cuba or dominican republic

Cuba Or Dominican Republic: Exploration vs Comfort

Torn between Cuba or Dominican Republic for your next vacation? You’re not alone! The age-old debate still goes on.

Cuba and Dominican Republic are two Carribean islands and relatively close to each other – although a 6-hour flight away.

While Cuba and Dominican Republic are two of the most popular and affordable beach resort destinations for North American travelers., the experiences they offer are very different. Cuba is considered to have the most beautiful beaches, is cheaper, and is the best choice for culture and independent exploration, being a very safe place. Dominican Republic also has great beaches around Punta Cana, more luxurious resorts and better services and activities. However, the island is much more touristy and Americanized, and is not as safe outside of resorts.

Cuba or Dominican Republic: what travelers say

punta cana beach or varadero
Punta Cana (2)
  • Many travelers who have been to Dominican Republic on vacation, after going to Cuba for the first time, namely Varadero, keep returning to Cuba year after year.
  • All-inclusive vacations in Cuba are generally significantly cheaper than Dominican Republic, e.g. 30% cheaper.
  • Cuba is better than Dominican Republic for off-resort sightseeing and walking around without a guide. It has much better safety including when walking at night downtown and in Varadero. The country has great culture and history, namely in Havana and Santiago.
  • Dominican Republic has more luxurious and bigger all-inclusive resorts with better service closer to international standards, better organization and more activities including casinos for night time fun.
  • Travelers generally find the food and dining experience to be much better in Dominican Republic resorts compared to Varadero resorts. On the other hand, the food in Cuba is great outside of resorts with many great restaurants in towns.
  • While many resorts in DR are posher than Cuba’s, vacationers in Cuba tend to choose 4 or 5-star hotels to find the comfort they need while enjoying the off-resort experience. Travelers feel a Cuban 4-star is more like a 3-star in DR – though this is reflected in the lower prices in Cuba
  • Cuba wins for beaches, culture, and history, while Dominican Republic is great for good food, dinking, and simply relaxing and swimming on a decent beach within a comfortable resort.
  • In Dominican Republic resorts, tourists often get harassed by vendors on the beach, whereas it’s generally not the case in Cuban resorts.
  • Cuba is much less commercialized and Americanized than Dominican Republic, and still has virgin and undeveloped beachfront areas.
  • While Cuba offers a feeling of safety, Dominican Republic resorts, supermarkets, banks, and even carparks often have armed guards.
  • Punta Cana has nice beaches but they are generally crowded. Beaches in Dominican Republic are not always clean. Cuba has fantastic and cleaner beaches everywhere including Varadero, Holguin, and the Cayos where the beaches are particularly stunning.
  • Travelers find the people in Cuba to be friendlier, warmer, and more honest, including hotel staff as they go out their way to make visitors feel welcome. The people are among the main reasons many travelers keep going back to Cuba.
  • Dominican Republic resorts offer good wfi in rooms and lobby, whereas in Cuba wifi is expensive and unreliable. Some travelers actually choose Cuba for to get away from being online
  • Flights from North America to Dominican Republic are shorter than to Cuba, but it typically takes more time to get from the airport to the resort.

Cuba or Dominican Republic: vibe & people

Havana, Cuba vibe
Havana, Cuba vibe (3)

The main touristic areas in Dominican Republic are Punta Cana, where most of the all-inclusive hotels are, and the Sosúa-Cabarete zone which has smaller hotels and a relaxed, extreme sports and eco-tour focused vibe with primarily self-catering beach rentals.

The Punta Cana area has a great beach with the best American-style resorts offering all the amenities and activities vacationers can ask for. Some 5-star resorts have more than 10 restaurants and 24-hours room service, and high-end features such as swim-rooms. The strip has good nightlife including a few good nightclubs.

In Punta Cana, however, going far off the resorts away from the heavily patrolled tourist zones, is generally unsafe due to the local poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition – the schools are typically protected with barbed wire and guards. Travelers often don’t feel safe wandering away from resorts except with guided tours.

In Dominican Republic, some travelers complain about seeing lots of garbage on the streets and on the beach in some areas, e.g. Samana. Cuba is generally described as cleaner. In Cuba, visitors can also safely travel the island, on foot or on scooters, and hang out on public beaches with the locals.

While Dominican Republic often has better-maintained resorts than Cuba, It’s quite common to see travelers go to Dominican Republic a few times, then try Cuba and subsequently return there dozens of times.

While travelers generally find the locals in both Dominican Republican and Cuba very nice and friendly, they often feel the service is better in Cuba as hotel staff typically go to greater lengths to please visitors, are highly educated, and speak very good English. 

The Cubans are often viewed by visitors as special people who are somewhat protected from consumerism and hence live and think differently, which feels very refreshing to Westerners – of course, like in all places, Cuba also has its share of locals who are after tourist money.

Besides the people, the things travelers enjoy the most in Cuba vs Dominican Republic include the miles-long sugar-white sand beaches, the good snorkeling and sailing options, the feeling of going back in time, and the overall ability to be alone or find company when desired. And of course the affordable prices.

Visitors to Cuba, including those traveling alone, love being able to walk around for long period of time to explore the beautiful countryside, woods, and shorelines outside resorts with a feeling of total safety – something they don’t find in Dominican Republic where the risk of being mugged is much higher.

Cuba or Dominican Republic: weather

Punta Cana vs Cuba weather
Punta Cana (4)

Dominica and Cuba are essentially on the same latitude in the Caribe, although DR is slightly further South. While averages are comparable for Varadero (Cuba) and Puerto Plata (DR), travelers feel the weather tends to be better in Dominican Republic during the coldest winter months i.e. January and February.

In Cuba, most travelers agree mid-December is the end of the guaranteed nice weather season. Jibacoa and Varadero, namely, are often quite cool, which is why some travelers choose Dominican Republic for this period. However, from mid-November to mid-January, expect some heavy rain (not just showers) in DR.

People who regular vacation in Cuba in December report not always getting sunny weather during most of their stay. It can be extremely warm with cool nights, or there may be cold fronts. Travelers often suggest packing a couple of long pants and a sweatshirt just in case.

Cayo Santa Maria, a bit further South, is generally warmer although it can be windy. Travelers staying in Santiago de Cuba at various periods between November and April generally report not ever being cold with temperatures in the 70s and low 80s, with some hot peaks at over 90.

Cuba or Dominican Republic: beaches & places

Punta Cana beaches
Punta Cana beach (5)

In Dominican Republic, travelers are attracted to the beautiful beaches of Punta Cana, 35 km of continuous fine white sand beaches with palm trees and calm turquoise water. Bavaro Beach is one of the most popular, lined with hotels, shops, and restaurants.

While the popular resort areas of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata are located on the Atlantic coast, some travelers prefer Bayahibe, a small fishing village on the Caribbean South coast of Dominican Republic, also with calm and clear waters. The area has resorts, nice restaurants with fresh seafood, and tourist activities, though still with an authentic local life.

Puerto Plata and its Playa Dorada beach, in the Sosúa-Cabarete zone area on the North coast, is also a popular resort destination. Compared to the beaches of Punta Cana, Playa Dorada is narrower, has brown sand, and lined with mountains and rainforest. It tends to get a bit more crowded, and travelers often rate Punta Cana higher for beach and water quality.

Playa Dorada, dominican republic
Playa Dorada, Dominican Republic (6)

Travelers typically choose Punta Cana for chilling out around the beach and spending time in luxury resorts, and Puerto Plata and Cabarete for adventure tours and water sports.

In general, beaches in Dominican Republic are very animated and can be noisy with countless boats and aquatic vehicles running on the water and roped off swimming areas to protect swimmers.

In Cuba, most travelers agree the beaches are stunning and far superior to the ones in DR. Varadero, Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco have amazing beaches. Holguin and Santa Lucia offer excellent snorkeling spots due to their coral reefs and exceptionally clear waters.

Cayo Largo, Cuba
Cayo Largo, Cuba (7)
Cayo Guillermo, Cuba
Cayo Guillermo, Cuba (8)

Travelers consistently rate the beach in Varadero higher than Puerto Plata. While the Varadero area has many resorts and activities along a very long white sand beach, beaches in the Cayos offer more tranquility and seclusion.

Varadero, Cuba
Varadero, Cuba (9)

On Cuba’s beaches, vacationers are generally not bothered with motorized watercraft when swimming or snorkeling, like in Dominican Republic.

In Dominican Republic, most of the beaches have many vendors trying to sell you merchandise or excursions. In Cuba, beachgoers can relax freely without being harassed by vendors. On the flip side, there are far fewer tourist activities on offer around Cuba beaches.

Cuba or Dominican Republic: lodging

Although travelers find that many resorts in Cuba can’t compare with those in Punta Cana for food and amenities, some feel the resorts in Cayo Santa Maria do rival Punta Cana in regards to beach, food, facilities, entertainment, cleanliness, activities, and staff.

As mentioned, the main differences between Cuba and DR resorts include off-resort safety (Cuba wins), local vibe (Cuba wins), casinos (DR wins), internet access (DR wins), shopping (DR wins).

Dominican Republic

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  • Upscale resort recommendations in Punta Cana: the Hard Rock, the Royalton, the Paradisius
  • Ambar Punta Cana: great rooms, pools, beach, beach malls, 5 resorts in a row. Booking
  • Catalonia: older and further away from the other resorts but full of charm
  • The Majestic Colonial and Majestic Elegance: two great resorts
  • Bavaro Princess Punta Cana: wonderful
  • Other highly praised resorts in Punta Cana: Excellence, Breathless, Dreams, Grand Palladium
  • Puerto Plata: Grand Flamenco Puerto Plata by Occidental (now called Barcelo), 5-star resort, one of the best there, upgrade to the VIP package highly recommended.
  • Puerto de Plata: the Marien Coral by Hilton
  • Puerto de Plata: Gran Ventana: beautiful resort, much better than a lot of resorts in Varadero.
  • Dreams la Romana in Bayahibe: really nice, lots of great excursions.

Cuba

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Travelers to Cuba often choose Varadero for its broad choice of luxury resorts and for the close proximity of Havana where many of Cuba’s cultural sights concentrate – it’s easy to visit Havana from Varadero so many travelers choose this option vs staying in Havana.

Highly praised resorts in Cuba include Melia Cayo Santa Maria and Iberostar Ensenachos, whose size, facilities, beach, staff, and package prices are especially attractive to North American vacationers. Cayo Ensenachos has beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise water, and the hotel and food are described as excellent.

The Iberostar Tainos in Varadero is also often recommended. Other resorts travelers rate well in Varadero are Barcelo Arenas Blancas/Solymar, Sol Sirenas, ROC Arenas Doradas, and Melia Las Americas, Melia Varadero, and Blau Varadero.

The Memories Varadero is also a beautiful and very large resort – even too big for some travelers. The Paradisus resorts in Veradero, namely the adults-only Princesa Del Mar, are also recommended.

In Holguin, Paradisus Rio de Oro in Guardalavaca is among the highest starred resorts.

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Photo credits:
(1) Featured: “PenaGuinn Cuba Trip-235” (CC BY 2.0) by alfredpenar
(2) “Excellence Punta Cana” (CC BY 2.0) by tedmurphy
(3) “Havana, Cuba” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by szeke
(4) “Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (12)” (CC BY 2.0) by benkucinski
(5) “Excellence Punta Cana” (CC BY 2.0) by tedmurphy
(6) “Playa en Puerto Plata / Puerto Plata Bea” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Belivehotels.com
(7) “Cuba-7” (CC BY 2.0) by Alessandro Caproni
(8) “Cayo Guillermo” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Ilya Yakubovich
(9) “” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by smilygrl
(10) “Sol Palmeras Resort, Varadero” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Artur Staszewski
(11) “Hotel Meliá Varadero III” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Linus Henning