There’s a common reflection among students who visit the Dominican Republic. Rustic Pathways Country Manager Manuel Del Villar says students often say they are surprised how happy local villagers are even if they have very little. The expectation is that local residents will be sad if they lack running water or basic comforts that the students have at home. But Del Villar says that their communities are strong, which makes all the difference.
“They find joy in life. Kids can just play with sticks. They don’t need a TV,” Del Villar said. “Dominican culture also is in general very welcoming. The people are warm, loud, and fast talking and normally are huggers and kissers.”
Interacting with the local community to see this way of life is a must-do experience when visiting the Dominican Republic. It’s also one of the main benefits of travel that Rustic alumni mention when asked about their trip. An immersive travel experience allows them to learn about another culture, try different foods, practice another language, and much more.
In addition, the beautiful mountains, tropical rainforest climate and picture-perfect beaches in the Dominican Republic add an adventure element that attracts tourists from around the world. The Rustic Pathways’ programs take teens a little off the beaten trail – away from tourist traps and resorts to see both the scenery and meet the people. The places are hand-selected by residents who are born and raised in the country. Del Villar shared some of the highlights that travelers visiting the country shouldn’t miss.
Seeing Different Parts of the Island
One of the programs Del Villar oversees called the Mountain Air and Island Living program allows students to get a taste of different aspects of the country. The students start their journey by traveling to the valley of Jarabacoa, meaning “Land of Waters.” The area is located amid the Cordillera Central Mountains. This mountain range runs through the heart of the Dominican Republic and has the highest peak in the Caribbean.
Later the students travel north to the beach town of Sosúa where they enjoy the water and go snorkeling – diving deep to see coral formations. This area has a small Jewish community since refugees from World War II moved to the region in the 1940s. They created and sold European-style cheese and salami in the region, which later became part of the staple diet in the DR.
The students also visit a 82-foot waterfall and jade pool below a deep canyon at Salto de Baiguate. And they tour the Colonial Zone in the nation’s capital Santo Domingo. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the first university, cathedral, and hospital in the Americas.
Another program, Marine Life and Coastal Restoration takes students to the southern beach town of Bayahibe and the remote Saona Island. In these regions, they learn about coral reefs and do work to rebuild them. They also visit caverns, and see sea turtles, sea stars, dolphins, manatees and other marine life.
Getting a taste of these different ecosystems is a wonderful part of any visit to the island nation. The best moments though are likely to come from time spent with the Dominican people.
Working with Local Residents on Meaningful Projects
Many teen trips offer the opportunity for service. Del Villar says some of his best memories come from times when students were deeply impacted by one of their projects. One project that really stood out to him involved building an aqueduct for the Mountain Air and Island Living program.
Del Villar said it was a particularly challenging venture since they had to run pipes across a river and up the side of a mountain. After the first day, some students were discouraged and thought they would be too tired to finish. But the third day when they did finish everything changed.
“Everyone was having fun, and there was a big celebration with sancocho to eat, which is a type of Dominican stew,” Del Villar said. “The event wasn’t planned and the whole community came out and gave speeches.”
Rustic alumna Calista Schloessmann says she made some close friends when she worked on a similar water project in the mountains. She keeps in contact with two local boys she met in one village, including a local boy named Brallan who was about twelve years old when she met him.
“He and I immediately developed a close bond; he started to call me ‘hermana,’ his sister, and I felt that we were both an inspiration for one another during the time that we worked in the mountainside to properly place the water canal,” Schloessmann said.
Water projects are not the only ones that inspire students. Environmental ones also make an impact. In the Marine Life and Coastal Restoration program students learn about how irresponsible tourism has damaged coral reefs and how they can help. This includes lessons about using the right sunscreen and avoiding boating in certain areas, along with hands-on projects with local residents that involve building reefs.
Savoring the Local Cuisine
In addition to the Dominican stew sancocho, teens are able to try a variety of other foods prepared by local chefs. On the Mountain Air program, students stop at the smoothie shop La Melaza where they can try interesting combinations of local fruits in a Dominican-style smoothie.
Del Villar says other foods teens will likely try include los tres golpes for breakfast or the three hits, which is fried cheese, fried salami, and fried eggs. They are often served with plantains with onion sauce.
For lunch and dinner, la bandera is often served. It is a rice, beans, and chicken dish. Its name refers to the Dominican flag and its red, white and blue colors. The red is represented by the beans. The white is the rice, and meat or poultry is the third color even if it isn’t really blue.
Del Villar says residents also will frequently offer coffee to visitors. In fact, he is offered coffee so often in his travels, he is not sure sometimes how to politely turn it down!
Enjoying the Culture
Aside from food, students also can enjoy other cultural aspects, such as the merengue and bachata dances. The merengue is the DR’s national dance. It has Spanish and African influences and is based on a repeating five-beat rhythmic pattern.
The bachata is a style of dance that originated in the DR and is popular because of its relatively easy footwork. It includes basic steps and taps, along with some Cuban hip motion. It’s easy for students to try the dances or watch local residents who know the steps put on a show.
In addition, Del Villar says teens will see colmados in the countryside. These are convenience stores that play a central role in many communities and often are a social gathering place.
Overall, Del Villar says it is an amazing opportunity to introduce teens to his country and help them make some lasting memories. He particularly enjoys watching the teens mature during the trip.
“They may arrive a little scared, shy or overwhelmed, but then they grow in some way and come out as a better version of themselves,” Del Villar said.
Cayla, who joined in the Mountain Air program, certainly found that and more. After she returned home, she shared her thoughts on why her DR trip was so meaningful to her.
“The people you meet, places you visit, foods you taste and things you do are all amazing,” Cayla said. “The DR is like no other place – the atmosphere was so lively, fun and energetic. It’s a trip that can completely change you as a person and open your mind to so many new things.”
Learn more about the Dominican Republic in this beginner’s travel guide:
For more information about teen travel to the DR, visit our program page or contact our Global Program Advisors for more details. You also can view our country book on the Dominican Republic, which has more photos and information about the country.
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.