Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 19, 2012

The Oldest City in the New World

Well, Caroline and I are on the road again, and this time we’re sort of doing a pan-Caribbean journey. Of course, we’ll do our best to make sure this is no ordinary trip to the Caribbean.

Our first stop was the Dominican Republic’s capital, Santo Domingo. Founded by Bartholomew Columbus–Christopher’s little brother–in 1498, Santo Domingo is the oldest city in the Americas.

And, moreso than any place we’ve been besides maybe Europe, there’s just a ton of really old-looking stuff everywhere. Many of the walls in the Zona Colonial aren’t the uniform concrete you see elsewhere in Latin America. They’re a patchwork of basic building materials.

The oldest remaining church in the Americas. There was a graduation ceremony finishing up at the time we visited–cause for many plastic chairs to be brought in to supplement the pews.

The oldest hospital in the Americas is now a park.

This monastery was a mental health hospital before being abandoned altogether. Now it’s used for the occasional concert or play.

Or as baseball diamond for the neighborhood kids (old concrete light pole foundations served as the bases).

Although small, the Zona Colonial seems to be where everything happens. All the fancy nightclubs are here. The tourists hang out here. Consulates and important government offices are here. It definitely feels a lot more like a small city when you’re wandering around, and not a metropolis of 4 million people.

The Pantheon, where most of the DR’s main government events are held, is also where you can find…

…the Declaration of Independence…from Haiti. Haiti actually controlled the DR for a couple decades back in the 1800s, when it was the wealthier of the two nations. The DR fell back under Spanish rule for a while after this declaration, but so hated was this period of their history that it is still called their independence day.

Honestly, the fact that Santo Domingo is the DR’s capital probably makes it less of a tourist destination than it otherwise would be. Traffic jams and big trucks clog the narrow streets, filling them with choking exhaust. Tangles of wires are above every street, sullying just about every picture you try to take.

Of course, there’s the obligatory picture of somebody doing something utterly reckless: in this case, lowering an air conditioner’s condensing unit from a 2-story building by the power chord, without even watching out for whether someone was walking below…

…and the truck comically overloaded with produce.

The colonial city’s Malecon, instead of being tranquil and scenic, is so clogged by all forms of traffic that simply crossing the street is a game of frogger.

Once you get to the Malecon, you can check out an old fort…

…or get a nice view of the city.

But it requires a pretty carefully framed picture to hide what’s actually going on. The trash floating in the ocean is simply staggering. Supposedly, another couple miles down the Malecon, is gets rather nice. Alas, we were sans car and had already walked a painfully lang way through the heat to get this far.

On the way back to the Zona Colonial, I stopped and grabbed a Coke that definitely hit the spot.

It’s not exactly fair to judge Santo Domingo like this. Instead of comparing it to colonial gems Granada, Nicaragua or Antigua, Guatemala, it really ought to be compared to Managua or Guatemala City. And the colonial district is certainly a heck of a lot nicer than anything in either of those cities. It also feels a lot safer, and we seemed to get hit up for cash or some sort of random service relatively seldom.

Modern art on display in the Zona Colonial.

For some reason, Dominicans really seem to like Mediterranean food. Shawarma is a fixture on menus at all sorts of restaurants. Caroline and I enjoyed a fantastic Mediterranean feast.

The Zona Colonial’s colorful backstreets, filled with old wooden houses. Everyone hangs out on the street in the DR. It’s a pretty cool vibe: self-contained bars are kind of uncommon. It’s far more typical for a “liquor store” to set tables up on the sidewalk, and customers just enjoy their beverages right there.

The old wall of the colonial city separates the gringo-friendly district from…well…the rest.

Just outside the city walls is the city’s Chinatown. Not much to say about it–it looked to us like a lot of fairly unappealing Chinese restaurants, many of which appeared to be Dominican-run–but the comparison of cultures was interesting nonetheless. Once you get outside of the Zona Colonial, it definitely feels a lot more like a city of 4 million.


  1. Nice pics, guys! I think Schwarma is popular throughout Latin America, which is kind of cool. Amy says hey, too!

  2. […] time readers of this blog know Caroline and I love Chinatowns, having visited them in the Domincan Republic and […]

  3. […] beautiful footbridge to connect downtown with the river. At least that saves Albany from being like Santo Domingo, where a single crossing over to the Malecon probably lowers your life expectancy by a […]

  4. […] stone-facade city filled with ancient-looking arches, I was tempted to compare Morelia with Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Although Santo Domingo may have a leg up on Morelia (along with every other city in this […]

  5. […] an impressive historic district, which, with a little TLC, could rival some of the famous colonial cities throughout Latin America, except with a New Orleans […]

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  8. […] tradition, we stayed in the Zona Colonial, and were able to get an update on the district from our visit a couple years […]

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