Puerto Plata area is one of the popular destinations in the Dominican Republic. Located in the North coast, Puerto Plata is surrounded by mostly lush green coconut forest and tannish/gray sand beaches. The lush green coconut forest leaning into the beaches make for some great tropical paradise photos. Most tourists come to Puerto Plata to stay at the beach around Playa Dorada or spent some time in Sosua/Cabarete. Aside from the all inclusive resort area around Playa Dorada, this part of the country is not very developed, so be prepared for some adventure as you venture out from the all inclusive hotel zone. Of course being less developed means you get to see DR in a more cultural/natural way (the timeless rural life), but it does come with some safety concerns and challenges.
Playa Dorada – The closest tourist beach to Puerto Plata and really the main attraction to the area, Playa Dorada is a beautiful beach where majority of the all inclusive resorts are located. It is the crown jewel of the North Coast. The beach is quite long and the backdrop of coconut trees leaning in to the waves add to its beauty. The sand on the beach is not white, but rather tannish/gray sand. During sunset time, the sun will fall behind the coconut trees and the small mountain, making for great sunset stroll. Playa Dorada is relaxing, not too much tourist, and is a good mix of sun, life in a layback beach town, and the pampering of the all-inclusive resorts. There are shopping malls, ATMs, internet, Pizza Hut, Café, and car rental agency in the area. This is where the majority of the all inclusive tourists stay in Puerto Plata.
Eventhough all beaches in the DR are public, if you do not stay at one of the resorts on the Playa Dorada, it may be difficult to find the entry to the beach itself. One entry point is by the Grand Paradise Resort (which is behind the Playa Dorada Shopping Centre). You will see lots of cars parked along the street and you will have to walk across a small field to get to the beach.
Most tourists who come to Puerto Plata stay on Playa Dorada. Most use Playa Dorada as their home base and explore the region by car or through excursion from hotels/local vendors. Popular day trips/excursions in the area are to Sosua, Cabarete, Cayo Arena, and 27 waterfalls in Domajagua. As mentioned before, the area’s infrastructure is not very developed, but you will be rewarded with timeless rural life and more exposure to Dominican culture. Driving in the area is not recommended for novice drivers who are not used to driving in a 3rd world country. The road has a lot of potholes, it is 2 lanes with lots of passing, and some motorcycles ride with no lights at night. For the experienced drivers, your passenger would be pretty stressed.
Puerto Plata Town/ San Felipe Fort – Sad to say, but there isn’t much to see here in Puerto Plata town. The town is very rundown and if you take a wrong turn on some of the alleys, you may feel a bit unsafe. The Parque Central is a nice town square with a colonial church and is a good place to stop for photos, if you did decide to visit town. Many beggars do hang around here, so take your snaps and move on. A couple of banks/ATM and gift shops are also found here (after we drove for 30mins looking for ATM in town, we found 2 around Parque Central).
At the edge of the waterfront is San Felipe Fort (built in mid 16th century), which is great for photo from the outside, but probably not worth paying the RD$100 to see the inside. Next to the fort is also a sad looking lighthouse that was built in 1879 and a victory monument statue that is worth a picture of. The view of the waterfront from the Fort is nice and relaxing to spend a few minutes enjoying.
The malecon is in much better condition than most malecon that you may have seen; however, the view is mediocre and you would likely spend more of your time fending off vendors and beggars. We did not see many tourists (maybe 10) around the malecon or the San Felipe Fort area at all, so perhaps no one really ventures out to see this area of town. At the east end of the malecon is Long Beach which is a good spot for the locals, but it lacks the beauty of Playa Dorado (where most tourist goes).
After seeing the town, I now understand why the lonely planet doesn’t have much to write about it. I wish they would just come out and say that there isn’t much here worth you venturing out of your resort and paying for a taxi to see it.
Teleferico – For RD$300 roundtrip, the cable car will take visitors to the top of the hill to the top of Pico Isabel de Torres, where there is a large statue of Christ the Redeemer (a smaller version of the one in Rio de Janeiro). The view from the top is great and offers a spectacular view of the city and coastline. There is also a nice botanical garden at the top. There were almost no lines for the cable car.
In summary, Puerto Plata area is a good mix of rural life, green rain forests, leaning coconut trees, great beach, and a relaxing beach town atmosphere. The all-inclusive hotels on Playa Dorada provide a nice oasis for a relaxing vacation for most tourists. You can sit on the beach and do absolutely nothing. Those who dare to venture out of the hotel zone will be rewarded with some great culture and rural lifestyle, but do have to face some 3rd world country challenges (beggars, rundown roads, rundown town, sketchy streets, difficult driving, vendors ripping you off, and sometime feeling a bit unsafe).
For those who are deciding between Puerto Plata and Punta Cana, they are very different. If you prefer great white sand beaches and more developed tourism infrastructure, then Punta Cana is for you. If you prefer more cultural beach town, rainforest, golden sand beaches, and less infrastructure then Puerto Plata is for you. Know what you are getting into for best vacation experiences.