The Dominican Republic (DR) may not come to mind as an obvious first choice for a Caribbean vacation with children. Compared to the publicity that other places like the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas receive for their renowned diving, snorkeling and beaches, the DR does not seem as flashy. However, for long term travelers, families and those looking for something a little different the DR can be an amazing choice. Interestingly, it is the most visited Caribbean island. Who knew?
If you are seeking an all inclusive resort experience, the DR has plenty of those to offer. But for a real taste of the DR it is entirely possible to get off the beaten track with your family and enjoy a safe and fun low key week (or several) in this tropical paradise.
Unwind in Low Key Las Galeras
At the far end of the Samaná Peninsula in the northeastern corner of the country there is the sleepy little fishing village of Las Galeras, literally located at the end of the road.
Las Galeras is a wonderful place to rest tired traveling bones and to do not much of anything. Of course the children won’t want to slow down and they’ll be able to burn some energy chasing after plentiful and speedy geckos that hide in every nook and cranny. If they are persistent they will eventually catch one and they’ll be thrilled beyond belief at their luck.
There are plenty of wonderful beaches to choose from where the water is calm, warm and gentle enough for swimming. Also, the white sand is perfect for building monster castles.
La Playita, or “the little beach” is a wonderful scenic 30 min walk on a small one lane gravel road out of town and one of the best in the area. The beach is a serene, beautiful spot where the kids can safely splash in the gentle waves while the parents relax close by with a nice cold drink in hand. There is a simple Dominican restaurant right on the beach that serves fresh whole grilled fish and traditional rice, beans and fried plantains. Wash it all down with tasty young coconut water. The kids will watch wide eyed while the local chef skillfully hacks the coconut open with several swipes from a large machete right before their eyes.
Near Las Galeras is also the scenic beach of Playa Rincón which is most easily accessed by boat. It’s a lovely quiet spot to spend a day and a 15 minute boat ride adds to the fun.
For something different, you can organize a horseback riding excursion to the remote beaches of Playa Fronton or Playa Madama. Karin from La Rancheta is highly recommended for her responsiveness and kid friendly trips. The trail to the beach is rocky so the horses must go slow and they are gentle enough even for small riders.
When you want a break from the beach, wander over to Grand Paradise Samaná – the unobtrusive all inclusive resort that is only a 10 minute walk along a beach trail from the town of Las Galeras. This sort of place may not be up the alley of many long term budget travelers but the kid’s pool is fantastic! There is also a playground and you can get a day pass which includes meals and drinks where the whole family can easily enjoy several hours or all day. The beach is very nice as well.
During the months of January to March, the Samaná Peninsula comes alive with the arrival of the migrating humpback whales. Tours are plentiful and can be arranged from just about anywhere on the peninsula.
Head to the Hills
When at last you do tire of the sun, surf and sand it’s time to head to the mountains. La Cordillera Central is a formidable range and is home to Pico Duarte. At a surprising 3,087 meters, it is the tallest peak in the Caribbean. Independent hiking is difficult here as there is not a well developed trail network. But there are plenty of opportunities to explore the lush tropical mountains and to go out and enjoy some of what nature has to offer.
Just outside the town of Jarabacoa, Rancho Baiguate is locally owned and is the leading company providing adventure excursions in the area; white water rafting, climbing, canyoneering, horseback riding, etc. It is also a wonderful lodge to spend a few days at because of their sprawling grounds and many family focused activities. In fact, there’s so much for kids to do here you may never leave the property.
On the grounds there is a nice swimming pool, a pond where you can fish using a traditional cane pole and a mariposario or butterfly garden where you can join an informative guided tour – all of this free of charge. Additionally, there is a small playground, parakeets to admire and ping pong and pool tables to while away the hours.
If the kids are too young for whitewater rafting or canyoneering, a nice alternative that includes water is a day trip by horseback or jeep to the local waterfalls.
On the north coast, Cabarete is the self proclaimed water sports adventure capitol of the country. At first glance it does not appear to be a very kid friendly destination. Most wee ones are not quite ready to don kitesurfing gear and hit the frothy water. Waves can be big and swimming is not the best. But here’s why you should at least consider it.
Cabarete’s beach scene is really fun. Kids love watching the kite surfers jump, flip and fly and it’s the perfect place for families who have been together 24/7 for a long time. The restaurants on the beach are superb and parents can actually sit and enjoy a cocktail and a meal while the kids play in the sand only a few feet but worlds away.
For little ones who know how to swim, Ali’s Surf Camp offers kid’s surf lessons at Playa Encuentro in a calm shallow area. Even beginning swimmers can participate.
Playa Sosua is a short bus ride away and is one of the best swimming beaches on the north coast. Calm teal blue waters, beach side restaurants, a fun family vibe and all the trinket shops you need to purchase those Dominican souvenirs.
The Caves at El Choco National Park just outside of town are a nice break from the beach and a good way to spend a day. You must hire a guide in town to enter the park and you can visit one or several of the great fresh water swimming caves on horseback or on foot.
Ocean World Adventure Park, near Puerto Plata is easily reachable for a day trip from Cabarete. Though a bit on the pricey side, it is a world class facility that will surely thrill kids and adults alike. A day pass will give you the opportunity to snorkel in the tropical reef aquarium, learn about marine mammals, feed exotic tropical birds, meet tigers, walk through a tropical rain forest, observe a dolphin, shark, sea lion or tropical bird show and swim in a pool with a water slide. For an additional fee you can also swim with the dolphins, sting rays and sharks or be a trainer for a day.
Safety – Things to Consider
Overall the Dominican Republic is a safe place for families to travel. However, like most places, there are a few things worth noting before you go.
Tap water is not safe to drink but water in restaurants and hotels is generally safe as the vast majority of people in the country get purified water in 5 gallon jugs. If you are staying in place that does not provide drinking water, the refillable 5 gallon jugs are readily available at supermarkets and colmados for about 20 pesos (50¢ US) plus a refundable deposit.
The biggest safety concern is transportation. Large comfortable buses operated by several companies (the most prominent one being Caribe Tours) have various routes that cover the distances between most larger cities. These buses have on board bathrooms. From there the options, though plentiful, have varying levels of comfort and safety.
You can always get a taxi, though this option gets pricey fast. The local “gua-guas” are much more economical small minivans designed to seat 12 people – but usually carry 20 or more. Unfortunately, the vehicles are likely to be in poor condition and sometimes the sliding door will even be wired open. Seat belts are unheard of and car seats are non existent.
Motoconchos are another popular way to get around short distances in town. These are motorcycles that carry passengers on the back. When we first arrived we stared wide eyed, mouth open at these things. The most outrageous was a man with a toddler seated in front of him, holding a propane tank and somehow still steering. Behind him was a woman cradling an infant. Phew. In Las Galeras where there is relatively little traffic we did give in to the temptation of this thrilling form of transportation. It probably goes without saying – the kids loved it.
In Cabarete though, the roads and traffic were much more dangerous and it was just too risky. You’ll obviously need to decide for yourself but if you do choose to “go local”, good luck getting the kids back into car seats and seat belts when you return home. I’m not looking forward to this myself!
For the Mama’s out there, you’ll find great benefit in having your kids in tow in the Dominican Republic. While mostly harmless there is quite a culture of machismo and on the rare occasion I left our cabina without a kid, I was hassled with whistles, winks and kissy faces galore. When I had the kids with me though, men of all ages were just as polite and helpful as could be. The moral of the story is… don’t leave home without ’em.
Horseback riding trips in Las Galeras:
Surf lessons and lodging in Cabarete:
Good transportation information:
General DR info and forum to post questions:
Our blog with several Dominican entries: