San Juan or Santo Domingo?

San Juan El YunqueLast month we were looking for a quick weekend getaway.  Our search criteria were simple; we wanted a warm destination where we could experience history, gastronomy, and nature.  After some research we narrowed our choices to two Caribbean cities.  Our finalists were San Juan, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, both of which were new destinations for us (a real bonus).  Given their very close proximity, its only 250 miles from San Juan to Santo Domingo, it was not really surprising to discover just how much the two cities have in common. At the end of the day we could not choose one so we decided to visit each city to learn about them firsthand.

We wanted to plan very similar trips with a view to comparing these two fascinating cities based on our criteria of history, gastronomy, and nature.  As much as possible we made our plans so that the logistics did not sway our analysis, we used the same airline for trips, selected our hotels based on TripAdvisor, and used local recommendations for restaurants.  We did our best to split our time evenly between our three criteria in each city.

For both trips we booked our flights with Delta. We were a little surprised to learn that flights to Santo Domingo were about $165 more than our flights to San Juan (remember they are only 250 miles apart).  We checked some other dates to make sure this was not something particular to when we wanted to travel.  There seemed to be a pretty constant difference between the two so we decided to try to determine why.  As usual, the guilty culprit is taxes and fees.  In this case there was a series of international related charges (about $30) as well as fees imposed by the Dominican Republic (about $80), the remaining $50 or so was the “real” difference in ticket cost.  You must also add to that the $10 per person tax that is payable on arrival.  What this all means is that there is something like $120 more taxes and fees for a flight to Santo Domingo than San Juan – good to know.   Airfare: Advantage San Juan

We usually stay at Hilton brand properties because we like their loyalty program so this helped us narrow down the options.  After reading a number of reviews on TripAdvisor we decided to book at the Hilton Santo Domingo and the Embassy Suites in San Juan.  Both included breakfast and were near the ocean.  In full disclosure we are not “beach” people so this was not high on our list. As we usually do, we added a note to our reservation saying this was our first time in the city and asked for a high room with the best possible view.  Our plea worked very well in Santo Domingo and we were upgraded to a beautiful corner suite.  In San Juan we were not so lucky.  After accounting for all taxes and fees, our room in San Juan was about $100 more per night or $200 for our weekend.  To make matters worse, the hotel in Santo Domingo (the less expensive one) was much nicer.  Hotel: Advantage Santo Domingo

A major logistical difference between the two cities is the distance from the airport.  In Santo Domingo our hotel was about 30 minutes from the airport, in San Juan it was less than 10 minutes. The difference in airport transfer was $50 (Santo Domingo was $78, San Juan was $28).  So if you have been keeping track of all the numbers, you will have noticed that the cost (airfare, hotel, and transfers) for the two trips was almost identical.  This reinforces the point that you really must spend some time investigating the “total cost” of an adventure and not just focus on airfare or some other component of the trip.  Overall Cost: Draw

On the first night of each trip we asked the concierge for dinner recommendations featuring authentic locals dishes that was within walking distance of our hotel. In Santo Domingo we were pointed to Vesuvio, an oceanfront restaurant specializing in seafood.  Known by the locals to be one the best restaurants in the region, Vesuvio is certainly worth a visit. Both the Red Snapper and the Lionfish were scrumptious and service was excellent. In San Juan we headed to Platos, which is very well known for the local plantain-based dish called Mofongo.  Again the service was excellent; however, neither of us was excited by the meal.  The Mofongo was presented very well, we just did not care for the texture or taste.  We love trying local dishes but it does not mean we will like all of them … it is just part of the adventure.  Comparing the two dinners is a little difficult.  We enjoyed our meal at Vesuvio much more, but the dinner at Platos was much more unique.  Gastronomy: Advantage Santo Domingo

In Santo Domingo we ventured out of the city to visit Los Tres Ojos National Park.  This extremely unique complex of caves is unlike anyplace we have ever visited.  On arrival we were very underwhelmed and thought we had made a very poor choice; however, as we began our journey “into” the caves our view quickly changed.  Once used by the aboriginals as a sanctuary during hurricanes, this underground oasis is a self-contained ecosystem, complete with lakes, miniature rain forest, and of course amazing stalagmites. In San Juan we journeyed to El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest that is home to several endangered species including the very rare Puerto Rican Parrot and the Puerto Rican Boa.  Although we did not see these amazing creatures we enjoyed a very amazing hike to Cascada La Mina.  Despite having more than 1,000,000 visitors each year, El Yunque feels untouched and allows you to connect with nature … exactly what we were seeking.  Nature: Advantage San Juan

One of the clear highlights of both adventures was the time we spent exploring the cities’ history. In both capitals we focused our attention on the “old city.” Of course, from a historical point of view, there is so much more to both Santo Domingo and San Juan than just the old cities.  However, in our opinion, a visit to either city is not complete without spending at least a few hours meandering through the old city.  Both cities are home to UNESCO World Heritage sites: Colonial City of Santo Domingo and La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site. The rich history in each city is specular.  There are few places in the New World where one can visit structures built the 16th century.  It is simply not possible for us to judge one city over the other in terms of history – both are worth the visit.  History: Draw

We ended up visiting two amazing cities because our research was inconclusive.  Having experienced the history, gastronomy, and nature of Santo Domingo and San Juan we now understand why our web-based investigation did not point to a clear winner.  Based on our very brief visits, we highly recommend visiting both cities if you are in interested in great food, interesting history, and beautiful scenery.  Make your plans now and you will not be disappointed.

kissfromtheworldThis post was also published on Kiss from the World: