Elsie and I had a great time of seeing what we wanted to see at a pace that wasn’t too fast, or too slow. I know there are going to be questions from Haiti people and non-Haiti people alike about the trip, so consider this my version of how to do it.
From Haiti there are several bus companies that do daily runs into Santo Domingo. We went with Capital Coach Lines, but there is also Caribe Tours. Sorry, I don’t have a website for them. With Capital Coach Lines you can book tickets online through Paypal (either with an account or with a credit card). The cost was $75 US round trip, which was completely reasonable. The busses were comfortable and clean. They served a sandwich, fruit juice and water on each trip. We did the 8 am both ways, which I would recommend because you never know how long you’re going to get held up at the border. Each passenger is allowed 2 50lb bags each way.
We knew we were going to be in Santo Domingo the whole time, but if you want to go to another part of the country the same company has busses that go all over the place, you just need to check the routes and destinations on the website.
Note: Don’t plan to travel on Thursdays. Thursday is the day that they open the border for people to buy and sell between the two countries. It took us 5 hours to cross the border. 3 of those were sitting on the bus traveling a distance of no more than 1 km. The other time was spent in DR customs, getting back on the bus, then Haitian customs & immigration.
Crossing the Border:
The nice thing about traveling on the bus is that most of the immigration stuff is taken care of for you. At the bus station you are issued your ticket, and they take your passport and the visa fees. Visa fees are $20 US each direction, and 100 Goudes on the way there, and 100 Pesos on the way back. You pay all this up front, and the bus company staffer that rides with you holds onto all of it (passports included) until you get to the border. At the border they hand out passports and everyone gets in line. The immigration officer takes your passport and the immigration form you were given on the bus, stamps everything and you give your passport back to the staffer. Passports are returned on the bus sometime before you arrive in Santo Domingo.
After going through Immigration everyone retrieved their bags off the bus, went to the customs desk, which was really a table with several non-uniformed people checking bags. It was a bit sketchy in the sense that it felt like federales were checking our bags, but it is what it is. The thing I really didn’t like was that when they opened the bus so we could get our bags there were a ton of
urchins young men trying to grab your bags to “help”. At times there were more of them that bus passengers, and it was annoying, but after living in Haiti you get good at warding them off.
There were a few people selling drinks and snacks so we were able to get some cold cokes which was nice. We were lucky in that our border stop only took about an hour on the way there. We were prepared for about two based on our friends experiences a couple weeks before.
Where To Stay:
This is one thing that is subjective. Some people like the idea of saving money and going the hostel route, and others are more comfortable doing the hotel thing. We knew that we were going to spend all of our time in Santo Domingo, and that we wanted to be in the Zona Colonial – the Colonial Zone. From there we could walk to all of the major sites, and catch taxis to the other things we wanted to see.
To save money Elsie and I decided to go the hostel route. We stayed at Condominum Parque, a little hostel that ended up being a block and a half from El Conde, the main walking street in the Zona Colonial. It wasn’t the Hilton, but it was clean, safe and we had a light breakfast buffet included. We paid $22.50/person per night. With breakfast included in that, you can’t really beat it. The staff were really helpful to when we had questions about getting around.
I would recommend checking out the variety of hostels in Santo Domingo if you want to go that route. There are some good sites, like hostelworld.com that have a good listing and that give you the option of booking online, which we did. Expedia was another good source.
The biggest thing is to know what you want to do, and then find a place in that area. We literally walked everywhere, unless we were doing something outside of the zone. It was nice that everything was so accessible by foot.
As I said, we did A LOT of walking. But, there were times that walking wasn’t an option, so we had to find other means of transportation.
From the bus station we took a cab. I’ll be right up front, you’ll probably end up paying about $10 US for your cab ride from there because they totally take advantage of the fact that you’ve just arrived and you’re tired and want to get where you’re going. After that though, the normal price to pay for a taxi ride anywhere in the city is about 200 Pesos. If a taxi driver asks for more than 250 you’re getting ripped off and should go find a driver that will do it for the average price.
