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Living in the Dominican Republic
A practical guide to the way of life in the Dominican Republic
Living in the Dominican Republic can be a great experience for expats: what’s not to love about sunshine, turquoise waters, and friendly, multicultural local people? Read our guide on living in the Dominican Republic for info on healthcare, education, transport, cultural life, and more.
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Life in the Dominican Republic
- The people in the Dominican Republic are very friendly and you’ll love the local food, but you should better practice your Spanish before moving there.
- You should be prepared to pay for a private insurance plan since the public healthcare system is not efficient enough.
- Hurricanes, tropical diseases, and crime can be threats to your general safety, but these dangers can all be avoided if you take a few precautions.
People and Local Customs
Currently, there are about 10.4 million people living in the Dominican Republic, with a median age of only 27 years; the capital, Santo Domingo, is home to almost three million people. Family values, religion, and hospitality are the cornerstones of life in the Caribbean country, thus, it is not rare that three generations of the same family live under one and the same roof, with the oldest man making the important decisions affecting the entire family.
Even though the majority of the population is Catholic (with around 57% practicing adherents of that faith), you are obviously free to choose your religion. Dominicans often go out of their way to treat their guests royally and to make them feel particularly welcome. In return, you should be a respectful guest in order not to upset your hosts while living in the Dominican Republic.
Language in the Dominican Republic
As you’ll be aware from the description of the country’s historical background in our article on moving to the Dominican Republic, it does not come as a surprise that Spanish is the official language of this country. So, before starting your expat life in the Dominican Republic, you should brush up on your Spanish language skills, even if your business partners speak English. Expats living in the Dominican Republic may find it hard at times to understand the locals, even if they have a basic knowledge of Spanish.
Dominicanese and Dominicanisms (the local variety of Spanish with Dominican elements) can prove somewhat of a challenge for foreigners. Nevertheless, it can also be great fun to learn these new words and phrases. A baby, for example, is called chichí while small children are referred to as carajitos. While living in the Dominican Republic, you should be careful not to confuse bonche and boche: the former is simply a party, but the latter describes a scolding or disagreement.
Local Food Culture
Dominican cuisine is heavily influenced by its Spanish roots but includes a touch of local Caribbean spices and herbs. While spending your life in the Dominican Republic, try some dishes that are prepared a la criolla or guisado, which means the meat or seafood is served in a tomato sauce with garlic, olives, onion, and cilantro.
Dominicans also particularly enjoy all types of fried dishes such as carne frita (fried pork chunks) or chicharrones de pollo (Dominican fried chicken) with plantains dipped in salt water and fried in vegetable oil. This fondness for fried food is also reflected in a typical Dominican breakfast, which contains mashed plantains (mangú) with onions, fried white cheese, fried eggs, and orange juice.
Coconuts also play a dominant role in Dominican cuisine. Pescado con coco, fish stewed in coconut and tomato sauce, is a particularly prominent dish. At the same time, rice is king in traditional Dominican kitchens. While living in the Dominican Republic, you should definitely try the nation’s most popular rice dish, which is served with red beans, meat, and plantains. It is, in fact, so popular that it is called la bandera (the flag) and no expat experience is complete without it!
It doesn’t cost much to eat out in the Dominican Republic, even in Santo Domingo, as long as you stick to the local cafeterías. A meal at one of these shouldn’t cost more than around DOP 100, which is less than USD 2.50. Wherever you’re living in the country, authentic food can also be found in one of the many comedores. These little restaurants are family-run businesses, often part of the home, where a good meal costs around DOP 150. As an expat, you could take the opportunity here to talk to Dominican people, learn a few new things, and get to know what life is like for them!
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Dominican Republic: Health and Safety
The Healthcare System
The Dominican healthcare system has been undergoing reforms since 2001, which is good news for everyone involved. The old system was underfunded, inefficient, low quality, and resulted in a lot of out-of-pocket expenses for the patients — even the poorest of Dominican society. The new system is split into three clear tiers:
- contributive regime — financed by workers and their employers
- subsidized regime — financed by the state for the poor, unemployed, disabled, and indigent
- contributive subsidized regime — financed by independent professionals, technical workers, and self-employed persons themselves, but subsidized by the state (instead of an employer)
As an expat working in the Dominican Republic, you are likely to be part of the contributive regime, but it is worth clearing up the details with your employer. Private health insurance or complementary insurance is essential to avoid excessive gaps in coverage costs, i.e. what you have to pay for each visit or treatment. The reforms of the public healthcare system still have a long way to go. In fact, in 2013 only 58% of workers were contributing to the public healthcare system, even though the reforms had begun twelve years earlier.
