I spent eight days in the Dominican Republic, covering Santo Domingo (the capital), Puerto Plata, Sosua, and Jarabacoa. As with my other travel notes, I’ll try to avoid generic travel blogging stuff and focus on anything unusual I experienced or learned.
Population – 10.85 million
Size – 18,972 square miles
GDP (nominal) – $96.3 billion (a little more than New Hampshire)
GDP Per Capita PPP – $20,625 (nominal – $9,195)
GDP Growth Rate (2019, pre-pandemic) – 5.1%
Founded – Multiple times, but last in 1844
European Settlement – 1492 (by Christopher Columbus)
Religion (2018) – 66.6% Christian (44.3% Roman Catholic), 29.4% none (!)
Ethnicity (2014) – Very, very mixed
- 58% Creole (African/European/Indigenous mix)
- 12.4% African/European mix (formerly known as “mulatto”)
- 8% Black
- 5% White
Heritage Index of Economic Freedom – #95 in the world
I arrived in Santo Domingo at 11AM and found myself in the only major airport on the planet without a bus or shuttle system. A quick check with the taxis revealed it would cost $35 to get downtown, which I pinged as dramatically high for a developing country.
I asked around for an alternative, and a security guard pointed me to a 30+ year old van illegally parked in the departure zone. There was a big guy sitting in front of it on a lawn chair, and after I deployed some high school Spanish, he agreed to take me to a couple of miles away from my hostel for 100 Dominican Pesos ($1.77). I figured I could easily catch a taxi with reasonable pricing there.
The catch, which I don’t think he explained, was that there wasn’t exactly a set schedule for this doubtlessly illicit service, so I had to sit in the van and wait for it to fill up with other customers before he would leave. That took about thirty minutes, by the end of which I was smashed up against a window, with two backpacks in my lap, and a baby’s head on my shoulder.
We drove for about fifteen minutes, when the guy sitting in the passenger seat (who was co-running the operation with the driver) asked for my money. I handed him a 1,000 Peso note, which is all I had from the ATM. He had no change. After five minutes of all nine people in the van talking to each other, the passenger seat guy told me I didn’t need to pay. I insisted I did, he repeated that I didn’t. I really wanted to pay, but I didn’t want to gamble that the Dominican Republic has one of those cultures where rejecting gifts is a massive faux pas, so I gave up.
The van dropped me off at some random cross street. The passenger seat guy got out with me, helped me exchange my 1,000 Peso note with a street vendor, and then walked me over to a motorcyclist (I’m not sure if it was moto-taxi or just some random dude), and arranged for the guy to take me to my hostel for 150 Pesos ($2.65). I once again insisted on paying for the van, especially since I now had change, but I was again rejected.
I arrived at my hostel safely ten minutes later. I had been off the plane for an hour, and I already had a high estimation of Dominicans. The van driver had patiently explained the system to me at the airport, the passenger seat guy had refused payment, helped me get change, and set me up for my next taxi, and the other passengers in the van were all nice. The sample size was small, but Dominicans seemed very cool thus far.
Crime and Security
At my hostel, I explained to the owner how I had arrived. My Spanish isn’t great, but I believe he said something akin to “stupid fucking white person.” I was very, very lucky not to have been robbed.
He then took out a map of Santo Domingo and explained to me that I could walk around the colonial district freely, which is where the hostel is, and stretches to the Caribbean Sea on its south side. This area is safe because it’s the tourist hub of the city, so the government stuffs tons of police into it, and there’s a bunch of corporate stores and restaurants which hire private security guards to stand in their doorways, sometimes while holding assault rifles or shotguns. The Dominican Republic is a tourist economy, and though Santo Domingo itself isn’t really a tourist city, the government does its best to carve out enclaves of safety where people can enjoy more-or-less normal tourist days and fun nights without the certainty of robbery.
But the hostel owner explained that I couldn’t go to the west after dark, unless I was taxiing directly to another safe enclave, like a cluster of bars. I could go a little to the north during the day (which is where the van dropped me off) but not at night, and I absolutely could not go to the east across the river at any time, which is like, half the city. In fact, he told me, I probably couldn’t go to the east even if I wanted to, because the police on the bridges wouldn’t let me. I reflexively thought this was some sort of COVID restriction, but no, the police just literally wouldn’t let a white guy go over there because it was idiotic.
I pointed to Chinatown on the map, which was located on the border of the Colonial District and the north, and which I thought was pretty cool because it’s amazing that there are Chinatowns everywhere on earth. I asked if I could go there. He said yes, but only during the day. I half-jokingly asked what my odds of getting robbed were if I went there at night. He said, “pretty much certain.”
An assortment of random crime and security observations:
- The hostel owner painstakingly explained, and then explained again, and then explained again, how to unlock and lock this giant metal lock on the front door.
- All houses and apartments have bars on the windows and doors, and most have gates around them. This was equally true in the major cities and smaller towns
- I ended up at a house party in Santo Domingo. At about 1AM, I called an Uber to get back to my hostel, and the host warned me not to open the gate around his house until the Uber arrived. Last week, his mother had been robbed while waiting for one right in front of his house.
- I watched a bunch of abuelos play chess on the street (they invited me to play one game and kicked my ass). At one point, I briefly put my backpack on the ground to apply sunscreen, and one of the abuelos immediately pushed it between my feet and warned me to be careful.
- After a hike, I got picked up by a pre-arranged taxi. The drive back to my hotel took about 20 minutes, during which the driver drank an entire bottle of beer, blasted music, talked to me, and swerved around traffic. This occurred at about 6:30PM, at dusk, when visibility was at its lowest.
- As with nearly all developing countries, the police are widely considered to be useless and corrupt. I was advised to avoid interacting with them unless it was an emergency. One local told me that if they got in trouble with the police for something petty, a 1,000 Peso ($17.67) bribe would suffice. For a tourist like me, he estimated 5,000 Pesos ($88.34).
A fun quirk of Santo Domingo is that it has a 5km cable car running from its worst slums to downtown. The Teleferico de Santo Domingo is presumably a much cheaper form of public transportation than digging an entire subway under the city, though Santo Domingo has one of those too. Supposedly, the cable car can transport 6,000 passengers per hour (54,000 per day) so people from one of the most populated outlying sections of the city can get to work and back.
I highly recommend taking the cable car as a tourist. It gives a fantastic view of the slums without… you know, having to walk through the slums. Plus there are security guards everywhere at the stations, so it was easy enough to Uber there, even though it’s across the river on the apocalyptic side of town.
I tried to go on the scenic cable car over Puerto Plata (basically the city’s only attraction), but I found out it was closed for months because earlier in the year, 34 people were stranded in the air for 16 hours after a mechanical malfunction.
Cars and Uber
As part of a hiking package, I was taxied back to my hotel by a tour guide, and I was picked up by a surprisingly nice Honda (this was a different instance than when I was driven by the drunk guy). It was perfectly clean inside and out and had a sporty look to it. I asked the tour guide about his work, and I did not get the sense that he had much money.
I told another Dominican about this, and she told me that buying nice cars is a major sign of wealth and status. Even fairly poor people will sometimes spend what little they have to lease a nice car. She had a cousin who had been leasing a BMW for years, and often couldn’t afford to put gas in it.
But maybe that’s just because gas is disgustingly expensive in the Dominican Republic. As of writing this, I’m seeing $4.84 per premium gallon (sold in liters of course) compared to an average of $4.04 per gallon in the U.S. despite the former having less than 1/6th the nominal GDP per capita.
The owner of the first hostel told me to use Uber whenever I could, and this turned out to be fantastic advice. I didn’t expect it to even work in the Dominican Republic, but there were plenty of Ubers in Santo Domingo, and at least some in the smaller cities. The few times I used taxis, they charged me about 3-5X what the Ubers were, undoubtedly because I’m a tourist, and don’t have the knowledge, inclination, nor the will to argue down $1-5 taxi rides.
How do Dominican Uber drivers make any money given their gas prices? I don’t know enough about Uber’s fee structure to figure it out.
The one exception to Uber’s goodness was my final night. I was leaving Santo Domingo for the airport at 2AM. I connected with a driver for a $10 fee, but over the chat he demanded $30. I cancelled him and tried to get another driver, but he was the only one in the vicinity. I argued him down to paying $20 off Uber so the money could go directly to him.
I knew basically nothing about Sosua when I arrived, except that it was one of many popular beach towns on the north coast. Then I saw a ton of scantily clad women standing around, many of whom approached me. Then my hostel owner told me “no chicas de las calle” were allowed in the building. And then I did two seconds of Googling and discovered Sosua was the prostitution capital of the Dominican Republic, if not the entire Caribbean.
Then I met a guy of whom I will reveal little for his sake. He was white, in his 50s, either divorced or widowed, had a surprisingly prestigious job, and he was in Sosua for four weeks to have sex with prostitutes. He had previously been to the Philippines, Thailand, Cuba, and Mexico for the same purpose. He was very open about this and happily explained his system to me, though he was also very surprised that I was not there for prostitutes, that I did not want any prostitutes, and that I had never engaged the services of a prostitute.
