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Visitors find a double attraction in this exhibit of Dominican amber housed in a stately historic mansion

By Anne Groisard

Every town in the Dominican Republic has its Calle Duarte, or Duarte Street, but only two Dominican burgs have an amber museum: Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata.

Puerto Plata’s amber museum offers not just one, but two good reasons to pay a visit: the outstanding architectural example of this historical Victorian mansion, and the fascinating amber gems housed within.

Back at the turn of last century some German brothers named Bentz invested in sugar cane and made a fortune in Puerto Plata. In 1919 they built Villa Bentz, immortalizing their family name with an opulent home erected two short blocks from the central square. With its wide verandahs and lush gardens, Villa Bentz was an icon of success during that boomtime era in Puerto Plata.

Alas, true to the ebb and flow of Caribbean fortunes, the Bentz family fell on hard times and lost it all; or at least they had to sell the villa. And so it is that from proud homestead to art school to fleabag hotel, Villa Bentz took on diminishing roles over subsequent decades and owners. It was only in the late 1970’s, when tourism began to breathe new life into Puerto Plata, that the villa was restored to its former grandeur when Italian expatriates Aldo and Didi Costa, pioneers in the city’s new era of tourism, purchased and revived the neglected structure.

Don Aldo and Doña Didi Costa were indeed pioneers, a couple who came to Puerto Plata and threw their lot into this town when cruiseships and world travelers were just beginning to take interest. Don Aldo founded a tourism school, opened hotels and ran the family businesses. Doña Didi, while raising the family, developed a passionate interest in Dominican amber. As her collection of this amazing transparent gem grew, so did the public’s interest. And that is why, when you come to Puerto Plata today, you encounter something called The Amber Museum... the stuff of Jurassic Park... a place that explains the gem with 30-million year old insects inside which provided the premise for that famous flick (parts of which were filmed in nearby mines).

A visit to the Amber Museum begins on the second floor of Villa Bentz. The guide explains how amber is actually a sap that oozed out of trees 30 million years ago, and while on its way down to wherever gravity takes it, insects and leaves and other bits of flora and fauna got stuck to it. Over time it hardened into what it is today, a light, transparent "rock". You look at this rock and you see a mosquito... a leaf... a grasshopper... caught inside... 30 million years ago! Of this rock, Didi Costa collected some of the most impressive pieces known to the scientific world; important pieces that have been studied and catalogued by such institutions as the Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute. Today they are on view at the Amber Museum.

Amber is considered a semi-precious gem. Among the varieties found in different parts of the world, Dominican amber is recognized as the most transparent, and thus the most interesting to look at... in a museum... to have a piece hanging in a gold or silver setting around your neck...

On the first floor of Villa Bentz you’ll find a boutique featuring amber jewelry as well as art and crafts. But staff are easygoing and impose no pressure to buy. They're used to people walking through just to visit the historic building or visit the museum exhibit (admission one dollar). All in all, it's a great place to take some shade, explore a bit of history and learn a little about something you didn't even know you didn't know about.

The Amber Museum is open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm. Located at 61 duearte Street, 100 meters up from Central Park.

For more information or printout directions click here to visit the Amber Museum web page.


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©2003 The POP Report
Puerto Plata's internet magazine featuring news and travel information from Puerto Plata and the north coast of the Dominican Republic

Puerto Plata, República Dominicana