The Dominican Republic has a bewildering barrage of festivals. On every day of the year, there seems to be some kind of celebration somewhere. The majority are the regional fiestas patronales, held in honour of the city’s or town’s patron saint, who is often an amalgamation with an African god.
These traditional fiestas are one of the great pleasures of a trip to the DR; there’s at least one in every city, pueblo and campo. The date is dictated by the saint’s day as stated in the Bristol Almanac (published by pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers-Squibb), considered the authoritative source for such matters throughout Latin America. In addition to the actual saint’s day, there will often be a nine-night celebration, called a novena, leading up to it.
The format of the fiesta follows one of the two models. In more remote parts of the country, the fiestas patronales have retained their original character and are syncretic religious ceremonies that feature large processions carrying an icon of the saint, religious folk songs accompanied by enormous palos drums fashioned from tree trunks, Haitian gagá music employing long wooden tubes and keyless metal trumpets that are both blown through and rattled with a stick, and spirit possession. Many others in the major towns and tourist areas have shed this religious affiliation and are today merely vibrant outdoor parties with a lot of drinking and a few traditional contests like a race to climb up a greased pole. An intermediate version are the many cattle festivals of the southeast, where processions of cattle and cowboys descend on the city from all sides. Regardless, they’re invariably lively and will certainly be one of the highlights of your trip. In the big city festivals, though, women travellers should be prepared to deal with unwanted sexual advances and everyone should take precautions against pickpockets.
Jan 1 Santo Cristo de Bayaguana. A major procession of local bulls to the church in Bayaguana, where some are given to a local priest as a sign of devotion and thanksgiving.
Jan 1 Guloya Festival. The famous mummers of San Pedro de Macorís run a morning procession through the streets of San Pedro’s Miramar barrio. A great opportunity to see this unique sub culture’s music, costumes and mini dance dramas.
Jan 5–6 Three Kings’ Day. The major gift-giving day of the Dominican year.
Jan 21 Virgen de Altagracia. By far the most important religious day on the Dominican calendar, a prayer-of-intercession day to the country’s patron and a massive gathering of celebrants in Higüey.
Jan 26 Duarte Day. Holiday in honour of the Father of the Country, with public fiestas in all major towns, biggest in Santiago and La Vega.
Feb Carnival. The pre-eminent celebration of the year, held on every Sunday in February and culminating on February 27. La Vega, Bonao and Santo Domingo are your best bets.
Feb 2 Virgen de Candelaria. A religious procession in the capital’s barrio San Carlos, in honour of this aspect of the Virgin.
Feb 27 Independence Day. Celebration of independence from Haiti and the culmination of the Dominican Carnival. Battle re-enactments in Santo Domingo and major parties in other big Carnival towns.
March 19 de Marzo. The major fiesta in Azua, in honour of the battle in which the Haitians were defeated here, ensuring Dominican independence.
Variable, usually early to mid-April Semana Santa. The Christian Holy Week is also the most important week of Haitian and Dominican Vodú. Traditional gagá festivals take place in the Haitian bateyes. Meanwhile, the town of Cabral holds its famous Carnival Cimarrón, in which townspeople adorned with demon masks descend on the city from the lagoon and castigate passers-by with whips.
May 2–3 Santa Cruz. A popular nine-night celebration in El Seibo, with a cattle procession to the sixteenth-century church on the final day and a very different spring festival in Azua and Baní, where all of the crosses in the area are covered with bright-coloured paper.
May 3 San Felipe. A huge cultural celebration on Puerto Plata’s Malecón, with lots of live music.Seven weeks after Semana Santa.
May 3 Espíritu Santo. In honour of the Holy Spirit, syncretized to the Congo region’s supreme deity Kalunda. Best in Santo Domingo’s Villa Mella barrio.
June 3 San Antonio. Great, authentic celebration in the town of Yamasá, two hours north of Santo Domingo.
June 17–24 San Juan Bautista. A religious festival in San Juan de la Maguana in honour of John the Baptist and his African counterpart Chango, plus a smaller fiesta in Baní that features a distinctive style of music called sarandunga, a rapid-fire African drum-and-chorus rhythm that’s beaten out in drum circles.
June 29 San Pedro Apóstol. A magnificent Cocolo festival in San Pedro de Macorís, with roving bands of guloyas performing dance dramas on the street.
July 24–26 Santiago Apóstol. Celebrating Santiago, the warrior patron saint of the Christian armies that conquered Moorish Spain. A large civic festival in Santiago with a lot of requisite partying around the Monument.
Aug 14 Festival of the Bulls. Higüey’s fiesta patronal, featuring cowboys on horseback, large herds of cattle, and women carrying an icon of the Virgin on their shoulders and singing traditional rosarios.
Aug 16 Restoration Day. Nationwide celebration of independence from Spain, with large parties in Santiago around the Monument and around Plaza España in Santo Domingo.
Sept 24 Virgen de la Merced. A traditional fiesta patronal in the small Santo Domingo barrio Mata Los Indios, beginning mid-month, plus nationwide festivities.
Sept 29 San Miguel. This saint’s also known as Belíe Belcán and is honoured with major festivals taking place in the capital’s Villa Mella and barrio San Miguel, Haina and across the country. Look for the green-and-white-frosted cakes consumed on this day.
Oct 14–15 Santa Teresa de Ávila. The patron saint of Elias Piña, where you’ll see a wonderful syncretic celebration using palos drums, rosario processions and gagá, plus a less traditional merengue party around the Parque Central.
Third week of October Merengue Festival. A major music festival in Puerto Plata, with major acts playing all over town; lots of partying on the Malecón. Date varies slightly from year to year.
October 24 San Rafael. In Samaná you’ll see a procession through the town, partying on the Malecón and a traditional Dominican dance called the bambulá, which has died out in the rest of the country.
Nov 1 Todo los Santos. A major Vodú festival in the San Juan de la Maguana and southern border region, especially in nearby pueblo Maguana Arriba, where locals proceed to the cemetery to ask for the release of their relatives for the day.
Dec 4 Santa Bárbara. Fiesta patronal for the city of Samaná, including a procession that features the music of Doña Bertilia, queen of the bambulá, which is a major popular music on the peninsula.
Dec 28 Festival of the Bulls. Traditional cattle festival in Bayaguana, featuring unique traditional “cattle songs” that are sung to the bulls in order to bless them and prepare them for the January 1 procession to the local church.