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Dominican Republic: A unique and endless destination throughout the world.

Colonial Zone
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Colonial Zone

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Santo Domingo de Guzmán, modern and cosmopolitan, was the cradle of the American civilization during the XV and XVI centuries. Founded by Governor Bartholomew Columbus in August 1496, it is the oldest city in the New World. Its Colonial Zone, which among its golden rocks houses some three-hundred monuments, was declared in 2010 "The Cultural Capital of The Americas".

For this purpose, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture have designed a permanent program with 8 different Cultural Tourism Routes that highlight and acknowledge the fact that Santo Domingo was declared by UNESCO since 1990 a World Heritage Site "due to its influence in the architecture and city planning 
of the Americas, because of its historical value and because it is associated with actions and events that have universal significance".

Below, the tours that make up the Cultural Tourism Routes are described. These routes have been designed to show locals and visitors the features of the First City of the Americas' Colonial City Monuments, which just must be visited when traveling to our country.

From that Colonial environment that borders the Ozama river through the Avenida del Puerto and the beautiful waterfront promenade facing the Caribbean Sea, the city extends toward the east and west, with modern avenues and walks designed for spiritual repose, that offer a setting full of unique contrasts.

callelasdamasWe will begin our tour of the Colonial Zone in the Las Damas Street, the oldest in the First City of the Americas. Our surrounding transport us to another time and we can imagine Doña María de Toledo parading down the old street accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting.

We arrive at the walk of Los Nichos, a welcoming pedestrian walkway that has been named after an illustrious citizen, Dr. Arturo Pellerano Alfáu, founder of the Listín Diario newspaper. Directly in front, we find a group of military structures among which the Torre del Homenaje, a massive Medieval tower built from 1503 to 1507 by order of Nicolás de Ovando, is particularly remarkable.

It is the oldest military building and on it the flags of seven nations that militarily intervened the country between 1503 and 1925 have been waved. A popular folk song that is attributed to Father Vásquez describes this painful situation as follows:

"Yesterday, I was born a Spaniard, in the afternoon I was a Frenchman, at night I was Ethiopian, today I am an Englishman, I don't know what I will be next..."

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The history of the Fortress is brimming with interesting happenings and events. On July 9, 1509, in a pompous ceremony, Don Diego Columbus made his triumphal entry into the city, invested with the titles of II Viceroy of the New World, II Admiral of the Sea Ocean, I Duke of Veragua, I Marquis of Jamaica and Governor of La Hispaniola. He was accompanied by his wife, Vicereine María de Toledo, his uncles, Bartholomew and Diego, his brother Fernando, Christopher Columbus illegitimate son, and an entourage of knights and their wives and maids.

In the buildings esplanade, there is a heroic size statue of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Historian of the Indies, who in 1533 wrote inside its old walls his Historia General de las Indias (General History of the Indies).

The Casa de Bastidas is part of the military complex. Indeed, in 1512, Rodrigo de Bastidas was the honorary mayor of Santo Domingo; and his casona (manor) now serves as offices for cultural institutions and a craft shop.

Opposite stands one of the first fifteen structures that were built upon the orders of Ovando in 1504. It is currently the offices of the Sociedad Dominicana de Bibliófilos (Dominican Bibliophilist Society) whose main objective is to rescue, restore and reprint extant primary documents and scholarly works on Dominican history for distribution and dissemination among its members.

Westward along sidewalk, after crossing El Conde street, stands what used to be the home of Hernán Cortés, another of the fifteen houses that were ordered built by Ovando. It is believed that it was here that Cortes, then Santo Domingo's city clerk, planned his strategy for his punitive expedition against Mexico's Moctezuma.

Next is the Plazoleta María de Toledo, the site of a Sunday flea market.

