11 Fun Facts about the Dominican Republic
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11 Fun Facts about the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s top travel destination, attracts millions of visitors annually. In 2023 alone, the country welcomed 10 million tourists, according to Dominican Republic Minister of Tourism David Collado.

People visit the Dominican Republic to enjoy its renowned beaches, including Samaná’s Playa Rincón and the beaches on Saona Island, a quick day trip from Punta Cana. For nature lovers, the country is dotted with peaks from the Cordillera Central mountain range, also called the Dominican Alps. The country also boasts a rich history, with remnants of Taino indigenous culture and well-preserved historical buildings from the time of Spanish rule.

While many tourists stick to resort areas, understanding the Dominican Republic’s diverse offerings is key. Explore this island nation’s fascinating culture with these 11 Dominican Republic interesting facts.

Rustic Pathways students visit the first cathedral in the Americas, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor.

Rustic Pathways students visit the first cathedral in the Americas, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor.

11 Fun Dominican Republic Facts:

  1. The Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo is a city of historical firsts.
  2. The Dominican Republic’s agricultural success has come at a cost.
  3. Local Dominican people have fought to keep many cultural traditions alive.
  4. The Dominican Republic is a fabulous place to play music and dance.
  5. Religion plays a large role in the Dominican Republic.
  6. Marine life is abundant off the Dominican Republic’s coast.
  7. You can find unique materials for jewelry and other decorative arts in the Dominican Republic.
  8. Car honking is common in the Dominican Republic.
  9. The Dominican Republic is a haven for baseball dreamers.
  10. Pirates Ahoy! The Dominican Republic is known for attracting the real pirates of the Caribbean.
  11. Santo Domingo has a spooky monument that may strike fears in people who are afraid of ghosts.

1. The Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo is a city of historical firsts

In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the present-day Dominican Republic during his first voyage. Christopher Columbus came to the island after visiting what is now the Bahamas. A few years later, the first permanent European settlement in the Americas was built in the current capital of Santo Domingo.

The Colonial City, also known as the Colonial Zone, includes the first Catholic cathedral in Central America as well as the first university and hospital. A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, this area is laid out in a grid pattern that became a model for other towns built in the Americas.

The Colonial Zone is on the west bank of the Ozama River that divides the city. A perimeter wall surrounds the area, which covers 0.41 square miles.

Today the Dominican Republic’s governmental and commercial centers are in a more modern part of the city. However, the Colonial Zone was once a powerful hub for the Spanish. Its influence declined as the Spanish conquered other regions in North and South America.

Overall, the Colonial Zone has 300 historical sites. This includes:

  • Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor – the first cathedral of the Americas
  • Casa del Cordón – thought to be the first stone house in the Americas
  • Ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco – the oldest monastery built in the Americas
  • Fortaleza Ozama – the oldest European fortress built in the Americas
  • Ruins of the Hospital San Nicolas de Bari – the first hospital built in the Americas

Spend a day getting to know the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo. Copyright: © 2014 Rustic Pathways

Before the Spanish arrival, the Taino Indians had established communities on the island. They were known for their agricultural skills, but their influence declined after the Spanish arrived and conquered Caribbean territories.

2. The Dominican Republic’s agricultural success has come at a cost

Today the Dominican Republic is a large producer of bananas, mangos, sugar, coffee, cocoa, and tobacco. Much of that success has come on the back of Haitian migrants.

The country formed communities called bateyes where migrant sugar cane workers live. Many of these settlements are located in the province of San Pedro de Macoris.

A Rustic Pathways student gets a helping hand while working on a service project in a bateyes community in the Dominican Republic.

A Rustic Pathways student gets a helping hand while working on a service project in a bateyes community in the Dominican Republic. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

The communities have substandard housing and lack necessary resources. They were built without running water, electricity, cooking facilities or bathrooms. They also did not have schools or proper healthcare.

Some nonprofits like the Rustic Pathways Foundation have stepped up to make improvements, but there’s still a long way to go.

3. Local Dominican people have fought to keep many cultural traditions alive

The indigenous Taino culture has been nearly wiped out in the Caribbean, but some artifacts and stone pottery can still be found on the islands.

The Taino had their own gods or spirits called zemis. Some of these gods are depicted in their indigenous artwork. Much of that art has been found deep in caves in places that are hard to access – often requiring crawling.

A guide in the Dominican Republic explains Taino cave art to some Rustic Pathways students.