In terms of medical services, the Dominican Republic is not far behind other developed countries and even offers far better services than other Caribbean nations in some areas. Its excellent reputation in the field of laparoscopic laser surgery and dentistry, for instance, attracts patients from the Virgin Islands, the Lesser Antilles, and other Caribbean countries who wish to take advantage of the high-quality care. However, most of these high-quality services are offered by private clinics which are well staffed and have the newest equipment. Fees range from DOP 400 to DOP 3,000 — around 65 USD — for the first visit, depending on the clinic. Make sure that your insurance covers treatments at these hospitals.
One thing you should keep in mind is that general practitioners and family doctors are, in fact, very rare in the Dominican Republic. This is why you should choose an internist, instead of a general practitioner, who tends to your basic needs and refers you to specialists if needed. You can turn to doctors’ practices or local clinics for basic care; if you are unsure which doctor or clinic to choose, contact your insurance company for help or ask your friends and co-workers for recommendations.
Necessary Vaccinations and Precautions
As is always the case when you move to a Caribbean country, living in the Dominican Republic requires expats to take care of vaccinations and immunizations if they want to stay healthy. Aside from routine vaccinations like measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, there are other health precautions you need to keep in mind. Hepatitis A and B should by now be a standard vaccination for expats who travel abroad a lot to lesser developed countries. If you also plan on spending a decent amount of time outside the cities exploring rural areas and smaller towns of the Dominican Republic, typhoid and rabies vaccinations are definitely recommended.
On top of that, malaria is prevalent in almost all areas of the Dominican Republic, except for the cities of Santo Domingo and Santiago. As an expat who plans on spending months or even years in the DR, it is likely that you will visit places in the Dominican Republic where the risk of an infection is particularly high. Thus, you should talk to your doctor about taking antimalarial drugs such as Atovaquone-proguanil, Chloroquine, Doxycycline, or Mefloquine. However, taking precautions can also be an effective way of preventing a malaria infection: make sure to use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, and sleep in well-screened rooms or under bed nets.
Also, as of 2016, there is a warning issued against the Zika virus. This virus can be dangerous for pregnant women and is also transmitted by mosquitoes. It is therefore recommended to take the same precautions as for preventing a malaria infection and to contact your embassy for more information.
Tropical Storms in the Dominican Republic
Tropical storms and hurricanes are a serious concern for those living in the Caribbean. These storms can cause serious damage and injury and are a threat which is not to be taken lightly. The main hurricane season is from June to November, with peak times from late August to the end of September. The last hurricane that hit the country was Hurricane Sandy in 2014. It was very powerful and deadly, and it is advised to be always prepared for a storm warning. Generally, you should find out if a tropical storm is approaching via different news media. Keep your eyes open for alerts (alerta) and approaching storms (aviso).
You should be able to receive information about a target area and whether it is necessary to evacuate your home. If you are not living in the evacuation zone and are sure that your building can withstand a storm, you may stay there until the storm is over. However, make sure to make your home “disaster ready” and to have a “disaster kit” with plenty of canned food and water. The good news is that 90% of all buildings in the country are completely storm-resistant. More people are killed through injuries after, rather than during, the storm. Make sure, therefore, to avoid fallen wires and potentially dangerous situations once the storm is over.
Safety in the Dominican Republic
When you think of the Dominican Republic, you may associate it with relatively unsafe countries in the region, like Jamaica, Venezuela, or Colombia. Even though the DR is safer than those countries, the threat of crimes remains high, so make sure to be aware of the most common crimes.
The most common crime is drive-by robbery, and criminality is shifting from firearm violence to robbery and theft. However, the Dominican Republic is in the top 20 countries with the highest murder rate worldwide, but violent crime mostly affects poor areas of the country, and it is important to mention that the situation is indeed safer in the capital.
In Santo Domingo most of the criminal activities take the form of thefts at ATMs, drive-by robbery, real estate scams, or credit card frauds.
Most of the armed assaults happen at night. As a consequence, if you don’t have a car, it is better to book a taxi at night — Apolo, for example, is a trustworthy company. If you do have a car, it is recommended to park it close to other cars to minimize the risk of theft by glass breakage, which happens frequently in the Dominican Republic.