Exuding a rather stern façade, this building was erected between 1714 and 1745 to serve as a temple for the Jesuit Order. It was restored in 1958 and converted into the Panteón Nacional (National Pantheon). The central nave and the lateral chapels are in the shape of a crucifix. At their point of intersection is a dome from which a grandiose bronze chandelier is suspended a donation from Spain's General Francisco Franco as a symbolic contribution of his country to the monument's restoration.


pateonNext to the Panteón Nacional is the Casa de los Jesuitas (Abbey of the Jesuits) one of the city's oldest structures. Commander Nicolás de Ovando ordered its construction in the early 16th century. Formerly the seat of the Universidad de Gorjón (Gorjón University), in 1711 it became the Casa de los Jesuitas (Abbey of the Jesuits).

The building complex occupies an area of 788 sq. meters. It is joined to the Casa de Villoria and the Casa de las Gárgolas through interior courtyards.

Today, it houses branches of the Museo de Las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Estates) and the offices of the Fundación Dominicana para el Desarrollo (Dominican Foundation for Development), the institution that financed its restoration. According to Popular lore, strange noises, strange noises said to be those of now departed "good" Jesuits, can be heard.

Opposite, are the Casa de los Dávila and the Casa del Comendador de Lares, Nicolás de Ovando, distinguished by the beautiful Gothic-Elizabethan portal, the only one of its kinds in the New World and judged by some art historians as an architectural gem of universal interest. To the side stands the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Mercies Chapel) a charming building constructed almost entirely of bricks, a place for solitary meditation. It was there, at the private chapel of the Casa de los Dávila (a prominent family of the colonial settlement) where, at the sound of the Angelus, all the city's inhabitants gathered to pray in honor of the Incarnation.

Close by the chapel stands the sundial, erected in 1753 at the request of Francisco de Rubio y Peñaranda. It continues to mark time accurately even to this day.

El Conde Street

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El Conde, the popular commercial street located in Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone, is a cobblestone road that stretches from the Parque Colón to the Parque Independencia. It is the only fully pedestrian way in the city. The name "El Conde" ("the count", in Spanish) was given to honor the Count of Peñalva, a governor of the Hispaniola who in 1655 prevented the English from conquering the city.

At the Parque Independecia, the remains of what was once the wall that protected the entire Colonial City can be observed; walking south down the Palo Hincado street, visitors can see the Puerta de la Misericordia, where Ramón Matías Mella proclaimed the nation's Independence on February 27th, 1844. To the north, one finds the Fuerte de la Concepción, a XVII century military watchtower. In the white marbled mausoleum, the country's Founding Fathers (Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sanchez and Ramón Matías Mella) rest. Under the facade of the Puerta de El Conde, a votive candle burns for them as a sign of the honor and respect the Dominican nation has for these great men and their heroism. A military salute is given by army personnel passing by, while civilians are expected to take off their hats as a sign of respect. The park's gates are used throughout the year by embassies and artists as an immense gallery in which to hang art and as a place for the exposition of important cultural topics to general public via the visual arts.

El Alcázar, The Prince’s Palace

A few meters away stands the Alcázar de Colón, grandiose and majestic abode that Don Diego Colón ordered to be constructed as his residence. Construction work on the Alcázar's began in 1510, with some 1,500 native Taínos laboring under the watchful eye of Spanish architects who were brought to the island for that purpose.

Work was accomplished with very rudimentary tools: saws, chisels, and hammers. This magnificent palace, a mix of Gothic-Mudejar and Spanish and Italian Renaissance styles, was completed without the use of a single nail in any of its 22 rooms or on any of the 72 doors and windows that, even today, pivot open and shut with the help of huge mahogany cross-bars embedded in the thick walls.

There, in 1512 and 1513, respectively, Juana and Isabel, the other two daughters of the couple, were born. The adjoining chapel, whose original structure has been preserved, witnessed the marriage of Enriquillo and Mencía were married in 1517.

Probably an unknown to most people, Enriquillo is to most Dominicans the very incarnation of rebellion against injustice. His personal history is very inspiring. Thanks to one of our greatest novelists, Manuel de Jesús Galván, the epic of his life history, which bears his name, is available as a book.

