Why you should put the Dominican Republic back on your vacation shortlist

Mark Rogers, Special to USA TODAY

Punta Cana is the 500-pound gorilla of Dominican Republic tourism. This tourism powerhouse on the country’s eastern coast attracts over four million visitors a year to its white sand beaches and affordable all-inclusive resorts. But earlier this year, reports of at least eight tourist deaths – not all of which happened there – and a pair of brutal attacks cast a pall over the region's hospitality industry and visitation to Punta Cana plummeted.

The country's tourism minister Francisco Javier Garcia has maintained all along that the Dominican Republic is safe. In June, he noted that the number of tourist deaths in 2019 was actually lower at that point of the year than in 2011 or 2015 when 15 died.

In the end, tainted alcohol – which was suspected in several cases – was ruled out, as were other forms other foul play. Autopsies and FBI toxicology reports have since determined that seven of the eight died of natural causes and the eighth is believed to have as well.

Vacationers still hesitant to travel to Punta Cana shouldn’t turn their back on visiting the Dominican Republic altogether. The country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, covers 18,704 square miles and has much to offer beyond Punta Cana, including hotel and shopping bargains, authentic cultural experiences, river and mountain adventures, world-famous golf courses, and beautiful beaches.

The absolute flipside of a beach vacation is visiting the DR’s capital city of Santo Domingo, which is often referred to as the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. The primary appeal of a visit is touring the city’s historic Zona Colonial, where there are many buildings dating back to the 15th century. The historic district is also filled with alfresco restaurants and cafes, and great sidewalk shopping. There are also one-of-a-kind hotels in renovated colonial-era buildings, such as the 16th-century Hodelpa Nicolas De Ovando, the home of a former governor. Visitors should also take time to stroll the city’s malecón, or seafront promenade, for a dash of local color.

On the island’s north coast are the historic beach towns of Puerto Plata and Sosúa. These two towns reached the height of their popularity decades ago and were eventually overshadowed by Punta Cana’s phenomenal success. Over the last several years, renewed investment has put a fresh shine on both destinations.

Puerto Plata is celebrated for its cable car offering tremendous sea views during the ride up Mount Isabel de Torres. Sosúa has the distinction of being the center of the Dominican Republic’s Jewish heritage. During WWII, Sosúa became a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing German persecution, with a number of families remaining in the region to take up farming.

The centrally located city of Santiago makes a great base for exploring the region’s cigar culture (The DR rivals Cuba for the quality of its cigars). And if you'd rather breathe in fresh mountain air than tobacco, the 10,125-foot Pico Duarte is waiting to be climbed. There's also excellent whitewater rafting to be found on the Yaque del Norte River.

Samana Peninsula juts out of the country’s northern coast. It’s a laidback beach destination long popular with European travelers seeking an authentic Caribbean vibe, rather than packaged tourism.

Samana is popular with ecotourists, especially during whale-watching season, which runs from Jan. 15 through March 31. Samana also has an intriguing historical factor: in 1824, Samana – which at that point, was still part of Haiti – became the new home to about 200 freed American blacks from Philadelphia, who, as their numbers grew, created their own unique culture in their new home.

For those travelers with a truly adventurous spirit, there’s the relatively undeveloped wester half of the country. Stupendous beaches without crowds, pristine wilderness, and boutique hotels that have never seen a cookie-cutter.

Perhaps the pièce de résistance is Lago Enriquillo, a 135-square mile saltwater lake, where boatmen take passengers out on the water to observe American crocodiles in their natural habitat.

It would be a shame if travelers were scared off travel to the Dominican Republic altogether. Traveling in any foreign country demands common sense. Keep your wits about you, don’t flash cash or jewelry, and keep an eye on your drink.

The Irish writer James Stephens said it best: “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dominican Republic: Yes, it's safe to go back and here's where to go