What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Do you love traveling with a knowledgeable friend? One that knows the ins and outs of a place? I do - it's the surest way to have a better, more enjoyable journey. Let me tell you about one of my favorite guidebook authors, Lebawit Lily Girma. We've reviewed her book Moon Guides Belize, and she has a new book out - Moon Guides Dominican Republic. Now, as a very fair-skinned redhead, I often avoid tropical islands. But once I started reading her book? I can't wait to get to the DR. 

Moon Guides Dominican Republic. An interview with author Lebawit Lily Girma

As with all her writing, Girma (a former lawyer turned travel writer and photographer) shares the best of a place. She's got the travel experience and writing chops to educate readers (thank you!). As with all Moon Guides, Girma looks deeply into DR cuisine, culture, activities, social impact tourism, and more. 

Author Lebawit Lily Girma in Samana. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic
Lily in Samana

Moon Guides Dominican Republic is sorted out into the following chapters:

* Discover the Dominican Republic
* Santo Domingo
* Punta Cana and the Southeast Coast
* The Samana Peninsula
* Puerto Plata and the North Coast
* Santiago and the Cibao Valley
* Barahona and the Southwest
* An extensive background on the country's landscape, flora and faunay, history, and more
* Travel essentials, including how to get around, visas, tips, food and accommodations, and more
* Resources (thank you for the Spanish phrasebook!)
* and, my favorite part, a detailed index

When you delve into this guide, you'll learn all you need to know to visit the DR - and then some. It's pure travel inspiration, showcased by an travel expert's extensive experiences. Highly recommended.

Cabarete. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic

We were lucky enough to catch up with Lily, and learn more about the backstory to this book, research, carnival, and more. Here's what she had to say...

What inspired you to write this travel guide?
I was inspired to author this guide for several reasons. 

For one, I love the Dominican Republic. It's a place so rich in culture, as well as in topography–you can find mountains, lakes, rivers, beaches, sand dunes, and national parks with islands, for a wide range of outdoor adventures. I was thrilled at the idea of showcasing all that beauty and diversity, and being able to inform others that the DR is so much more than an all inclusive resort destination.

From a business standpoint, the Dominican Republic is the number one ranking tourist destination in the Caribbean (with over 5 million visitors a year), which meant that this was a fantastic opportunity for me to grow as a writer specializing in the region. It also has more long-term promise for me as a DR expert. What's more, there were few other real guidebook competitors for the DR, other than Lonely Planet. There was room for a book geared towards informed, savvy travelers looking to immerse.

Last but not least, the opportunity to stay in the DR long term and get paid was a no-brainer.

Tres Ojos Cave. What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic
Tres Ojos Cave

You've spent a great deal of time in the DR. What might travelers be surprised to learn about this place and culture?
Yes I have; I've now lived here for the second year in a row, aside from past visits.

Travelers would be surprised to learn quite a few things! For example, that Punta Cana is a very small piece of the DR and the least authentic representation of the country. And that there are more stunning beach destinations.

They would be surprised to learn that Dominicans are one of the most hospitable in the Caribbean. They are warm, and genuine. You can't visit a Dominican's home without being offered coffee or food. The racism-Haiti issue that the US media likes to highlight is inaccurately portrayed and exaggerated (for one, I definitely wouldn't live here if people here were hateful). Are there some bad apples? Sure, just like anywhere else. But overall, you won't feel any overt discrimination–Dominicans themselves come in all shades of color and appreciate it.

Travelers would also be surprised to see the vast agricultural regions of the country, and find out just how much grows naturally here: coffee, cacao, all kinds of vegetables, corn, flowers, strawberries, tobacco. It's a country rich in resources. And those mountainous areas are just stunning!  Visitors will also be surprised to find very cool temperatures up on Pico Duarte and in Constanza, including pine forests and cabins with chimneys.

Constanza. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic

Finally, I think people will be amazed at how much music and dance there is across the country.

Ballet Folklorico. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic
Ballet Folklorico

What was it like, researching your book? What surprised you the most?
It was so much fun–the most fun assignment to date, and challenging because of the country's size. Traveling the DR is never dull, as Dominicans are cheerful and funny people in general. What surprised me the most is how safe it was as a female to travel even in the most remote areas of the country. So many helped along the way with information, or rides, or even waiting with me for the next bus on the highway so I wouldn't be alone.

Samana. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic

What are some of the most unusual aspects of the Dominican Republic that visitors should seek out?
Aside from the more stunning beaches north of the country, in Puerto Plata and Samana, they should seek out the mountainous regions in the Cibao region. Stay in the towns of Jarabacoa and Constanza and overnight, hike, or bike around some of the most spectacular scenery and weather in the Caribbean. Rolling hills, pine forests, waterfalls, rivers, farms, and even the tallest peak in the region, Pico Duarte. It's an unexpected side of the DR and one that is highly underrated.  

Spend at least a day or two in the Colonial City of Santo Domingo, which is a designated World Heritage Site. It's the oldest and most beautiful, lively part of the city–recently renovated–with its Spanish architecture, boutique colonial hotels, plazas, pedestrian streets, museums, art, theaters, bars, and sidewalks cafes.

I also recommend visitors try the various foods and drinks while here–from pastries and sweets to roadside fruits, barbecue spots, markets, and local restaurants. 

Colonial City Santo Domingo. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic
Colonial City Santo Domingo

Can you please share some of your best travel tips for visiting the DR?
Get the Moon guidebook (of course!) because it gives you independent expert input from someone who knows the country and lives here. The internet is OK for finding the medium to bigger-sized hotels but it is sparse on the type of cultural, adventure, sustainable travel you should do in the DR and how to go about finding those spots. That's primarily why I just launched DRVisitor.com, a companion website to Moon Dominican Republic. 

Another piece of advice is to book with smaller, independent hotels and eco lodges–you'll have a much more authentic experience, and your stay will directly benefit local communities. 

Always greet with "Buen Dia" or "Saludos" when entering a bus or public space, or before asking someone a question.

Read about the country's history and culture from a reputable source (in addition to Moon Dominican Republic), as well as a few basic words and phrases in Spanish before you arrive.

Saona Island. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic
Saona Island

What's up next for you?
As I mentioned earlier, I just launched a companion website and blog to my guidebook, called DRVisitor.com. It focuses on cultural and outdoor adventure travel in the DR. It encourages sustainable, fun exploration. I will keep traveling to some unique places in the country, and sharing stories, photos, and tips on the blog.

Other than that, I've been juggling several projects–from finishing up the next edition of Moon Belize and Moon Belize Cayes (2017), to working on building up my Caribbean culture tours and itinerary planning services, and writing for various editorial clients.  

North Coast. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic
North Coast
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
With adventure, cultural, and community tourism growing in the Dominican Republic, as well as a renovated Colonial City, this is a great time to visit and see the real DR for yourself. And carnival season is right around the corner!

Jarabacoa. From What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Dominican Republic

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All photos courtesy and copyright Lebawit Lily Girma