Walking With the Conquerors in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic's capital is a modern Caribbean hot spot with all the noise and excitement of a big city, but a few steps away is the old colonial quarter, where some of the oldest buildings in the Americas still stand. James Ferguson reports on Santo Domingo, a city of startling contrasts

  • Basilica de la Virgenita, near Santo Domingo. Photograph by Wyatt Gallery
  • Tower of Homage, built in 1505. Photograph by James Fergusson
  • Sixteenth-century architecture: Governor Diego Columbus's house in the Zona Colonial. Photograph by Catriona Davidson
  • Catholic Cathedral in the Zona Colonial- the brickwork is 500 years old. Photograph by James Fergusson
  • Altar area of colonial-era church. Photograph by Wyatt Gallery
  • Into the modern world: shopping on Conde Street, downtown Santo Domingo. Photograph by Robert Matthews
  • Suburban Santo Domingo: a "discreet and quiet charm entirely different from the high-octane commercial frenzy" of the main shopping area. Photograph by Catriona Davidson
  • Homes in the Zona Colonial. Though the area has been "gentrified", it still retains its old barrio feel. Photograph by James Fergusson

I had forgotten one important thing about Santo Domingo. Its ability to surprise. By that I don’t really mean to imply that it’s a shocking sort of place – or no more so than any other capital city. It’s more a case of permanent unpredictability, of unexpected change, of weird and wonderful contrasts. What the city does, for me at least, is to remind me of why I like traveling, and also why it’s good to return to places you think you know well (only to discover that you don’t after all).

Take the contrasts. I arrive in the cool, air-conditioned modernity of Las Americas airport – one of the Caribbean’s best and most comfortable- only to confront the old-style bureaucratic belligerence of the Dominican immigration officer, a khaki-clad, stony-faced individual whose idea of a welcome is to find you’ve not filled in your tourist card form properIy and send you back to the end of the queue. Some things never change, and nor does the frenzied hustling as I emerge blinking into the steaming humidity of a Caribbean mid-afternoon. But somehow I survive the touts, luggage intact, and I’m soon on my way down the Avenida de las Americas, the seaside road that runs 10 miles or so to Santo Domingo. I remember not to look right at the depressing spread of hal-finished breeze-block buildings, but to look left at the magnificent line of palm trees and the waves crashing over the jagged coral rocks beyond.

Arriving in town, I realise that I’d never fully appreciated what traffic chaos was before now. Half the roads are being dug up, new flyovers are being constructed, road tunnels have appeared out of nowhere. The traffic squeezes painfully across a bridge over the Ozama River, through some ramshackle suburbs and finally down the Avenida Mella, a frenzied shopping street with more signs and advertising hoardings than Broadway and Oxford Street put together. But after a pandemonium of whistling policemen and hooting traffic jams, another contrast. I am suddenly in the sixteenth century, in the heart of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.

This is where the European conquest of the Americas began. Or to be more accurate, this was where Bartolome Colon (or Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher’s brother) had a third and final attempt at establishing a permanent settlement in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola. The first, on the north coast, was pestilential; the second, on the other side of the Ozama, was reportedly overrun by large ants. But Santo Domingo fared better, and here it still is, five centuries after the first European-style buildings were constructed, under Spanish supervision, by press-ganged Taino Indian labourers.

This is a city of firsts: the first church, the first hospital, the first university in the Americas. All of these structures date from the first two decades of the sixteenth century, and, amazingly, they are still standing. Admittedly, they were built out of solid coral blocks to begin with, but even so, Santo Domingo has had to weather more than its fair share of natural and man-made disasters over the intervening half-millennium. There was the visit of English privateer Sir Francis Drake in 1586, for instance. He bombarded the city, ransacked it, and threatened to demolish it stone by stone until a ransom was paid. He even slung his hammock in the cathedral, as an act of Protestant provocation, and stayed there till the job was done. Then, after a series of earthquakes and hurricanes, the revolution in neighbouring Haiti spilled over the border, and Santo Domingo was occupied by the French, the British and finally the Haitians themselves. Later came the dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who immodestly renamed the place Ciudad Trujillo and flaunted his spectacularly bad taste with various monumental monstrosities until he was shot dead in 1961.

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So, all in all, it’s a minor miracle that many of the buildings commissioned by Bartolome and his successors, Governors Nicolas de Ovando and Diego Colon (Christopher’s son), are still there, beautifully golden and mellow in the setting sun. The Zona Colonial is about eleven blocks by eleven, rising gently up from the riverside. Most of the buildings date from the 19th century, but there are many much older gems set among them. The Calle de Las Damas, the first street running parallel to the Ozama, is probably the jewel in this architectural crown. Named after the ladies who used to accompany Maria de Toledo, Diego’s aristocratic wife, on her evening stroll, the cobblestone street is lined with renovated, one- or two- storey stone buildings which often conceal cool and verdant inner courtyards or patios.

In this core of an embryonic imperial capital were situated the headquarters of the religious orders – the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans, – as well as the homes of the ruthlessly ambitious conquistadores who used Santo Domingo as a launch-pad for the exploration and conquest of other islands and mainland territories. Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, lived in the Casa Francia in Las Damas before setting off in 1517 on his blood-stained expedition. Across the street lived Bishop Rodrigo Bastidas, an important figure in the colonisation of Colombia and the founder of the city of Santa Marta. These Spanish adventurers, driven by gold-fever or evangelical zeal, left from the port guarded by the Ozama Fortress, still an imposing defensive structure despite Drake’s best efforts to dismantle it. The focal point here is the Tower of Homage, with its impregnable six-foot-thick walls and panoramic views of city and river mouth. Built in 1505, it was still in use in the 1950s, when Generalisimo Trujillo used to imprison – and torture – his political opponents there.

It is slightly strange to recall that when these solid stone structures were being raised, Henry VIII was on the throne of England and the United States was as yet unsettled by Europeans. When the New World was indeed new, the power of the Catholic Church was immense, as reflected in the cluster of churches, monasteries, nunneries and teaching establishments littered around the Zona Colonial. Perhaps the most imposing is the cathedral, built between 1521 and 1540 and showing an eclectic mish-mash of styles from that period and later. The high vault and arches look Gothic, its elaborately decorated western facade is more Baroque, while its 14 interior chapels encompass a whole range of styles in stained glass and ornamentation. The alleged bones of Christopher Columbus used to lie in a disproportionately large, ugly marble tomb in the cathedral, donated by Spain in 1892, but a century later they were transferred to the modern Columbus Lighthouse, constructed to commemorate the quincentenary of the explorer’s first landfall in the Americas.

The original inhabitants of Hispaniola had little cause to be grateful to Columbus, for the Tainos were effectively wiped out by Spanish mistreatment and disease within 50 years of his arrival. But present-day tourists and inhabitants of Santo Domingo can at least appreciate the intensive restoration work that took place in time for the 1992 anniversary celebrations. Many  colonial buildings received an overdue facelift, and the port area at the mouth of the Ozama, previously an unlovely industrial wasteland, was transformed into a cruise ship terminal. Nor did the “gentrification” of the Zona Colonial lead, as was feared by some, to the eviction of its long-term residents and an influx of property speculators. True, there are plenty of chic new cafes and art galleries, and the French hotel chain, Accor, is busy refurbishing Nicolas de Ovando’s 1502 mansion into a luxury hotel, but the area still retains its old barrio feel. On any evening or on sleepy Sunday mornings, families put rocking chairs out on the pavement in front of their homes and watch their children playing in the street. You can glance through wrought-iron window grilles to see everyday domestic scenes within or sit and drink an ice-cold Presidente beer at the counter of one of the ubiquitous corner stores known as colmados.

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The Zona Colonial is all that many cruise ship tourists ever see of Santo Domingo, but there is much more going on in the bustling metropolis of almost three million. Another surprise was how much new building was taking place in the modern business and commercial areas. Large office and apartment blocks are springing up all over town, and new shopping malls and multiplex cinemas have sprouted in the four years since I was last here. In a country where the per capita of Mercedes Benz cars is reputedly the highest in the world, there is even for a shiny new Jaguar showroom. Looking out from the eighth floor of the office tower which houses the newly reopened British Embassy, I surveyed an urban landscape changing before my eyes, where concrete-mixers and cranes were working overtime.

There’s no doubt that Santo Domingo is booming, and all the classic symptoms are there: mobile phones, Internet cafes, theme bars. But this is only part of the story; out of the city centre lie some of the worst slums you’re likely to encounter in the Caribbean, and the current economic upturn has yet to have any visible impact on these serried ranks of tin and plywood shacks.

In between the extremes are some of the city’s most attractive areas, like Gazcue, a middle-class residential barrio only a stone’s throw from the Zona Colonial. No sixteenth-century mansions here, but rather an eclectic range of 1930s tropical suburban styles, including the occasional half-timbered residence. Shaded with a profusion of trees, its gardens full of bougainvillaea and hibiscus, Gazcue exudes a discreet and quiet charm entirely different from the high-octane commercial frenzy of Avenida Mella, only a few blocks away. The National Palace, made of coral-pink marble, stands on the edge of this leafy neighbourhood, but much more accessible and interesting are the various museums and galleries that line the Plaza de la Cultura. My own favourite is the History and Geography Museum which has a permanent exhibit dedicated to the veteran dictator Trujillo. Never a man to dress down, he had some of the most ludicrous uniforms this side of Ruritania, as well as a make-up kit designed to make him look whiter than he really was. A bullet riddled car testifies to his sticky end.

Old and new, rich and poor. Santo Domingo has a lot of everything. It also has one of the greatest seaside promenades in the world – the Malecon. Now, some Caribbean port cities seem almost to turn their backs on the sea, reserving their best features for well inland, but Santo Domingo positively embraces the water with its long oceanfront boulevard stretching several miles westwards from the old colonial centre. Here are the bright lights and casinos of the luxury hotels, as well as a string of first-class restaurants and glitzy nightclubs. You can clip-clop along this four-lane thoroughfare in a horse and cart or you can join the locals in a leisurely stroll (or early morning jog) along the palm-lined avenue – also known as Avenida George Washington.

Besides the pleasure palaces of the big-name hotels, the Malecon has a couple of eye-catching landmarks. You can hardly miss the 150-foot statue of Fray Anton de Montesinos, a Dominican (in the religious sense) priest who had the temerity to criticise the early Spanish colonists for mistreating the indigenous Tainos. He was promptly shipped home to Spain, but in the 1970s  the Mexican government donated the vast statue, which depicts an indignant white-robed cleric hurling invective out to sea. Of equally debatable aesthetic merit are the two obelisks, raised in 1936 and 1941 on Trujillo’s orders. One is called El Obelisco (i.e. male) and is appropriately phallic, while the other is La Obelisca and is supposed to resemble a receptive female form. Which, for once, is hardly surprising, since Trujillo, aka “The Benefactor”, had a well-documented interest in the opposite sex and probably relished this during double-entendre. Perhaps fittingly he was assassinated on the Malecon as he was being driven to yet another romantic tryst.

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In February, the Malecon is the parade ground for the Santo Domingo carnival celebrations, while in the last week of July it hosts the annual merengue festival- a feast of music dancing and rum. But lest you should fear that the avenue is quiet between these events, let me reassure you that it is not. Dominicans, or at least those who frequent the Malecon, are keen on noise, and it takes many forms.
Merengue, bachata and salsa, of course, but also car horns, souped-up motorbikes and high-decibel conversations. V. S. Naipaul once grumbled that Trinidad was the noisiest place in the world;  clearly hadn’t spent a night in a hotel on the Malecon. The only solution short of earplugs is to abandon any plans to sleep, stay awake and sit at one of the seaside bars, from where you can admire the prettily-lit ships anchored offshore and catch the cool night-time breeze.

During my visit, the 2000 presidential campaign was getting underway, with posters and TV commercials at every turn and, of course, the obligatory hooting cavalcade up and down the Malecon. One presidential hopeful was Joaquin Balaguer, who at the age of 94 was standing in his tenth election campaign. President on no fewer than eight occasions, he had clearly not had enough. Nobody I spoke to thought that his candidature was particularly unusual. Dominicans, it seems, have simply got used to a politician who used to be Trujillo’s lieutenant in the 1940s.

A poet and essayist as well as a formidable political survivor, Balaguer is responsible for the Columbus Lighthouse, the great – and some say grotesque – modern monument inaugurated in the 1992 celebrations. A cross-shaped structure, containing the explorer’s bones and a series of exhibits from around the world, it lies across the Ozama from the Zona Colonial in a strangely neat and empty expanse of park. At the time, I’d thought that this building was something of a white elephant, costing an estimated $25 million and not exactly beautiful either. As Santo Domingo was then suffering from almost constant power cuts, it seemed particularly ironic that the lighthouse shot a high-voltage beam of light into the sky. And it didn’t even work, said the critics.

But one overcast Friday evening, as I was sitting on the Malecon the lights suddenly went on. And it did work. A powerful cluster of searchlights sliced through the darkness, projecting a perfect crucifix outline onto the underside of the clouds. Shifting slightly in and out of focus with the slow movement of the cloud formation, the cross kept its shape while the beam looked like a solid pillar soaring skywards. Maybe it’s rarely that good, as passers-by stopped to take a look and point it out to their friends. It even seemed that the noise level dropped for a moment. In any event, I was surprised once again – pleasantly.

James Ferguson was researching The Dominican Republic Handbook (Footprint Guides, Autumn 2000)