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.
CONSTANZA is a drop-dead gorgeous, circular valley set deep in the mountains at an altitude of 1300m. Populated and farmed since the Taino era, it was created millennia ago by a crashing meteor; as you first pass over the lip of the crater you’ll be stunned by the fertile, flat valley – irrigated by thousands of sprinklers and hemmed in on all sides by jagged peaks. Constanza had virtually no contact with the outside world until the end of the nineteenth century, when a decent dirt road was finally blazed to it; later development occurred when Trujillo trucked in 200 Japanese families in the 1950s, to introduce their farming methods to the valley. All manner of non-tropical crops are grown on the farms today – strawberries, raspberries, apples, garlic and roses; less tantalizing is the military base in town, a permanent presence since Castro attempted a Communist takeover here in 1959.
As you’d expect amongst such dazzling scenery, the Constanza valley boasts several of the DR’s finest hiking trails. One 3hr trip sets off from Rancho Constanza in Colonia Kennedy, which is just east of the main town. From the hotel, take the dirt road north until you reach a white house at the top of the hill, the starting point of a trail that leads into the thick of the alpine forest. You can also set off 5km east of Constanza, via the Carretera Constanza, to the adjoining valley of Tireo Arriba, which holds a smaller farming pueblo worth exploring for a look at the local way of life. If you have your own transport, keep going 8km further east to pueblo La Parma – just before you reach the road to Jarabacoa – for a hike along the Río Arroyazo. Ask locals to direct you to the riverside walking path, from which it’s a 45min hike to an unspoiled wilderness balneario, with small cascades along the river giving way to a large pool partially enclosed by boulders.
Tucked away in the farthest southeastern reaches of the Vega Real, COTUÍ is the archetypal cow town – friendly and laid back, full of rice-processing factories and produce-laden trucks. The few visitors who make it here come for the beautiful surrounding countryside, especially Presa Hatillo, the largest dam in the Caribbean, and its peaceful reservoir that sits amid layers of rolling hills. There are also a couple of impressive Taino caves nearby that are definitely worth a special trip. To get to the dam, take Calle Sánchez 3km from the Parque Central to the police station, turn left and continue for a further 9km. There’s a hiking trail that leads along the edge of the lake, or you can go instead to Cotuí Piscina (daily 9.30am–5.30pm; RD$50), an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the entrance to the dam, fed by lake water and with a small restaurant/bar on the premises.
There are two major Taino caves in the area, one accessible only by water and the other by land. They’re very tricky to find so you’ll need to ask around for a reliable guide. If you’re intent on seeing a cave on your own, the only one you can get to is Guacara Sanabe. From Cotuí, head west to La Mata de Cotuí and turn left at the Farmacia Candileja. Turn right at the end of the road, then left at the small rectangular water tank and left again at pueblo Hernando Alonso. This takes you to the lakeside, where you can hire one of the farmers to escort you the rest of the way by foot (about 8km round trip) for RD$500. Inside the cave (bring a torch) you’ll find a plethora of stunning rock art: highlights include a variety of animals, men sliding down poles, two cave guardians at the back entrance and a couple of frightening depictions of Taino priest masks on the ceiling. The small piles of ground seashells that you’ll find scattered about were used to create the hallucinogenic powders that the Taino priests inhaled during cave rituals.
JARABACOA, a mountain resort peppered with coffee plantations, is popular with wealthy Dominicans for its cooler climate. The pine-dominated mountains – dubbed rather inanely “The Dominican Alps” – immediately surrounding the town hold four large waterfalls, several rugged trails fit for day-hikes, three rivers used for whitewater rafting and the busiest starting-point for treks up Pico Duarte.
The town’s tiny but expanding grid runs right alongside the pretty Río Yaque del Norte and the area surrounding the town has seen a good deal of development in recent years as a number of new residential communities have been created, both for expats and wealthy Dominicans looking for a mountain retreat.
Río Yaque del Norte, a beautifully blue, fast-flowing mountain stream that rises up in the very heart of the Cordillera Central mountain range, plays host to a number of different whitewater adventures. The lower sections are used by several rafting operators and offer some exciting drops up to grade IV. The nearby Jimenoa and Yásica rivers offer even more severe challenges, but these are only accessible to experienced kayakers; note that none of the whitewater rafting trips are available to children under 12. Many of Jarabacoa’s rivers and waterfalls can also be enjoyed firsthand by taking a canyoning trip with one of the local tour operators. Accompanied by an experienced guide, you’ll make your way downstream using a combination of swimming, jumping, walking and rappelling. Previous experience isn’t necessary and it’s a breathtaking way to see some unspoiled countryside. Other local outdoor options include hiking, biking and horseriding.
