The crowded city of SAN PEDRO DE MACORÍS, some 70km east of Santo Domingo, owes its uneven development to the boom-and-bust fortunes of the sugar industry. During the crop’s glory years in the early twentieth century, grand homes and civic monuments were erected along the eastern bank of the Río Higuamo. Today, with most of the area’s mills closed, these buildings are grimy and faded, their dusty facades now absorbed into the squalor of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The town is well known for its Cocolo festivals held at Christmas and during the Feast of San Pedro (June 24–30), when two competing troupes of masked dancers known as mummers – the Wild Indians of Donald Henderson and Los Momises of now-deceased Primo Shiverton – wander door to door along the major thoroughfares in elaborate costumes adorned with feathers and baubles, and perform dance dramas depicting folk tales, biblical stories and events from Cocolo history, accompanied by fife-and-drum bands.

The decline of sugar prices and continuous urban migration have made the bulk of San Pedro a pretty miserable place, and the first view of its smokestacks and sprawling slums is off-putting to say the least. What redeems it for most residents and visitors alike is its Malecón, a wide seaside promenade with modest public beaches at either end, celebrated by bachata star Juan Luis Guerra in his song Guavaberry: “I like to sing my song/in the middle of the Malecón/watching the sun go down/in San Pedro de Macorís”. Guerra had it about right. Though easily the city’s most attractive public space, the Malecón only comes to life at night and, particularly, at weekends when the little green huts lining the seafront suddenly turn into busy bars and foodstalls, the discos crank up their sound systems and vendors weave through the crowds hawking fast food, boiled corn, sweets and Clorets, and the beer and rum flow.

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