Five years ago, when I was researching and writing the first edition of Moon Dominican Republic, I spent over a year living in and traveling all over the DR’s 31 provinces. From three weeks in resort towns to months at a time in cities and countryside areas, I fell in love with an offbeat Dominican Republic and I ended up making Santo Domingo my base.
What struck me the most when I dug into the DR wasn’t just Dominicans’ warmth, humor and hospitality, but also the country’s diverse landscapes and regions beyond Punta Cana that were rarely written about in US travel media at that time.
It was exhilarating to go from hiking sand dunes to climbing mountains, shopping in malls in the big cities, rafting on rivers or warming up beside my cabin’s chimney in the highest altitude town in the Caribbean.
Fast forward to today, five years later, and many of the areas beyond Punta Cana are no longer a secret, including Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, the Samaná Peninsula, Cabarete, Jarabacoa, Bani and Constanza.
The good news, however, is that there are places that remain well off the major tourism trail, where you’ll immerse right away in the culture and the DR’s spectacular outdoors, from beaches to waterfalls. These six, specific locations are places I’ve explored as I continue to live here and continue to dig into the DR both for my work and for leisure. They’re also places that Dominicans love to visit on their days off.
With a greater number of locally-run businesses in these parts, from small hotels to restaurants, you’ll experience a less touristy and more charming side of this country.
Here are my top picks for six stunning, offbeat destinations in the Dominican Republic you should consider adding to your itinerary this year.
1. Monte Cristi — Northwest DR
Located on the norhthwestern edge of the DR, Monte Cristi has managed to maintain a delightfully low resident to visitor ratio. There are no all inclusive resorts in this wild, rugged west, located a short boat ride from the Haitian border. For a small town and province, however, there’s quite a bit to see do and enjoy in Monte Cristi.
Get a tour of the salt pans, located in between the town and its waterfront area.
Bike your way to El Morro National Park and hike down to its golden beach — it’s breathtaking at sunset. You can also catch a boat tour to protected mangrove areas for a cold swim.
If you’re a history buff, stop in at the Casa Museo Máximo Gomez — the general’s former home is where he and Cuban José Martí plotted and planned Cuba’s independence from Spain.
Grab lunch at any local restaurant and sample this region’s traditional chivo liniero or chivo guisado picante — a spiced goat meat stew. Locals say the goats in this region feed directly on wild oregano, although the meat is also seasoned with it when cooking.
You could also swim off any of the beaches in town. Or you could do it like the locals and enjoy the waterfront boulevard or Malecón at sunset. Lined with bars, restaurants and music blasting starting around 4pm, families and couples come out to relax, swim and dine.
Make sure you plan ahead for an offshore excursion to Cayos Siete Hermanos or The Seven Brothers Cayes, located just over an hour by boat from Monte Cristi. These seven virgin isles are paradise (I don’t use that word often or lightly). Cayo Tuna serves as a refuge to hundreds of migratory birds who nest here, while Cayo Montechico boasts soft golden beaches and snorkeling right offshore.
If you’ve heard of the more commercialized “Cayo Arena” mass excursion in the Puerto Plata province, then imagine the complete opposite experience here.
There are a number of improved accommodations in Monte Cristi, ranging from small, boutique apartments in town to hotels and apartments facing the oceanfront boulevard, including the area’s first small luxury lodge. My best tips are in the Moon Dominican Republic 2019 edition releasing this September, with an expanded section on Monte Cristi. You can also read about Monte Cristi in this description I wrote for Go Dominican Republic’s revamped website.
To get here easily, fly into the Santiago airport, spend a night in the city then make an early morning drive northwest. If you’re not used to watching out for motorbikes, cows and other obstacles that could show up on the highway, then I recommend you hop on a regularly scheduled bus to Monte Cristi from Santiago on Caribe Tours; the route is also available from Santo Domingo. Once in Monte Cristi, cheap motorbike taxis stand ready to whisk you short distances in Monte Cristi to and from restaurants and sights.
2. Nagua — Northeast DR
The northeast coastline views leading towards the small coastal town of Nagua, crossing the Maria Trinidad Sanchez province, are straight out of a movie set. Hundreds of coconut trees flank both sides of the road, while the Atlantic Ocean breeze blows all around.
The beaches in these parts are virgin and frequented by locals who descend on them during the weekends. Remember to swim when there are people around and the ocean isn’t rough.
There are locally owned hotels in Nagua, like the long-time, family-operated Hotel Restaurante Sinai — amenities include a swimming pool, A/C, and a delicious, affordable on site restaurant.