The real attractions of Jarabacoa are the four local waterfalls (saltos), not too far from the centre of town, though enough of a trek that you’ll want either your own transport or a ride on a motoconcho (RD$150 one way). The steepest Jarabacoa waterfall by far is the Higher Salto Jimenoa, or Salto Jimenoa Uno (daily 8am–6pm; RD$100), as it’s often called. This is a tough proposition as it involves a 15min descent down a steep path into a ravine and therefore a longer, tougher climb back out. It’s an impressive sight as the water drops 75m from a hidden lake above and thunders into a huge pool at its base. The spray creates delightful rainbow patterns on the rocky walls and it’s easy to see why this was chosen as a setting for a scene in Jurassic Park. It’s certainly worth the effort of getting here and you’ll probably have the place to yourself. Head out on the Constanza road for 7km until you reach a small pueblo; there’s a large sign on the left indicating the waterfall.
La Concepción de la Vega, more commonly referred to as “LA VEGA”, just 30km southeast of Santiago, started out as one of Columbus’s gold-mining towns, only to be levelled in a sixteenth-century earthquake and rebuilt as a farming community. Aside from the ruins of this old settlement, known as La Vega Vieja – well outside town – there’s little in today’s noisy, concrete city to hold your attention. However, La Vega’s Carnival celebrations in February are generally acknowledged to be among the most boisterous and authentic in the country. A twenty-block promenade is set up between the two main parks, along which parade platoons of demons in impressively horrific masks, the making of which is something of a local specialized craft. Many city-dwellers who spend their days as hotel clerks, bankers or auto mechanics use much of their free time perfecting mask making; in addition to papier-mâché, they often use materials like bull horns, bone and sharpened dogs’ teeth. There’s the usual stack of blaring loudspeakers and food and liquor vendors to animate and feed the crowds, which average up to seventy thousand each afternoon – many of them watching from rooftops. If you’d like to purchase a mask, try Robert’s Restaurant and Car Wash, on the Carretera La Vega; if they’re out of stock, they can direct you to the individual artists; expect to pay at least RD$1000, depending on how elaborate the design is.
Archeological evidence from La Vega Vieja indicates that Carnival has been celebrated in the area since the mid-1500s – and in the intervening period they’ve got really quite good at it. A twenty-block promenade is set up between the two main parks, along which parade platoons of demons in impressively horrific masks, the making of which is something of a local specialized craft. Many city dwellers who spend their days as hotel clerks, bankers or auto mechanics use much of their free time perfecting mask making; in addition to papier-mâché, they often use materials like bull horns, bone and sharpened dogs’ teeth. If you’d like to buy one, try asking at Hotel Rey or in the new Museo de Vega; expect to pay at least RD$1000, depending on how elaborate the design is. Better still, head to Santiago and visit “El Mambo” . Accompanying the parades are blaring loudspeakers and food and liquor vendors that animate and feed the crowds, which average up to seventy thousand each afternoon – many of them watching from rooftops.
The piñon trees that line the winding rural roads just west of Bonao and about 40km south of La Vega – as well as many other roads across the country – are thought by many to have magical properties; local brujos use their wood for staffs with which to heal the sick. This belief stems in part from a strange physical characteristic: around the time of Good Friday the piñon leaves and bark turn red, which locals claim is in emulation of the Crucifixion. The trees do have some remarkable regenerative properties, too; stick one of the branches in the ground and allow it to take root – within a year the branch becomes another full-grown tree.
MOCA, a sizeable farming depot 16km east of Santiago, is set amid some of the most fertile land in the valley. It’s better known, though, for two episodes from Dominican history – as the birthplace of the 1842 Moca Constitution, which set democratic standards for government that have rarely been adhered to, and as the site of nineteenth-century despot Ulises Heureaux’s assassination. There’s nothing here to commemorate the former, but the latter event is celebrated in downtown Moca at a small park on Calle Vasquez, where you’ll find the Monument to the Tyrant Killers, a small Deco sculpture honouring assassins José Contreras and José Inocencio, erected right on the spot where Heureaux was shot. Across the street from the park, above Espinal Car Wash, a miniature locomotive has been placed to honour the old railroad that brought initial prosperity to Moca, while the rest of downtown is crowded with storefront businesses, warehouses and restaurants.
Nicer than anything in the workaday downtown district, the nineteenth-century Iglesia de Corazón de Jesús, corner of Sánchez and Corazón de Jesús, sports a neo-Plateresque facade and a prominent clock tower. The spacious interior floods with light and boasts an impressive pipe organ. From the church you can also drive northwest down Avenida Duarte to the local cigar factory.
The farming city of SAN FRANCISCO DE MACORÍS, with a 200,000-strong population in the heart of the Vega Real, owes its prosperity to the cocoa industry – the business behind what few major sights there are in town. Chocolate is not the only money-making product here; in recent years, San Francisco has served as a laundering point for cocaine profits, a far cry from its slightly more benign tobacco-producing days in the nineteenth century. The compact downtown holds most of the major office buildings, restaurants and discos – the latter of which supply San Francisco with some of the DR’s best nightlife.
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.
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.
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.
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 de las Matas.
Two national parks protect much of the mountains, cloudforests and pines present in the Cordillera Central, BERMÚDEZ and RAMÍREZ, each encompassing over seven hundred square kilometres that really need to be explored on an organized trek up Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean. At the very least, you’ll need to check in with a ranger and be accompanied by a guide for whatever trip you take into the parks.
Once in, you’ll see no small array of flora, though the endemic Creole pine tends to proliferate. Reforested Caribbean pines have been planted in places where there was once agriculture, and scattered palm trees dot the fringes. You’ll also spot many orchids and bromeliads, along with Spanish moss and parasites known as The Count of Pines, their branches winding up the trunks of other trees and slowly strangulating them. There aren’t many large animals in the mountains – persistent rumours of wild pigs aside – but you’ll notice a number of lizards and even Coquí frogs near the summit of Duarte; the relatively rare tarantula or non-poisonous snake is also known to make an occasional appearance. There are plenty of birds, too, especially Hispaniolan parrots, hummingbirds and woodpeckers; you’ll hear a raucous population of white-tailed crows near the summit.
Signs of agriculture are visible in the small valleys along the southern half of Ramírez, though the traditional slash-and-burn farming has been banned. Local folklore has it that small bands of Tainos are still holed up in the deepest mountains waiting for the Spaniards to depart, and that the trails are haunted by ciguapas – mythical blue-skinned women with their feet back-to-front who seduce young men at night and lure them to their deaths at the bottoms of streams.
Five strenuous treks lead up to 3087m Pico Duarte, which towers over the centre of the mountain range alongside its sibling peak La Pelona (“Baldy”; before 1930 they were known as Pelona Grande and Pelona Chica). The lack of fresh water on the mountain has left it uninhabited through the centuries – though Tainos once lived in the nearby Valle del Tétero – and the first recorded ascent was only in 1944.
Climbing to the very top of the Caribbean’s highest mountain holds definite cachet, and the view from the treeless peak is magnificent (though even here you can’t quite escape from it all – Duarte’s face is sculpted onto one of the rocks). If you’ve come this far, think seriously about extending your trek to include Valle del Tétero – a broad savannah with roaring mountain rivers, wild horses and Taino petroglyphs. This can be done by adding a two-day loop into the La Ciénega trek or by following one of the trails that crosses the valley on the approach to the peak. Unless you’re a seasoned trekker, you’ll do well to stick to the La Ciénega route.
The gutted, sky-high road that leads south from Constanza to San José de Ocóa – considered by Dominicans as the worst of the country’s many poor roads – offers an adventure, however hazardous, that you’re not likely to forget soon. Do not attempt this unless you have an excellent 4WD and are an experienced mountain driver. Allow five hours and be sure to bring two spare tyres, winter clothing and emergency supplies. The road runs through a national forest reserve known as Reserva Científica Valle Nuevo, a steep alpine wilderness with views that extend across a large chunk of the Cordillera Central, and for much of the trip you’ll be skirting the edge of a cliff far above the clouds; the park entrance is 4km south of Aguas Blancas. If you have time, make a stop at the turnoff for the small military fort at Alta Bandera, 30km south of Constanza, where you can get a glimpse of a concrete pyramid, La Pirámide, built in 1957 by Trujillo to mark the exact centre of the island. There are now basic camping facilities here.
Valle Nuevo also offers a terrific opportunity to relax in luxury amid remote mountain wilderness at Villa Pajón a set of lovely cabins built on the site of an old saw mill 4km south of the national park entrance (9km south of Aguas Blancas). Each cabin has its own fireplace, kitchen, bath, outdoor barbecue and multiple bedrooms. There is only electricity (solar-powered) in one of the larger cabins but kerosene lamps are provided. Given the remoteness, you should bring your own food with you – though you can arrange in advance to have someone cook and perform housekeeping. Outdoor activities abound, including unbelievable hiking and horseriding into the surrounding mountains.José, with the best balneario – La Toma del Río Antonsape – at Mata Grande, the starting point for the Pico Duarte trek.
The fertile soils of the Cibao valley yield some of the world’s finest tobacco. If you’re a cigar aficionado, or simply interested in watching the process first-hand, consider a weekday visit (generally 7am–4pm) to one of the various cigar factories in the towns surrounding Santiago.
This town 15km east of Santiago is one of the world’s most famous cigar towns. The largest operation is Flor Dominicana, Calle Real (t 580-5139), so you should make arrangements beforehand. Smaller Fábrica Anilo de Oro, C Real 85 (t 580-5808), manufacturers of Abreu and Presidente, and Tabacalera Jacagua, Cappelán 13 (t 580-6600), both offer free tours and a free fresh-rolled cigar at the end.
15 km northwest of Santiago along the Carretera Duarte, two small-scale factories lie across the highway from each other: Pinar del Río Tabacalera and Túbano’s are both used to visitors; you‘ll get a glimpse of the cigar rollers and then get escorted to the gift shop.
Just west of Villa González, the Tabaclera Jacagua factory (t 585-5702) on the main park is less geared towards selling cigars to passing tourists and will give you a better sense of the cigar-rolling craft.
This town, 20km southeast of Santiago, is home to the Tabacalera Anónima, a small cigar factory opposite the police station.
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.
Top image: Valley of Constanza surrounded by mountains, the agricultural center of the Dominican Republic © Jakob Fisher/Shutterstock