Reflections on Being Robbed in Santo Domingo, DR
The Dominican Republic is the 18th country I’ve stepped foot in, and before this trip, I’ve been fortunate enough not to encounter any really dire situations abroad. I guess that at some point I was bound to run into trouble, and I have to admit that I was fully unprepared for it when it happened in Santo Domingo.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been a victim of a crime abroad. I’ve had a rental car window smashed in the Bahamas, I’ve been followed around by relentless locals desperate for a quick buck in Morocco, and I’ve been pickpocketed while riding on the Shanghai metro. But this incident was different because it involved a physical altercation, which is why I’ll be taking many more precautions from now on while traveling abroad. Read on to learn exactly what happened, how I handled it, and what I intend to do from now on.
Before leaving home, I did some preliminary research about areas to avoid (forums suggested that neighborhoods to the east of the Rio Ozama weren’t very safe). My first day in Santo Domingo was spent walking all over town without issue.
While exploring on foot during my second day, I was approached by a man on Avenida México in the following location:
He immediately grabbed me and reached into my pocket where my phone and wallet were; I was unable to push him off and eventually he wrestled both items out of my pocket. He ran into the street where another man on a motorcycle was waiting for him and the two sped off.
I screamed for help and ran to the nearest locals I could find who directed me to the closest police station. I spent the next few hours attempting to convey what had happened in broken Spanish with the assistance of Google Translate on one of their phones. The whole time I was most worried about my credit and debit cards, which I was unable to cancel because the police had no international calling capabilities.
Finally, the officers filed my report and dropped me off at my Airbnb. It was clear that I would never see my phone or wallet again, so I got to work calling my banks to cancel my cards. Luckily the thieves did not attempt to use them in the few hours that I was at the police station.
Precautions I'll Take From Now On
This whole experience was obviously quite harrowing, and after calming down in the following hours and days, I realized that there are a number of things I could’ve done differently to protect myself more.
1. The most important thing is that my passport was not stolen.
My situation would’ve been orders of magnitude more severe if my passport had been stolen. This underscores the importance of leaving your passport at your lodging and not carrying it on your person unless you absolutely must (in many cases a printed photocopy will suffice even in countries that require visitors keep identification on them at all times). And in the case of having all your money and credit cards stolen, your passport will be your key to getting cash to last you for the rest of your trip, which brings me to…
2. Western Union is probably your best lifeline if you find yourself with no bank cards.
Since I found myself with no cash and no bank cards, my only option was to have money wired to me. Most money wire services cost 30 dollars or more and take multiple business days to process. But if you go through Western Union and have a friend lend you money via a debit or credit card (thanks to said friend, you know who you are), you can visit a Western Union partner location and walk away with cash the same day. Just be sure to jot down the MTCN tracking number and bring your passport when you pick up the cash.
3. Take everything out of your wallet that you don’t absolutely need while abroad.
Okay, I know this probably sounds like a no-brainer, but from this day forward I’ll follow this advice religiously. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had left my driver’s license and all but one or two bank cards at my Airbnb. If I had done that, I wouldn’t have even needed to use the Western Union money transfer.
4. It’s probably best to keep empty pockets while walking around.
Although I’ll never know for sure, I think the reason I was targeted was because the thieves could see that I had items in my pocket (on top of the fact that I was obviously a tourist). I had no backpack at the time, and I can’t say whether they would’ve attempted to steal a backpack, but it might’ve been harder for them to get ahold of one.
5. Consider carrying a burner wallet and possibly a burner phone if you can.
Although I wasn’t injured or hurt, it was obviously pretty scary to be physically approached and grabbed. I think for my next international trip I will try and carry at least a burner wallet that I can throw in an opposite direction so I can make a run for it.
6. Keep paper copies of all relevant phone numbers in a back pocket.
You might want to write these on the back of your passport scan. Everything from the US Embassy or Consulate to your Airbnb host and numbers to call to cancel bank cards. On that note, you can use Skype or Google Hangouts/Google Voice to make international calls from a laptop even if no one around you has the ability to make international calls.