He made it clear that after two weeks (with two more week to go), he did not have a high opinion of Sosua. He said the girls weren’t particularly attractive, but more importantly, they weren’t good at sex. Not enough enthusiasm, not good enough English, just generally mediocre besides a few exceptions. He said Thailand had the best girls, followed by the Philippines.
A standard one hour session in Sosua costs 2,000-5,000 pesos ($35.34-88.35), but he warned me never to pay 5,000 pesos here because it wasn’t worth it. These fees were usually on top of food, drinks, travel, and whatever else was needed to set the event up. At the very least, the guy would have to pay for a room (or use his own hotel room).
The guy preferred to meet girls through Tinder rather than approaching them on the street. He wanted to build a report with them first, get to know them, develop a connection (which he readily admitted was illusory). The first few questions he always asked were:
- “What do you do for work?” He didn’t like career prostitutes since they tended to be colder and have a mercenary attitude. He preferred girls who had a normal job and were prostitutes on the side.
- “Where do you live?” He didn’t like girls who lived too far away because they would inevitably ask for more money to get to the city and get home afterward.
- “What’s your family like?” He preferred mothers. Not older women, but young mothers. He said they tended to be more sincere and he liked helping them out financially.
When he found a girl he liked, he would invite her out to dinner and/or drinks, talk more, get to know her better. He would pay for food and drinks, but not for her time yet, as this was considered part of his screening process. If he liked her, he would then take her back to his hotel room. If he really liked her, he would keep talking to her afterward, and text regularly. With a few girls, he had even stayed in touch with after he left the country, and took them on trips elsewhere.
He told me about his worst experience in Sosua. He connected with a girl on Tinder, talked with her for a bit, and then invited her to meet up. She was older and far uglier in person, but (paraphrasing his explanation) he felt some sort of obligation to be nice and talk to her anyway. Eventually, he took her to his room for her services, but he says she was so bad at her job that he didn’t finish. So he offered her a mere 1,000 pesos ($17.67) afterward. They got in an argument, and eventually he settled on 1,500 pesos ($26.50). I asked if she had a pimp who would hurt him if he refused to pay, but she didn’t. The guy said he paid her more because he felt bad for her.
At the end of our conversation the guy said that his trip to Sosua had changed him. He was planning on retiring, and spending his golden years travelling, but three weeks in Sosua had convinced him that this lifestyle was unfulfilling. I mean, he would still engage in sex tourism, but only during vacations.
Castillo Mundo King
If you ever find yourself in Sosua, whether to have sex with prostitutes or not, you must go to the Castillo Mundo King. It’s amazing, probably the highlight of my whole trip.
In 1990, 51-year old German artist Rolf Schulz moved to Sosua. He built an art exhibition castle filled with over 1,000 weird-ass sculptures and paintings of alien invasions, African folk art, a snake biting a man’s penis, and many more things I cannot describe. Schulz lived in the castle without electricity until his death in 2018.
I wish I could tell you more about the place, but the museum itself has literally no info, and there is almost nothing more about it online. But my sense is that it’s a Howard Roark-esque monument to one man’s artistic vision. Some artist moved to the middle of nowhere and spent the rest of his life building an extremely bizarre thing just because he wanted to.
The result is genuinely magnificent. It looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I know nothing about painting or sculpting or architecture, so there’s really no way to describe it, but here are some pictures:
Cockfighting is legal in the Dominican Republic, and according to a taxi driver, there are cockfighting rings in every mid-sized and larger city in the country. A quick glance at Wikipedia shows cockfighting is legal throughout the Caribbean and Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica. Many countries have recently implemented animal rights protection laws with specific exemptions for cockfighting. Mexico has banned it in a few regions.
I don’t like animals suffering, and I certainly don’t want to see animals suffering. But sometimes unique cultural practices involve animal suffering, and I like to learn everything I can about a culture – the good and the bad.
My taxi driver in Jarabacoa mentioned cockfighting, so I asked if there were any cockfights around. He said there was an arena in the city with fights every night, and this night there was a tournament (his cousin was a cockfighting fanatic who trained his own birds). So I asked to go.
He took me to a wall-less concrete structure with a concessions area on one side and a fenced-in arena on the other. I was the only white guy there, and my taxi driver recommended that I wear a mask, I think so that I wouldn’t attract attention to myself.
The arena was circular, with about a 40 foot diameter. There were rows of bleachers circling the ring at the center, which was maybe 10 feet wide. An announcer with a microphone sat in front of the ring behind a digital clock and constantly said stuff in Spanish. The whole arena was packed to the brim, and I could barely find a seat. Everyone talked (and often yelled) during downtime, and during the matches themselves, everyone stood up and shouted and cheered whenever their rooster got a hit in. The crowd was probably 98% male.
