While Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, is a sprawling, modern metropolis of some three million people, it contains within its boundaries the remnants of a historic city that is more than five hundred years old and is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the Americas.
Founded in 1496 by the Genovese explorer, Bartholomew Columbus, younger brother of Christopher, the old part of Santo Domingo is known locally as “La Zona Colonial” and it retains many of the original structures built under the eye of the younger Columbus.
Among these are the original fort (lead and second images) built by Columbus on the banks of the Ozama River and the Cathedral of Santa Maria al Menor, begun by the Spanish in 1512 and completed in 1540, which is the oldest cathedral in the Americas.
The Spaniards used this settlement as the first point of influence in the Americas, from which they conquered other Caribbean islands and the American mainland, both north and south. Some of Spain’s most famous conquistadors set off from this point to conquer the mainland, among them Hernan Cortes and Ponce de Leon.
Looking around these ancient buildings, one inevitably thinks of the men who walked through these rooms, of how their voices sounded, reverberating off the thick stone walls, and of the conquests they plotted here, before setting off from the island they called Hispaniola.
Not content with contemplating the past, I spent most of the hours I had to walk around the Zona Colonial eschewing the tourist traps of the better-known buildings in order to wander around the backstreets of the old town and to observe how people live today among the surroundings of half a millennium of history.
More than a third of the Dominican population lives on less than $1.25 a day and half of children under 18 live in extreme poverty.
The prevalence of poverty means that much of the brickwork is deteriorating, with plaster falling off and paintwork faded, all of which makes for wonderful texture and colours.
I did come across one apparently abandoned car – an ancient, rusted VW Beetle – whose bodywork was heavily patched up and it looked like the cover of the trunk had been borrowed from a different car. Yet, its tyres seemed in reasonable condition, so I concluded that it was still is use.
While it may be no Havana, the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo holds many fascinations for the itinerant photographer.