A guide in the Dominican Republic explains Taino cave art to some Rustic Pathways students.

Caves were considered sacred to the Tainos and were thought of as places where you could commune with the gods. Their artwork depicts animals, human-like figures, deities and seemingly abstract patterns.

The main god for the Tainos that’s featured in much artwork is Cohoba. He carried a plate on his head that contained a powder that the Tainos inhaled during religious ceremonies, causing hallucinations.

You may see limited examples of this type of artwork in the Dominican Republic, but other cultural aspects are more prevalent. This includes Afro-Caribbean culture. In Santo Domingo an organization called La Cofradía de Los Congos del Espíritu Santo, or The Congos of the Holy Spirit, thrives.

This cofradía or brotherhood creates music pieces and dances using popular Afro-Caribbean instruments like conga drums. This cofradía is one of the most important socio-cultural expressions in the Dominican Republic. It’s deeply rooted in the history, geography and culture of the country. The cofradía is particularly strong in the community of Mata Los Indios, Villa Mella in the capital.

You also can learn about African-descended migrants called Cocolos at a local museum in San Pedro de Macorís. Then you can stop by Rincón Cocolo, a migrant-founded restaurant that’s the only establishment in the country that serves traditional Cocolo Dominican cuisine.

On top of this, the Dominican Republic has many folklore legends. On the fun side are los menos or duendes, which are similar to elves that play jokes on people.

They may be blamed if there are strange noises in a house. They also have a frightening side since they’re said to be unkind to butterflies and steal unbaptized children to turn them into one of them.

Other folklore creatures in the Dominican Republic are said to be rather frightening in both appearance and behavior with everything from backward feet to long nails. These stories will make you watch your back if something goes bump in the night.

4. The Dominican Republic is a fabulous place to play music and dance

Two well-known dances began in the Dominican Republic. They are the rhythmic, fast-paced merengue and the slower bachata dance.

The Dominican Republic is known for its dancing and music

The Dominican Republic is known for its dancing and music. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Merengue is the national music and dance of the country. The instruments used for the music reflect the nation’s diverse cultural traditions. It utilizes an accordion that the Spanish introduced. A two-sided drum called a tambora comes from African traditions, and an instrument called a güira reflects Taino culture. It’s a metal cylinder with a handle and holes on the side. Musicians make sounds by running a brush across its surfaces.

The sax and bass guitar are also traditionally used in merengue music. The music has a 2/4 beat and is danced as a couple. The dance has one step per beat and includes a series of side and crossover steps, along with turns and more fast-paced moves.

The bachata dance is also a couple dance, which includes “lead and follow” elements and eight count side-by-side movements. There’s also a lot of hip movement in bachata dancing. You’ll see combinations that’ll include three steps with a Cuban hip motion, followed by a tap with a hip movement on the 4th beat.

These dances vary in their speeds, so you may decide to try one over the other depending on your dance skills. Regardless, both dances are cultural experiences to watch and try.

5. Religion plays a large role in the Dominican Republic

Roman Catholicism is the official religion in the Dominican Republic. The Catholic church receives government support, and Catholicism is taught in public schools. Overall, the nation has about five million Catholics, which represents about half of the population.

Most Haitians migrants are Christians, though a number of them are part of Protestant denominations. Some of them also practice Afro-Caribbean beliefs such as Santería. This faith focuses on the idea that everyone has a specific destiny. Those who practice Santeria also revere their ancestors.

Regardless, there are more than 600 Catholic churches in the Dominican Republic. The country is also the only nation in the world with a Bible on its national flag.

>> LEARN MORE: Currency in the Dominican Republic.

6. Marine life is abundant off the Dominican Republic’s coast

Eighty percent of the North Atlantic humpback whale population returns to the Dominican Republic to give birth every year, many of them in a humpback whale sanctuary. The country is also home to three species of endangered sea turtles –  the green sea, hawksbill, and leatherback turtles.

Other marine life is also abundant, including several species of coral that form crucial coral reefs in the region. The health of the reefs and other aquatic animals is under threat from environmental issues. This includes pollution, overfishing, deforestation and natural disasters.

A Rustic Pathways student helps with a coral restoration project.

A Rustic Pathways student helps with a coral restoration project. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

These challenges have reduced access to clean water and led to large declines in various animal species. West Indian manatees are among those impacted. The manatees or sea cows were abundant in the region for centuries until hunting and pollution took a major toll. By 2008 the Dominican Republic estimated there were less than 70 manatees left in its waters.

