SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - There's something about firsts, and Santo Domingo, the oldest city of the Americas, boasts many.
In the Dominican capital for the first time, I sat in the courtyard of an apartment complex, listening as the neighbors relayed a long list of must-sees: among them, the first street, military fortress and cathedral of the New World.
Lucky for me, my friend (and Dominican native) Alex knew where to go and what to do. We had only a long weekend, and had been en route to the car when his neighbors' chatter led us to peek in for a quick hello.
Thanks to Columbus & Co., every step here tells a story - one my new friends were only too happy to share. Their pride was palpable. After all, whether you're North, Central or South American, this is where it began.
We set out for the Colonial District the next morning, beginning, appropriately, on the city's first roadway, Calle Las Damas, or Ladies Street. It was so named, the story goes, because the wife of Diego Columbus (Christopher's son) liked to take afternoon walks there with her ladies-in-waiting. During our stroll, I took in the stone buildings with long, wooden doors, the old-fashioned light poles and the ceramic street signs with bright-blue trim. A pair of horse-drawn buggies completed the picture.
Heading west along this promenade, we hit the Parque Colon. The traditional square, brought over from the Old World and later replicated throughout the Americas, remains a gathering place for tourists and vendors, festivals and night life.
Because Old World charm mixes with the new, across from the rows of benches and patches of green was a Hard Rock Cafe. But stand at the plaza long enough and you can almost envision how the rest of the city came to life and grew around it.
Christopher Columbus is still there in the middle of it all, covered in pigeons, like all good statues.
Spotting the imposing Catedral Primada de America up ahead, I raced toward the entrance, barely registering the man trying to stop me.
"She can't go in like that," he said, gesturing to Alex. That's when I remembered the no-bare-shoulders rule that had almost prevented me from seeing several important European cathedrals, too. As a sign of respect, you don't wear tank tops or shorts. But before I could walk away dejected, the man produced a yellow shawl and let me through, not without first giving me a stern reminder that I had to keep covered at all times.
By all accounts, the cathedral took so long to build in the early 1500s that it required many architects; the completely contrasting styles, including Roman, Renaissance and Gothic, are apparent. I examined the plaques, altarpieces and small chapels inside, and tried to take pictures without releasing my tight hold on the shawl.
Next stop was the nearby Panteon Nacional, which started out a Jesuit church but is now, after several incarnations, the resting place for some of the island's most distinguished public figures, including Concepcion Bona, who helped design the Dominican flag, and of Emilio Prud'homme and Jose Reyes, credited with creating the national anthem.
Dictator Rafael Trujillo restored the pantheon around 1955, and symbols of his friendships throughout the world are still present. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco donated the copper chandelier, and iron grills near the ceiling may have been a gift from the German government. Depending on how you look at them, the designs could be crosses or swastikas.
Weaving through side streets, we stopped at a money-changing office (the dollar was at about 33 pesos) and a souvenir shop, before heading to the Fortress of Santo Domingo, with its cannons pointing to the brown-bottomed Ozama River and some long-ago enemy sailing up to shore. Columbus' relatives lived close by, in a boxy, two-story building known as the Alcazar de Colon.
I loved everything I saw that day, but the highlight of my trip was the invaluable opportunity to be a part of everyday life on the island.
Having an "insider" there helped expose a more intimate view of the city. The emergency stop at La Sirena supermarket for motor oil and Brugal rum. Breakfast at Adrian Tropical, along the banks of El Malecon, where they offer traditional fare such as sancocho, a hearty stew, and mangu, made from mashed plantains, as well as an exquisite view of the water's edge.
We played pool at a private neighborhood hangout, Club Naco, to the sounds of merengue coming from downstairs. I developed a craving for Country Club raspberry soda, enjoyed a beachside jaunt with Presidente beer, and had my first taste of gin at the chic Dock lounge, which serves drinks that are bigger than your head and is part of a mall built to resemble a ship.
And I got to celebrate the island's Father's Day that Sunday afternoon, with the neighbors who had gathered in the courtyard. They pulled up chairs for us and popped open a bottle of sparkling cider.
The circle expanded as more friends stopped in to pay their respects to the dads. It reminded me of life in my native Argentina. Turns out, we all share as many similarities as differences. Between sightseeing suggestions, they talked about the high cost of gas and the unbearably hot weather. About the city's traffic laws and the recent presidential elections.
Our quick hello turned into almost four hours.
Forget the museums. I learned more about Dominican culture and its people right then and there. They welcomed me into the circle and made me feel like a native, when I'd only been there a few days.
Now that was a first.
if you go
Multiple carriers offer flights to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, from BWI Marshall Airport. Round-trip fares start at about $295.
Renaissance Jaragua Hotel and Casino, George Washington Ave. 367, Apto. Postal 769-2; 800-331-3542; marriott.com/hotels/travel/sdqgw-
Hodelpa Caribe Colonial, Calle Isabel La Catolica No. 159, Colonial District, near the Catedral Primada de America; 888-403-2603; hodelpa.com.
Adrian Tropical, Ave. George Washington 5. The Adrian Tropical at El Malecon serves Dominican faves such as mangu, with a great view on the side.
El Conuco, Calle Casimiro de Moya 152. Another great eatery for authentic foods, El Conuco also offers up ambience, decorated with traditional items from the countryside. Go to elconuco.com.do.
Old World charm mixes with the new in Santo Domingo. See the first cathedral of the Americas in the heart of the Colonial District. Sunbathe
at Boca Chica or any of the neighboring
beaches. Walk El Malecon. And party with the locals at the La Guacara Taina, an underground cavern club. For more information on these and other hot spots, go to godominican