Founded in 1496 by Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartholomew, Santo Domingo is considered today to be the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas. It was the first seat of the Spanish colonial rule during their settlement of the new world and served as the launching point for a number of famous expeditions including those of Ponce De Leon, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, Hernando Cortes, and Vasco Nunez de Balboa. It’s also a survivor, enduring hurricanes, pirates (Francis Drake captured the city in 1586 and held it for ransom), battles, invasions, occupations by France and Haiti, trades, dictators, and oppressive poverty.
Today in this sprawling city of 965,000+ you will find vestiges of all of these events, but in no other place can you experience these histories more magically then in the Zona Colonial. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, the 11-square-blocks that make up this portion of the city have been so well cared for that aside from the clothing and modern vehicles, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve been transported back in time to the Colonial Caribbean.
Our first stop: the Museum of the Royal Houses, Museo de las Casas Reales. This 16th century building housed the governor’s office during colonial times, and today serves as a museum of colonial-period objects. We toured the museum with a fast-talking guide that I found totally useless (remember Dominican service) who insisted we follow him from room to room as if we were fleeing from Francis Drake himself. Later he offered to guide us through the rest of the colonial city (we declined) and popped up again to point us in the direction of his ‘favorite’ gift shop (he likely got paid by the owners for bringing tourists there). The museum housed an impressive collection of colonial-era objects, ship wrecked treasures, and a beautiful assemblage of antique weapons from all over the world that originally belonged to the notorious Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. We probably could have spent at least another hour in the place if we had been going at our own pace and not rushed through by the guide, but with a bit of good-spirited lingering I felt contented that we had seen what we had come to see.
Next we wandered down the street to check out the Museo Alacazar de Colon. This beautiful 16th century structure at the heart of the Zona Colonial was once the home of Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego. Today it has been restored and fitted with household objects of the Columbus family. The audio tour that came with the ticket was a much welcomed respite from our previous abrasive guide, and it took us about an hour to walk through the old mansion.
We spent the afternoon strolling through cobblestone streets, stopping for peeks into the Catedral Primada de America – said to be the oldest Cathedral in the Americas in continuous operation and used as headquarters for Francis Drake during his assault on the city; and the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes – the church where my parents were married, though beautiful enough to warrant a look without the sentimental connection.
We also stopped for a stroll through the Ruinas del Hospital San Nicolas de Bari – the ruins of the New World’s first hospital. Today hundreds of pigeons have replaced patients among the crumbling walls, and I couldn’t help but to think of the Alfred Hitchcock movie as I observed the birds roosting in every nook and cranny of the site, watching me with beady black eyes.
We retreated to our hotel for a much needed siesta before dinner, buzzing with the history lessons of the day. With its unmoving traffic, endless noise, and crowded streets, Santo Domingo – like any urban center – can be an exhausting place. But I found a much needed respite in the sweet streets of the Zona Colonial. As I closed my eyes that evening I could still see the glow of the Caribbean Colonial era. I wrapped myself in its warmth and was tucked in by the romance of Spanish ladies strolling winding streets, coralina buildings, and cobblestones.