“Maleta and go!” My grandmother cheered as we got ready to travel the Dominican Republic together. The jeep was ready and our bags were packed. We were ready to hit the road through the southwest Dominican Republic with no real itinerary. I could see where I got my travel genes from. Our family’s Dominican Republic road trip began in Santo Domingo, La Capital. Getting out of the capital is often a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, so we were happy to abscond from the city in the very early morning to avoid traffic.
Our Dominican Republic Road Trip Map
Although there are many amazing things to do in Santo Domingo, it’s actually the worst place to drive in the Dominican Republic. But, having lived in Santo Domingo, I can tell you it’s a great place for Dominican culture and history! So while it’s a great city to visit and the perfect launching pad to other parts of the country, I do NOT recommend driving within Santo Domingo. Even parking a car in Santo Domingo requires extra precautions as cars are known to be stolen or broken into. So use this as a base to drive OUT of, between 9:00 PM and 7:00 AM.
1st Road Trip Stop: BANI TOWN & REGION
So, after an hour of driving west, we reached the small town of Bani known for its local candy, mangos, and desert topography. This is also where my cousin Cindy’s father is from. She was beaming with glee to finally see her dad’s hometown. “We have to try the mangos and buy the dulces (candy) in Bani!” she’d been exclaiming for months before we even got to the Dominican Republic.
Mangos and Sweets: So try the mangos we did. They are, arguably, the best mangos in the world. I was floored. Literally, here I am sitting on the floor cradling a basket of ambrosia, errr–I mean mangos. The dulces (candy) were OK. Too sweet for my liking but those are Caribbean sweets for you! Electrifyingly sweet.
Cultural Center: Bani is also home to the Perelló Cultural Center, which houses art and cultural heritage exhibitions. They even had a Picasso exhibition a few years ago. Check their calendar to see if you should add this as a stop to your Dominican Republic road trip!
Sand dunes and salt pans: The Bani region is also home to these tall majestic sand dunes and salt pans pictured above. Both are a 30-40 minute detour and give you an introduction to the south/west Dominican Republic’s desert-like topography. Did you know there were deserts in the Caribbean? This is one of my favorite places in the Dominican Republic for the unique combination of sand dunes with a beach backdrop (pictured above).
2nd Road Trip Stop: AZUA
Thirty minutes west of Bani, and it was clear that we had left the humid smog of La Capital (Santo Domingo) for arid deserts and virgin landscapes. Just miles and miles of mountains, rivers, olive-hued bushes, and bright blue skies. The road south, leaving Bani didn’t look at all like the Caribbean. It was as if the Caribbean and the atlas mountains of Morrocco had a baby.
Vineyard: Here in Azua, you can veer off to see Ocoa Bay. The only vineyard in the Caribbean. Here, you can go on a vineyard tour, taste the local wines, go swimming in their infinity pool or grab lunch. Their food selection here is delicious. If you’re a wine lover, then Ocoa Bay in Azua is a must-visit on your road trip through the Dominican Republic.
3rd Road Trip Stop: BARAHONA (the Dominican Riviera)
“Take out your camera,” my uncle cheered with excitement. We were approaching a precipice on the side of the mountain road into the province of Barahona.
“La Riviera Dominicana” he announced in a dreamy tone. The Dominican Riviera. Standing at the edge of this beautiful view, I could feel a clash in ambiance between lush and dry air. Located right in the middle of a desert topography was a humid jungle! What a fascinating geography.
As I gazed down the viewpoints, I couldn’t see a single home or resort built on this beautiful mountain terrain. Everything was covered in trees and virginal greenery. It would make for a killer condo/hotel view, I thought apprehensively. I can only pray and hope that the Dominican government protects these ecological masterpieces.
4th Road Trip Stop: La Plaza & La Cueva Hike
I did this stop on a separate road trip because it is not a hike for beginners. But I’m adding it here as an option for you because this was one of the most beautiful and arduous hikes I’ve ever done in my life. And I’ve hiked El Pico Duarte (the tallest mountain in the Caribbean). Yet still, this hike was harder. Why? Because it’s like an all-natural obstacle course. You swim, you crawl, you climb, and do a little bit of everything else. It’s a blast. You can hire a guide to do this experience (or the whole road trip) such as Pablo Feliz: (829)889-7586 (Whatsapp).
5th Road Trip Stop: LOS PATOS Beach/River (for Lunch)
My stomach began to growl just in time to reach Los Patos Beach for food. The waves at this beach were loud and intimidating. The water wasn’t alluring anyone for a swim. In fact, it is prohibited here. But the rich, vibrant, neon-blue hues reflecting off the sea were hypnotic. Like a song from the mythical Greek sirens of the sea.
What else was beyond the larimar-colored waves? A pristine untouched cayo? Would I hit the other side of the bay? Or were we standing south towards South America, only 300 miles away?
“AY! YA ‘TA LA COMIDA,” my grandmother’s screech snapped me out of my reveries. The family who we negotiated a price for a home-cooked meal almost an hour ago, finally came out with platters of freshly caught fish, tostones, arroz con gandules, and bottles of Presidente. It was simple but majestic. A simply majestic meal on one of the most beautiful beaches I’d ever set eyes upon. I’m hungry just thinking back to this food. Take me back!
Here is the lady’s number if you’d like to order food from her as well, her name is Kathy: (829)988-1038. Text her through Whatsapp.
Los Patos River is located just a 30-second walk from the beach. Here, you’ll see a ton of tables and stalls for food. But we still recommend Kathy’s. She is a Black woman (hard to be a woman entrepreneur in DR) and she’s VERY clean. I trust her food and kitchen over anyone else’s there.
In a futile attempt to walk off the delicious food, we reached Los Patos River, the world’s smallest river according to my scholarly uncle. Again, more crystalline and less polluted waters than the tourist areas near mass commercialization.
6th Road Trip Stop: LAGUNA DE OVIEDO
We didn’t stop here on this trip due to time constraints. But I’ve been here several times and I think it’s one of the most unique places to visit. Islands made of coral rock, exotic birds, cactus plants full of fruits, iguanas, all surrounded by a hypersaline lake: Laguna de Oviedo.
7th Road Trip Stop: PEDERNALES (to Sleep)
Pedernales is a cute border town with a ton of Haitian influence. It’s also the perfecting jumping point to several amazing things in the area. It also offers delicious local restaurants that are incredibly priced. My favorite spot is Restaurante Jalicar. I’ve never gotten sick there!
Popping into Haiti: As we entered Pedernales, our uncle decided to bring us to see the Haitian border. My cousin and I briefly stepped into Haiti before the majority of our family began screaming and begging us to turn back. In addition to the Haiti-D.R. tumultuous relations, they were scared we’d get attacked for being foreigners. The immigration officers looked at us like we were crazy and asked what we wanted to go into Haiti for. The Dominican border patrol almost threatened us, “We can’t protect you once you cross that line. If you’re attacked there is nothing we can do from this gate.” Haitian folks began hovering over to us, curiously. And a Haitian man from the other side asked me if I needed anything from Haiti. My other uncle began screaming and I’d never seen him look so disheveled and emotional. The crazy energy got to us, so we turned around and complied like two resentful toddlers.
Years later, I ended up traveling into Haiti from the Dominican Republic on my own. It was INCREDIBLE! Highly recommend it.
Malecon: Anyway, we decided to head to the malecon (ocean boardwalk) of Pedernales after an eventful day. Enjoying the sunset while drinking some Presidente’s and playing Dominoes with our new Pedernales friends. Pedernales beach is also stunning. It looks like something out of a movie. Try to see it while there is still light out so you can catch the sunset there as well.
We had spent that night in a dingy motel where the shower was a part of the bedroom and the existence of our ceiling was subjective. My aunts, uncles, and cousins had gone dancing in the town’s square, the night before. My grandmother and I contently stayed in to make sure we got lots of rest. Like grandmother like granddaughter. The next day, we found a much better place to sleep. Scroll to the bottom of this page for the hotel recommendations.
8th Road Trip Stop: BAHIA DE LAS AGUILAS (the Crown Jewel)
“This is going to be the best beach you’ve ever seen in your life” my uncle guaranteed me the next morning, as he sipped on his morning cafecito.
