Explore The Cibao
For five centuries SANTIAGO (or Santiago de los Caballeros, to give it its full name) has been the main transport point for Cibao tobacco, bananas, coffee and chocolate; farmers still truck the lion’s share of their produce here before it is transported to Puerto Plata and Santo Domingo for export. Set at the intersection of the western Cibao and the Vega Real, and with easy access to the country’s two major ports, its prime location has brought settlers back time and again – Santiago’s population of just under a million trails only that of Santo Domingo – even after destruction by various earthquakes, invading armies and fires.
Founded in 1504 as a mining town and demolished by an earthquake in 1562, Santiago has been associated with tobacco since it was introduced for export to the French in 1679. The Haitian army slaughtered most residents during an 1805 invasion, but the city was again rebuilt and served for the rest of the century as transport hub for tobacco headed to Puerto Plata and Germany. During this time merengue périco ripao – the classic Dominican music using accordion, tambora and güira – evolved in Santiago, and the city has since produced many of the DR’s top musicians, giving it a bit of cultural flair amid agriculture’s pre-eminence.
There’s also a good club scene, based mostly around this indigenous music, so you won’t lack for fun at nights. Otherwise, it’s worthwhile to spend a few days, probably no more, browsing around downtown Santiago and its surrounding barrios. Downtown holds the most of interest, in both busy street life and a couple of fine museums devoted to folkloric art and architecture. On the edge of the city centre looms the mighty Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración, visible from pretty much anywhere in the city. Further out, you can opt for a few nice factory tours, either to check out the local tobacco product or to see how rum is made.Read More
San José de las Matas
San José de las Matas
The easiest excursion into the mountains from Santiago is SAN JOSÉ DE LAS MATAS, a sleepy hill-station looking out over the northern Cordillera Central, here packed with palm trees and coffee plantations. In part it’s so quiet because the town has the country’s highest per capita rate of immigration to the US; many of those who stay at home are supported by relatives in New York. San José is a great starting-off point for several day-hikes and an arduous five-day round-trip trail to Pico Duarte, and is particularly interesting during the fiesta patronal – held during the first week of August – when hundreds of relatives return from the States for the festivities, and during Christmas, when there’s a candlelit procession on horseback at night.
There’s little to do within town but take a leisurely walk and admire the views; for one such lookout, take the dirt path behind the post office, on 30 de Marzo, to a cliff-top park with a good vantage point over the neighbouring mountains. Most viewpoints and natural swimming holes lie several kilometres outside San José, with the best balneario – La Toma del Río Antonsape – at Mata Grande, the starting point for the Pico Duarte trek.
The most compelling attraction in all of Santiago is the Centro León, 27 de Febrero 146, just east of Avenida Estrella Sadhalá in Villa Progreso (Tues–Sun 10am–7pm; RD$100, Tues free; 582-2315, www.centroleon.org.do). Opened in 2003, this outstanding, multifaceted cultural centre is housed in an ostentatiously postmodern building – all concrete, glass and angles – surrounded by neat gardens dotted with palms. It’s a huge place, divided into four large sections. Section one is home to a museum of history and anthropology detailing the story of the Dominican peoples, examining the population’s various conflicts, ethnic diversity and growing sense of national identity, as well as the impact people have had on the country’s ecosystems and natural resources. The highlight is the remarkable collection of Taino artefacts, including a host of intact aboriginal necklaces, cemi statuettes, decorated pots, daggers, axe-heads and vomit sticks, used to induce vomiting after a large banquet.
Section two is devoted to a superb Dominican art collection. Notable works include local Modernist masterpieces like Jaime Colson’s folk-Cubist Hombre con Pipa and Celeste Woss y Gil’s imposing self-portrait Autorretrato con Cigarillo, as well as more abstract works such as Paul Guidicelli’s Expressionist depiction of a Vodú priest sacrificing a chicken, Brujo Disfrazado de Pájaro. The third section is set aside for the temporary exhibitions, concerts and film screenings that take place throughout the year, while the fourth is devoted to a display on the lives of the León Jimenes family, whose tobacco and alcohol wealth paid for the centre – they’re the owners of Aurora cigars and Presidente beer. The highlight here is the mock tobacco factory, set up to look like one from the turn of the twentieth century, where you can observe cigars being made and sample a stogie afterwards. In addition, the centre is home to a good café, pleasant gardens adorned with statues and a gift shop where you can buy replica Taino artefacts.
Tobacco was first cultivated (and given its name) by the Tainos, who pressed the leafy plant into a rock-hard substance to be smoked in pipes. Many Cibao peasants still make this form of tobacco – called andullo – which you can find if you ask around in Tamboril, Navarrete or Villa González; it’s sometimes even for sale in local colmados. Export began in 1679, when Cibao farmers started growing it for the French colony on the western side of the island. For two centuries, Dominican tobacco was widely praised as top quality, but when large-scale export to Germany for cigarette filler began in the mid-nineteenth century, that quality soon began to erode.
Tobacco was traditionally farmed by local peasants, who grew small plots of it alongside their vegetable gardens and sold the dried leaves to local middlemen for cash, who then transported it to Puerto Plata and sold it at a profit to large German export firms. When the US took over customs receipts in 1907, the Germans imposed tariffs that eradicated the old market, and many of the former middlemen opened cigar factories for export to the US. Cigar quality wasn’t first-rate, though, until the Cuban revolution sent many prominent Havana tobacco men to the Cibao, where they developed an industry that today sells more cigars than Cuba’s, and just as good ones. During the 1990s, many small-scale businessmen tried to take advantage of the high profile of Dominican cigars by opening up factories of their own, but they had a hard time matching the quality of more established firms; most have now gone out of business.
If you’re in the region to purchase cigars, don’t be surprised to find that many of the best-known DR brands are not readily available locally. This is because companies dedicated to export are usually not involved or interested in regional distribution. The bad news is that this puts the visitor in the difficult position of identifying good quality without the benefit of recognizable brand names. The good news is that regional product is often as good or even better than the famous brand names, and usually much cheaper because of its anonymity. If you’re not a connoisseur, though, and are looking to buy cigars without first smoking a tester, there are two nationally available brands that shouldn’t let you down: Carbonell and León Jimenes. The latter also markets a secondary quality brand widely available called Aurora. All three are respectable, consistent in quality, reasonably priced, and should be available for purchase nearly everywhere.
Santiago is one of the country’s prime places to celebrate Carnival. Festivities take place every Sunday in February at the monument with throngs of costumed participants wearing colourful papier-mâché demon masks and assaulting each other with inflated sheep bladders; don’t wear anything that you feel too precious about. Things culminate on Independence Day (February 27), when the entire city comes out for a parade around the monument, accompanied by mobile freak shows, home-made floats and Haitian gagá bands. If the local baseball team wins the Caribbean Series Championship, the partying lasts for another week. The local fiesta patronal, in honour of patron saint Santiago Apóstol, is held on July 22 and features dancing, drinking and live music in an outdoor bandshell beside the monument.