There is certainly much to say about him. However, any introduction would have to begin with the fact that in 1533 one Captain Francisco de Barrionuevo arrived in Hispaniola aboard an imperial man-of-war. Under his command were 200 soldiers, and in his hand was a treaty signed by Charles V, that was to become very first diplomatic document between a European power and a New World polity.

The document, addressed to Enriquillo, called for the abolition of slavery. This hitherto humble Taíno, who had now become indomitable and proud, and whose strength was inspired by his people's just claim to respect and dignity, signed the document and placed it on his head as a sign of approval, and immediately ordered his followers to go down the Bahoruco Sierra (mountain) to comply with the treaty.

detallealcazarThe original walls of Alcazar have braved the storms of time and still stand to this day, silent witnesses to the many intrigues, triumphs and agonies that the descendants of Admiral Don Christopher Columbus endured for nearly seven decades.

The Alcázar was the seat of the first Spanish court of the New World and of the tribunal of the viceroyalty. From here, the New World was administered, military strategies were hatched, and expeditions were launched. Ultimately, this nerve-center of power and authority facilitated the colonization of Guatemala, Cuba, Peru, Mexico, Florida, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Jamaica.

The Palace was restored in 1955 under the direction of the Spanish architect, Javier Barroso.

Parque Colón, Columbus Park

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A leisurely stroll from Arzobispo Meriño to El Conde Street leads to a marketplace of local and foreign products, and to the general and jewelry shops of the colonial district.

As we share with our guests the fascinating pages of our country's history, it is equally important for us to divulge that Hispaniola is, after all, the old casona (big house) of the Americas whose secret treasure-trove will continue to enthrall all generations.

Cathedral of Santa María of the Incarnation, America's First

According to historical census records, the colonial district encompasses some three hundred monuments, churches, street and residences. It would therefore be wise to spread your visit over a couple of trips. However, add to the repertoire of things to see the Cathedral of Santa María of the Incarnation, the first in the Americas and a source of imperishable pride for Dominicans.

At a time when renascent classical forms were undergoing a reappraisal in Spain, the architect Alonso de Rodríguez received on May 25, 1510 a royal edict to start construction on a cathedral in Santo Domingo de Guzmán.

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He sailed for Hispaniola on June 13th of that same year with eleven constructors and two stonemasons. Soon afterward, Don Diego Colón laid the foundation stone and work commenced. Nevertheless, the excitement generated by the prospect of booty on conquistador expeditions drained the project of its skilled labor. Many workers, attracted by tales of wealth on the outskirts of the Spanish empire, abandoned the project. A dejected yet resourceful Alonso de Rodríguez embarked for Mexico, armed with the construction plans, where he built the Catedral de Ciudad México (Cathedral of Mexico City).

In 1519, Bishop Alejandro Geraldini arrived on the island and bitterly complained about the stark disparity between the opulent lifestyles of the congregation and the "bohio-like " (hut-like) structure that passed for a cathedral. He tried to resurrect the project by symbolically laying another foundation stone on March 25, 1521. The effort to jump-start the project took two years. For 17 years, time crept in its very petty pace while barely any progress was made. Eventually the project was completed. However, the unfinished belfry, that stands to this day, is a reminder of the trials and tribulations of this house of worship.

The cathedral combines late Gothic and Renaissance elements, and even though is predominant features belong to the classical features predominate.

In l546, Pope Paul III elevated it to the status of Catedral Metropolitana y Primada de las Indias (First Metropolitan Cathedral of the Indies), thereby according it an ecclesiastically superior rank over other churches in the New World, and transforming it into the hemisphere's Christian heart.

Its floor plan has, in addition to the main altar, fourteen chapels where urns containing the ashes of many renowned individuals are kept forever alive in the collective memory.

Three doors lead into the interior: the north door faces Columbus Park; the one to the south faces Plazoleta de los Curas (Small Plaza of the Priests), also known as the Puerta del Perdón (Portal of Clemency). For many political dissidents, reaching the threshold of this portal meant being in a safe haven. Well before international treaties recognized diplomatic immunities, extradition agreements, or asylum or refugee status, it was the perpetual beacon of hope for the renegade. Given the turmoil of our world today, we could probably use many such portals of clemency.