Finally, if you have an emergency, call 911. However, this number only works in Greater Santo Domingo, thus if you are elsewhere in the country, they will redirect your call to the unit in charge.
Dominican Republic: Transport and Schools
Exploring the Dominican Republic by Car
Do you plan on seeing a lot of your new home? Exploring the country by car is probably the best choice for most expats, as it offers the highest degree of flexibility. If you prefer not to buy a car, you can always rent one. Be sure to inquire about the insurance policy: which damages it covers exactly and how high the deductible (i.e. the sum you pay out of your own pocket) is. These questions are important because the road conditions are, in fact, not always great. A flat tire is one of the most common types of car trouble. Should this happen to you, try to get your vehicle to a gomera, a tire repair and retail shop.
Finally, a word or two should be said about the Dominican driving style! In Santo Domingo especially, but also when driving in other parts of the country, you should always pay careful attention to the traffic. Do not, under any circumstances, rely on other drivers to obey the traffic rules. Instead, when driving in the city, be prepared for some serious anarchy In fact, the Dominican Republic is the country with the second-highest rate of road deaths worldwide, proportionally to the population. Some embassies — for example, the French one —discourage expats from driving at night and advise them to avoid highways because of other drivers’ speeding habits.
Travelling by Air
Santo Domingo’s Aeropuerto Internacional Las Américas is not only the biggest but also the most modern airport in the entire country. Aeropuerto Internacional Punta Cana, however, handles many more passengers, around five million per year. All in all, with Puerta Plata’s Aeropuerto Internacional Gregorio Luperón and Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Cibao, there are four big airports that handle international flights and are serviced by big airlines. The flag carrier of the country is PAWA Dominicana; however, it does not operate domestic flights, but only handles flights to other Caribbean countries.
In addition, there are several smaller airports for domestic flights. But, before you hop on that plane to travel to neighboring islands, you should be aware that some of these airports only have propeller planes or so-called air-taxis (an aspect you should take into consideration if you are afraid of flying). Most domestic flights leave from Aeropuerto Internacional Arroyo Barril, El Portillo, or La Isabela. Aeropuerto Internacional María Montez, located five kilometers from Barahona, does not offer commercial passenger services, but you might still be able to charter a plane there. Another important thing to remember: those domestic flights are all privately chartered flights, and therefore they are quite expensive. In fact round trips cost at least 200 USD —around 9105 DOP — and rarely take more than 45 minutes.
Travelling by Bus
If you don’t mind the longer travel times or have a closer destination in mind, buses are an alternative to flying or driving. There are a variety of long-distance bus companies offering connections to various locations around the island on a daily basis. Capital Coach Line, Caribe Tours, and Terra Bus are but a few. A trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for example, costs about USD 40 and takes between six and nine hours on a comfortable, air-conditioned coach.
Aside from those mentioned, Expreso Santo Domingo Bávaro and Metro also offer domestic connections at reasonable prices. If you are on a backpacker’s budget, don’t mind a lack of luxury, or simply want a really authentic Dominican experience, you may want to give the Guaguas a try. These privately-owned vehicles vary in size (from minivans to midsize buses), usually do not have air-condition or toilets on board, and are a popular form of transport with the locals. Guaguas are also a great choice if you want to visit a more remote area where the long-distance buses don’t go as they make stops all along the road and there’s usually another Guagua starting where the previous one’s route ends. Talk to the locals to find out which one to take (most of them do not carry signs) or just wave to be picked up.
Education for Expat Children
If you are planning on living in the Dominican Republic with your family, you’ll be happy to learn that there are plenty of educational opportunities for expat children. The many different multinational schools offer instruction in a variety of languages other than Spanish. However, even at these schools, the majority of the student body might be Dominican, which usually means the language spoken during breaks is Spanish.
Schools which have been accredited by the Dominican Ministry of Education might offer certificates and diplomas allowing your children to study at Dominican, US American, and European universities. However, we suggest that you gather more information about the type of diplomas that the different schools offer and perhaps lean towards one with an International Baccalaureate curriculum to ensure worldwide recognition of your child’s studies.
We have compiled a short list of international schools in the Dominican Republic for you. Please remember that this list is by no means exhaustive and that additional research is always encouraged:
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