Santo Domingo, capital city of the Dominican Republic, is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas, having been founded in 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher. The city has a long and fascinating history, having been victimized by pirates, overrun by slaves, re-named by a dictator and more. It is a city where history comes to life, and the Dominicans are justly proud of their status as the oldest European city in the Americas.
Santo Domingo de Guzmán was actually the third settlement on Hispaniola. The first, Navidad, consisted of some forty sailors who were left behind by Columbus on his first voyage when one of his ships sank. Navidad was wiped out by angry natives between the first and second voyages. When Columbus returned on his second voyage, he founded Isabela, near present-day Luperón to the northwest of Santo Domingo. Conditions at Isabela were not optimal, so Bartholomew Columbus moved the settlers to present-day Santo Domingo in 1496, officially dedicating the city in 1498. The first colonial governor, Nicolás de Ovando, arrived in Santo Domingo in 1502 and the city was officially the headquarters for the exploration and conquest of the New World. Spanish courts and bureaucratic offices were set up, and thousands of colonists passed through on their way to Spain’s newly discovered lands. Many of the important events of the early colonial era, such as the conquests of Cuba and Mexico, were planned in Santo Domingo.
The city soon fell on hard times. With the conquest of the Aztecs and Inca complete, many of the new settlers preferred to go to Mexico or South America and the city stagnated. In January of 1586, notorious pirate Sir Francis Drake was able to easily capture the city with less than 700 men: most of the inhabitants of the city had fled when they heard Drake was coming. Drake stayed for a month, until he had received a ransom of 25.000 ducats for the city, and when he left he and his men carried off everything they could, including the church bells. Santo Domingo was a smoldering ruin by the time he left. Hispaniola and Santo Domingo took a long time to recover from the pirate raid, and in the mid-1600’s, France, taking advantage of the still-weakened Spanish defenses and looking for American colonies of its own, attacked and captured the western half of the island. They renamed it Haiti and brought in thousands of African slaves. The Spanish were powerless to stop them, and retreated to the eastern half of the island. In 1795 the Spanish were forced to cede the rest of the island, including Santo Domingo, to the French as a result of wars between France and Spain after the French Revolution.
The French did not own Santo Domingo for very long. In 1791, African slaves in Haiti revolted, and by 1804 had thrown the French out of the western half of Hispaniola. In 1822, Haitian forces attacked the eastern half of the island, including Santo Domingo, and captured it. It wasn’t until 1844 that a determined group of Dominicans were able to drive the Haitians back, and the Dominican Republic was free for the first time since Columbus first set foot there. The Dominican Republic had growing pains as a nation. It fought constantly with Haiti, was re-occupied by the Spanish for four years (1861-1865), and went through a series of presidents. During this time, colonial-era structures, such as defensive walls, churches and the Diego Columbus house, were neglected and fell into ruin. American involvement in the Dominican Republic increased greatly after the construction of the Panama Canal: it was feared that European powers could seize the canal using Hispaniola as a base. The United States occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924.
From 1930 to 1961 the Dominican Republic was ruled by a dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo was famous for self-aggrandizement, and renamed several places in the Dominican Republic after himself, including Santo Domingo. The name was changed back after his assassination in 1961. Present day Santo Domingo has rediscovered its roots. The city is currently undergoing a tourism boom, and many colonial era churches, fortifications and buildings have recently been renovated. The colonial quarter is a great place to visit to see old architecture, see some sights and have a meal or a cold drink. Santo Domingo has a modern side as well, making this one of the Caribbean’s most vibrant cities, the lilting sounds of merengue music are guaranteed to lure you into the bars and dance clubs of the capital after dark.
Stroll the narrow streets and explore the old stone buildings of Zona Colonial, a 12-block area from which Spain launched its conquest of the New World. Walk the narrow cobblestoned streets in the footsteps of Columbus, Ponce de León and Cortés. Set aside a couple of hours to visit Alcázar de Colón, the palace constructed for Columbus’s son, Diego, in 1517. Amber and larimar (Dominican turquoise) jewelry are the top handicrafts on sale. Dominican amber is renowned and comes in a range of colors, from bright yellow to black, some with encased insects. Hand-wrapped cigars are sold virtually everywhere. Head to La Atarazana, a Zona Colonial neighborhood of art galleries and gift and jewelry stores, come prepared to haggle.
Around midnight, young locals flock to the clubs of Santo Domingo, where dancers impressively strut their stuff. If you’re timid about joining in on the festivities, it makes for great people-watching. La Guácara Taína, one of the best discotecas in the country, is set in an underground cave inside a verdant park. The house specialties are merengue, salsa, and other forms of Latin music. Many Dominicans consider dining out a formal experience and dress to impress. Venture out with the locals to El Mesón de la Cava, where the fine-dining seafood specialties include a velvety conch gratinée and the steaming sopa de pescado (red snapper chowder). La Résidence is set in a former 16th-century mansion; among the top-flight dishes are spit-roasted lamb served with bacon, garlic, and vinegar sauce and rabbit stuffed with bacon and mushrooms.