There is more to the Dominican Republic than all-inclusive resorts and beaches—though those are nice, too. In a recent trip with my kids, I wanted to make sure that they got to experience what the island had to offer off-resort as this was their first time exploring the Dominican part of their heritage.
This desire to see more has changed how resorts function over the years. It used to be that tourists would be discouraged from leaving property grounds, and encouraged to simply enjoy the amenities on site. More and more resorts have found that travelers are increasingly wanting the real cultural experiences from the travel destinations that they choose to visit. This has made it a lot easier to book excursions and tours with local partners.
It has also shifted perceptions and the traveler’s willingness to try different things and explore deeper. I saw this shift firsthand when I saw tourists riding around in motoconchos, which are motorcycles used as taxis to transport many things, from animals to furniture and even entire families (on one bike, mind you) from one place to another. The way they navigate traffic is not for the weary, but it’s inexpensive, fast, and it’s as Dominican as it gets.
My kids and I did not ride on a motoconcho, but we did take on a few other activities that gave us a taste and feel for the country and made this family vacation to the Dominican Republic one we won’t forget anytime soon.
When in the coast, eat the fish
We visited Puerto Plata, the Dominican Republics Northern coast, also known as the Amber Coast. This has always been a popular destination for both locals and tourists due to its many beaches and colorful Victorian architecture. The opening of its cruise port, Amber Cove, in 2015 opened up the destination to the world even more.
Viewfinder Tip: Puerto Plata is an easy city to navigate and hiring a taxi for a day can cost less than US$100 depending on the group size.
We stayed mainly in the city of Puerto Plata, exploring the city center as well as the popular beaches and city scenes.
Though no two cities are alike on the island, there are a lot of elements that remain the same. For example, it is always a good idea, especially in a coastal town, to head to the seafood spot to get a taste of the best catch of the day. If you don’t know, ask your driver—many taxi drivers that can be hired through your hotel, cruise line, or even tourism board, will know where to take you.
In Puerto Plata, that area is the town of Maimon. The eateries here offer large servings of fresh fish (traditionally served whole) caught that morning by local fishermen, including shell fish, with a side of rice and beans and fried plantains. Paired with the Dominican beer or a freshly squeezed fruit drink, you are well on your way to a full Dominican experience. For my boys, this felt like eating at home, which of course made my heart melt.
If your kids aren’t used to seeing a whole fish fried on a plate, you can also ask for a filet serving. Dominican food isn’t traditionally spicy, though it does have a lot of flavor, so it’s an easy introduction to those who might not know what to get.
Museums are great, but so is the culture outside
We didn’t go into any museums on this visit, though Puerto Plata has several nice ones, including the Amber Museum as well as the one inside the San Felipe Fort.
If you’d rather not spend the day inside, you will still get a chance to experience and learn a lot from the culture outside. Sit by the Malecon (the benches along the shore in the city) or in an open-air restaurant and people watch. Don’t be afraid to buy fruit from a local vendor. The coconut vendor is my favorite! Go to a local beach, outside the confines of the touristy resorts and eateries. Don’t be afraid to explore. If you have a driver or guide, they will stay with you the entire time.
Walking around was one of the best ways to get my kids talking about the people and the island. The poverty was immediately impactful to them, but I was able to help them look past it and really see the people and what they did have as opposed to what they did not.
Different ways to travel deeper
There are many different ways to travel deeper into the country. You can take a excursion into the waterfalls and try to scale the 27 falls of Damajaqua (average waterfalls scaled by a first-time traveler is between 11 and 14), or go snorkeling in the beautiful waters along the coast. You can even go hiking up Isabel de Torres, the highest peak in the city.
I decided to do volunteer work. Because we were traveling on a cruise with Fathom Travel, we were able to pick from a list of volunteer work that I knew my boys and I would enjoy, from reforestation to packaging chocolate at a locally-owned cacao cooperative to going into a community and teaching English. It was an experience worth all that we invested it in—in money, time, and sweat.
There are many local organizations on the ground who would happily take on volunteers to help them with their efforts, though I would recommend to do your research carefully and give them ample notice.
Whether you decide to stay in a beautiful resort or travel in on a cruise, finding ways to enrich your vacation is not too hard to do in a country with so much to offer.
How do you enhance family trips to make them both fun and educational?