Sightseeing in Santo Domingo
The Colonial Zone is an historical window towards the early days of European exploration and domination of the American continent.
It was near here, on the eastern side of the Ozama River that, in 1496, Bartholomew Columbus, the brother of Christopher Columbus, founded Santo Domingo. It became the first European settlement in the Americas to have been inhabited to this day. In 1502, it was destroyed by a hurricane and Nicholás de Ovando, Bartholomew’s successor, rebuilt the city on the other bank of the River - the present site. Its layout became a blueprint for many New World cities.
One of the oldest structures in the Colonial Zone is Casa del Cordón. Built in 1502, it was the home of Diego Colón, the son of Columbus and the viceroy of the Spanish colony. He lived there until the completion of the Alcázar (1510-1514), which became, then, the new viceroy’s residence. The Alcázar was thoroughly restored in 1957 and, nowadays, displays a collection of items owned by the Governors overseeing the colony in the period from 16th to the 19th centuries. Of particular interest are the 16th century furnishings and other belongings of Diego Colón and his wife Maria de Toledo.
The street where Doña Maria used to promenade with her court ladies received the name Calle de las Damas (Street of the Ladies). The Ozama Fort, another old structure of the Colonial Area, stands on this street. The fort is claimed to be the oldest military fortification in the Americas. The 18,5 meters tall Torre del Homenaje (the Homage Tower) was named to honour the conquest of Hispaniola – the name that Columbus gave to the island that is today shared between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The fort and the tower have a dual symbolic meaning. First, because it was from this fort that numerous expeditions of conquest began: Hernán Cortés, to México; Diego Velásquez, to Cuba; Francisco Pizarro, to Peru; Alonso de Hojeda, to Venezuela; Vasco Núñez de Balboa, to Panama; and Ponce de León, to Puerto Rico. And second, because the Homage Tower displays the flags of those nations that attempted to dominate this country: Spain, England, France, (Greater) Colombia, Haiti and the USA. From the top of the tower opens a spectacular view towards the Caribbean coast, and the entrance to the Ozama River.
The major attraction in the Colonial Zone is the predominantly Gothic Cathedral of Santa María la Menor. Built of solid limestone in the period 1514-1544, it is the first cathedral in the Americas. The Dominicans claim that the relics of Columbus were kept here until recently, when they were transferred, in 1992, to a place specially designed for the purpose in the Faro a Colón - the Columbus Lighthouse (see below).
The Malecón (the word means "a sea wall") stretches along the George Washington Avenue running the length of the Santo Domingo’s waterfront, all the way from the port near the Colonial Zone. It is a popular area for leisurely walks, particularly on Sundays, when the traffic is diverted from this area to give the space to pedestrians. There are several large hotel and casino complexes along the boulevard, and plenty of small restaurants, clubs and cafes.
The Malecón is also a favourite place for romantic rides in old-style horse carriages. Many large events in the city life take place here throughout the year and include the Carnival in February-March, or the Merengue Festival in the last week of July, and the first week of August (but check the dates, as they may change). The Merengue is a lively Caribbean dance with its origins in the island and has its roots in the cultural heritage of the African slave population that were transported here during the colonization period.
The Columbus Lighthouse (Faro a Colón) is a huge monument to Christopher Columbus, built in 1992, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the island’s discovery. The remains of the great explorer (who died believing he had arrived in India…) were removed from the Santa Maria Cathedral, in the old town, and placed in the lighthouse. Modern DNA testing suggests that Columbus remains are, in fact, in Spain. The immense memorial is 210 metres long, 34 metres wide, and 46 metres high. There are 157 beams of light radiating skywards from this monumental lighthouse. They can be seen at great distances, it is claimed, even reaching the island of Puerto Rico, over 300 Km away.
There is a museum in the Lighthouse with displays from different countries, which were influenced by Columbus’ discoveries, European colonization and evangelization of the Americas. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Parque Mirador Sur
The Parque Mirador Sur is in the western part of the city. This beautiful park is near the Avenida Anacaona, the place where most of the embassies are. The park is popular spot for daily walks, jogging, roller-skating and cycling. The park has stone caverns that in pre-Columbian days were inhabited by Taínos, the local Indian people.
One of those caverns was currently transformed into the popular discotheque “La Guacara Taína“. This unique night club is worth a visit to appreciate its exuberant interior and for the shows and events that are staged there. There are bars and restaurant, and the underground dance floors can hold more than 2000 people!
Los Tres Ojos
In a different part of town, about ten kilometres from the city centre, the Parque Mirador Este is known for its natural lime stone water-filled caverns. The lagoons, poetically called "ojos", make up the “Tres Ojos” (three eyes). The ceiling of these once subterranean lagoons collapsed to form and expose small open-air lakes. They contain water of varied and vivid colours, which drain into the lakes from underground currents. Usually, the visit starts with Laguna Azul that has sky blue water; the next lake to visit is Lago del Frigorifico (Fridge Lake). The name is due to its waters having a constant temperature of +2° C. The third lake leads visitors to a beautiful stalactite grotto with views over the lush tropical forest. For an extra fee, the lakes and lagoons in the park can be crossed by boat. The place was recently used as the setting for Tarzan movies.