Santiago de Los Caballeros—the DR’s second-largest city and one of the oldest establishments in the Western Hemisphere, founded by the brother of Christopher Columbus back in the year 1495.

Only a few hours’ journey from Cabarete, today Santiago is the perfect place to get away from your vacation getaway for a few days during your visit to the DR. Simply hop on a guagua to head to Puerto Plata (45 minutes, RD $50) to catch one of the many busses that head south every hour to Santiago (80 minutes, RD $130), and spend a day or two exploring the sights and scenes of a city which locals refer to as La Ciudad Corazón: “Heart City.”

So-named for it’s central location in the heart of the El Cibao Valley, Santiago is known for it’s charm and rich cultural history, and is a place where friendly locals still embody the laid back, undemanding lifestyle and cheery charisma so typical of the Dominican people.

It’s also home to one of the country’s most popular baseball teams – Las Aguilas Cibaeñas, and scoring a pair of last-minute tickets to a Friday night game was one of the highlights of our visit!

It all started early on a rainy Friday morning, after our search for an eco-village described as a “rustic mountaintop retreat” supposedly located somewhere along the road between Puerto Plata and Santiago completely FAILED, and our curiosity (and lack of a backup plan) led us to follow the highway the rest of the way on our motorbike into downtown Santiago to see for ourselves what the city had to offer.

As it turned out, we had such a great time that I honestly don’t think we could have planned better experience even if we had tried. After riding into the densest, busiest part of the city center and negotiating a couple of tense traffic scenarios, we pulled over to ask where we could find a cheap hotel.

We were directed to a small street just south of the intersection of “30 de Marzo” and “27 de Februar”—yes, the streets here are named after random (or possibly important) dates of the year—where we quickly found a small hotel named “Hotel Shalom,” featuring rooms starting at just 300 pesos.

After realizing we didn’t have enough clothing to stuff into all of the holes and cracks in the walls and windows of our room, we came up with a novel solution for dealing with the mosquitoes which seemed abundant enough that they might have posed a problem:

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With all the money we saved on lodging, we were able to absolutely SPLURGE on a taxi (100 pesos) to the stadium downtown where we treated ourselves to a pair of front row tickets (100 pesos each) to the big Friday night game between the Aguilars and the Estrellas. It was a delightful game and for the first time in my life I witnessed a grand slam at a baseball game!

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We found that even though there are seat numbers listed on the tickets, nobody abides by these, and seating seems to operate on a first-come first-served basis. So if you do go to a game, make sure to get there early and grab good seats. Also, bring some coins to spend on the interesting treats that are sold by vendors walking up and down the stands, such as delicious peanut-cookies (10 pesos; highly recommended), bags of popcorn (we didn’t buy any), lollipops (5 pesos), and nachos (35 pesos; didn’t buy any either).

We left the stadium during the bottom of the 8th inning to avoid what probably would have been a crowded, hectic street battle to find a taxi ride back to our hotel (80 pesos).

The next day was Saturday, and after taking our bike to the shop and replacing the old battery (now the headlights, horn and auto-ignition switch all work perfectly!), we cruised up to El Monumento a los Heroes de la Restauracion de la Republica, set high up on a hill just east of the downtown area, with incredible views over the entire city:

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It also turned out to be a lovely place to catch the sunrise on our last day in town, although we can’t 100% guarantee you won’t get mugged if you show up there with your expensive camera in the wee hours of dawn.

Later in the day, we spent some time at the nearby Fortaleza San Luis, a highly recommended art/artifacts museum/fortress that functioned as a military stronghold from the late 17th century to the 1970s when it was converted into a museum. It’s a great place to spend the hottest part of the day admiring an impressive collection of Taino artifacts displayed alongside the artwork of modern-day Domincan artists:

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We spent the rest of the day walking past the shops along Calle del Sol, wandering through street markets, observing a lively political street-rally, watching children from orphanages receive belated Christmas gifts being distributed out of large vans owned by a local organization, chatting with friendly locals, and watching the scenes of life unfold in a community living under the Rio Yaque del Norte bridge. At night we wandered the narrow streets and alleys past food vendors and watched as daytime shops closed down and transformed into homes and living quarters for the workers and their families.

The next morning, after ducking into Catedral de Santiago de Apostol to escape a morning rain shower and observe Sunday mass from the back row of the chapel, it was almost with a hint of sadness that we left Santiago and headed back to paradise.

Perhaps of all the things that amazed me about our visit was the fact that the entire time we were there, the only “foreigners” we saw seemed to be the Haitian immigrants sharing the hallway with us in the hotel where we stayed. But even at the main places of interest downtown where one would expect to see foreigners snapping photos, we were the only tourists in sight. And although we must have stood out greatly to the locals, we found the people of Santiago were just as friendly and lively as our local friends up here in Cabarete.

Given my experience, I would definitely go back to Santiago again. And looking back on the weekend I can confidently say that if you’re feeling the desire for a change of pace and are open to participating in an authentic cultural experience, I highly recommend a visit to Santiago!