Driving in the Dominican Republic

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

Driving in the Dominican Republic: Act confident and no one will question you. I quickly learn it to be the mantra of every single driver in the Dominican Republic, and so for this cross-country road trip, it is mine too. It’s late March 2022, I am in Punta Cana, and together with a group of three girlfriends I load a medium-size rental Hyundai with four bags, packed to maximum capacity, and embark on a two-week adventure. Who knew the driving would be the biggest of them all.

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

Road Trip: Driving in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic, an island in the Caribbean, is one of the most popular tropical destinations for tourists from all over the world. However, most will stick to resort areas such as Punta Cana, La Romana, Puerto Plata, or Las Terrenas, and according to a tour guide trying to get us to book various trips in Punta Cana, nobody really backpacks around. “This is not Southeast Asia,” he says. Now I’m intrigued – that’s only more of a reason to do it. The plan is to drive southwest towards Santo Domingo, up north to Jarabacoa and Puerto Plata, then east to the Samaná peninsula, and back southeast to Punta Cana – changing locations every couple of days, and booking accommodation as we go. Here are a couple of surprises we had from behind the wheel along the way.

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

The rules of the road don’t seem to apply

Anyone used to driving mostly in central Europe, just like I am, will know there is almost zero tolerance for not following the rules. This made driving in the Dominican Republic challenging. At the first stop sign in Punta Cana, I realize there is barely any tolerance for following them here. Making a full stop and looking both ways makes the drivers behind us lean in on the horn in disbelief, alerting everyone around to the foreigner behind the wheel. I attempt stopping a couple more times before giving up at the sight of a police car going around me in clear annoyance. Duly noted, I am rolling through at half-speed from now on.

Navigation issues

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

Lost and without proper cell service, we attract attention on the side of the road just outside of Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, where I struggle with the GPS. I don’t even notice a police car pulling up in front of us. Two officers get out of the car and head towards us, both looking over two meters tall, pumped, and intimidating. I think they’re even moving in slow motion. Did someone alert special forces? A few minutes into me showing them the map and them talking to me in Spanish, which I don’t understand a word of, it seems they will lead the way to get us on the right road and I just need to follow them. Okay, that’s nice, but also kind of weird. Now the Google Translate comes in to play, when they’re trying to ask something else – I only get “friend” and “birthday”… Either these cops are asking for a picture with three (almost) blondes and a redhead, for cash, or they’ve been watching too much of adult television. I give them a very firm and polite ‘no comprendo and signal for us to get moving. Phew.

Beam lights and unusual freeway traffic

I soon notice that there are police everywhere, and always flashing their lights. I’ve thought I was meant to pull over multiple times, but they just don’t bother to switch the lights off. That is a common trait in all the drivers, because once it starts to get dark, everyone switches the beam lights on, and that’s how they stay until sunrise. I have never driven so carefully in my entire life, as I am in the mountains of the La Vega province after dark surrounded by daredevils of all types of vehicles.

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

Speaking of – trucks, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, bicycles, horses, cows, donkeys, and pedestrians are all a part of the freeway traffic. With a maximum speed of 100 km/h, it is apparently safe enough for anybody who wishes to enter. Despite the occasional U-turns and left turns in the middle of the freeway, it is the calmest experience of driving in the Dominican Republic. In contrast, driving in the towns reminds me of Pac-Man. Full of close calls, and always feeling like someone is chasing me. Lanes and traffic lights are merely a suggestion, and if you can make a one-way street into a three-lane-in-both-directions street, you do.

Driving in towns

Driving in busy towns is like playing chess, badly. You think you know what the other drivers will do, but then the joke’s on you. I find this out when I take mercy on a car driving in the opposite direction, attempting a left turn in heavy traffic. I let it pass, the next one slips through as well, and then I just sit there for the next five minutes, because evidently, I am letting everyone take their turn. I won’t make this mistake again. So the next time I find myself in this situation, I bite my tongue and confidently roll into the jammed intersection. It’s block or be blocked at this point. The school bus driving in the opposite direction taking a left turn is not happy with my decision and lets me know by scraping the back of my car as it turns right behind me. It’s not too bad, but a lesson learned – don’t mess with the bigger and stronger ones. 

Poor road conditions

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

A little scrape is nothing compared to the damage that I am sure is done by the poor road conditions. Some roads are surprisingly well-maintained, but most are full of gigantic holes, often taking up the entire lane and forcing me in the opposite direction. Some have clearly been there for a while as they now have a life of their own – growing weeds, flowers, and even small trees or bushes. The DIY speed bumps inside villages are often so tall that I can’t help but bounce the undercarriage off of them, even at a snail-like speed. It’s no surprise when the ‘low tire pressure’ symbol lights up on the dashboard, and soon enough I am pulling over with a flat tire. Of course, the first time that happens to me, ever, is in heavy tropical rain in the Caribbean, where I don’t even speak the language. Luckily I don’t have to, because I happen to have pulled over right across the street from an auto shop. Unbelievable.

Girls Who Travel | Driving in the Dominican Republic

Two weeks, five different hotels, over 1000 km, 45+ hours in the car, zero accidents, 15 close-calls, and at least 7 new wrinkles on my forehead later, we get on a plane back to Prague, knowing we won’t forget this trip for a while. If you can rent a car and go off the beaten path, I would definitely recommend it. There’s no better way to really experience the country, eat at the best local spots, and collect crazy memories.

Katerina Z

From Prague, Czech Rep., but live to explore all the new places on my path and for all-day breakfast. Can't function without good coffee, get fired up about social (in)justice, and sometimes prefer dogs to humans.

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