I’m Trikkeing along the streets of the Zona Colonia in Santo Domingo when my tour guide comes to a stop. “That is the Catedral de Santa Maria de Menor, the oldest church in the New World of Christopher Columbus.”
Such is the antiquity of this tropical island. Here, the grand home of Diego Columbus (Christopher’s son) has a commanding view of the Ozama River just beyond the thick stone walls of the fort. There, the oldest home (Casa del Cordon, 1502) can be reached on cobblestone streets 500 years old. The oldest hospital, convent, monastery in the Americas…all here in Santo Domingo.
Riding through these ancient cobblestone streets, it is not hard to imagine what it must have been like for the earliest explorers. Hernan Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, lived here on a street that once was a red light district, and Duarte, a hero of the Dominican Republic’s independence in 1822, was born here. . Bartolome’ de Las Casas, “Protector of the Indians” became a Dominican friar here and bravely reproached the Spanish slave owners for their cruelty and greed. The old city walls were successfully defended from an English siege in the 17th century. Great arches on the building facades provide the necessary relief from the scorching heat of the equatorial sun, but I still don’t see how they could live here without air conditioning or cargo shorts.
Yet from this island, forays and expeditions of conquest were launched onto the mainland of Mexico and America. From these shores, a New World was discovered and explored. From these mountains, tons of gold were shipped back to Spain. It was the dawn of the great era of European exploration.
The locals have, thankfully, resisted the temptation to commercialize the age of these ancient buildings a la St Augustine. Thus, they do not boldly proclaim “The Oldest Café”, or “Oldest Whorehouse”, or “Oldest Tourist Trap in the Americas” with any kind of sign, nor do they make a big display of the home of Cortez in what is now the French embassy. They have, in fact, shown remarkable good taste by simply attaching inconspicuous brass plaques (in Spanish only) to the walls of the landmarks.
I started my trip to the Zona Colonia in front of the Hard Rock Café’ (sad but true) on a wide pedestrian boulevard, Calle del Conde, which connects the Puerta (Gate) del Conde with the Parque Independencia. The Trikkes are parked right out front and I’m greeted by Isabela, who chats with me for an hour, even though I have rushed here to arrive at 9:30. Life here is never hurried, not even for tourists. I like that.
Trikkes (pronounced trike like the one you had a as kid) are like Segways, only they have three wheels, as you might imagine. They’re supposed to be easier to drive, but I didn’t find that to be true, and it takes me a while to get the hang of it, especially when the tiny wheels encounter any kind of obstacle, which is roughly all the time on the bumpy streets. Plus, power via the twist throttle is delivered to the front wheel so the torque steer is significant and that keeps you on your toes at first, but the hand brakes work like a champ as long as you apply them both at the same time. You must wear a helmet while driving this gizmo, which is a little uncomfortable, but, even as clumsy and graceless as I am, I’m soon cruising through the byways of the Old Town without any difficulty.
We stop occasionally for pictures and a quick beer break. The bar we are sitting at serves an ice cold Presidente and has a great view of the Parque Colon. We are hot and sweaty in spite of our Trikkeing speed (about 15MPH) so I am surprised and delighted to find that our peanut snack has been served ice cold. Try it, you’ll like it!
I walk back to my hotel on the Calle del Conde. There is plenty of shopping along this street if you’re in the mood. The artists have their paintings propped against the buildings and their work is a very bright and cheerful depiction of typical island scenes and people. The Dominican Republic is also known for its fine cigars, and, though I don’t smoke, I do enjoy the rich earthy aroma as I pass by the humidors and smoke stores. You will also find Mamaguana , rum, and, of course typical tourist trash here like beads, T shirts, etc.
If you decide to tour the Zona Colonia I’d recommend the Trikke experience (http://www.trikke.do/). You’ll see more of the town faster and your guide will communicate with you through a very good headset. I would also recommend staying down here even though the prices are higher than in the casino/streetwalker section, where I am, which is about a mile away. Even the locals say this is the best part of Santo Domingo. I’ll take their word for it.
Looking at the Zona Colonia, I can’t help but think about the great movie Apocalypto, in which Mel Gibson describes how quickly and unexpectedly a world can collapse when cultures collide. The Taino Indians were woefully unprepared for the fate that befell them when those Spanish caravels sailed into the harbor 500 years ago. One minute, they were lords of their realm. The next, they were confronted with people so foreign that they might as well have been space aliens. What did they think of these strange bearded men? We’ll never know. None of them survived the encounter.
There’s a lesson there for us today, if we’ll listen to it.