I am walking down Calle Las Damas, the first paved street in the Americas, in the Colonial Zone, a small historic neighbourhood in Santo Domingo. It’s name – Spanish for “Ladies’ street” – comes from the fact that this is where the ladies of the court of Maria de Toledo, the wife of Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus, lived.
I pass by the National Pantheon, where a soldier in white pants and a blue jacket is watching over the symbolic flame in what was originally a Jesuit convent and is now a mausoleum where many heroes of the Dominican Republic are interred.
A horse-drawn carriage passes me by as I make my way to Parque Colon, the central square, where men are playing dominoes, cigars are being rolled and children are chasing pigeons, all under the watchful eye of a statue of Christopher Columbus, who landed here in 1492.
I couldn’t be happier about not being on a beach.
When most Canadians think of the Dominican Republic, they probably think of an all-inclusive resort on a strip of white sand. That’s certainly where the majority of us flock to when we visit the Caribbean nation. Punta Cana, on the easternmost tip of the country, is the most popular destination for Canadians who visit this country.
But if you want to escape winter for warmer climes and experience something far more interesting than a resort stay – with not much else to do besides saunter back and forth between the beach and the buffet – the Colonial Zone is an ideal choice.
Founded in 1848, Santo Domingo is an UNESCO World Heritage site that is a city of firsts – home to not only the first paved street in the Americas but also the first university, hospital, castle and cathedral.
Bordered by walls and forts, many of its historical buildings still standing, the Colonial Zone offers a window in to what life was like here in the 15th century. But it is also home to the modern Dominican Republic, with great restaurants, shopping and vibrant nightlife.
Wander down Calle El Conde, a one-kilometre long pedestrian thoroughfare and you will find everything from sporting goods to shoe stores. At the Choco Museo you can get a free taste of Dominican cacao or, if you’re a real chocolate lover, make your own in the “bean to bar” workshops on offer.
Save your appetite for dinner though, because you will find some fantastic restaurants. At Pat’e Palo, one of several restaurants that line the Plaza Espana, I wasn’t so much interested in the building’s history – believed to be the first tavern in the Americas, it was opened by a Dutch pirate named Pata de Hierro in 1505 – as I was in devouring everything on the menu at what’s now a European brasserie. The chili sea bass was tempting, but I opted for a rack of locally raised pork ribs that came smothered with organic honey barbecue sauce.
I was seated on the front patio underneath palm trees, looking out at the plaza while diners waited for tables at the several restaurants that stretch across the entire end of the plaza. I wished I had time to make it to La Briciola, an Italian restaurant a few blocks south of Parque Colon in an unassuming building from the 16th century that has a beautiful courtyard.
For all its charms, and despite the size its name might suggest, the Colonial Zone is small. It covers just 106 hectares. After two days I had lapped all the main streets several times. I will admit, I began yearning for the beach. Thankfully, there are a few within a drive of 30 minutes or so.
Before I bolted for the beach, however, I absolutely had to do one last thing: see a baseball game. The sport is practically a religion in the Dominican Republic. Many Major League players are born here and some can be found playing for one of the six teams in the Dominican Republic Professional Baseball League.
Two of those teams, the Licey Tigers and the Leones del Escogido (Chosen One Lions) are based at Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal, an open air, more than 14,000-seat stadium a short drive northwest of the Colonial Zone.
I’ve always enjoyed live sports as a way of experiencing another country, even if I’m not really into the sport (televised baseball is more boring to me than televised golf). When I heard that the Tigers were playing the Lions on my last night, I went to the game the same way I would go to a bullfight in Spain or a rugby match in New Zealand.
Children in baseball uniforms leaned against the railing, pointing at their favourite players on the field. Vendors walked up and down the aisles selling empanadas and cold beer. The crowd, fans evenly divided between both home teams, went wild every time a double was hit up the middle or a runner raced for home.
It was the perfect way to end my stay in Santo Domingo. I was, finally, ready for the beach.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Dominican Republic Tourism Board.
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