Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic is a city of culture and history. It is the oldest city in the New World, founded by Bartholomew Columbus (son of Christopher) in 1496. The historic Spanish architecture in the Zona Colonial with tropical flora and hot humid nights are uniquely Caribbean.
I explored the Zona Colonial—the old Santo Domingo—with Tequia tours and stayed at an Accor Property named Hostal Nicolas de Ovando after the first Spanish Governor of the Americas. The hotel was actually the governor’s house in 1502 and is now classified as part of the “Colonial City of Santo Domingo” UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is a quick video (in French) of the property.
I stayed in a modern room at the end of the hallway on the second floor. The thick walls ensured silence and my room overlooked the cobbled street of Las Damas (where the ladies of the court, led by Christopher Columbus’ daughter–in-law, would promenade daily and catch up on the local gossip!) Nicolas de Ovando also planned the city with a tall wall surrounding it to protect it from invaders such as pirates, which were plentiful in those days. Parts of the locally mined limestone wall still remain.
A walking Tequia tour of old Santo Domingo called “Flavors of the Old City” provided us with Dominican Republic culinary tastes from four different restaurants located on or near Plaza España (and of course Dominican rum). I particularly loved Pat’e Palo, where we sat outside where the square was romantically lit with gas lanterns and pirate waiters took our orders. Earlier in the day, I did an early morning walk in the Zona Colonial with my guide, Waldo Tejada of Tequia, and passed a very interesting cemetery with raised graves. We stopped at Café Colon to have the best cappuccino on Christopher Columbus Plaza (Plaza Colon) and made friends with the local stray dogs, some of which, like “Huevos,” are taken care of by café owners.
Breakfast at the scrumptious buffet on the outdoor terrace at Hostal Nicolas De Ovando is outstanding, and I hated to leave. I also enjoyed the pool on the second floor terrace.
I boarded our Tequia-chartered bus and headed north of Santo Domingo to the sugar cane fields of Yamasá to visit a sustainable chocolate co-op and local farm. Leaving the chaotic city—in merging traffic, as our bus driver wove between young boys trying to sell everything from flowers to newspapers—made me happy I was not driving!
The Dominican Republic is a major exporter of cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate. Through Tequia, we visited a local cacao (cocoa) bean co-op, where over 70 farmers deliver their product of fresh cocoa beans to be dried naturally or in ovens and then sold all over the world. The air was rich with the scent of chocolate, although the dried beans are bitter to taste.
After the co-op, we visited local cocoa farmers—the Guillen brothers—who also have a family-owned business of replicating Taíno (the original native Dominicans) ceramic-ware. I saw the cocoa trees laden with the heavy pods, about the size of large yams. One was cut open to reveal a white fatty outer layer and the gooey beans inside. The beans, roughly the size of almonds, were scooped out, dried, and roasted in a cast-iron pot.
I watched a female family member stir the roasting beans over a fire. Then, an older man pulverized the cooked beans. Soon the dried beans became a dark, sticky chocolate paste, and were rolled into an oval form to be sold at market. The Dominicans grate the unsweetened cocoa into hot water and add lots of sugar. Dominican hot chocolate is thinner than the European milky version, but quite delicious and suitable for a hot climate.
The tour also included a family style lunch (really dinner), served at the farm, where we ate red beans, coconut rice, stewed beef, roasted chicken, salad and yucca fritters. Fresh passion fruit juice, Coca-Cola, Presidente beer, Dominican rum, and mamajuana, a traditional liquor made with rum and herbs, were the drink offerings.
I really enjoyed learning about where chocolate comes from, and getting a slice of authentic Dominican farm life. Finally, the family bid us a musical farewell as they played traditional instruments from the Congo, a custom that came from their ancestors who were brought to DR with the sugar cane slave trade almost two hundred years ago.
Back in the US, I visited Cacao Prieto a Dominican chocolate company in Brooklyn who also sells spirits such as rum and bourbon.
Speaking of rum, another Tequia tour is the Ron Barceló rum factory. Rum is a byproduct of the sugar cane industry and this rum is made from sugar cane (not molasses) and aged in white oak barrels, previously used to age Kentucky bourbon. The tour includes a tasting of three rums—brown, white Platinum and Imperial—aged 8-10 years. Our guide made us the classic Mojito. Using a muddler, he combined fresh mint, simple sugar syrup, lemon juice and Ron Barceló Platinum rum with a little Perrier, delicioso!
The final Tequia tour was at a cigar factory—La Flor Domínícana—where we watched people hand roll cigars. Tobacco is grown on the island and the custom of cigars came from the Taínos, who smoked an early version of the large stogies. The cigar tradition intensified when Cuban refugees came to the Dominican Republic. Now these cigars are known as some of the best in the world.
Dominican Republic is a land of many landscapes and faces—a melting pot culture which is truly embraced by the country. The vitality of the people and their friendliness make me want to return!