On the tiny size, the coral also has faced major threats. In the Caribbean it’s estimated that half of the coral reefs have died off in the last 30 years. In response, the Dominican Republic has launched marine conservation efforts and created more than 29 national parks to protect the land and promote environmental and sustainable tourism.

7. You can find unique materials for jewelry and other decorative arts in the Dominican Republic

If you love jewelry making, the Dominican Republic is a great place to be. The nation is rich in both amber and the precious stone larimar. Amber is formed from fossilized tree resin from the extinct tree Hymenaea protera. The nation has among the largest deposits of fossil tree resin in the world.

This fact prompted filmmakers to come to the island nation to create the opening scene for the 1993 Jurassic Park movie. It was filmed at the Amber Museum in Puerta Plata and shows a famous amber stone of a prehistoric mosquito preserved inside amber.

Dominican amber is transparent and is used in jewelry and other decorative arts. It’s also used for healing in folk medicine.

Amber is found in other parts of the world, but the precious stone larimar is not. It comes in shades of blue, green, and white, and it’s believed the Dominican Republic is the only place in the world where larimar can be found.

8. Car honking is common in the Dominican Republic

You may think you’re in New York City when you hear all the car honking in the Dominican Republic. This is particularly the case in the capital city of Santo Domingo.

Car honking is common when a light turns green and when people are frustrated. But it’s also frequently utilized when one car is passing another one. When you hear this, think of it as a courtesy rather than an annoyance.

Motorbikes also are common in the country. All this means you can expect the streets to be a little loud and hectic during busy times of the day.

9. The Dominican Republic is a haven for baseball dreamers

Baseball is the most popular national sport in the Dominican Republic. Many local kids dream of following in the footsteps of other major league players, like Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and dozens of other Dominican athletes.

The sport is called pelota in the Dominican Republic. The nation’s professional baseball season runs from mid-October through late January. The sport includes six professional teams that compete in stadiums around the country.

Baseball began growing during the 1940s when tournaments were held to honor dictator Rafael Trujillo. The first baseball stadium was built during that decade and later grew in popularity.

To date, more than 65 players from the Dominican Republic have been selected as All Stars by Major League Baseball in the United States.

10. Pirates Ahoy! The Dominican Republic is known for attracting the real pirates of the Caribbean

Some of the most infamous pirates have set sail to the Dominican Republic. It’s believed the pirate Blackbeard spent a considerable amount of the time on the island. His real name was Edward Teach or Edward Thatch, and he was one of the most feared pirates in the early 1700s.

Pirates like him would rest, restock and hide in the present-day Dominican Republic. At one point, Blackbeard’s crew famously indicated they were hanging out on the island so they could plunder a Spanish armada that was expected to arrive there.

Captain Kidd also was known to spend time in the region. It’s rumored he hid some of his treasure on the Dominican Republic island of Saona.

Stories about this pirate connection have been passed down over the years. The Museum of the Royal Houses in Santo Domingo regularly has exhibits documenting the history of piracy on the island.

Students on the Island Living and Eco-Service program relaxing on the beach.

11. Santo Domingo has a spooky monument that may strike fears in people who are afraid of ghosts

In the heart of Santo Domingo, there’s a huge structure called Faro a Colón or the “Columbus Lighthouse.” Despite its name, it isn’t actually a lighthouse. The building is called this because it has 157 lights that can send beams into the sky, forming a cross.

Faro a Colón in the Dominican Republic; Photo by: Daniel Lobo, Creative Commons License

Faro a Colón in the Dominican Republic, Photo by: Daniel Lobo, Creative Commons License

The facility is located across the Ozama River from the Colonial Zone. The monstrously-huge monument is meant to mark the 500th anniversary of arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Dominican Republic. Columbus’ remains are allegedly held there, though that’s debated.

The structure was built with gray granite and concrete and is often described as being dark, strange and frightening – or at least bizarre. Even if it isn’t haunted, it seems to send shivers down people’s spines. So if you’re afraid of ghosts, it may give you scary vibes.

Fortunately the Dominican Republic is known more for its friendly people and beautiful beaches than pirates or large monuments.

Considering a trip to the Caribbean? Discover our teen programs in the Dominican Republic, or connect with one of our travel advisors for further details.

About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.