Striking Santo Domingo

Welcome to…

… says a multicoloured sign as I enter Aeropuerto Internacional Las Américas in Santo Domingo. Airport of the Americas! I like the confidence.

I turn around, to see where I’m being welcomed to:

Phew! I’m in the right place, then. Just where I want to be on this marvellous March morning.

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic, and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. The entire old part of the city. About 12 blocks. And I’m about to spend the entire day wandering about, exploring it all. No rush! One of my favourite things to do. Exciting!

Also, I am in a new country. New to me, that is. I haven’t been checking out new countries much in the last couple of years. Not just because of that annoying little bug, but because I’ve been busy re-visiting old favourites.

But here we go. 126/198. Getting pretty close to two-thirds (193 UN member countries + a few extra added by moi). Also kinda exciting.

A 3-in-1 Kinder Egg of amusing myself right there. But why stop there? I think I’ll add a 4th one as well.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

What could that password possibly be?

OK, on to the main player:

Santo Domingo: Latin America’s oldest colonial city and city of firsts

Zona Colonial – the historic part of Santo Domingo – is about 30 minutes away from Las Américas airport, most of it along the coastal Autopista Las Americas, with gorgeous ocean views as far as the eye can see. I’m off to a great start!

I am on Hispaniola – the second largest island in the Caribbean (only surpassed by Cuba), and comprising two nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Santo Domingo is the first colonial city in Latin America. This is where the Spanish first began their conquering ways, back in 1492. The first permanent Spanish settlement in the ‘new world’. This is where they built the first hospital, the first university, the first cathedral, the first whatnot. This city of firsts was built on a grid structure and became a model for other cities in the western hemisphere.

A condescending term, isn’t it? New world! As if it didn’t exist before Europe showed up. Well, it did. And it was inhabited, too. The then locals, the Taino, didn’t take too kindly to being colonised and reduced to slaves. I wouldn’t either. Strangers coming along, enslaving the population, making decisions for you that they had no business making. It’s not ‘when in Rome, make the Romans change according to me’, is it?

On top of that, the Spanish also brought along measles, smallpox and the like from the ‘old world’ – a whole host of diseases, drastically reducing the local population.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Anacaona, poet, musician, and fearless female leader

Before Columbus arrived, Hispaniola was divided into 5 Taino chiefdoms. One of these, Xaragua, was ruled by Anacaona. When the Spanish governor of the island and the city’s founder, Nicolás de Ovando, came to Xaragua, Anacaona and several other chiefs gave him a generous welcome. However, Ovando didn’t buy it. An uprising must surely be in the works, he thought.

Was it? Accounts vary, and we’ll probably never know. What we do know is that the chiefs were captured and burnt alive and Anacaona was hanged. She is remembered all over the Caribbean – in poetry, art and music, including this song:

In more modern times, the tallest skyscraper in the Dominican Republic and in all of the Antilles is Torre Anacaona 27, named after the fearless chief.

During Anacaona’s reign, before that cruel governor came along, the Taino and the Spanish settlers intermarried for about 6 years. So the Taino are still around – or Taino blood lines, at least.

You can read more about the Taino genocide at Yale’s Genocide Studies Programme here.

What to see in Colonial Santo Domingo

Back in the present, I ask the taxi driver to drop me off at Parque Colón, the city’s central square, named after – you guessed it – Christopher Columbus. If you have read my post about Puerto Rico, you will have noticed I am not exactly a fan.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

And here he is, on a pedestal yet again.

Zona Colonial is not very big, and easily covered in a day, including time for entering a church here, a museum there, a cantina over there…

Wandering along the cobbled streets, I close my eyes and see Spanish colonialists walking on these same flagstones. There’s governor de Ovando. I want to time leap to ca. 1500, and give him a serious talking to. Although, he has weapons and a military… But then, I have the benefit of 500 more years of human evolution.

Basilica Catedral de Santa María la Menor

Behind the statue on Plaza Colón is the Basilica Catedral de Santa María la Menor – one of those firsts.

Inside the oldest Catholic cathedral in the Americas. The Gothic vaults are meant to resemble palm branches.

The cathedral has 14 chapels along the sides. I am here at the same time as a large group of surprisingly well-behaved school children. The kids and I stop and look at the chapels together.

Convento de los Dominicos

Here is another one of the firsts – two, actually: this 16th century Dominican convent is the oldest Catholic building in continuous use in the Americas. It is also where the first university in this hemisphere was located.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

I like how this Gothic delight looks a bit supernatural when the sun hits it just right.

Casa Bastidas

Moving right along, is Ladies’ Street, where once regent of Santo Domingo, María de Toledo, and her lady entourage would take afternoon strolls, half a millennium ago.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

On Calle las Damas is Casa de Bastidas, once the home of Rodrigo de Bastidas, an important figure in these parts. He must have been, seeing as his house was a whopping 3,000 sq. metres. Today, all that space houses a museum, naturally – as well as a trampoline museum for children. Jump!

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Casa de Bastidas

Fortaleza Ozama

Ozama Fort is one of the remaining parts of the old city walls, and another first (of course): the oldest European military structure in the Americas.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Plaza España (Plaza de la Hispanidad)

Continuing along Calle las Damas, I spot canons ahead, guarding over potential enemies coming up the Río Ozama.

Then, turning a corner, I’m on Plaza España. Here is a statue of Nicolás de Ovando himself, in front of the royal houses. Also, cafes and bars along the terraces. Lively at night, I’m sure. I regret not having planned to spend more time here in Santo Domingo. Well, I will just have to return. The country’s beaches are to die for, too, my hairdresser assures me.

Puerta de la misericordia

Continuing on, I walk through the quirky streets of Santo Domingo towards the end of Zona Colonial, where I notice an interesting gateway with an intriguing name. Puerta de la misericordia. What particular misery can this be?

The first gate in the city wall, it turns out. Puerta de Santiago was its original name. Then, after a major earthquake in the 19th century, it was renamed.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Parque Independencia

Now, look through the Gate of Misery. Did you spot this marble mausoleum?

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Altar de la Patria

Just outside the old city gate, is the guarded Independence Park, a memorial to the nation’s freedom fighters and founding fathers.

And here they are, their remains and life-size sculptures: Juan Pablo Duarte, Matías Ramón Mella, and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez:

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Outside the mausoleum, in the grounds, are rows of more heroes of the Independentista,

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

including María Baltasara de los Reyes, fearsome activist and warrior.