From here, taxi drivers can take you to the most stunning beach of them all, approximately 40 minutes away: Playa Arroyo Salado, pictured above. This beach is a favorite of north coast residents who come here to spend the day swimming in the river where it meets the sea, and relaxing on this hotel-free, over-a-mile-long beach.
Of course, you’ll find seafood restaurants and bars on site; some even offer Wi-Fi (Dominicans love their social media). You’re also welcome to bring your own cooler and snacks.
3. La Barbacoa — Samaná Peninsula, Eastern DR
Tucked between Las Terrenas and El Limon, which attract thousands of tourists year round, La Barbacoa offers a unique glimpse of the peninsula’s splendid tropical outdoors. Stay at Clave Verde Ecolodge and you’ll see what I mean. Run by a Dominican-British couple, this boutique guesthouse sits above the forest and coastline, just a 15-minute drive from Las Terrenas.
The surprises continue with freshly cooked meals, an on site gym, and a salt-chlorinated infinity pool overlooking the Samaná coastline. You can also go on hikes down to secluded beaches near Las Terrenas. The lodge uses 70 percent solar energy, among other sustainable measures they’ve implemented.
4. Manabao — Central DR
Go for a one hour drive east of Jarabacoa — prepare to stop multiple times for photo ops — to the town of Manabao. When I first passed through here, on my way to the Armando Bermudez National Park, there was just a dirt road and nowhere to stop for a lunchtime meal. But even then, Manabao took my breath away.
There’s a newly paved highway now, and small comedores, colmados and independently-run visitor cabins have popped up alongs this river-lined town. It remains a delightful slice of Dominican mountain life.
Stop at one of the “balnearios” or river parks right off the main drag, where locals cool off in the late afternoon, especially on Fridays and weekends when they also cook sancocho outdoors and blast music, or play baseball across the street. It’s a real glimpse into Dominican mountain life. The few independent travelers who pass through here are usually on their way to climb Pico Duarte.
5. Palenque — San Cristóbal, Southwest DR
Who says black sand beaches aren’t beautiful? The area surrounding Playa Palenque, just an hour or less west of Santo Domingo, is a well-kept secret of the capital’s more adventurous dwellers in search of an offbeat, authentic beach vibe. It’s close enough to the capital, but offers an alternative to the touristed and crowded scenes of Boca Chica or the condos and resort set up in Juan Dolio.
There are two sides to Playa Palenque’s unpretentious beach and fishing village scene, and you can walk from one to the other. The most tranquil corner is known as Playa Cocolandia, where I enjoyed the best, freshest beachside seafood I’ve tried in the entire DR.
Small guesthouses are spread out in this area; don’t expect luxury but you’ll have a decent-sized room, en suite bath, Wi-Fi and a restaurant on site at Hotel Playa Palenque, steps away from the beach.
Insider tip: The bus from Santo Domingo can take three hours instead of 1.5 hours to get here, even though a sign on the front of the van says “Espreso.”
6. Monte Plata — Central-East DR
It amazes me how Monte Plata remains little-known and even less developed in terms of accommodations. It doesn’t take much of an adventurous spirit to drive just an hour north of Santo Domingo and end up in the “Emerald Province.”
Blessed with parks, rivers and waterfalls — especially the impressive Salto Alto and Salto de Socoa — Monte Plata is ideal for nature lovers and off the beaten path road trip enthusiasts. The ride takes you along pine-tree hugged highways, cool temperatures and colorful, wooden campo homes. There are national parks as well as swimming holes relatively a short drive from each other. The entrance fee is minimal (under US$5). Take your picnic to the falls, cool off and relax there all day.
Read more about Monte Plata’s attractions, plus my recommended day trip itinerary and directions in this article I wrote for Moon Guides.
7. Is it safe to explore the Dominican Republic independently?
One of the most frequently asked questions I receive are from solo travelers who want to explore the Dominican Republic away from tourist zones. Is it safe to explore the DR on your own? The answer is this: yes it’s safe, and if you stick to these precautions which apply for all Caribbean destinations, you’ll be fine. Learning Spanish phrases and local slang go a long way as well.
I can share numerous stories of my encounters with Dominicans while living here and researching this country — offering me food, showing me their favorite offbeat sights (some I’ve promised not to write about), letting me use their bathroom when I’m on the road with no public restrooms in sight, or waiting with me for a bus when I’m stranded. Their strong hospitality culture reminds me often of my Ethiopian people.
It’s just sheer irony that despite being the #1 vacation destination in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic remains one of the least explored territories in the region. Head to one of the offbeat places in this post — and you”ll likely fall for Quisqueya the same way I did.