The plateresque-style main door leads to an atrium that, in the 19th century, was converted into a market during the Haitian military occupation.

The Columbus Mausoleum

Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid on May 20, 1506. King Ferdinand ordered that an epitaph be placed over his grave with the inscription: "To Castilla and León, Colon gave a New World."

Columbus' mortal remains were laid to rest in Seville until Doña María de Toledo brought them, together with those of her own husband, Don Diego Colón, to the place where they had asked to be buried. The mortal remains were buried in a crypt in the cathedral's main altar.

In 1586, England's notorious pirate, Sir Francis Drake, plundered Santo Domingo. Given the record of havoc and destruction that had always been left in the wake of his activities, the bishop of the diocese ordered the obliteration of all inscriptions to reduce the probability of desecration by Drake and his henchmen.

detallescolonialesWhen Spain ceded eastern Hispaniola to France in 1795, in compliance with the terms of the treaty of Basle, Cuba (which was then still under Spanish rule) staked a claim to urn containing the remains of Columbus because "the urndeserved to be in Spanish territory."

Charged with the express duty of retrieving the remains of Columbus, a group arrived in Santo Domingo, headed for the crypt under the cathedral's main altar, and promptly left with the first urn they found—they were convinced it contained the remains of the admiral.

However, in 1877, when restoration work on the Cathedral was begun, it was with utter amazement that Father Francisco Xavier Billini found, September 10th of the same year, a lead urn with the inscription "Illustrious Man Don Christopher Columbus, First Admiral of the Americas"; the engraving had been done in Valladolid when the remains were ordered moved for public viewing to the chapel Santa María de las Cuevas, in Seville.

Don Emiliano Tejada, the eminent Dominican historian recorded in his book Los Restos de Colón (Columbus' Remains), the events of September 1877 in Santo Domingo.

According to this historical record, the country's office holders, members of the diplomatic corps, ecclesiastical and military authorities were all summoned to the Cathedral on that fateful day and, before their very eyes, the artifact was examined, declared to be genuine and true and this was attested to by the notary publics who signed the document.

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The Reverend Canónigo Francisco Xavier Billini opened the urn and showed the remains to the public; indeed the fine rock crystal on it was carved. The priest read aloud the inscription which confirmed, without shadow of a doubt, that "the remains were certainly those of the Illustrious Genoese, Great Admiral, Don Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of America."

Immediately, a twenty-one gun salute was fired by the Plaza's artillery unit, bells tolled from church belfries, and the first notes of martial music blared from military bands. People were thrilled beyond words.

In 1992, the urn and the mausoleum were moved to the Faro a Colón (Columbus Lighthouse), the most outstanding monument built in this century to honor the memory of the Discoverer of Americas, Christopher Columbus. There lie, in peace, the mortal remains of the great admiral.Each country in the Americas has held an exhibition to honor his name.

Las Reales Atarazanas, The Royal Shipyards

The brilliance of 15th and 16th-century architectural expression is reflected in the colossal, antiquated buildings of the Atarazanas (shipyards). The narrow streets that barely separate them from the Alcázar de Colón, the admiralty, offer visitors a unique opportunity of recalling an era whose very history is the cornerstone of the heritage of all Americans.

Through its jealously guarded rustic windows, an apparition of a damsel slowly forms albeit an imaginary being. She is clad in the fashion of the age, part of her face is covered with blush as she receives, fan in hand, the illustrious citizens who first established the first Spanish court in the Americas.

Opposite the wall, reconstructed in the 20th century, is the magnificent 16th-century monument. It is built entirely of bricks and used to house the Casa de Contratación (The Trading Post) and the first customs and excise outpost of the New World.

atarazanastardeThe Reales Atarazanas (Royal Shipyards) constitute a grandiose complex, unmatched in its kind in the Americas. Their only nemesis is the Atarazanas Reales de Barcelona, considered an architectural jewel of the Catalan port.

