Santo Domingo

Travellers have been marvelling at this city since the beginning of the 16th century, when its streets, fortresses, palaces and churches were the wonder of the Caribbean and conquistadores set off from the port on the river to discover new territory for Spain in the Americas. Santo Domingo, the first European city in the Western Hemisphere, is now the capital and business centre of the Dominican Republic. Busy and modern, it sprawls along the Caribbean coast and inland along the banks of the Río Ozama. Restoration of the old city on the west bank of the river has made the area very attractive, with open-air cafés and pleasant squares near the waterfront. Those who have wealth flaunt it by building ostentatious villas and driving German cars, but the slums are some of the worst in the Caribbean.

Background

The first wooden houses were built in 1496 by Christopher Columbus' (Cristóbal Colón) brother Bartolomé on the eastern bank of the Río Ozama after the failure of the settlement at La Isabela on the north coast. In 1498 the Governor, Nicolás de Ovando, moved the city to the other side of the river and started building with stone, a successful move which was continued by Diego Colón, Christopher's son, when he took charge in 1509. It then became the first capital city in Spanish America. For years the city was the base for the Spaniards' exploration and conquest of the continent. Santo Domingo holds the title 'first' for a variety of offices: first city, having the first Audiencia Real, cathedral, university, coinage, etc. In view of this, UNESCO has designated Santo Domingo a World Cultural Heritage Site. However, Santo Domingo's importance waned when Spain set up her colonies in Peru and Mexico with seemingly limitless silver and gold to finance the Crown. Hurricanes managed to sink 15 ships in 1508, 18 in 1509 and many more in later years. 1562 brought an earthquake which destroyed much of the town; 1586 brought Sir Francis Drake, who attacked from inland where defences were vulnerable, looted and pillaged and set the city alight. He was the first of many British and French pirates and privateers who attacked in the 16th and 17th centuries and rebuilding works were continually in progress.

In the 1930s, the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo renamed the city Ciudad Trujillo and embarked on a series of public works. After his assassination in 1961 the city immediately reverted to the title of Santo Domingo, but his successor, Joaquín Balaguer, continued to build on a monumental scale. Prestigious projects such as the Faro a Colón took pride of place over social spending on education, health and housing for the poor. Governments since the 1960s have been criticized for concentrating on the capital and ignoring the provinces. As a result, migration to the capital has surged and little has been done to prevent the growth of slums and poor
barrios
. However, tourism is booming and it is a lively and vibrant place to spend a few days.

Getting there

Aeropuerto Las Américas, east of Santo Domingo, is the main international airport for the capital, receiving flights from North and South America and Europe.Aeropuerto Internacional Dr Joaquín Balaguer, at El Higuero/La Isabela opened in 2005. If you are arriving in the capital by bus, you will come in to that company's bus terminal. There is no central bus station. Taxis wait outside to take you to your hotel or other destination.

Getting around

If you are limiting yourself to the colonial city, you will be able to walk around all the places of interest. Further afield, however, distances are great. Public transport is varied: there are government-run buses on the arterial routes in and out of town for commuters; shared or privately hired taxis called
públicos
, radio taxis and motorcycle taxis, known as
motoconchos
. Car hire is not recommended for the capital.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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