Cibao (rocky land) is the word Tainos used to describe the Cordillera Central mountain range that takes up much of the Dominican Republic’s central interior, ploughing its way westward through Haiti (where it’s called the Massif du Nord) and then popping up again in Cuba and Central America. The Dominican section of these mountains has by far the highest peaks in the Caribbean, higher even than North America’s Appalachians, with some mountains over 3000m, including Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s loftiest at 3087m. Today the heart of the range is protected as Parques Nacionales Bermúdez y Ramírez and Reserva Científica Valle Nuevo, three national parks inaugurated between the 1950s and 1970s to preserve the remaining virgin pine- and cloudforest, as well as the many rivers that begin in these parts. The need to safeguard the region’s rivers is in no small part due to the fact that they provide ninety percent of the DR’s fresh water and a third of its electricity.
Today, though, Dominicans use the term Cibao more to describe the fertile Cibao valley – the island’s breadbasket since pre-Columbian times – that lies between the Cordillera Central to the south and west and the Cordillera Septentrional, the mountain range to the north. This valley can be neatly divided into two sections: the western Cibao, a ribbon of farmland north of the central mountains, and the prosperous Vega Real, a triangle of alluvial plain between Santiago, Cotuí and San Francisco de Macorís, which contains some of the deepest topsoil in the world. During the nineteenth century the Vega Real’s agricultural middle classes were the country’s primary exponents of democracy and engaged in a century-long struggle for power with the demagogic cattle ranchers of the southeast.
The appeal of the Cibao is not as obvious as that of the coastal resorts, but you’ll still find plenty to do, especially in Santiago, the country’s second largest city after Santo Domingo. Besides its legendary nightlife, Santiago is well positioned for short excursions into the neighbouring farmland, which produces some of the world’s best cigars – you can easily see the process firsthand. It’s likely you’ll head south from Santiago on your way to Santo Domingo, past a chain of Cibao towns that Columbus founded as gold-mining outposts. Of these, La Vega is the choice stop, holding the DR’s largest Carnival celebration and the ruins of Columbus’s colony La Vega Vieja, east of the present-day city.
For most, however, the first priority is the mountains. Surrounded by picturesque scenery, the small but bubbly town of Jarabacoa is best set up for tourism, with a tidy array of hotels and restaurants, plus plenty of adventure-tour outfits offering everything from whitewater rafting, kayaking and cascading to three-day treks up bald-headed Pico Duarte. Another Pico Duarte trail begins near San José de las Matas, a mellow mountain village that makes a pleasant day-trip from Santiago, while one of the most difficult trails – a gruelling five-day trek – sets off from Constanza, a circular utopian valley in the heart of the highest part of the range. Aside from the isolation and fresh air, Constanza’s attractions include several hiking trails, an impressive waterfall and a jagged but scenic road that leads south through the Reserva Científica Valle Nuevo to San José de Ocóa at the southern end of the range. Wherever you go, remember that these are substantial mountains and should be explored only with hiking boots, warm clothing and decent waterproofs.
If you really want to get away from other tourists, look no further than the farming towns in the Vega Real, like Moca, Cotuí and San Francisco de Macorís.