When the announcer got up and spoke more loudly than usual, two guys would enter the arena holding roosters, and everyone would cheer. The roosters were energetic; their heads darted around, they jerked a lot in their owners’ hands, though the owners would periodically pet them. For 5-10 minutes, three women would walk around the ring and collect bets from the stands, exchanging money for little slips of paper. Every two minutes or so, the two rooster owners would hold the roosters right next to each other, and they would try to lash out, but be restrained. This presumably kept up their aggression.
The fighting itself was horrible. Really, really horrible.
When the birds are released, they go berserk and attack each other. They kinda circle around hitting each other and both taking a lot of blows since there really isn’t much a rooster can do in terms of defense.
It’s not like boxing or UFC where even if you know nothing about fighting, you can recognize the skill and strategy at play. Cockfighting is messy and chaotic. The roosters either peck at each other’s faces or they jump in the air with a squawk to claw at each other (usually both roosters do this at the same time). It doesn’t help that in two of the three fights I watched, the roosters were the same size and color, so I couldn’t tell them apart. But this was my first and last time at a cockfight, and presumably a seasoned cockfighting enthusiast would get more out of the fighting than me.
But more importantly, the fights are brutal. They aren’t brutal in the potentially fun and interesting way two super rich incredible athletes going head-to-head and mind-to-mind in a boxing or MMA ring is brutal. Rather it was brutal in a sad, pathetic, disgusting way.
The worst part is how long the fights last. There is a 10 minute timer, but none of the fights lasted more than 5 minutes, but they all should have ended after 2 minutes. Because in all three fights, after about 2 minutes, one of the birds was clearly done for. He attacked less often or not at all, he’d shift his head away from the other bird to hide his face, and eventually he couldn’t stand.
But the fight would keep going… so the stronger bird would keep pecking at the weaker bird, usually right in the back of the head. This was when blood would start flowing. The weaker bird would try to scurry away, or throw back a few timid shots, but it would just get weaker and weaker. The announcer would shout out numbers, presumably as part of some sort of point system, as the stronger bird kept pecking the weaker. By the time the fights were stopped, the weaker bird wouldn’t be moving at all, just lying pathetically on the ground, usually near a small splattering of its blood.
So after two minutes of chaos, cockfighting basically consists of watching one rooster peck another rooster to death, or close to it. In the three fights I saw, one rooster died. I think the other two were still alive, but they could barely move, even when their owners picked them up and carried their limp bodies out of the arena.
Haiti was my first destination choice for this trip. But when I Googled “Haiti,” the top news story was about 17 American and Canadian missionaries being kidnapped by a Haitian gang and held for $17 million ransom. So I decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to go to Haiti at the moment.
The Dominican Republic controls two-third of the island of Hispaniola, and Haiti controls the other third. This makes it all the more remarkable that Haiti is the basket case of the Western hemisphere while the Dominican Republic is a rising developing country. Haiti has the lowest GDP per capita ($2,962 PPP), the lowest HDI (0.51), the most corruption, though its official “intentional homicide rate” is surprisingly not terrible (6.7 per 100,000). The country is basically a failed state, while the Dominican Republic at least manages to have enough governance competence to maintain luxury resorts for foreigners, and therefore sustains decent economic growth rates through tourism.
I don’t know why the two countries have diverged so dramatically. Noah Smith says no one knows the cause of the split, but it’s probably some combination of Haiti starting its independence with enormous national debt (as part of a settlement with former colonial master France), terrible land management policies, the ongoing toll of the U.S. occupation for twenty years (the Dominican Republic was invaded too, but only for eight years), constant regime change, and generally abysmal macroeconomic policy. One Dominican I talked to attributed the country’s success to mid-century dictator Rafel Truillo, who was authoritarian and oppressive (and renamed the capital after himself), but allegedly brought enough order to the country to attract foreign investment and jump start the modern tourist economy. Also, for geographic/climate reasons, Haiti gets hit far more and far harder by natural disasters than the Dominican Republic.
(It seems impossible now, but Hispaniola was once the wealthiest colony in the Western hemisphere. Its production of primarily sugar, but also tobacco and dye made it the jewel in the French colonial empire, and France only controlled 1/3rd of it until the 1790s.)
Today, Haiti is the deeply troubled brother of an otherwise pretty decent Caribbean success story. I heard a lot of complaints that the Dominican Republic is being flooded by Haitian immigrants. Equally often, I heard complaints about these immigrants being discriminated against and abused by employers. Haitians can’t be identified on-sight in the Dominican Republic, but they can be through their accents, if they can speak Spanish at all (the Haitian native languages are a local form of Creole and French).
