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.