We drove southeast from Pedernales until reaching the pier in front of Las Cuevas (“the caves”– this place is by huge open caves). A man with a small speedboat hobbled over to us and we paid him about $50 USD to take us all to the beach. As a prelude, we passed beautiful rock formations with tiny beaches in between. I wanted to shout “Leave us here!” every 2 minutes. Wouldn’t you want to go for a swim here, too?
The speedboat finally arrived at Bahía de Las Águilas beach. My uncle was right. It really might be the best beach in the world. It is pristine and untouched. It’s the type of beach that computers have as default desktop wallpapers. The type of utopia you dream about. The kind of beach people fly thousands of miles to see, only to realize it’s not really like the pictures. This one was better than any photo I could take.
We had 14 kilometers of fine white sand and crystal-clear blue waters, all to ourselves. It was paradise. We ate Bani mangos and drank some Presidente beers. Then we snorkeled around embracing the crystalline waters.
9th Stop: LAGO ENRIQUILLO & LAS CARITAS
The next day, we decided to loop around Lago Enriquillo and stopped by Jimani. The Haitian border was, even more, intimidating here. There was even a truck was stuck at the border for hours.
We made another road stop in front of Lago Enriquillo to see Las Caritas – Parque Nacional. This ancient cave goes back to the time of our indigenous Taino ancestors. The Tainos were sadly slaughtered and almost entirely wiped off the island when Colombus (the romanticized genocidal r-pist criminal) came plundering through our island. Anyway, it was a fun walk up these slippery limestone stairs. Wear the right shoes!
These faces and symbols were carved by the Taino people. I kind of wish they’d left us something more insightful than smiley face emojis, but… I am grateful we’re left with some remnant of their time on the island. Definitely wear sturdy shoes, the natural limestone steps are very slippery.
10th Road Trip Stop: LAS MARIAS & NEIBA
The greatest thing about our road trip exploration throughout the Dominican Republic was being able to stop at beautiful sites as we pleased. We wouldn’t have otherwise seen or been able to discover these gorgeous gems if we had been in the back of a tour bus, or worse- stayed in a resort in Punta Cana. My uncle parked the car and we walked up to see the crystalline, bright emerald river of Las Marias in the town of Neiba. I watched the local children effortlessly climb up trees and jump into the water without a second thought. They swam as graciously as the fish from the Los Patos River.
After eating in a restaurant located in the backyard of a lady’s home in Neiba, we continued our loop around the Southern tip of the Dominican Republic en route back to La Capital. We passed more rustic “Wild Wild West” towns like the photo below. I hope this pig had a prosperous life… Looks like he was soon to be this family’s dinner!
We found lots of side-of-the-road shops selling the local precious stone, larimar, in bottles. We also found local wine, honey, oils, fruits, pilones, and coconuts!
Places to Stay During Your Southwest Dominican Republic Road Trip
The Southwest Dominican Republic is still an off-the-beaten-path destination. For this reason, you’ll have fewer hotel options and no resorts. But here is a list of the best hotels in that region that I absolutely adore:
Dominican Republic Road Trip – Conclusion
I had never experienced such a clash of topography, smell, and ambiance concentrated in one small region. This is absolutely a trip that is off the beaten path in the Dominican Republic, and yet safe to travel through. I find that the farther you leave the heavy tourist areas, the safer it can sometimes be. People aren’t yet so jaded by watching foreigners flash their luxury, reminding them of what they don’t have. They haven’t gotten on their knees to beg a tourist to buy their items or services to feed their kids. And they’re still curious, friendly, and will find the experience of meeting you refreshing. Please travel here sustainably and mindfully. Respect locals. And support local small businesses.
If you liked this Dominican Republic road trip itinerary, check out our other Dominican Republic guides below.
- Pico Duarte Hiking Tour: The Tallest Mountain in the Caribbean
- Jarabacoa: Visiting the Dominican Alps
- Cabarete: Dominican Republic’s Wellness Beach Town
- Monte Cristi: The Dominican Wild Wild West
- Read ALL our Dominican Republic travel guides here