7. Stay calm and look on the bright side.
This sounds super cliché, but hear me out. Obviously I was freaking out as this event transpired. When I got to the police office, I had nothing in my pocket and thought that the thieves had also gotten away with the keys to my Airbnb. At one point the officers brought me back to the corner where I was robbed to check the scene and I realized that the keys were lying on the ground. If I had been a bit calmer, I might not have dropped the keys to begin with, and if someone had walked away with them it would’ve been that much harder to get back home.
And in the face of trouble, it can just be a good psychological exercise to mentally list what you still have. I wasn’t hurt, my passport wasn’t taken, and I was able to get enough money for meals for the rest of my trip. Within a few weeks everything that was stolen will be replaced and life will go on.
Other Information About Santo Domingo
In case you’ve already booked a ticket or committed to coming here, my biggest piece of advice would be to stay well within the boundaries of the Zona Colonial, which is the most touristy part of the city. If for no better reason, a special police force called the “CESTUR” has officers deployed on foot in this neighborhood. The main purpose of the CESTUR is to provide additional security for tourists. I can’t speak to their effectiveness, since my police report eventually brought me to them and they were unable to help further. If you find yourself in trouble, keep an eye out for an officer with “CESTUR” written on the back of their uniform and they (in theory) should be able to assist.
In all honesty, I don’t know that I would give Santo Domingo a glowing review even if I hadn’t been robbed here. The city had some interesting streets and urban landscapes, but nothing really stood out to me. The food and drinks were good but seemed a bit generic compared to Cuban and Bahamian food (lobster is really cheap in Cuba, and I absolutely love Bahamian conch). The city also doesn’t have any sandy beaches, and the rocky beaches along its southern coast are littered with garbage (I wouldn’t swim in the water here…).
I also didn’t have a great experience with my Airbnb, which is rare. The apartment wasn’t super clean, and it also lacked air conditioning. On top of that, I experienced three power outages during my five-day stay, and since the only refuge from the Caribbean heat at home was two ceiling fans, it was pretty brutal to lose electricity that frequently. I was also fully dependent on WiFi after my phone and wallet had been stolen, which was obviously unavailable whenever the power cut out.
The apartment didn’t seem to have hot water either, which isn’t the end of the world when it’s 90°F out, but was still a bit annoying. I usually prefer Airbnb to international hotel chains, but if you want the comforts of home guaranteed here, you might consider spending a little bit more to stay in a hotel.
I was looking forward to writing about all the interesting and unique things that I would discover in Santo Domingo, but it would be disingenuous of me to list my favorite restaurants, bars, and tourist attractions as I normally do and include this robbery as a footnote.
As soon as it happened, the trajectory of my trip changed. I spent the subsequent six hours reporting the incident to the police, calling my banks to freeze the cards in my wallet, and trying to locate my phone remotely. That night, I did not eat dinner for fear that the few dollars of loose change I had in my room would need to last me for the remaining three days of my trip. Even though I was able to pick up cash the next morning, I no longer felt comfortable exploring the city on foot; I spent the remainder of my time in cafes, restaurants, or my Airbnb.
Based on what happened, I can’t honestly recommend that anyone visit Santo Domingo. If you’re looking for a truly unique experience in the Latin Caribbean, consider Havana: it was an absolutely spellbinding city where I always felt safe as a solo traveler. If you’re looking for a more typical beach vacation, Aruba (pictured below) is another great option where I never experienced any problem.
It’s worth remembering that bad luck can manifest itself anywhere, including close to home. I tend to pride myself on the fact that I’m willing to explore off the beaten path, but this clearly comes with some increased risks. If you have any other tips or precautions for protecting yourself abroad, share them in the comments section below. Stay safe and don’t fall into the mindset that “it can’t happen to me!”