By chance, I spent some time with two European aid workers stationed in Haiti. Their strong consensus was that Haiti was even worse than I had imagined. Worse than anyone imagines. And it has no viable recovery plan. A few interesting things they told me:
Haiti is even prettier than the Dominican Republic. The mountains in the countryside are especially beautiful, and they are also fortunately the safest part of the country.
Law and order is non-existent in the cities. There is no point in reporting crimes. The cities are essentially in a state of anarchy.
The lawlessness has gotten worse over the last few years. The two used to be able to go to restaurants and jazz clubs, but now they don’t leave their homes at night.
Taxes are not paid in Haiti (duh). But if for some reason someone wants to pay taxes in Haiti, they first have to bribe the security guards at the doors of the tax offices.
When the Haitian people get pissed off at the government, their only viable means of protest is to block roads. So they’ll cut down trees or light tires on fire and cut off major highways. There is literally no process in place for the Haitian government to clear these blockages.
The Haitian people are consumed by “fake news.” Rival political factions run radio stations and Whatsapp groups, and spread fake news to vilify the opposition and/or foreigners. The fake news is so rampant that the average Haitian seems to have a completely deluded view of politics and the world at large.
Haiti is de facto ruled by a bunch of powerful families which ally or compete with each other. Surprisingly, most of these families aren’t Haitian, but Colombian, Lebanese, or from some other immigrant group that arrived in the last 70 years. They make their money either through drugs (as a middle-man between South America and the U.S.) or by attaining government-backed monopolies over essential goods, like gasoline.
From 1957-1971, Haiti was ruled by notorious dictator Papa Doc. Like all third world dictators, Papa Doc stole a ton of money from the country (probably $200-500 million) and stored at least some of it in Swiss bank accounts. After his death, his son took over (known as Baby Doc), but he was overthrown in 1986 and fled to France with U.S. support. In 2010, the Swiss government froze and confiscated $5.7 million from Baby Doc’s bank accounts. Ever since then, the Haitian government has been asking for the money back, but Switzerland keeps refusing on the entirely reasonable grounds that the money will doubtlessly be re-stolen by the current regime.
One of the two aid workers said he preferred working at his previous posts in the Philippines, Tunisia, Bangladesh, and South Sudan more than Haiti.
They both said that the only potentially plausible way of fixing Haiti was a military invasion by a foreign power. But this was infeasible because after two invasions by the U.S., one of the few political issues that unify the Haitian people is opposition to foreign intervention. However, the Haitian regimes are always pro-international aid since they skim a ton of it through corruption.
It’s a mystery how the Dominican Republic has 10.9 million people while Haiti has 11.4 million people, despite the latter being less than half the former’s size. One hypothesis is that the Haitian government lies about its population figures in order to inflate its death tolls in natural disasters to curry more international aid.
It’s also a mystery why Haiti’s president was assassinated earlier this year. He was shot by a group of Colombians and Haitian American mercenaries, but no one knows why. Best guess is that they were sent by a drug cartel.
- I find it annoying that travelers tend to say that every country has really nice people. But Dominicans really are super nice. Despite all the warnings about crime, I never felt in danger. Lots of people wanted to talk to me or help me. I’m a fan of Dominicans.
- Hiking up 7,456 feet over two days and 29 miles to the summit of Pico Duarte (highest mountain in the Caribbean) and back was the most physically difficult thing I’ve ever done. I never want to walk uphill again.
- On the hike, my guide ran out of plastic utensils, so I had to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a machete.
- COVID restrictions were minor and rarely enforced. Almost no one wore masks outside, but sometimes people wore them inside. Masks were officially required to enter stores, but pretty much only big corporate chains enforced that. I once had to wear a mask and show my vaccination card to go into an outdoor bar where no one was wearing a mask. Uber and taxis required masks, but it was never enforced on me.
- The Dominican Republic’s bus system is shockingly good. There’s this company called Caribe Tours which has bus routes throughout the country. Every bus I took left on time, had air conditioning, had comfortable seats, and had functional wifi. The most I paid for a ticket was less than $10, and that was to go across the entire country (south to north).
- I went to the main casino in Sosua on Halloween. I was up $250, but ended up down $100. It was filled with prostitutes. It somehow didn’t have an ATM. My blackjack dealer tried to take my money on a 19 push.
- One time, I was walking along a rural road, and I heard this motorcycle behind me, but it sounded super, super weird. As it passed, I saw there was a huge pig tied to the back squealing at the top of its lungs.