actually allowed in the water).
I also stayed at a resort right on the beach near Santo Domingo. This was in the Caribbean, and was beautiful! I highly recommend this (unfortunately, I did not book the resort, so I have no idea what it was called).
You will also find lots of tourist shops along the beach, and people trying to sell you souvenirs. This is a good place to practice your bartering skills. Or the art of saying no…
This is it. This is the absolute best thing to do in the Dominican Republic.
One of the very few tourist things we actually got to do, one day a group of us interns and a driver took a tour of 27 Waterfalls.
27 waterfalls is actually a mis-translation. It really means 27 pools. There are approximately 12 waterfalls.
You will be equipped with a helmet and safety gear, and two guides will lead you up the mountain and then jumping, sliding and hiking back down!
You do have to hike uphill in order to “ride” the waterfalls back down, so this does require a significant level of physical activity.
Once you get to the top, however, it is so much fun!
The largest waterfall we jumped off of was 25 feet. One we got to slide down like a nature-made waterslide. There was also a small pool right at the top of the climb that you could swim in to cool off before starting your journey back down.
This only costs about $10. I would DEFINITELY suggest this, no matter if you’re staying in Santiago, Santo Domingo, or Punta Cana, it is such a cool and unique experience. DO IT.
The “Colonial Zone” in Santo Domingo is the oldest continually inhabited European-established settlement in the Americas. It is full of charming cobbled streets, historical monuments, and local shopping and restaurants.
It is certainly one of the most popular sites for visitors in Santo Domingo. This article has a lot of good information about the best things to see and do in the Colonial Zone.
I’m really not into mountain climbing. Luckily, I had a ride. But one day we drove up the BEAUTIFUL mountain of Palo Alto outside of Santiago, and it was literally the best day ever.
There are lots of places to hike around the DR (again, unfortunately I’m not the person to ask about this). Here is a good list of hikes to do around the country.
What to Eat in the DR
My favorite thing to eat in the Dominican Republic is empanadas! I LOVE empanadas. And there are so many different kinds!
The first organization that I worked with always took us at least once a week to one of the street cars to get empanadas. Which was my favorite. The second time I went to the D.R., I was super excited to eat MORE EMPANADAS!
But that organization did not trust the street cars, and highly suggested we did not eat them (they did, however, make us homemade empanadas).
All I can say is, I never had a problem with them, and I would definitely suggest trying some sort of empanadas while you’re there.
Fried cheese, similar to a mozzarella stick. It actually squeaks when you chew it! Also, it may officially be called fried cheese, not squeaky cheese…? But we always called it squeaky cheese.
Sort of like a cream of wheat I’m told, although I have no idea what cream of wheat tastes like. We had this for breakfast a lot. It’s sort of a vanilla/cinnamon-y pudding-y sort of thing. Whatever it is, it’s delicious!
Cinnamon Hot Chocolate
Yes, I know it’s HOT but the cinnamon hot chocolate is so good! You can buy package mixes of it in the grocery stores. Our cooks made a big boiling pot of it every morning, with the cinnamon sticks right in the pot.
I avoided it for a while (because, hello! It’s hot!). Thankfully, I was convinced to try it, and oh my goodness, it was good!
Passion Fruit Juice
This was my favorite thing to drink. It was so good. You can also try passion fruit, but I preferred the juice.
One night we went out to eat, but I wasn’t super hungry so I just ordered (I thought) a passion fruit smoothie. But I ended up with just regular passion fruit juice, which is not quite as filling… (but delicious!).
One special treat of being in the DR is walking down to the local colmado (corner store) and getting a fresh coca cola right in the bottle!
Now, I never actually did this, because I’m one of the few people in the world who doesn’t like pop (or soda…). But it sounds super cool, and everyone else loves it!
You do pay a deposit on the bottle, and then you can return it to the store and get your deposit back.
Ok, this is not super specific, but I don’t really like fish. But the last time I was there, it was over Good Friday weekend, and some people were observing Lent. So our guides tried to order 3 fish for the people who did not want to eat meat. Somehow they accidentally ordered 30 fish…
So we all had fish, and it was absolutely the most delicious fish I have ever had (again…I don’t really like fish). So…they have good fish.
This is not exactly something you would just straight up eat. But, the DR is THE place to get vanilla. So stock up at the local grocery store while you’re there!
What to Watch
Before Visiting the DR
I always want to watch movies that take place somewhere before I go there (is that just me??). But it’s also a good way to learn about the culture of a place before you visit.
In the Time of the Butterflies
This is a documentary that one of the other interns mentioned the first time I was there. I haven’t seen it, but I would like to sometime. It’s a story about three sisters who defy the dictator of the Dominican Republic.
This is only on here because in the very beginning of the movie there is the scene with the amber mine, where they are getting the dinosaur DNA from the mosquitos stuck in the sap. And I actually went in an amber mine! Sooo… to fully appreciate said amber mine experience, you have to watch the movie first. In my opinion.
That's really it as far as visiting the D.R.
But just to show you a bit more of what life is like there, here are some more photos:
Any more questions?
If you have any questions about planning a trip to the Dominican Republic, don’t hesitate to email me!
Planning to visit the Dominican Republic?
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