The individual buildings of the Atarazanas are connected through interior courtyards, now home to art galleries, gift shops, restaurants and the offices of the cultural heritage association. The museum of the viceroyalty is also located here; and visitors can see displays of primary documents of historical importance bearing the signatures of Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabella Past the tower is a beautiful walkway contiguous to where Christopher Columbus moored his caravel on his second voyage to the New World.

From here one can see the Faro a Colon (Columbus Lighthouse), a mausoleum that holds his mortal remains. Unquestionably, it is the most fitting tribute to his memory.

On the east bank of the Ozama River stands the Capilla del Rosario, the city's oldest church dating back to 1496, when the city, then called New Isabella, was on the other side of the river. There is proof that here, in 1544, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas celebrated mass to bless the expeditionary force that set sail from here to colonize Guatemala.

callecolonialAscending the slope where the craft shops are located, one comes to Isabel la Católica Street (formerly Calle del Comercio). A right turn at the end of the street leads to a colonial church and a fortress complex, the only one of its kind in the city. The church and Fort Santa Bárbara (as the complex is called) were built around 1574 on a former stone-quarry that supplied the material for most of the colonial city's monuments. It was also in this very chapel that Juan Pablo Duarte, the country's founding father, was baptized.

From its gardens one can view the colonial city from a different perspective. Walking along Arzobispo Meriño Street leads eventually to the Casa de la Moneda y el Monasterio de San Francisco. At the corner of Delmonte y Tejada stand the ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco (Franciscan monastery), constructed in 1512. It was here that the Taíno named Guarocuya was baptized into the Christian faith and educated. He has gone down in Dominican history under the now famous, cryptic sobriquet "Enriquillo".

Farther along Arzobispo Meriño Street, a right turn on Luperón Street leads to the first hospital in the New World, San Nicolás de Bari. Within its walls stand the first chapel dedicated to the Virgen de la Altagracia (The Virgin of the Most High), patroness of Hispaniola. Constructed in 1503, it has maintained its majestic architectural form through the centuries.

Las Casas Reales, The Royal Estates

On the opposite side of the street, the magnificent architectural complex is part of what in colonial times was called the Casas Reales (Royal Estates). There, the Real Audiencia (Royal Audience Chamber) a superior court with jurisdiction in all the New World was established on April 5, 1511 by an edict of King Ferdinand. It later housed the Palacio de los Gobernadores y de la Capitanía General (Mansion of the Governors and the Captains-General).

The Real Audiencia circumscribed the limits of authority granted to Viceroy Don Diego Colón. Following the 1795 Spanish cession of eastern Hispaniola to France as part of the treaty of Basle, the Real Audiencia was transferred to Cuba on November 12, 1799.

From the southern facade of the Casas Reales, facing Las Mercedes Street, one can admire the only known coat of arms in the world of Queen Juana de la Castilla, who aptly earned the appelation "Juana la loca", wife of Felipe el hermoso. This artifact is currently on public display at the Museo de las Casas Reales, more than three centuries after Spain's twilight in Hispaniola.

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Downhill on Calle Las Damas, to the right, is the Puerta de San Diego. This portal, constructed between 1540 and 1555, allowed to the walled city from the harbor.

To the left is the Plaza de la Contratación (The Trading Post) and, continuing to Calle Isabel la Católica, La Casa del Cordón dating to the early 16th century. It is the first residential property to be built in Santo Domingo. Its first owner, Francisco de Garay, arrived with Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. According to the historical records, Garay was also the notary public in Hispaniola; he is also known to have amassed an immense fortune in real estate. When King Ferdinand appointed Francisco Tapia mayor of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, he also asked Don Diego Colón to vacate his residence at the Torre del Homenaje. Colon then temporarily occupied the Casa del Cordón with his wife and entourage. It was here that his daughters Felipa and María were born in 1510 and 1511respectively. Nowadays, it serves as the offices of the Banco Popular Dominicano, the entity that financed its restoration. It may be visited at no charge.

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