When taking a taxi you always negotiate the price ahead of time. The thing I really appreciated was that when we got to our destination there was no more discussion about the price. We just handed the money over, exchanged our “gracias” and went on our way. After living in Haiti I was concerned that every ride would end in more negotiations, but it was never the case.
The other options for getting around Santo Domingo are city bus (the big green ones) that run on routes, the metro train/subway or guayguays (gwa gwa). Guayguays are 12-15 passenger vans that drive routes within the city. There will be a guy standing in the door shouting out the destination and you just flag them down. If they only have a limited number of seats available he’ll hold up that many fingers so you know whether it’s worth the effort. Once you get on it’s 25 Pesos to wherever you get off. Much less expensive than a taxi, but a lot more work to figure out which ones to get on and off. We did the guayguay thing once, mostly to say that we’d done it. I would recommend it if you speak Spanish like Elsie did, and are adventurous. Because Elsie and I are used to the tap tap system in Haiti it wasn’t much of a stretch for us, but it would be for someone not used to third world living.
What To Eat:
There are a ton of restaurants in Santo Domingo. Everything from fine dining to hole in the wall snack shops. We did a little of everything. Along El Conde there are even fast food restaurants like KFC and Pizza Hut. Elsie had a craving for Pizza Hut one night, so we did that. Ate at a Chinese fast food place another night. Had meals at other little mom & pop type restaurants with good Dominican food. On our last night we decided to treat ourselves to an evening out at a nicer place in the Plaza de Espana where there are several restaurants that have sidewalk style outdoor eating. It was a fabulous meal, and beautiful because we got to sit and look across the plaza at ancient buildings.
Typical Dominican food has some sort of rice, or mashed potatoes, with a meat either grilled (like chicken) or in a sauce. The meat choices are usually beef, pork or chicken. I was surprised at how easy it was to get white chicken meat and that it was the same price as regular chicken – something we don’t find in Haiti. The sauces the meat was in were always tasty. Also sides of veggies which was nice. Plates were substantial and in most cases it was difficult to finish them, even when we were really hungry.
Prices for food are all over the place, depending on what it is. For example, a personal sized pizza at Pizza Hut was anywhere from 250 – 700 Pesos (at a rate of about 38:1 US dollar). If you ate at a little local restaurant, or in many cases ordered the “plate of the day” you would pay less than 200 Pesos, and the food was always good. For us, because we live in Haiti, it was nice to eat a combination of Dominican food and more North American food like pizza. We found that most restaurants had a good mix unless it was a Dominican hole in the wall.
Note: There is 16% sales tax on everything you buy in a store or restaurant. In many cases, the tax has been added into the total price marked on merchandise and will be separated out on the receipt, but what you see is what you pay. When dining out there is also a 10% service tax, essentially a tip, on top of that. 26% is a lot. Some of the guide books we read said that it was expected that you added another 10% on top of that but we never did because 26% is already a lot of tax to be paying. It’s just something to be aware of when eating out. Check the menu when ordering because in several cases it said that all taxes were included in the price.
What To Drink:
First off, expect to buy all your water. The tap water is not drinkable so you’ll want to find a store during the day to stock up on bottled water. This wasn’t hard to do at all. Also, when you eat out you’ll have to pay for water, it isn’t automatically served or included with your meal.
A variety of sodas are always available, and most nicer restaurants will serve a variety of cocktails and wines. If you like those, several places will have 2 for 1 Happy Hour that is worth checking out.
If you like coffee, I would definitely recommend taking some time to have a cup of cafe con leche or something else similar. Cafe con leche is coffee with milk, by the way :) It’s strong and creamy and oh so delish!
Where To Change Money:
You can change money at some restaurants, and there will be guys on the street changing it as well. These options will always give you a slightly lower rate than when you do it at a business type changer. These will advertise that they change money, and their rate will be the bank rate given on any day. If you can, find these places to change money. They’ll give you a receipt so you know you haven’t been taken. One thing someone warned us about with changing money on the street is to really pay attention to how they count it out because certain bills are the same color and it’s easy for them to do it quickly and you miss it. I changed money in all of the available places and didn’t have any problems.
Okay, that’s the logistical stuff. What to see and do needs to be it’s own post entirely.